Universal Studios Hollywood (Luke)

Universal Studios was high on my to-do list ever since we decided we’d be going to the US. I’m a sucker for high-tech rides and coasters. Being a movie fan, though, I was keen to go on the studio tour, which is the reason the park opened in the first place.

We started off early by catching our hotel’s shuttle over to the bus depot, intending to get to the gates before they opened. Unfortunately the buses weren’t running when we got there, and weren’t due to start up for another half hour, so we used an Uber cab to get over there. It delayed us a little bit, but when we got there it was surprisingly quiet anyway, so we needn’t have worried.

Universal Studios Hollywood Park Map 2014

We studied the map beforehand to draw up our battle plans.

We purchased our tickets, opting not to go for the more expensive front-of-line tickets given the thin crowds. We’d read some guides on the best way to tackle all the rides and attractions, so first off we headed for the studio tour. We piled in to a four open-carriage tour bus and set off. The commentary of the tour guide is supplemented by humorous videos staring Jimmy Fallon. We were sitting in the front of the third carriage, and couldn’t really see the TV screen from where we were sitting – however it does give you a good view for everything else. The tour takes you through both the universal front and back lots. The front lots have all the production offices, and the back lots have all the stages and sets, which still get a lot of use. We even went past a crew shooting some TV commercial. I can understand why they still have their New York and European city sets still up – they seem to get a lot of use. But it’s a bit baffling as to why they still have a wild west back lot – I can’t imagine there’s much call for it anymore, and it looks extremely dated. Though it was used in a Community episode, so I guess it’s not completely useless.

Apart from current working sets, there are also some remnants of sets, including the crash scene out of War Of The Worlds, the Desperate Housewives street, and the Bates Hotel out of Psycho. I was a little disappointed that the Back To The Future clock tower no longer features on the tour.

King Kong 360 3D is an attraction coupled with the studio tour. It was designed by Peter Jackson and his WETA workshop to be a mixture of CGI, simulator and practical special effects. The tour carriages pull in to a darkened cave area with two huge IMAX screens curved around the tram displaying the lush vegetation of Skull Island, which is where King Kong was set. Before long though a few dinosaurs get interested in having a chomp on the tour guests, and Kong turns up just in time to stop them. Some prehistoric fisticuffs result, and the tour carriages are knocked around as the fight goes on. The 3D effects aren’t the most immersive, and there’s a lot of stuff going on so if you try to see everything you’ll end up taking in less than you would if you were just looking to one side, but overall it’s a great experience with some excellent effects. Check out this in-depth review for more details.

At the end of the studio tour you get a final video from Jimmy Fallon who busts out a guitar and sings a song for you, wishing for you to “Have a Tram-tastic day!“. Super catchy song which we ended up humming on our way off the tram. I’m surprised it hasn’t made more of an impact online.

Thanks Jimmy Fallon – we will!

Next up was The Simpsons ride, which is a simulated roller-coaster. As you wait to enter the ride, you watch a movie with Krusty explaining how we’re about to ride the new attraction at Krustyland, and the Simpsons are picked to be the first on the ride. However we also learn the murderous Sideshow Bob has escaped from prison and is out for vengeance against both Krusty and the Simpsons. Bob manages to infiltrate Krustyland, takes control of the park and forces us to set off on the ride while he sets about destroying it, as well as everything else. What follows is a manic ride around Krustyland as our coaster cart is knocked all across the park, and then eventually through Springfield itself. Even though the simulator doesn’t actually fall, the visuals fool your brain in to feeling a strong sense of motion and vertigo as you hammer down a large drop or fly through the air. Check out the Simpson Ride Wiki page for more info.

The Simpsons ride was one of our favourites ūüôā

After a bite to eat (definitely have breakfast before you arrive if you get the chance, park food is expensive and you can’t bring any food in with you other than fruit and baby food) we saw the Special Effects Stage Show, where they demonstrate a number of both practical (in-camera) and computer-generated effects. This was quite an entertaining show, with members of the audience brought on stage to pretend to rappel down buildings, or to stand in front of green screens to be terrorised by giant monsters.

After that we headed down to the lower part of the park. Seriously lower – you have to go down a series of three large escalators to get down there. On the way is an apparently often unappreciated feature of the park – amazing views over the San Fernando Valley.

Longest escalator ever!

The lower part of the park features three rides – Transformers, Jurassic Park, and The Revenge of the Mummy. Transformers: The Ride-3D (4D really, as it also employs water and fire effects) is another simulator ride based on the Michael Bay movies. While waiting in line you are told that the NEST base which houses an important relic called the ‘all-spark’ is under attack by the Decepticons. You team up with the Autobot ‘Evac’ (the simulator car you’ll be in) to get the all-spark out of the base and to safety. As you move out of the base and in to the city you come under heavy attack, with Decepticons trying to stop you at every turn. The simulator actually moves through tunnels which take you past a series of screens through which you view events unfolding. It’s a really freaking awesome ride which genuinely wowed me. By far my favourite – I ended up going on it about five times throughout the day!

Amanda was too hesitant to come on the Jurassic Park ride at first, so I went on by myself and discovered the joys of the “Single Rider” line. Skipped the queue and got on and off the ride within 10 minutes. The Jurassic Park ride is a water flume ride, and it’s fairly basic. Your boat takes you in to Jurassic Park, you see some relatively unimpressive animatronic dinos, something goes wrong, you get diverted up through an escape route, dinos “chase” you (i.e. pop out from the sides of the track or the roof above you), leading to what the entire ride is really all about – a mammoth 84 foot drop (!!) down to a splash pool at the end. I was riding at the back of the cart the first time, didn’t get very wet and the drop was thrilling but fun, so I got off and convinced Amanda she should come on the ride. We ended up in the front of the cart, which offered a very different experience. We got very wet, and the final drop was buttock-clenchingly scary. Definitely the most intense ride in the park. Lesson learned, we didn’t go on that ride again!

The angle of the exit makes the drop look way more gentle than it actually is. Very deceptive. The screams really should have clued me in.

While Amanda dried out in the sun, I hit the Revenge of the Mummy roller coaster. I was fully expecting this one to be a thrill ride, but ultimately came away a little bit disappointed. After setting off and going through a few ‘spooky’ rooms almost like a ghost train ride, the persistently hard-to-kill Imhotep invites you to join him in everlasting life – but first you have to die. After this bombshell, the coaster rapidly accelerates (woo! Best bit of the ride) and shoots you in to a pitch black room with quick twists and turns, and a few UV-painted¬†glow-in-the-dark monsters overhead. You reach a dead-end, come to a sudden stop, some scarabs attack you (vision of scarabs on screens around you while small brushes swish around your feet to freak you out) and after a few moments roll backwards quickly along the track (switching tracks in the process), slowing to a stop in the dark as a ghostly mist surrounds you. When it clears, you’re at the end of the ride. It was fun, but just not as thrilling as I was expecting. I read that the ride is the crippled version of the one at Orlando, which features an introductory video with the cast of the Mummy, and more footage during the ride. More info here.

Those were the best attractions at the park. Apart from them we went to see;

  • Shrek 4D, which was a 10 minute 3D Shrek movie with some practical effects (like water sprays and moving seats) and was far too loud for my liking (Amanda thought it was fine),
  • The fairly hammy WaterWorld stunt show in which we were very lucky to sit in seats that didn’t get completely soaked in water,
  • The Blues Brothers stage show, with a couple of convincing Jake and Elroy lookalikes who sang very well but failed to get the crowd going,
  • The House of Horrors, which Amanda passed on. Walk through a spooky house while actors jump out and scare you. Also has a few sets from famous horror films to add interest.

I decided to go on the Transformers ride a few more times (so awesome!) then because I managed to get through so quickly, take one more ride on the Mummy coaster. Turned out to be a bit of a mistake – just as I was next up to get in the coaster cart, the ride broke down, and everyone had to get off so the ride could be reset. Though I was first on when it eventually came back online, the whole wait was about 15 minutes. I would have happily skipped that wait to go on either Transformers or the Simpsons rides again. For my troubles I was given a voucher for front-of-line on all but the two best rides (which I discovered only after trying to redeem it at The Simpsons ride), and a free drink from one of the stores, but which stores you could redeem it from was ambiguous. After waiting at one to be told I couldn’t use it there, I was told to go to another, and ended up waiting there in line for ages. All for a small drink. It felt like my reward for all the waiting I did was more waiting. I would’ve been better off not even trying to use the voucher at all.

Universal also has a strip of shops next to the park called CityWalk, where we ended up going for dinner. It was damn near as bright and loud as Las Vegas, with a live band performing on stage, lots of neon signs, dancers, and large crowds. We went to the Hard Rock Cafe for dinner, mainly for the novelty value. As I expected, it’s really not anything special.

Not Las Vegas

Universal Studios Hollywood only sports a few attractions and though they’re fun, they’re fairly tame. If you’re a thrill-seeker looking for lots of heart-pounding rides, you’re better off looking elsewhere. That said, as a movie buff, and someone who loves flashy and expensive rides that exist solely to entertain him, I highly enjoyed Universal Studios and would certainly recommend going if you ever get the chance. Though it does sound like Orlando would be a better pick over Los Angeles.

The Grand Canyon

We booked a day trip to the Grand Canyon with Grand Adventures, a tour company that runs small vans rather than big buses. We were lucky enough to have a very competent, informative and charming driver named Chad. Luke and I were the first ones picked up and then there was another couple from Sydney, a young woman from Singapore and a couple from Canada. We left Vegas at 7am.

On the drive Chad filled us in on the history of Vegas, we all got to know each other and then we stopped at the Hoover Dam, not far out of town.

Apparently so much concrete was used in the dam that a two lane road could be built across America with it. We learned a bunch of other facts that I recall perfectly but won’t bore you with here.

Next stop was Seligman, a little town on Route 66. I’ve already posted about that so I won’t write any more here except to say that it was where we first saw snow. In fact two of the ladies on the bus had never seen snow before – but more about that later.

The Grand Canyon (south rim) is over 4 hours from Las Vegas. It was quite a drive but Chad kept us entertained when we weren’t talking to each other. Somehow we always end up in the tour groups that know how to keep a conversation going and Chad was most impressed with our immediate rapport. I believe he might’ve said we were the best group he’d ever had. Or maybe I said it. Either way, it was undoubtedly the truth.

Finally we reached the national park. It was much more low-key than I expected. Not much of a fanfare or flashiness, which was really nice. Just some great viewpoints and a dusting of snow. We bundled out of the warm van and tried to avoid patches of ice.

Amazing views.

Spot the Colorado – it’s about the width of two olympic sized swimming pools.

When we realised two of the crew hadn’t seen snow before the next step was obvious.

I’d never actually seen anyone do this before.

Angels!

Big smiles!

We all found the view spectacular… some might even say energising.

An heroic jump!

We had such a brilliant day. I thought I’d sleep in the van on the way back but I ended up talking to Chad about American schools and government and all kinds of things. I’d definitely recommend his company to anyone thinking of going – personal service, comfort and nice small groups.

Las Vegas

Even the shop displays are so very Vegas.

Limo from the airport!

We spent four nights in Las Vegas, three at the Monte Carlo and one at the Signature MGM Grand. Apart from a day tour to the Grand Canyon we didn’t really think too hard about what we were going to do there. The first night we checked out which tickets were available for different show and decided to see Zumanity, the Circe Du Soleil burlesque show.

View from the Monte Carlo. Not the strip but still not bad.

I’ve seen one Circe show in the past and the costumes and acrobatics in Zumanity weren’t as stunning but it was very entertaining and had quite a bit of comedy in it too.

We spent most of our time walking around the strip, which was a lot more exercise than I expected. Half the intersections have bridges, sometimes you have to go into malls rather than walk on the street – it can be a bit maze-like. ¬†And then there’s the hoards of people asking for money, trying to sell stuff, handing out cards for escorts or dressed in costume so you can have your picture taken with Elmo or a transformer or whatever.

My favourite things we did, since I’m not into gambling and I’ve had enough of drinking this year, was just watching the Bellagio fountains and the Mirage volcano – the volcano was especially good because it was so very, very cold when walking around. Even with our new hi-tech, super warm jackets.

Luke in front of the Bellagio. The fountains play to a different song every half hour or so.

Should’ve brought marshmallows.

We spent our last night wandering around the ‘real’ Las Vegas. Most people don’t realise that the new strip isn’t actually in the city of Las Vegas itself. We’d headed to the Neon Museum to see the old signs that had been retired from various casinos and businesses. The website makes it look really photogenic and interesting – unfortunately when we got there it was closed for a photoshoot – despite the website saying that it was fine to turn up to any of the tour times and buy a ticket. Rather annoying after a $30 cab ride. We walked to the nearby ‘old strip’, which was almost as shiny and bright as the new one. We took some photos and then had dinner and a couple of drinks in a bar.

The Flamingo lights are my favourite.

Christmas tree outside the Venetian.

Liberace’s diamante-encrusted car.

I can’t help thinking that Vegas would be more fun in party mode, but we’re a bit worn out in that respect and these days I like my early nights. It was certainly an interesting experience though and I loved the Grand Canyon. More on that next.

Arizona: Route 66

I’ve got lots to write about Vegas, but here’s just a picturesque half hour from our day trip to the Grand Canyon. We stopped at a tiny but significant town along Route 66 – the first highway to link the east and west of the USA and much celebrated in American history.

The town of Seligman is a couple of hours from Vegas and is home to a man named Angel, who campaigned long and hard to get Route 66 and it’s historical value recognised. Thanks to him many small towns, not just Seligman, survive thanks to tourism and an ethos of enjoying the journey – not just whizzing along the interstate from city to city.

Here’s some photos from the town that inspired the movie ‘Cars’.

Snow on the hood.

Note the background car.

The barber shop.

 

 

 

New York: HAIR! (not the musical)

I’d like to have posted about my friend Julia sooner, but I had to wait for the video to go with the post ¬†because the video is awesome. I mean that in the original sense. You will be filled with awe at the majesty of our combined hair-powers. Make sure you’re sitting down and don’t mind my slightly hysteric levels of enthusiasm, I’ve been waiting to meet Julia for 12 years.

Julia caught a bus down from Boston to spend half a day with us wandering around the city. We had a drink and nachos at The Olive Tree (our NYC go-to place) then dinner in China Town as Julia is partial to Thai food (as are we). I had the creamiest Tom Kah soup ever and we got to watch criminals being dragged into the jail across the road so that was like dinner and a show all in one.

We did some shopping and watched ice skating and just generally chatted. Once again it was nice to find out that someone I got along so well with online turned out to be just as great in person. At the end of the day I found myself wishing we had a lot more time to spend together – next time!

Thanks for coming quite a way to see us, Julia, next time I’ll come check out Boston :-).

It’s funny how seeing a photo of the back of one’s head is always surprising. We were both shocked by how long our hair was.

Wisconsin: Thanksgiving

We spent Thanksgiving with Josh’s family in Waukesha. His grandpa owns a huge, beautiful house by a gorgeous lake and we spent the whole day there chatting to his family and going out to play a little in the snow.

The lake looked like it had a thin layer of ice but when we tried to break it with stones they skittered around a made a weird noise. Lots of fun!

Josh was doing all the cooking and wouldn’t let us help at all so we watched from a couple of bar stools. We sat with his cousin Nick and learned a bit about American Football (I’ll be honest, it still makes no sense to me) and talked about the differences between Australia and America. I tried to convince him that Australian animals weren’t that dangerous but I’m not sure I succeeded.

Josh’s cousin Megan dropped off an apple pie and stayed to chat for a while but didn’t stay for dinner (the pie was ace, by the way!), and a few other people came and went. It all had a really nice family vibe that we haven’t experienced much of this year – except for when my mum was in the UK and when we were with Andrew’s family. I always find it fascinating to see how other people’s families interact. It was also a pleasure meeting Josh’s sister, who has three cute cats -amazingly, our allergies didn’t seem to flare up too badly, which was a relief.

So here’s some photos of the food!

A very nice looking bird – Josh soaked it in brine overnight before cooking it, leading to extremely succulent flesh. I’ll definitely be trying that at home!

The buffet. Croissants and jelly with a roast dinner! Only two people had the jello… some things are too strange, even for me ;-).

My contribution – some mead that I’d brought from the UK. Everyone seemed to like it.

Everyone at the table, right after I went back for seconds. Such tasty food!

My favourite photo of the day – Josh and his grandpa.

I wish I’d taken more pictures of Josh’s grandpa’s house. He practically rebuilt the place himself and the¬†design and craftsmanship is just beautiful. The whole place has lots of exposed wood and feels really warm and inviting. Many of the walls were painted by a couple of artists. They did each room with a different theme but in the same colours. The lounge wall has a topographical map of the lake outside the house and it’s done with such elegant detail and lettering that’s it’s a real feature. There’s also heaps of photo collages of various family members and pets throughout the place that make it feel like it’s the hub of a really close family.

We really valued the experience and enjoyed the day immensely. So thanks Josh – and all of the family members reading this! We couldn’t have had a better Thanksgiving.

USA: The Desert Eagle

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, the Desert Eagle is the train we caught from St Louis to Milwaukee.

I didn’t know quite what to expect from trains in the US. We’d been warned against buses and I’m rather partial to train travel so when Josh suggested catching the train I was keen.¬†I looked at the website and the only thing the train promised was ‘Texas’ sized seats. I think we all know what that means.

We could also check baggage and have it transferred to the Hiawatha – the train that we’d change to in Chicago that continued the journey to Milwaukee. Convenient!

We boarded the train at about 8am and the first thing we noticed was that it was two storey… there’s probably a term for that on trains… double decker? So we sat up the top. The seats were indeed large, and we had a huge amount of legroom. The seats also reclined to an impressive degree and had footrests that popped out and meant that the seats were almost as comfortable as beds. Nice!

I wish I’d thought to take a photo of the seats fully extended.

The train also had a viewing car with windows that wrapped up over the ceiling, a dining car with booths and a kiosk for when the dining car wasn’t open. The selection at both wasn’t large but it was nice to have two options. I got a veggie burger from the kiosk as I hadn’t had breakfast… it was probably the worst meal I’ve had all year and I ended up just eating the bun and a Twix.

The observation car – and as a treat, Luke’s arm!

The train ran on time, and as we got into Chicago it started to snow – the first time Luke had seen falling snow. He was very excited. We had about 90 minutes before the Hiawatha so we ate some food and I tried a bun from Cinnabon, which our friend Megan had recommended. It was a delightfully warm, gooey mess.

The Hiawatha wasn’t as fancy as the Desert Eagle but it was also only a short trip. We arrived in Milwaukee very excited to see my friend Josh and maybe get a chance to play in the snow!

It’s hard to get a photo of snow from a moving train so here’s some of the scenic beauty you can expect around Chicago.

I should add that the whole trip was $50 for each of us – not a bad deal at all for about 8 hours travel in much more comfort that you’d get on a plane.

St Louis

So the reason we’ve trekked from New Orleans to St Louis wasn’t just to see a whole lot of American farmland that looked remarkably like farmland in Australia. The main reason was to meet up with Shannon, a lovely lady I’ve been friends with online since about 2001? Maybe 2002? A long, long time, anyhow. We met via other online friends and … well, it’s a long story, but essentially we’ve been in touch via the internet for a long time and I was very excited about catching up.

Luke and I arrived in St Louis on Friday evening and realised it was cold. Seriously cold. Literally freezing in fact. After dropping off the hire car and deciding that yes, taking a taxi four blocks was a worthwhile investment, we hid in our hotel room until the following morning.

Shannon arrived just before 11am with her husband, William, and son, Will. They live a couple of hours away in a very small town that Shannon assured me was nowhere near interesting enough for us to spend much time, so she offered to come to St Louis, where she’d lived for some time. We jumped in their car and made straight for the pride of St Louis, The Arch.

It’s a massive structure, built a long time ago … for… a reason I can’t remember. But it is known as the gateway to the west – St Louis was the mustering point for many expeditions by pioneers in the early stages of settlement. Within the arch is a lift system of tiny pods that take you up to the top – over 1000 steps in height.

Like the professional I am, I completely neglected to take a photo of The Arch itself.

The view from the top is great, even if the whole experience is a little cramped. Even the room at the top has quite a low roof and tiny windows. Well worth doing if you’re in the city though. Underground, where you enter the lift system, there’s a free museum as well. After the Arch we visited an interactive science centre that was also free and very hands-on. Will is a big animal fan and enjoyed all the exhibits. Luke and I stayed on to watch a movie about the international space station in the omnimax while Shannon and co went to check into their hotel and let Will have a rest.

Oh, I forgot to mention that during the day we went to White Castle, a take-away chain that sells the smallest hamburgers I’ve ever seen. They were a little like the ‘squishy burgers’ Luke and Lucas loved in Turkey. We ordered multiple burgers each… it was really odd!

Sorry about the mid-chew photo, Shannon;). Tiny burgers are called ‘sliders’ here.

In the afternoon Shannon came back to get us then kindly took us shopping to buy proper coats. We only had the coats that we’d had made in Vietnam, which were wool but nowhere near warm enough. I bought a thigh-length coat that had a layer of stuff that reflects body heat. It seemed quite thin but has worked pretty well. Luke got a smaller jacket without a hood but it’s puffy like a quilt and he says it’s warm. With our new clothing causing us to whine about the weather 50% less than before, we were prepared for spending a little time outdoors. So after dinner (we tried deep fried ravioli!) we drove to the Budweiser Brewery.

Budweiser puts on a huge display of lights over Christmas. I completely failed to capture this with my camera, but I do have a photo of Shannon, William and Will huddling under blankets in the back of the little train that drove us around.

They’ll tell you Will has one of those monster hats too but it’s just an excuse.

By this stage the temperature was about -10 celcius. Which is waaaaaay colder than Melbourne ever gets. The new coat helped, but only having lycra leggings on did not. My gloves also failed to keep out the cold. Inconceivable!

Shannon and William dropped us back at our hotel at about 9pm. I do like hanging out with families – I get to have an early bed time without having to make excuses ;-).

The next day we went to an amaaaaaazing place. Not that you’d guess from the name – the city museum. Sounds boring, huh? Well it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Built into (and out of) a big warehouse building, it had a very plain exterior from most sides, but it was incredible – you walk into a child’s wonderland.

Very reminiscent of Gaudi works in Barcelona. All those metal cages and swirls can be climbed through.

Caves to crawl through, trees to climb, animals to wiggle through and all kinds of metal tunnels and ladders. Adults are allowed too but some of the passages are definitely child-sized. There’s plenty of slides – one of them is 10 stories high!

So pretty! And nearly everything seemed to be made of repurposed materials.

All the detail!

The adventure playground section is two stories. Then there’s an archeological section, a hands-on art section (my favourite), a pinball arcade inside a room full of really weird stuff – including the world’s largest underpants (allegedly).

The art room. I bought two books of snowflake patterns – animals and dinosaurs.

One of my favourites.

There’s huge ball pits outside, a school bus lurching over the roof and a plane. They look like they’re in the middle of building a castle in the grounds too.

The pylons and floors are covered with mosaics and interesting objects.. the place is full of art and very hard to describe. There’s a model train village with a bigger train you can sit in that takes you through a UV landscape. And a circus with children performing acrobatics and juggling. There’s lots of little spots to eat and even a bar for adults. Shannon said that at night teenagers come in and hang out and climb all over everything too.

Colour everywhere.

I am completely jealous of St Louis – every town should have a place like this, where exploration and discovery and imagination are promoted.

The whole gang!

Thanks Shannon, William and Will, we had a brilliant time :-).

Memphis

Knowing a whole lot of nothing about the place, we decided to stop for two nights in Memphis, Tennessee. Obviously we knew that’s where Elvis lived and there’s a lot of music history there but that was about it.

The place looked almost deserted when we drove into town. Our hotel wasn’t far from the office blocks of downtown and also not far from Beale Street, which Paul (our friend from Natchez) had recommended for music. It’s the Memphis equivalent of Bourbon St in New Orleans, but much quieter – or at least it is on week nights. Bourbon Street wasn’t quiet any night of the week that we could see – and you’d even find people bar hopping any time of the day too. Beale Street seemed much more clean and sedate, although I’m sure it gets lively on the weekends.

We’d been told to try out the bbq food and I didn’t have to be told twice. BBQ ribs are just about my favourite food in the whole wide world (although my mum’s hamburgers are up there) so Luke summoned the powers of the internet and got some recommendations.

On the first night we stopped at a rather gritty diner called The Blues City Cafe.

All the neon!

It was moderately busy and the air was a little smokey from all the cooking. We ordered a full rack of ribs to share (see? Learning!) and they came with ‘steak fries’ (which are slightly larger cut chips), a little tub of coleslaw and some bbq baked beans. The beans were a surprise – I didn’t realise they were a thing over here.¬†The ribs were excellent – on par with the City Grill Room ribs at home and probably had more meat on them than the CGR ribs normally do. We ended up having a fairly early night… after a few episodes of Star Trek on the laptop, of course.

I was hoping to find some more rockabilly style clothing, so after a hearty breakfast at the diner Elvis used to frequent, we looked in a couple of shops but to no avail. I did buy a few new pairs of ¬†leggings at American Apparel as mine are all starting to wear out. You don’t realise how quickly clothes fall apart until you’ve only got three day’s worth of outfits.

In the afternoon we walked from our hotel to Sun Studios, the label that first signed Elvis, as well as Roy Orbison, Jerry Lewis and a host of other stars. While people take tours (pretty short, underwhelming tours) of the studio during the day recording still happens there in the evenings. If you’re a fan of rock and roll history it’s no doubt worth the trek but otherwise it’s not terribly exciting. The tour visits one room of memorabilia and then the recording studio where you listen to snippets of various people speaking and singing.

The mic used by Elvis.

The guitars used by artists.

One for Mum – a photo of Roy Orbison.

 

One of the most famous photos in the history of rock and roll. Carl Perkins, Jerry Lewis, Elvis and Johnny Cash. Notice that the background of the photo is the wall that the photo is hanging on.

After the tour I looked up one of the musicians in the photo with Elvis, Carl Perkins. I didn’t realise it was he who had written ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and the story behind it is interesting. It was Johnny Cash who had told him it would be a good theme for a song as the shoes were fashionable at the time. The song became huge but Sam, the owner of Sun Records, passed on less than half the money Carl was entitled to. As a young, fairly uneducated man with no idea he didn’t question the money and it was only years later, after he was unable to legally claim it back that he discovered he’d been ripped off. The studio tour idolises the owners for supposedly inventing rock and roll but they did not deal honestly with all of the clients who made them rich.

We went to a different restaurant in the evening – another place on Beale Street. I can’t remember the name but it had a pig on the sign. The ribs there were also good but we both agreed that we liked the first place better. After dinner we walked up to BB King’s Blues Club. I didn’t realise that BB King’s name actually comes from ‘Beale St Blues King’ ¬†– and he’s still performing over 200 shows a year now in his 80s. Pretty impressive!

The club was fairly busy and full of energy. People were actually dancing, which we hadn’t seen much of in New Orleans, and we’d have gotten up too – if we hadn’t ordered drinks and then only caught the last 3 songs of the set. Still, it was a great vibe and we contemplated stopping somewhere else on the way home but then settled for an early night as it was a 5 hour drive to St Louis the next day.

I don’t know who the band were, but they were good!

I don’t know if I’d recommended Memphis as a destination unless you’re a music geek, but it was certainly a lot warmer than St Louis. More on that later!

New York: Food

We were so busy when we were in New York that I’m going to have to keep coming back to it to cover all the things I want to remember.

We had some great food experiences in New York. I think that if you’re even slightly passionate about food (like most of the planet) and visiting places you may never, or only rarely, come back to, you need to put some thought into your eating plan. What kind of foods appeal most? What is in season? What is the area famous for? Then get recommendations from online, from friends, from tv shows, from cab drivers and work out how and where to spend your few precious meals.

If I was on a holiday for a couple of weeks I’d have breakfast, lunch, dinner and at least two snacks in between in order to try everything. But when you’re away for a long time, as we discovered with alcohol, you can’t live every day like it’s the weekend or things go pear-shaped. When I say ‘things’ I mean ‘my torso’. Everyone who comes to the states on holiday warns that weight gain is unavoidable – so many good things to eat and everything comes with fries and sides, drowned in dressing and deep fried.

New York definitely wasn’t like that.Healthy food was pretty easy to get. They have these great places there, a type of deli, where it’s a bit like a canteen with help-yourself bain maries and they charge by weight. Sure, some are mac and cheese or deep fried chicken, but you can also get a pile of steamed broccoli or fresh fruit and it’s not too expensive. This was a very appealing option when we needed a break from eating pizza and cooking for ourselves wasn’t an option.

Pizza is something you have to do in New York. Luke’s a big pizza fan and obviously I don’t mind it either because I have tastebuds. Luke read up on the subject and it seems people in New York take their pizza very seriously. The criteria for pizza here is different to home. The base is usually super thin, although most pizza places also offer Sicilian or ‘Grandma slice’ which have a thick base. Topping are scanty compared to home, the focus is on the crust, the sauce, and the cheese. People differ in what they think makes for the best pizza – so all you can do is get a few names and go out and compare for yourself.

Don’t forget to call it a pie.

Here’s a list of the places we tried, all were recommended as being among the top pizza places in New York – although about a hundred pizza places probably fill that bill so don’t think of this as definitive.

John’s Pizza on Bleecker St.

This place is old and looks it – people have carved their names into just about every surface. We got there at 6 and still had to wait a few minutes. Get there any later and you could wait quite a while, although the service is extremely fast. You can only buy whole pies here and they’re about $20 depending on toppings for a small. Small is still pretty big though and was enough for the two of us (although we’re not really big eaters). The pizza here was definitely good but I discovered that there’s about a five minute window between thin pizzas being the same temperature as the centre of the sun and the cheese congealing. You just have to bow to inevitability and cram it all into your mouth as quickly as possible.

Joe’s Pizza

Also in Greenwich, this take-away place was featured in one of the Spiderman movies – or so their advertising says. They sell pizza by the slice and whole. There’s a few stools to sit on but mainly people just stand around eating or take their pies away. We tried their Sicilian. Again, really good and the base was super fluffy and the very bottom had a great crunchiness to it. We had a slice of pepperoni as well, which was also good but I liked the thicker pizza better.

Arturo’s Pizza

Our last stop in Greenwich, I’m not sure if Arturo’s do take away, it’s a proper restaurant and has a piano and people singing in a kind of informal manner. The vibe is really nice and, despite being pretty crowded (we could hardly get into one of our chairs) I’m sure that if we hadn’t been sitting next to a table of shouters it wouldn’t have been too noisy. We ordered a cheese pie and arugula salad. I’ve been in love with rocket and pizza since forever and the salad here was perfect – small leaves dressed in olive oil with a little parmesan – perfect for piling on top of the pizza. Another place where it’s worth getting in early – a rule that pretty much stands for anywhere good in the city, although locals seem to prefer lining up rather than eating before 7.

Best Pizza.

This time in Williamsburg and on the same block as our accommodation, we couldn’t go past somewhere called ‘Best Pizza’. We actually ended up eating their pizza twice. The first time was on our ‘down’ day when we pretty much stayed in bed and gave our tired feet a rest. We got a whole pizza to take away – they only do one size, 20 inches. Which is huge. The box was the size of a small coffee table. Their pizza is super thin though, so really… it wasn’t *that* bad.

The next time we went was on our way home from a night out and we just bought a slice each and did some people watching. The cafe itself is interesting – patrons draw on paper plates and then the plates are stuck all over the walls and ceiling which makes for lots of things to look at while you wait for your pie.

We hid the box under the bed because it didn’t fit anywhere else.

Speaking of NY pizza terminology, the word ‘pizza’ is often used in signage and on menus, but when ordering you either want a whole pie, or a ‘slice’ – not a piece. White pie is pizza with sauce and white cheeses on it and usually nothing else. I asked for ‘a pepperoni pizza to take away’ when we were in Best Pizza. I should’ve asked for for ‘a pie with pepperoni to go’. ‘Pizza’ and ‘pie’ have the same roots as ‘pide’ and ‘pita’. They all essentially mean the same thing.

We didn’t just eat pizza in NYC though. We ate a few times at a place called The Olive Tree in Greenwich. It did great mac and cheese and there were always tables free. We ate hot dogs from street vendors (not bad.. not great) and we also tried some hip bbq food in Williamsburg on the recommendation of two friends.

Fette Sau

One of Williamsburg’s most hip restaurants, Fette Sau does bbq food – you buy as much meat as you want (by weight), it gets heaped on a tray with the sides you choose and you sit at a long bench table with strangers. A tv on one wall shows a fire… I think it’s supposed to be ironic.

Our pork belly, pulled pork, rolls and broccoli. The cornbread was a new experience – tasted a lot like cake so we ate it for dessert.

Katz’s Deli

If one eating experience shouts ‘New York’ louder than any other, it’s Katz’s deli. The scene from When Harry Met Sally – you know the one – was shot here. The walls are lined with photos of famous clients and there is a protocol here that can’t be denied. You get precisely two seconds, once you get to the front of the line, to shout your order ‘pastrami on rye’ (if you choose) to one of the extremely beefy guys behind the counter and they carve about a pound of meat and slap it between two pieces of bread. I got the pickles too, which made a nice crunchy accompaniment to the sandwich.

The pieces of bread aren’t out of the ordinary – it’s the meat that blows your mind.

A trip to Katz’s is a must do (for the non vegetarians, anyhow) but do not go right on meal times. They’re open 24 hours on the weekends so a late night trip would probably make the experience less hectic.

Luke looking fearfully at the decor.

So essentially, there’s a whole lot of great food to eat in New York. We ate lots of it and barely scratched the surface. If you’re reading this and you’ve been to New York I’d love to hear about your best dining experiences. Tell me!