Monday, October 20, 2014

USA Coast to Coast. The Ultimate Road Trip. Part 3

8th – 17th July 2014

Liam is really into American history, in particular the Civil War. So how could we possibly bypass Gettysburg, Pennsylvania without putting in a few days.


The battlefield which covers 6,000 acres of fields and hills surrounds the small town of Gettysburg and is recognised as a National Military Park.The grounds and cemeteries, which are pristine, come under the watchful eye of the National Park Service. There are many ways to see the grounds and learn the history of the battle. You can take a sightseeing bus, do a self guided audio tour, jump on a horse, cycle or Segway your way around with a ranger, or do as we did and hire a National Park guide who will drive you in your car through the grounds for 2 or 3 hours and impart every  piece of info about the battle that your brain is capable of absorbing.

Our guide was an enthusiast name Roy who did an absolutely marvelous job. There wasn’t much about the battle site that Roy didn’t know, getting right down to the nitty gritty in a way that we could understand. He brought the whole battle alive.

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Gettysburg was a turning point in the Civil War. It was fought out between the Confederate Army of the southern states under the command of Gen. Robert E Lee  and the Federal Union Army of the north led by Gen. George Meade. With the two armies meeting by chance on the June 30th 1863, the next three days became the bloodiest battle of the entire Civil War which began at Fort Sumter Charleston Sth Carolina in 1861.

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To cut to the chase, the battle raged for three days with each side gaining and loosing precious ground. It culminated on July 3rd with 12,000 of Lee’s soldiers charging across open fields towards the opposition who, unbeknown to them, lay in wait just beyond a small rise. The southerner's attack failed and over 5,000 of Gen Lee’s men fell in just one hour. The Union forces had the edge over the Confederates and by dusk the battle of Gettysburg was over. By the time the two armies marched away some days later, they had left behind 51,000 soldiers dead, wounded or missing. Most of the dead lay in shallow graves and some where they had fallen.

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DSCN1041 Distressed by the events of war, four months later The Gov. of Pennsylvania set aside 17 acres of land on the battlefield for the reinternment of the dead. That plot of land is known as the Gettysburg National Cemetery. The cemetery was dedicated on November 19th 1863 and amongst those present was Abraham Lincoln who was asked to say a few words. His speech was short and sweet, taking only two minutes, It began with the words ”Four score and seven years ago…” and wrote it’s way into history as the Gettysburg Address.



Our next major stop a few days later was at Niagara Falls. We chose to stay on the Canadian side of the falls as the views are far more spectacular and we weren’t disappointed. Our Days Inn hotel, only a couple of blocks from the falls, made for an easy stroll down the hill. The town itself was actually quite tacky. A mix of Las Vegas meets mother nature and it really didn’t gel. The gaudy fun parlors and loud music certainly didn’t entice us.

Not wanting to miss anything we signed up for the full pack Niagara experience. That included taking the tour boat The Horn Blower right up to Horseshoe Falls and getting very wet despite our colourful ponchos. Being up close and personal with the thunderous energy of the falls was awesome.

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Next morning our adventure continued. First up was a Imax theatre ,except  it wasn’t your regular movie, they gave us ponchos at the door! Yep more of the wet stuff. Then we took the “Walk behind the Falls”, tour which was yet another  “get wet” opportunity. The poncho had quickly become our most treasured and unflattering piece of clothing.

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The afternoon was a drought compared to the morning. No wet weather gear needed. We had a leisurely stroll along the boardwalk beside the boisterous rapids of the Niagara River, followed by a drive out to the cute town of Niagara – by - the Lake for a bite to eat. As the name suggests the town sits on the shores of a lake and that would be Lake Ontario. Filled with cafes, restaurants, upmarket shops, tourists and flowers this was the Hamptons of eastern Canada and you could smell the money. Garden beds were in full bloom as were the hanging baskets on every street lamp. It was a very pretty little place.

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That evening back at the falls we joined the crowds as a full moon rose over the falls.The rushing waters were illuminated in bursts of colour and at 9pm a fireworks show lit the skies above. It was a fitting end to to a place of such natural beauty.

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Niagara Facts : Niagara Falls comprises of Bridal Veil Falls (USA side) and Horseshoe Falls. Horseshoe Falls stretches 675 meters in width from Canada to the USA. 3,160 tons of water plummets over the Niagara Falls per second with 681,750 gallons tumbling down Horseshoe Falls per second.Due to erosion over the years,  the rim of Horseshoe Falls has receded back 6 feet from it’s original position

Staying in Canada for the next couple of days we followed the shoreline of Lake Erie passing beautiful waterfront homes, then heading inland the landscape changed to corn and wheat fields and lots of ugly wind farms.

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Crossing back into the USA just above Detroit Michigan we continued northwest stopping at the Bavarian town of Frankenmuth.The CBP officer at the border had recommend it and we took her advice. It was just like being back in Europe,except for the accents of course.There were Bavarian restaurants, cheese shops, ice cream parlors even a Bavarian band belting out their tunes in the town square.

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As a bonus that night the town’s weekly summer series concert was playing in the park. It was Abba and was that a crowd puller or what. Well it wasn’t the original Abba band but they sure looked and sounded like them. Every man, woman and dog rocked up with their outdoor chairs and coolers.

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People of all ages were dancing along to the songs, even young kids not old enough to know who Abba were, but they sure knew all the words. It was a fun night, and I so wished that we could have been there for the following week’s concert, the Bee Gees. If you happen to be passing by Frankenmuth in summer make sure you stop for the night. We can recommend staying at the Duruy Inn. It’s a lovely hotel and they put on a great breakfast spread and very substantial snacks and drinks in the evenings. You certainly don’t need dinner if you join in their happy hour that’s for sure.

Driving further north we spent two nights just outside Traverse City at the Shoe String Cabins. This was our first cabin experience and it made a nice change from staying in hotels. We felt we had a little house of our own and room to breathe.

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From here we did a day trip up to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on the northwestern shore of Lake Michigan.The weather had taken a turn for the worse and it was cold and drizzly but it takes more than that to stop us hardy sailors from venturing outdoors. The Dunes are in a hilly area fringed with thick maple forests, lakes,sandy beaches and towering bluffs nearly 500ft high. Outward bound types love this area. In summer there are salmon to catch, camping and kayaking around the offshore Manitou islands and in winter the area becomes a snowy playground for skiers and hikers.

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Legend has it that long ago the dunes were named after a mother bear and her two cubs attempted to swim across the lake from Wisconsin to Michigan after being driven into the waters by a raging forest fire. They swam and swam but the cubs tired and lagged behind. The mother bear reached the shore and climbed the highest bluff to watch and wait for her cubs but they never came.Today,“Sleeping Bear” is a solitary dune and marks the spot where the mother waited.The two offshore Manitou islands are her lost cubs.



From here we skirted the western shores of Lake Michigan, stopping at the towns of Petoskey, Elk Rapids and Harbor Town before crossing the Mackinaw Bridge which spans the waters between Lower Michigan and it’s Upper Peninsular. We’ve been clocking up the miles and have covered 5 &1/2 states and part of Canada so far.

More about our trip in the next posting coming soon



Sunday, October 12, 2014


Hi everyone, it seems that the internet down here in Guatemala is not working correctly. I have written the next post and am doing my best to rectify the problem of getting it to post, but no luck so far. Sorry.

USA Coast to Coast, The Ultimate Road Trip. Part 2

4th - 8th July 2014


It was the 4th of July and we were within spitting distance of the capital. Just a two hour drive and we’d be in the heart of Washington DC and what a place to be for the party of the nation. Two days earlier we hadn’t held out much hope for finding  any accommodation with in cooee of the city. Then Liam suggested using his Hyatt reward points that were doing nothing but gathering dust. After a short phone call we had a room booked on the 10th floor, just a five minute walk from the National Mall. How lucky was that.



Driving to DC on the freeway was easy, the hard part was negotiating all the streets that were blocked off when we arrived. Jennifer, the voice of our i pad's map app, did a fabulous job of constantly re-routing us. She’s a clever girl and never gets the shits no matter what gets thrown her way.


After check-in we hot footed it down to Constitution Ave and secured a good spot to watch the  parade. There were thousands of people out  and about and just about as many law enforcement officers which included out of state police, national guard, air force, army, secret service, metro and city police, K9 divisions and the list went on.

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Cops were on foot, on bicycles, in hum vies and in the air.  Streets leading to the city centre, high target buildings,memorials and the National Mall were barricaded with police vehicles and buses.Nothing and no one was going to take down DC that day.





The parade went off without a hitch, There were dozens of marching bands both military and civilian, floats with all sorts of themes, troops of homegrown performers and ethnic groups in traditional costumes.


There were flag bearers, baton throwers, gymnasts and roller skaters It was a real melting pot of culture and history and everyone involved was proud to call themselves an American.

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DSCN0504After the parade we mooched down the National Mall for a look see and were surprised that people were already staking their claim on the vast lawn area around the Washington Monument and on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Remember Planet of the Apes? Abe’s memorial played a prominent roll in the movie.

It was a pretty hot day and it would be a long wait until the fireworks later in the evening, but these folks came well equipped with sun tents, deck chairs, coolers and whatever else they needed to enjoy Washington’s biggest outdoor party.


Then of course there was that other party just one block away on the lawns of The White House. But that was for invitation and Dept of of  Homeland Security approved guests only.



All you had to do was show up in your Sunday best. And best of all it was a BYO nothing at that little gig. As our invites had obviously got lost in the mail we adjourned  back to the Hyatt. It had been a long time since either of us had put our feet up in such fancy digs, and we were going to enjoy it while we could. 



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At 9pm the sky above Washington exploded into colour. We joined the throngs who were camped out on the grass and had a great view. Although it only lasted 17 minutes, an odd number we thought, it was excellent  but not a patch on Sydney’s NYE spectacular over the harbour. I guess we have been spoilt over the years. The crowds all day long had been extremly orderly and polite, no pushing or shoving. We had great time being part of the carnival atmosphere that engulfed the city that day. And now we can say “been there, done that”.

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Whilst still in the neighbourhood we drove back into Virginia on the other side of the Potomac River to visit the 9/11 Pentagon Memorial. This site honors the 184 people whose lives were lost at the Pentagon and on board American Airlines Flight 77 at 9.37am on that tragic day in 2001. Each victims name has been inscribed onto a stainless steel plaque on their memorial unit, a cantilevered bench with a lighted pool of flowing water beneath.

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The park is quite lovely with Crepe Myrtle trees planted around each memorial and it is clear that a lot of thought went into the design. Each unit is positioned to distinguish where the person was at the time of the attack. For those on board AA 77 as you read the persons name on the elevated end of the bench you are also looking in the direction from which the plane approached the Pentagon and for those who were inside the building, reading their name gives you a view of the Pentagon.   God rest their souls.




Our next stop was out near Dulles Airport at the Steven F Udvar Hazy Centre which is an annex of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. It’s a huge complex which houses many many fabulous exhibits of air and spacecraft that are way too large for the DC museum. Oh and these aren’t mock ups they’re the real McCoy. Included in the inventory was the Enola Gay, the B52 Super fortress that on August 6th 1945 dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima Japan. For those of you out there with a passion for anything to do with flight put this place on your list. We spent hours checking it out. Call us kids but we love that kind of stuff.




Leaving the museum just as the doors closed we took the freeway up to Germantown, Maryland. Rush hour traffic was in full swing and we were pretty glad that we made it to our hotel in one piece. Time for some R&R.




Up and at ‘em next morning we were off to Pennsylvania Dutch Country to visit the Amish. Ever since watching the Harrison Ford movie Witness many moons ago I’ve always wanted to see how these people live. Not too sure if Liam did, but then he really didn’t have much of a choice. So off we went.

A fairly large concentration of Amish families live in the farmlands to the east of the town of Lacncaster PA. Spread out through 28 states the largest population is in Iowa. Known collectively as the ‘plain people” the Brethren, Mennonite and Amish are all part of the Anabaptist sects who were persecuted in their homeland of Switzerland and settled in this area in the 1700’s. Speaking German dialects, they became known as Dutch from the word Deutsch but they are not Dutch at all as the name implies.


We quickly learnt that there are many different beliefs within the Amish community. Some families live by the traditional rules of their sect whist others like the Mennonites and some Brethren learn toward a more modern style of living which means having electricity, televisions and cars.

But we were more interested in getting amongst the horse and buggy types. The smaller towns of Bird in Hand and Intercourse, interesting name for a town we thought, seemed to be the centre of Amish activity in these parts.

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Our first big clue that we were in the right place were the tell tail dollops of horse poo dotting the sides of the roads.

And the second, well that had to be the bearded men  in straw hats and the dark clothed bonnet headed women, many of whom walked rather than rode in buggies.


The Amish as a general rule are very reserved, private people who don’t mix with those outside their sect. Some are happy to smile and wave for the cameras, but most are not and hide their faces.

Because of their separation from the modern world they have become a big tourist attraction. These days there are van tours of Amish working farms, shops selling Amish made goodies especially quilts and furniture, as well as buggy rides and even home stays. For someone it has become quite a lucrative business.



We, just like other curious “English”, that’s what non Amish are known as, jumped on the bandwagon and signed up with an authentic looking outfit named Aaron and Jessica’s buggy rides for an hour long toddle through the countryside.


As we trotted along our Amish guide openly chatted about the ins and outs of Amish life. He touched on religion, home life, schooling, taxes and where and how their make ends meet. There are two main sources of income. One being corn growing, the majority of which is sold for stock feed with only a small amount harvested for human consumption. The other is the dairy industry and it’s associated products. He explained that Amish farms are worked in the traditional way.



The crops he said were sown by man, horse and plough and of course, being strict in their ways, they had no electricity as the grid is directly connected to the outside world. But on the other hand they are permitted to have a kick arse generator, solar panels and gas for heating, cooking, lighting and refrigerators. Freezers are not permitted as they are a tad too close to modern living and may have a roll on effect to wanting more electrical appliances.


Another unexpected surprise were the modern homes, with nice big BBQ’s straight out of the Home Depot catalogue. These places would be hard pressed not to blend into any middle class American suburb.The Amish may have traditional values but traditional living? Who are they kidding! Where were the wood choppers and the woodchoppers sons? In our minds their lifestyle seemed a little contradictory to say the least.

We left the buggy tour quite disillusioned and headed down the road in search of an Amish auction we’d been told of that also served a good take away lunch


And wow was the place pumping, especially the parking lot. It was wall to wall horses and buggies. The auctioneer was going hell for leather, he could could have easily got a job at Southerby’s, and the buyers were buying. Wicker baskets and wooden mailboxes were walking out the door. We gave lunch a miss, instead investing in a.few home made pastries which looked delicious.


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From here we decided to take the back roads through the corn fields in the hope of snapping a few Kodak moments and we weren’t disappointed.





Info : Steven F Udvar –Hazy Air & Space Centre. Location: Chantilly VA, (near Dulles airport). Ph 703 572 4118. Open daily 10am – 5.30pm , except Xmas day . Admission FREE.  Parking $15, 10am – 4pm (after 4pm  Free). GuidedTours: FREE, Mon- Sat, inquire at welcome desk.   Imax Theatre $6 for seniors  Other : Gift shop , McDonalds, Coffee shop.