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Category Archives: USA 2015

Da Business

Once in a while it’s nice to treat yourself. And coming back to the UK from the States is almost always a disappointment in one way or another. So, when checking in at New Orleans and faced with a tick box to upgrade my flight to Heathrow, the temptation was just too much.

From speaking to friends who know far more about this stuff that I do, American Airlines don’t have the best Business Class service in the world, but a hot shower, a warm meal on a plate (as opposed to a takeaway carton) and acess to a free bar and a comfortable lounge at Miami certainly helped to pass the three hour wait.

Then, take off was delayed by an hour, after we’d boarded the plane. Not an issue – an extra hour to watch a movie and wonder at the many and varied positions of a reclining seat, including as close to lying flat as you’re likely to want. And two further hot meals. And a free bar. (Yep, there’s a pattern emerging here).

OK, these are all first world small pleasures – and you pay a relatively hefty premium for them. But the overall service makes you feel good, which is exactly what an upgrade should do.

Contrast this, then, with the UK – and specifically East Midlands Trains. First Class on here is always a bit of a lottery. At weekends, you more or less get access to a big seat and free boiling water, posing as “complimentary refreshments” – which are so good, you have to walk to the buffet car to get them.

Today I walked onto a train at London St Pancras to find no luggage space in the main First Class carriage. The guard helpfully advises putting my case in the space reserved for wheelchairs, though “I might have to move it, OK?” Moments later the obligatory announcement advises passengers to “keep luggage from the aisles” whilst simultaneously “keeping an eye on it”. Guess what, I can’t do both – or either.

East Midlands Trains tell me that this is a “problem we’re aware of” and and the result of a design problem “handed over to us by the previous francise holder”. So, since 2007 they’ve done nothing about it.

LIke I say, first world problems. But ones that wouldn’t be allowed to happen on the other side of the pond.

 
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Posted by on September 24, 2015 in Travel Stuff, USA 2015

 

A Reservation At The Preservation

Every night from about 7pm, a queue gathers on St Peter’s Street in New Orleans. There aren’t many venues in this town which attract quite so much attention, but the Preservation Hall is on the “must do” list of almost every guidebook. So it’s strange that on my three previous visits here, I’ve never got round to experiencing it.

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It looks like the oldest building on the block, but the Preservation Hall was only established in 1961 to uphold the traditions of New Orleans Jazz. “Ain’t noooo Dixie here!” emphasises the drummer at the start of the show. The small room can probably hold about 50 people and there are three shows each night.

There are other places to go where you’ll get more than four or five songs, and won’t be promptly ushered out at the end. But there are few places where you really do feel part of history. Only a handful of the audience gets to sit down, there’s no bar and no bathroom. But not one person leaves disappointed. Best of all, there a strict ban on any form of photography, which sets this performance ahea of any other.

Breakfast is something of an option in New Orleans. Sometimes it’s consumed before you’ve been to bed, and sometimes it’s politely skipped. But eventually, everyone needs a hangover cure, and they don’t come better than these.

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The Beignet is made from a deep fried Choux pastry and originates in France. You’ll need lots of water to go with these, some to wash down the delicious snack and more to wash your hands of the excessive icing sugar. Two tips : don’t wear dark clothing and, if sitting outside, ensure you’re downwind or it could get messy.

The best Beignets reputedly come from the Cafe Du Monde near the French Market. But there are other markets springing up across New Orleans, supporting the bustling artists trade. Back on Frenchman, as the sun goes down, you can buy paintings, jewellery…

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Just about everything…

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Since 1973, when it was featured in the James Bond film Live and Let Die, the city’s fascination with death has been well documented. It might seem morbid, yet each time I come to New Oreleans I secretly hope to stumble across a street funeral. In the meantime, I’ll have to settle for the cemeteries.

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Every stone tells a story, and in Lafitte Cemetery Number 1, there are thousands. These are some of the better kept ones; many of the monuments here are crumbling, although rich local families and benefactors continue to pay for restoration projects. Some guidebooks and hotel concierges will recommend you only come here on an organised tour. Don’t bother – you may not be lining the coffers of the coffins.

And finally, to the shoreline of one of the greatest rivers on earth.

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The mighty Mississippi – not with the traditional steamboat Natchez but a craft which demonstrates how important this river still is for trade. Forget any romantic notions you might have had. This is still an industrial heartland.

And still an enormously special part of my heart.

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2015 in Travel Stuff, USA 2015

 

Going Down Easy

For me, arriving in New Orleans is like arriving at home. I suppose it’s getting  a bit like the package holidays some families take to the same places every year. But if you like a place that much, where’s the problem? And there’s never a  problem in finding something different on Frenchman Street.

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At the Spotted Cat, it’s all about the jazz, as you might expect in this town. Like many of the bars along Frenchman, this place has a seemingly endless programme of performances throughout the day and long into the night.

It’s fair to say that New Orleans stinks first thing in the morning. Or at least, the tourist trap of Bourbon Street does. The debris of a drunken night out is hosed down the drains –  but in the heat of a September morning, where it’s already in the high 20s, the drains give you something back.

New Orleans is so much more than the French Quarter. The Garden District speaks for itself.

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Tradition counts for everything here. One of the best ways of getting to the main sights is by street car. There are only three lines here so it’s not the main form of commuter travel. Some of the cars are a century old and the drivers have to carefully negotiate the traffic.

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Posted by on September 23, 2015 in Travel Stuff, USA 2015

 

When The Saints Go Marching In

There’s an old joke that nobody ever travels by train in America. And outside the commuting zones of the big cities it’s largely true. Yet as I arrive at Memphis’ Central Station at just after 0530 on a Sunday morning, there a handful of people are already lining up to board the service South to New Orleans.

The City of New Oreans runs daily from Chicago, and the total journey takes eighteen hours, a distance of over 900 miles. That certainly doesn’t make it the fastest method of travel, but it’s one of the most under-rated. And even before sunrise, the Observation Car looks comfortable and inviting.

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The rest of the train is divided into two classes – coach and sleeping cars. But even coach has about four times the legroom of standard class on a UK train and seats which recline low enough to allow a decent night’s rest. And on the whole, passengers respect the need for politeness while it’s still dark; the one exception being a woman shouting into her phone.

Mississppi and Missouri roll by. There’s not loads to see on this route, but you do get a good sense of small town America. Occasionally the tracks run alongside lines of traditional wooden houses with porches. Miles from anywhere, it’s often difficult to imagine how far people must travel just to get to work. The stations stand as remote outposts connecting with the rest of the world.

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The Observation Car is dominated by passengers from the UK, including two couples from Liverpool. Like me, they’re on a musical journey across the States – but have embraced the laid back form of travel much more. They love Amtrak, even though there are only about six long distance routes in the whole country.

I also overhear a convesration between a college graduate who’s travelling to New Orleans for an artists residency with the church. The older woman from Jackson almost interviews her like a talk show host. How do she get into art and, most importantly, which church does she go to. She talks about the small towns and neigbourhoods with immense knowledge, detailing which parishes are the good and bad ones.

Then, we approach The Big Easy around the shores of Lake Ponchatrain. Its road bridge was one of the sights seen from the air a decade ago as people attempted to flee New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina struck.

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As we snake through the suburbs we pass some of the leves which today still protect New Orleans from the worst of the Hurricane season. Below the elevated roadways, small crowds gather around car boots; hawkers selling snacks and merchandise for the big ball game.

At the Union Passenger Terminal, there’s a longe queue for cabs. But I strike it lucky, when a driver calls “anyone going to the French Quarter?”. A shared taxi ride works out at just $6 each. The game is just ending, and the Saints lose by just one point. But somehow I can’t see that stopping New Orleans having a party tonight.

 
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Posted by on September 22, 2015 in Travel Stuff, USA 2015

 

Don’t Believe Me? Just Watch.

A friend once described Memphis as “just another Southern town”. And in many respects, he was right. There aren’t scores of skyscrapers dominating the downtown area, and some of the side streets can seem dead after sunset. But then, there’s always Beale Street.

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In fairness, this photo doesn’t do it justice. Certainly on visuals, this ain’t a pretty sight. But on Beale Street, you use your ears. And all around there’s music. Rock and roll, country, the blues – all blasting out from the dozen or so bars along the strip. Tonight it’s hot – temperatures are still pushing 30 Celsius – which just adds to the vibe of taking things slowly and soaking in the talent.

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Just out of shot here is a party of about 20 Texans, all in their fifties. They’re virtually on the table, fuelled by a mix of cocktails served in plastic cups. OK, if this was the Med, it’d be the worst kind of holiday I could imagine. But there is something about the Blues which gets into your sould. And with good historical reason.

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Nat D Williams wasn’t just a pioneer of black music, he brought it to the masses through WDIA – the radio station which broke all the rules. Its bosses realised that in Memphis and the wider mid-South Region there were thousands of listeners who – due to segregation – weren’t being served by mainstream radio. WDIA changed all that; a fact made all the mores remarkable given it happened several years before the Civil Rights movement really took off.

There’s history everywhere here, even in the back room of Flynn’s, an unassuming and relatively quiet bar on Beale. It houses memorabilia from just one school. Yearbooks and  clothes are spread across the walls. Which probably wouldn’t be that interesting. With one exception.

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On the street, there’s a group of older people dressed in matching bright yellow polo shirts. The logo shows a school reunion for the “Class of 65”. One of the party tells me they’re from a small town in Arkansas, just across the Mississippi River. Memphis is where they’d come when they were old enough to seek out fun. Who knows, maybe their interest in the music here was inspired by a certain radio station.

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Posted by on September 19, 2015 in Travel Stuff, USA 2015

 

Towers, Trumps and Trash

It’s pretty much impossible to avoid politics in the States, and right now the fight is on among the candidates hoping to become the Republican runner for President. If you thought British election debates wre getting complicated, try watching a debate among eleven people, including the guy who built this little thing.

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The Trump Tower may be impressive, but to get a real sense of scale, you need to get the view from the top. And just across the road from my hotel is the John Hancock Centre, which conveniently houses a restaurant on the 94th floor. It’s high end, high rise dining. But even better is the 95th floor Signature Lounge. I was initially wary of the queue in the lobby, imagining I’d be jostling with the crowds taking in the views. But it turns out to be a wholly relaxing way to watch the sun go down.

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A light dinner and a couple of drinks came in at $45. But take into account the regular admission fee to the overcrowded observation deck and you still come out on top. And there’s no pressure to vacate your seat within a time limit.

The Signature Lounge is certainly popular, if not quite touristy. But if you want tacky, head to Navy Pier.

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The Ferris Wheel, virtually deserted today, is probably the most impressive part of this attraction. The rest consists of a shopping mall and food court, while river and lake cruise companies line up to take your money. Locals will tell you this is a “must avoid” location – and they’re not wrong.

Still, it’s another great location to take in more views of the water. And it’s easy to forget that you’re looking at a lake rather than the sea. Lake Michigan is Chicago’s greatest natural asset, and one which sets it apart from other US cities.

Tomorrow I’m off to Memphis. It’s going to take a lot to Trump this place.

 
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Posted by on September 17, 2015 in Travel Stuff, USA 2015

 

Meet Me By The Lions

You wouldn’t normally think of comparing Chicao with Nottingham but today I’ve seen two similarities in the stunning setting of The Loop. The area is the business heartland of the city, characterised by the elevated (El) trains which circle above the streets. At ground level, there’s a sharp division between the skyscrapers and the vast area of parkland next to Lake Michigan. And in Millennium Park, the first import from Nottingham. Well, kind of.
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This is the Cloud Gate, designed by Anish Kapoor. And reflecting from the pavement to the heavens, it’s strikingly similar to the Sky Mirror at Nottingham Playhouse. Only bigger.

Just along South Michigan Drive is the sprawling Art Institute of Chicago. From the front, and with a bit of immigration, it might by the Council House in Nottingham’s Old Market Square. Not least because ita entrance is fiercely guarded by two of these.

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(I mean lions, not beggars)

Well, art never has been my thing really, and unlike some cities, there’s no concept of free entry here. However, radio is very much my thing, and tucked away by one of the bridges over the river is the Museum of Broadcast Communications. Over two floors, there’s a collection of radio and TV memorabilia, along with artefacts from down the years. It’s also home to America’s Radio Hall of Fame.
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One thing that’s big on TV here are sports. With a plural. I head up to Wrigley Field, the home of the local rounders team.(I think that’s what it’s called). But instead of the Cubs, I find the Bears.

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It turns out that AC/DC are in town tonight, and among the large bearded figures hanging around the merchandise stall (and that’s just the women), a huge noise emerges from inside as someone starts the sound check. You wouldn’t need tickets to hear this gig.

I prefer smaller venues, and one of the recommendations from last night at Butch Maguire’s is this place on North Clark Street.

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The bar is neither underground or, at first, much of a wonderful venue. The owner Lonie Walker does her best to entertain the almost non existent clientele with soft jazz and easy listening on the piano. However, at 11pm, the place is suddenly transformed.

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Up until this point, Maurice has been tending the bar. Now, he joins a bunch of jammers for some serious live music. It’s mostly the blues, giving the Wonderbar more of a New Orleans feel. And just like New Orleans, these guys are playing for tips. It’s worth a generous donation just for the floor show.

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Posted by on September 16, 2015 in Travel Stuff, USA 2015