I head across the water to visit the land of the brave and free.
During the Christmas break, my cousin Amanda and I decided that it was time we visited her brother and his wife in Texas. And so on the morning of Sunday, 23rd April 2017, the great migration began. We boarded our plane in Sydney headed for Dallas.
The flight was VERY long and whilst we were glad to have the extra seat between us, it still wasn’t a terribly comfortable flight. (If we look that nuts at the beginning of the flight you can just imagine how bonkers we were by the end of it!)
15 hours later, we arrived at Fort Worth Dallas airport at 1pm (half an hour after we took off in Sydney thanks to the time difference). My cousin David (Amanda’s brother), and his wife Krystal picked us up and we spent the next hour driving around the airport trying to find our way out.
On our way to their house, we made a pit stop to pick up some supplies, and that was our first opportunity to experience something truly American….
After dropping off our stuff and getting settled, having showers and taking naps, it was time for dinner. What was on the menu I hear you ask? Buffalo Wings!
When we arrived at the restaurant, David and Krystal marched straight inside as though nothing were amiss. Amanda and I however, were waylaid by this rather disturbing sign on the front door…
Yup, that’s right! Texas is such a gun-toting state that they actually have to put signs up on the doors of the restaurants telling people not to bring them inside. With that delightful thought running through our heads, we took our lives in our hands and entered the establishment known as Buffalo Wild Wings.
Now here’s the thing about buffalo wings – they… are… REVOLTING!
Amanda and I each got 3 different kinds and after the first bite we were gagging. We ended up skipping dinner and getting them all in a takeaway bag for David to eat for lunch at work the next day.
We might have smiles on our faces in the photo below with all that food in front of us, but it was taken BEFORE we tried the wings. Lemme tell you, we weren’t smiling afterwards!
So, not off to a great start in the food department.
The next day was spent shopping, followed by another truly American experience – Baseball!
We were lucky enough to get free tickets to the Major League game of the Texas Rangers vs the Minnesota Twins. We were sitting 5 rows from the front and were surrounded by die-hard fans. They thought the Aussies were hilarious and took great delight in getting us to say things in our Aussie accents and trying to teach us the rules of the game.
Another thing that we indulged in that is a true American tradition were hotdogs! They cost only a couple of dollars and weren’t anything really special, but they were cheap and tasty (way cheaper than the food you can get at the AFL matches here in Aus). I had even bought myself a Rangers baseball jersey earlier that day so that I would look the part.
The game was followed by margaritas and tacos at a famous taco shop in Dallas called Velvet Tacos. With an exciting first day under our belts, it was time for bed.
The next day we were up early for the 1 hour drive over to the Forth Worth Stockyards.
Now, this place is a lot like Sovereign Hill near Ballarat (for those of you familiar with Victoria, Australia), it’s where they have preserved the historical town to show what it was like in the days of the Old Wild West. They have cattle drive demonstrations, cowboys riding around, as well as lots of shops and restaurants.
We stopped for lunch at a place where I discovered the cocktail that was going to keep me half bombed for the rest of the trip – the Cowboy Cactus Cooler! And what is in it you ask? Midori, White Rum, orange juice and pineapple juice. Delicious! I spent the next 2 weeks asking every bartender in America if they had Midori on hand.
One thing you really must get when in Texas, is a good pair of cowboy boots, and boy did Boot City have us sorted - it was shoe shopping heaven! I already own a pair of cowboy boots and unfortunately I just didn't have the room in my luggage to buy another pair, but I'm telling you now, if you want a pair then definitely this is the place to go.
That night we decided to head to the movies to see the latest in the Fast and the Furious franchise. We went to the local cinema called The Alamo (yup, just like the famous Texan tale). Now hold onto your hats because here’s what happened…
First up, we purchased our tickets. Now movie tickets for an adult at a regular cinema in Australia are usually at around the $22 mark, at The Alamo they were $8. However, because we were there on a discount movie night, our tickets were only $5.
Next, they had a bar in the foyer. For just $3 you could buy a pint of beer, so we stocked up on about three pints each (it should be noted that you could take all your drinks into the theatre with you, so no need to skull them) and headed inside after a quick game of Bingo (seriously!).
Now here’s the thing about this cinema – in front of each row of seats is a little shelf where you can put your beers. Also included are menus and an ordering pad. Just like in gold class, you can order meals to be brought out during the movie. So you fill out your order, stick it in the front of your shelf and the waiter comes along and grabs it.
Lemme tell you, for $5 tickets, $3 pints and $6 pizzas, this night was awesome! And it was made even better by the movie (Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel and Jason Statham in one room? Yes please!).
The following day we split up for the next leg of our journey. David and Amanda were headed to Yellowstone National Park for 4 days of camping in sub-zero temperatures with bears and freeze dried mac & cheese, whilst Krystal and I were headed to New Orleans for 4 days of cocktails, sight-seeing, Maroon 5 and Usher. (I’ll let you use your imagination to guess which of us had the better time…)
Day 1 in New Orleans was spent exploring the French Quarter.
We visited Jackson Square where there is an amazing museum that details the horror of Hurricane Katrina from 2005 (which a lot of the city is still trying to recover from even 12 years later). One particular part of the exhibition shows where Tommy Mabry, a survivor of the storm, documented his experiences in the days after Katrina on the walls of his home.
For eight weeks, starting the day before the storm, Mabry chronicled the mundane doings of his daily life: a sore throat, the rain, a hangover, the loneliness, some pizza, a toothache. They covered four walls, top to bottom. The entries ranged from accounts of his escapades – his trips to a bar in the French Quarter, his visits with neighbours down the road – to his interior life and the range of his moods, from despondent to cheerful.
“Ain’t doing too good today,” he wrote on one occasion. “Monday is very, very low.”
“Well, here’s today,” he wrote on another. “Make the best of it.”
The exhibit was extremely moving and really highlighted the horror of the storm and its aftermath.
After spending a few hours in the museum and the square, it was onwards to the infamous Bourbon Street…
…followed by beignets at Cafe Du Monde...
…and a taste of NOLA humour.
(My mum who’s a teacher didn’t think this sign was nearly as funny as I did.)
On the morning of day 2 we set off for our next adventure – Gator Hunting!
Now as many of you know, I’m an animal rights activist, so when I say “Gator Hunting”, I mean we went out on airboats into the Louisiana bayou (swamp) and fed them marshmallows. Seriously! Apparently marshmallows are a favourite treat, they call the stuff “gator-crack”.
The thing to note with these tours is that predominantly they are reputable and have a minimal impact on the local wildlife and the environment. I would highly recommend you do your research before booking a tour to ensure you're choosing a suitable company. We went with Airboat Adventures which were a good company, but unfortunately I wouldn't recommend them because of two things - they have an albino alligator in a horrible tiny indoor enclosure, and they breed baby gators for tourists to handle.
The good thing about this company though, was that they did allow for a lot interactions and were very knowledgeable. You can select one of two options when it comes to the airboats, either a large (15-30 passengers) or small boat (6-8 passengers). We immediately opted for the small boat because it meant we'd have a better view, could go faster and we'd have a guide all to ourselves. This was definitely a good decision because we ended up on a boat with just one other couple so there were only 4 of us in the end. We jumped on our boat, put on our ear muffs (the fans on the airboats are wicked loud), and set off into the wilderness to feed the gators!
The bayou itself is absolutely beautiful, so if you get the chance to see it, definitely go as it’s well worth it! The entire place is huge
Day 3 saw us heading out to Oak Alley Plantation, one of the restored slave plantations from the Old South before the Civil War. Oak Alley is arguably the most famous of the plantations still around and rightfully so. The grounds are gorgeous and the history of the property is extremely interesting to hear. The photo below shows the most well-known part of the plantation – the famous oak trees lining the drive.
The plantation is like a snapshot in time of what life was like during that era. It's both stunningly beautiful and heartbreaking because of the suffering that was endured there. To capture both of these sides, the custodians of the created a sort of museum inside the main house with all original furniture, artwork and knick-knacks. The guides will take you on a tour of the house and give you the history of the plantation as well as the families that lived there, and how it came to be a museum today.
Outside there is heaps more to see, including the restored slave quarters. This is where you'll find your heart hurting when you see the conditions they were forced to endure and read the stories of those that lived there.
There's also a wall inside one of the structures that has the name of every slave who was held captive on the plantation written on the walls. The sheer number is overwhelming and extremely humbling.
On the morning of our fourth (and final) day in New Orleans, we went on a tour of some of the cemeteries that help make the city so famous. There is a fantastic group that operates across the US (including New Orleans) called Free Tours by Foot that have locals who act as guides for visiting tourists. You just book online for whatever tour you're interested in, and then you pay what you think the tour was worth at the end! We had a brilliant young woman who took us around and we gave her about $10-$15 from memory at the conclusion of the tour. We were interested in seeing the oldest cemetery in Louisiana, the Saint Louis Cemetery which was opened in 1798.
Whilst it was interesting to look around, the one aspect that by far was the most intriguing (and without a doubt the most ridiculous) was the tomb in the photo below…
Can you guess who it belongs to?
Yup! Nicholas Cage.
Weirder still? He has absolutely no ties to New Orleans at all! Nothing. He doesn’t live there, he’s not from there, he has no family there – he just wants to be buried there.
And weirdest of all? That little panel you can see on the tomb underneath where it says “Omnia Ab Uno”? That is where women have left kisses! That’s right, that little panel is covered in lipstick kisses from his fans.
And before you ask, no, I did not leave one of my own. Gross!
That afternoon it was on to the big finale – #JazzFest2017
We were lucky enough to be there on the weekend that JazzFest was happening, which brings half a million people to the 7 day concert festival. If you've never been in a crowd that large then it'll be almost impossible for me to describe it. I've never seen so many people in one place, it was like the apocalypse.
Thank goodness there was some cloud cover and a breeze because it was HOT in New Orleans, lemme tell you! We managed to find a spot on the ground near one of the main stages in amongst the thousands of other people. To be honest though, there were actually too many people there because we didn't even get the chance to look around because we could barely move in the areas where the booths and stands were.
The music however was fantastic and we had a marvelous time! We were stoked to be able to see both Maroon 5 (with a very blonde Adam Levine)…
As well as an extremely talented Usher.
At the end of the night it was time to head home and that was when the apocalypse hit. Trying to get 100,000 people out of one location at the same time was insane. There were people everywhere and traffic was at a stand still and we had absolutely NO hope of getting an Uber home. So what did the girls do? They made me WALK all the way home. I can't even tell you how far it was but my feet were screaming and all my darling cousin did was make fun of me. Family, am I right?
There was just one more thing that I was desperate to see before we left New Orleans and we discovered it whilst driving one day. Now here's the thing, I absolutely love books and tv shows about college in America, especially anything to do with sororities and fraternities. The show Greek in particular is a favourite. I wanted to see a place where all the sorority and frat houses were located and I got my wish! The pic below was taken from the back seat of the car as I squealed with delight and snapped photos like a tourist. I waved with glee at all the pretty (and cliched) sorority girls and guys I saw walking around.
And thus, with a final song and a wave, our time in New Orleans came to a close.
The next morning we flew out of New Orleans over to Washington DC to meet up with Amanda and David after their four days in the wilderness. (They were not smiling nearly as much as we were – they made it 2 days and decided to find a hotel instead, pikers.)
We had only allowed ourselves two days in DC which was a huge mistake as we missed out on seeing a number of things because there was just SO MUCH to see!
Being that there were 4 of us though, and we were looking to do this trip in a shoestring budget, we booked a hotel room with 2 twin beds for the 4 of us. It was only 2 nights so we managed pretty well. We'd arranged to stay at the Melrose Georgetown Hotel which was really nice. On the first night I made everyone jump up on the bed in our matching robes to take an hilarious family photo.
Th next day it was all about the sightseeing, and I'd arranged for day 1 to be focused on the incredible monuments around DC. The Lincoln Memorial was incredible…
…as was the Washington Monument (yup, I took this photo with my iPhone).
We visited the National Archives building, the US Capitol building, Union Station, and just about every other landmark we could, including Arlington Cemetery. It was enormous, humbling and quite special to see.
Day 1 was dedicated to monuments, but day 2 was dedicated to museums, and DC has some of the best museums I’ve ever been to.
The Smithsonian Institute is made up of 19 different museums and galleries, and one of the best (and most famous) is the National Museum of Natural History.
Whilst there we saw the Hope Diamond…
And if anyone remembers the movie Night at the Museum, then you should recognise the guy in the background of this photo…
Not my cousin David, but Rex! The loveable dog-like dinosaur that chases bones around the museum in the movie.
And finally, it was time to visit the most famous house in the world…
Trump wasn’t home but there were about 2,000 protesters outside the White House yelling loudly about immigration (I think).
The four of us then split up again, with Krystal and David flying back home to Dallas while Amanda and I continued on to New York.
We stayed in Times Square at the Gallivant Hotel. It wasn't the nicest hotel (we were on a budget after all) but it was right in the heart of Times Square which was the perfect spot as it’s pretty much right in the middle of everything. The best part is that it’s right in the heart of theatre district, and there’s nothing that Amanda and I love more than live shows!
First cab off the rank was one of the greatest shows ever written, and also the longest running show in the history of Broadway…
The Phantom of the Opera!
This entire show was a masterpiece from start the finish.
Now if you're also interested in tickets to shows and events then you NEED to know this. In TS there is this booth (called TKTS) located under the red stairs that sells tickets to just about every show and event in NYC for really cheap prices (sometimes even up to 50% off!). We got tickets to Phantom just 20 minutes before the show started and couldn't believe our luck!
The very next night we went to see The Lion King which was just as amazing. Before the show started we also indulged in something that is iconic to NYC - pizza! We stopped by John's of Times Square for some delicious slices and a few cocktails. The place was absolutely packed and we had no chance of getting a table before we needed to leave, but luckily they set us up at the bar (with a very friendly bar tender who was most generous with the drinks). It was a fantastic night!
We also visited all the landmarks that are essential to see when visiting NYC, from the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty…
…to Grand Central Station and Central Park. Word to the wise, CP is huge and it's easy to get turned around. I never realised from movies and television just how massive it is. There's also a 2.5 acre section of the park known as Strawberry Fields, a tribute to the late John Lennon of the Beatles.
One thing that was on my bucket list to get a photo of in America was a real live yellow school bus, and guess what pulled up as we were leaving Central Park?
Before we left the USA there was one final thing that I wanted to tick off my list, and when we arrived back in Dallas for one more day before flying out, I got my chance…
My dad was so proud – Annie Oakley ain’t got nuthin on me!
And so that was the end of our trip. With some final hugs goodbye and our suitcases full to bursting, we jumped back on the plane for the 17 hour flight home.
I would love to go back one day and do the West coast, I’ve definitely been bitten by the travel bug.
I hope you enjoyed my tales of adventure in ‘Merica y’all!