In February/March this year, we visited the United States of America for three weeks. I took a break from blogging in order to start writing up the story of our trip, and hope that you will enjoy reading the upcoming series of posts. Please bear with me if this process takes some time.
For now, here is a summary of our trip, to wet your appetite. 🙂
At the end of February, Richard and a group of work colleagues from the Square Kilometre Array South Africa office in Cape Town flew over to New Mexico to spend a week at the EVLA (Expanded Very Large Array), a radio astronomy telescope array, on a mountain plateau outside the small town of Socorro, some 120 km south of Albuquerque.
I, meanwhile, had a little adventure of my own: I stayed with a long-time penpal and his family near the small town of Hazard in eastern Kentucky. It was an exciting time, which I shall tell you all about soon! (Update: This is the post I wrote about it: Meeting my penpal of 25 years)
At the end of the first week, Richard and I met up in Louisville, Kentucky, from where we embarked on a two-week road trip around (parts of) the southeastern and eastern USA, ending in New York City.
Facts and Figures
We got to know/drove through/briefly visited 12 states: New Mexico, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia, Washington DC (which is kind of its own state), Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York.
We visited the following cities: New York City, Washington DC, Albuquerque NM, Nashville TN, Chattanooga TN, and Louisville KY, and numerous smaller towns.
We covered a distance of 2663 miles, which is about 4285 kilometres. I think you can add on a couple more kilometres by public transport and on foot. 🙂
We seemed to have spent something like R1200 for petrol (or as the Americans like to call it, gas or gasoline), although it was probably a bit more as we paid cash at least once. The price of gas varied between US$ 3.70 to US$ 4.00 per gallon; with a gallon = 3.8 litres, and an exchange rate of ZAR 7.60 to one US$, the price works out to between R7.40 to R8.00 per litre of petrol. (That’s if I didn’t mess up my equations!)
The price of gas in the US varies considerably across the country (Gasbuddy website), but in South Africa it is tightly regulated. Currently, it is R11.64 per litre (AA South Africa website). So we were pleasantly surpised at how little we spent, comparatively speaking, filling up our car in the USA!
We stayed in the following hotels/motels: Drury Inn (1 night @ R793), Country Hearth Inn (1 night @ R393), Super 8 (5 nights, with the rate varying from R348 to R420 and R535 per night), Comfort Inn (2 nights @ R548 a night), Red Roof Inn (2 nights @ R484 and R503 a night).
The cost of the accommodation varied, depending on the size of the city, the distance from the central business district, the willingness of the hotel to give us a discount, and on whether we had a discount voucher, or whether we had prebooked via the internet. As the motels were often located in clusters, it was fairly easy to walk/drive from one to the next to find a good rate.
Our most expensive accommodation, as anticipated, was in New York City (3 nights @ R968 a night), but a hotel, guest house or B&B would’ve been far more expensive, at least double that price. Apart from that, our visit to NYC coincided with the annual St Patrick’s Day Parade, which meant higher prices and fewer places available.
Some Attractions Along Our Route
Our route took us south from historic Louisville to Bowling Green, fitting in a hike in the peaceful Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest.
The next morning, we did a tour of the extraordinary Mammoth Caves National Park, before continuing further south to Nashville, Tennessee, where the famous country music stage show, the Grand Ole Opry, was born at the Ryman Auditorium.
Days 3 and 4:
We swung southeast to Chattanooga, just north of the border with the state of Georgia. We stayed in this pretty town for two nights and explored many of its attractions, with the highlight being Ruby Falls, America’s deepest cave and largest underground waterfall accessible to the public. We also had tea and toast at the Chattanooga Choo Choo, which is parked inside a quaint and pretty train station.
From there we headed northeast, following the Cherohala Skyway – a breathtaking scenic route across the top of a mountain range – crossing over into North Carolina along the way. The scenery here was simply awe-inspiring. Back in Tennessee once more, we followed the so-called Tail of the Dragon, which – apparently – has 318 curves in 11 miles! We can well believe it!
Via the Foothills Parkway in the Great Smokey Mountains, we finally reached the town of Gatlinburg – ‘the Gateway to the Smokeys’ – where we braved the bustling crowds and bright lights to explore one of the fascinating Ripley’s Believe it or not Museums. We overnighted in quiet Pigeon Forge, just to the north.
The next day, we drove to Cades Cove in the Smokeys, following the scenic circular route around this lovely valley, with numerous hiking trails tempting the adventurous and energetic. As we turned north via Knoxville to Kentucky, where we would spend the night at my friends’ home near Hazard, it began to rain heavily, so we unfortunately couldn’t do any more hikes that day.
Luckily, the skies had cleared up the next morning, and it was a pleasant drive north to the Daniel Boone National Forest. Here, we hiked up to Natural Bridge, an unusual sandstone archway that you can walk across – just don’t look down! That evening, we crossed eastwards from Kentucky into West Virginia, sleeping in the large town of Huntington.
We covered a considerable distance the next day, travelling steadily east towards Washington DC, and stopping at several picturesque locations en route. We saw the New River Gorge Bridge, which for some time was the world’s longest single-arch steel span bridge (now it is the third largest), lunched at the pretty Cathedral Café in Fayetteville, and walked across a historic covered humpback bridge in Virginia.
Days 9 and 10:
We thoroughly enjoyed our two-night stay in Washington DC, the nation’s capital, with its excellent (and free) Smithsonian museums; our favourite was the Air and Space Museum, where Richard courageously flew a mission in an F-18 fighter jet – on a flight simulator. We took the open-top City Sightseeing Bus around all the main attractions, such as the White House, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the World War II Memorial and Arlington Cemetery. We also witnessed the annual St Patrick’s Day Parade, and admired the illuminated buildings of DC during a Twilight Bus Tour around the city.
From DC we made our way northeast to the Gettysburg National Military Park, which was the setting of one of the pivotal battles of the American Civil War in July 1863 and the place where President Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address. We watched a film about the Civil War between North and South and experienced the cyclorama at the excellent Visitor Centre. The cyclorama is a detailed 360-degree painting depicting the Battle of Gettysburg, and it is powerfully brought to life with lighting, background music, and cannon fire. That night, we slept in the small town of Tinton Falls, New Jersey, only two hours south of New York City, our final destination.
Days 12 to 14:
The next morning, we returned our car to the rental car agency at JFK Airport on the outskirts of New York City, and took the subway through to Manhattan. We had found accommodation in NYC via a marvellous online booking system called Airbnb, which is a global network of accommodation offered by locals. We stayed in a 16th floor studio apartment with stunning views on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, between Central Park and the Hudson River Park, and within easy reach of all the main tourist attractions of Manhattan.
During our three days in NYC, we walked many miles every day. Our favourite place was Central Park, which was far larger than we had anticipated. We saw the Statue of Liberty from the southern shore of Manhattan, and we visited the 9/11 Memorial – a profoundly moving experience. We walked across Brooklyn Bridge and stood in Times Square with its flashing neon signs and countless advertisements. We had coffee at the Rockefeller Centre with its ice-rink, and visited the Guggenheim Museum.
During our road trip, we stayed in a different motel almost every night. Their ‘continental’ breakfasts were a joke (do not expect European-style continental breakfasts!) and thus we always brought our own breakfast ingredients to the breakfast table. On the positive side, the rooms were clean (if not always pleasant-smelling), the beds were usually king-size, and all of them offered free wifi, which meant that we could use Skype, free of charge, to phone friends and family. We could also use the internet to plan the next leg of our trip and locate places to stay at our next destination.
In addition to seeing soooo many beautiful places, we particularly enjoyed getting to know the people. As we travelled from one state to the next, and from the countryside to the big city, we began to notice subtle changes in accents and ways of speaking, and different ways of behaving.
Almost everyone we met was friendly, responding positively to our questions and helping us to find our way.
This was even true in New York City, where everyone (except for us…) seemed to know exactly where they were going – and intent on rushing there now, this very minute! The NYC subway system is utterly confusing when you first plunge into its depths, and the people manning the so-called info kiosks were (almost all) pretty darn useless and short-tempered – but luckily for us befuddled tourists, the commuters were more approachable. The Washington DC public transport system (which is admittedly smaller) was far easier to grasp and navigate, with maps setting out the various routes and options.
The staff of the Welcome Centres, which are located just off the interstates as you enter a new state, were always enthusiastic and helpful, willing to suggest places we might we like to visit or scenic byways we might like to explore. These centres were an absolute treasure trove, and I am pleased we discovered them right at the start of our trip. I cannot recommend them highly enough!
Many people, in the cities as well as in the countryside, were intrigued by our accents (as much as I was curious about theirs!), and asked where we were from. I tried to be a good ambassador for our country and encouraged them to visit South Africa – and Cape Town!
All too quickly, our trip around the South-Eastern and Eastern USA had ended, and we found ourselves aboard a South African Airways plane once more, flying from NYC to Johannesburg and onwards to Cape Town.
It had been an unforgettable experience.
For me, the highlight of the trip was, without a doubt, meeting Bobz and his family. I will treasure that memory forever.