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

2018: A travel round-up

The start of the year is always a good time to set some goals for the new year but additionally I always find it a good time to reflect on the year that has just passed. So I figured I’d do a quick round up of my 2018 travels.

I felt like 2017 was going to be a tough year to top and so it proved. You can read more about that here (A 2017 summary) but swiftly moving on, here’s what I got up to in 2018.

January: Edinburgh!
Alright, so this was a 2017 trip really. I was heading home on January 1st but wow! What a place to start the New Year! Hogmanay was nothing short of incredible and is something I’ll definitely be looking to do again. It definitely lived up to its reputation! Kicking off the year in a sunny Edinburgh was a good way to start 2018 too.

EdinburghHogmanay

February: Washington State
Originally I planned to make my first Washington visit in August 2018, so rather bizarrely this was already my second visit to the state. It’s funny how quickly things can change but spending some proper time with Haleigh before the summer was important and this was also a chance to meet some of her family.

I had a night to myself in Seattle which was nice and definitely gave me a further appreciation of the city. I definitely feel as far as the US is concerned that it’s a little underrated.
I spent the rest of my time on the Eastern side of the mountains which were breath-taking. Overall it was a pretty relaxed couple of weeks but the company was great and I don’t think I could ever tire of mountain views. Staying at Haleigh’s grandparents in view of the mountains in Walla Walla was definitely a perk I enjoyed!

March: Manchester!
I’ve never really spent much time up in Manchester, however with a big summer trip I knew travel opportunities would be limited this year so took full advantage of a weekend in Manchester in March. Myself and a friend were going to a gig and I figured it’d be best to make a weekend of it.
It’s a cracking city and somewhere I’d like to return to. It reminded me a lot of Hamburg, it’s not the prettiest city on the eye but it makes up for it with its quirks, cafes and bars. I can see why it stakes a claim for the title of England’s “second city”

March: Kettering!
My time in Kettering was family / music orientated. My cousin was playing in a choir, whilst my uncle was playing in a gig immediately after on the same night. Whilst Kettering isn’t high on people’s travel wishlists, I was still craving a bit of adventure and figured I’d make it an over-night occasion.

I don’t see tourists flocking to Kettering any time soon but I had a fun evening and it was nice to treat myself to a little staycation too!

April: London!
Trips to London aren’t too infrequent but it’s rare that I make it an overnight occasion. I was attending a gig on a Friday night with friends in April with Spurs due to play on the Saturday. It didn’t seem worthwhile going home Friday night only to return Saturday so I booked myself a little Premier Inn near Kings Cross.

The gig was a really enjoyable night and then I managed to squeeze in a bit of sightseeing with a couple of other friends before making my way to the football. Overall a thoroughly enjoyable weekend with some good company too.

May: Lincoln!
I was starting to get itchy feet. I hadn’t been out of the country since February and the next trip was July so, despite doing my best to save, I needed a daytrip at the very least. I considered a few options but I’ve never been to Lincoln, it was a cheap train journey and easy to get to too.

I lucked out with the weather, the sun was shining beautifully and Lincoln as a city is really nice. The castle area stood out in particular and had some sort of event going on, I also snapped probably one of my favourite photos I’ve ever taken.

Lincoln
Lincoln!

June: Lille!
Lincoln was at the beginning of May, the end of July still seemed so far away so I felt I could squeeze in one last cheap daytrip somewhere. I was looking at various options within the UK but either trains were too expensive or the distance was too far for a feasible daytrip (via public transport) so I had a sneak peek at the Eurostar sale. I managed to find return tickets to Lille at just £53 which didn’t seem overly expensive for a day out in France.

I loved Lille. Fellow blogger, Shoot From The Trip recently wrote about their own visit (read here) and it had me reminiscing of my own time there. It’s an easy trip on the Eurostar, it’s a really pretty city and a little closer to Belgian culture than French.

Additionally it coincided with France playing in the World Cup so there was a bit of a buzz in the city all day, moreso after France’s 4-3 victory over Argentina. It’s a pretty city, the sun shining helped and my only regret was that I’d restricted myself to a daytrip. I’d love to go back. I fully recommend reading the blog post above too for a little more in depth look at Lille (it’ll be a while before I post about it myself).

July: Chicago!
At last! Part one of the MONTH long trip in the USA. I wasn’t in Chicago for particularly long but I was greeted to fireworks on my first evening in the States. I would love to have stayed in Chicago longer. It was cool to see the Bean and it was a fun city to explore. The only downside is it was so ridiculously expensive. I’ll probably go back but I cut my time short on this trip and headed on for my second city.

TheBig30-Bean

July: Minneapolis!
Minneapolis wasn’t somewhere I’d really intended to visit but I had a spare few days where I wasn’t sure where to go. I’d booked my flights to Chicago when Spurs announced their pre-season tour in the neighbouring state so decided I had to visit Minnesota.

It ended up being a really wise decision. It’s not an overly touristy place and I wouldn’t say there’s that much to do in the city but I felt at home here pretty quickly. The people were friendly and it was a genuine highlight of the trip. I feel like I left a little piece of my heart in Minneapolis and, perhaps surprisingly, it’s somewhere I’d like to return to.

August: New Orleans!
New Orleans was much the opposite. It ticked all of the right boxes, there was a lot I liked about it but something was missing. Perhaps my expectations were too high, perhaps I was suffering from the Minneapolis blues but I didn’t click with New Orleans in the same way.

Don’t get me wrong though, I’d highly recommend a visit to NOLA. The French quarter is stunning and the nightlife was FANTASTIC but I didn’t leave feeling like I loved New Orleans, I certainly liked it but it didn’t quite hit the heights I’d hoped.

August: Poulsbo, Washington!
This was why I was in the US. I was here for a wedding just outside of Seattle. This was a big surprise on the trip for me. I had no doubts the wedding would be a highlight of the entire trip, if not the year in general, but Poulsbo wasn’t somewhere I’d particularly thought would leave an impression on me.

It was an adorable little town, close to the water and a town with a bucketload of breweries too. I really enjoyed the weekend we had here.

August: Portland and Oregon City!
Portland was high on my list of places to visit this summer. We didn’t explore huge amounts of Portland but you could see why it has such a good reputation, it’s definitely a little quirky and was a city I enjoyed visiting. We took a little trip to Oregon City too which wasn’t far away, not an awful lot to it really. Portland was certainly the better of the two and holds better memories for me.

August: Walla Walla, Washington!
We reserved this weekend to go ‘home’ and attend Haleigh’s big family annual BBQ. I’d been to Walla Walla in February and loved the mountain views so it was somewhat underwhelming driving in to Walla Walla on this trip.

The wildfires / smoke left no real view of the mountains which was a real shame. The BBQ and family festivities were good fun though and this was another highlight of the trip. It’s a city I’ve grown to love, would have been nicer with the mountain views though.

August: Multnomah Falls and Oregon Coast!
Back to Oregon we went, this time heading for the coast via Multnomah Falls. It was a stunning place to stop. The coast was pretty too and a nice place to spend a couple of days on the way down to San Francisco. I particularly liked Depoe Bay which is apparently home to the world’s smallest harbour.

August: Crescent City and the Redwoods!
Honestly, Crescent City was nothing more than a good halfway stop on the way to San Fran and just happened to be outside of the Redwood National Park. Driving through the Redwoods was surreal and unlike anything I’d ever really experienced. It was stunning to pass through and we made sure to stop to admire the view, whilst snapping a few photos too. A must visit if you’re in Northern California!

TheBig30-Redwood
The Redwoods are a little big!

August: San Francisco!
As soon as I was invited to the wedding, this was my dream city for this trip. I had to go to San Francisco. It was non-negotiable.

Driving in to the city over Golden Gate Bridge was a pinch me moment and I really enjoyed our time in the city. Alcatraz was probably the highlight of our time in San Fran though. It’s definitely a city I’ll be going back to but it was nice to finally tick this one off my bucketlist.

August: San Francisco to Moses Lake!
Haleigh had to be back at school so after San Francisco it was a rushed drive home. We spent a night in Klamath Falls (Oregon) but spent most of our time on the road. The highlight was probably stopping at an Alpaca Farm somewhere in Oregon before winding up back at ‘home’ in Moses Lake.

It was nice to chill out for a few days in a familiar place before the trip sadly came to an end.

October: Birmingham!
That’s right, nothing for September! The summer killed my bank balance so September was the only month this year that I spent the entirety of it in Peterborough. Shocking!

I made up for it early in Birmingham though with another weekend away. I’d used all my annual leave by this point but I made the most of a weekend by spending it in Birmingham. Me and a friend were off to a gig but I spent the rest of my time in England’s “second city”. I’ve been to Birmingham many times without actually spending much time in the city, it’s not somewhere that I’ve ever really seen as particularly appealing but I was wrong!

I loved Birmingham. It’s a really nice city and for me, it does just edge Manchester so is worthy of its status as England’s “second city”. It’s somewhere I’m keen to return to at some point.

November: Warsaw!
I had no annual leave left whatsoever but wanted to squeeze in one more overseas trip before the year ended. Sadly it was only a flying visit but I found decent flights to Warsaw which gave me an opportunity to visit a new city.

I liked Warsaw but in all honesty I wasn’t feeling particularly adventurous by the time this trip came around, I had to force myself out on the Saturday night. The old town was stunning though, it’s really cheap and it gave me my first taste of visiting Poland which I’m keen to return to. Hopefully for a bit longer next time!

December: London!
Last but not least, London! I know this made the list already but this time I was hosting which made for a very different experience. Haleigh was making her first visit to England (first overseas trip too!) so we made the most of it by spending a few nights in London.

It’s such a pretty place to be around Christmas time so equally enjoyable for me to be in London. It was nice to show off “my city” to someone who’d never seen it. Fortunately Haleigh loved it.

We finished off the year together at a wedding a little closer to home in a town called Uppingham. The perfect end to the year!

Anyway, that wraps up my 2018. I’ll post about each place in more detail at a later date but if you want to see more photos you’ll find them over on Instagram.
What were your highlights of 2018?

Next up on the blog: Germany!

Stay tuned!

Jason

The big 3-0: a terrible summary

Extra, extra, read all about it: your favourite blogger is back! The 29 year old you once knew is gone and has been replaced by a 30 year old! That makes me older and wiser, right?

If you’ve been living under a rock and somehow missed the news (See you in September!), the reason for my little blogging hiatus is because I was in the US for thirty days! Thirty! How mad is that?

I got back to work on Tuesday and inevitably there was one question on everyone’s lips: how was it?

“Before you start, keep it short, yeah?”

This disclaimer hasn’t at any point actually been stated but as I explained in my Weetabix Boy post (here) this is my problem with social interaction and small talk in particular. I appreciate the effort in taking an interest but it’s another workplace conversation-filler isn’t it? How much is an acceptable amount of information to actually tell you? When does reflection become outright gloating about the trip?

So.. “yeah, it was really good!”.

It’s so vague but how do you adequately summarise a month long trip spanning six states, several cities, climates and cultures? It’s not in my nature to chew your ear off anyway but the trip has left me rather speechless. I don’t know how to answer that question, I don’t even know where to begin in attempting to.

TheBig30-Bean
Bean life

Logically you might suggest Chicago, that’s where I started the trip right? Alright, let’s do that!
The crazy cab driver, fireworks on Navy Pier within hours of arriving, late night Shake Shack, the Bean, the Skydeck disaster, another Hard Rock Café visit, awesome street art, the Chicago pizza, a never-ending tunnel, consequently nearly missing my Greyhound bus and voila! Only 29 days left to summarise!

I could say so much about this trip and consequently trying to summarise it has me struggling to say anything whatsoever. I saw two beautiful friends get married, road-tripped the West Coast with the woman I love, met a footballing idol, danced in the streets of New Orleans, successfully got off of Alcatraz island, fed alpacas, drunk plenty, ate even more plus an endless list of other experiences.

TheBig30-Alcatraz
A trip to Alcatraz!

 

At some point I’ll blog about each place more thoroughly but right now I’m humbled more than anything. This trip has been in the works for roughly two years and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity.

Things went wrong, I had fraudulent activity on my bank account and was crapped on by a bird on my first day in San Francisco just to name a couple of instances but honestly there’s no summary that could do this trip justice. It surpassed any high expectations I had for this trip of a lifetime.

So if “really good” seems a little vague, understand that it’s because it has to be. There’s no genuine summary coming, this was a terrible effort but I can honestly say it’s a summer I’ll never forget.

I’m so thankful to anyone that I crossed paths with this summer and a special shout-out to Maddie and Cassie who were the sole reason this trip happened and lastly to Haleigh who I spent the bulk of my time with. I loved it all so thank you!

TheBig30-Redwood
The Redwoods with Haleigh

There will be more to come regarding this trip in the future but for now that’s it. I hope you enjoyed the “summary” and hopefully you’re pleased to see me back on the blog!

All the best!

Jason