A Travellerspoint blog

Washington DC, USA (12th - 16th June)

We took an overnight train from Chicago to Washington, which was a lot more pleasant than the overnight bus from Banff to Vancouver. I like how much legroom and space you get on American trains. From Washington we headed out to the Takoma Park area in Maryland, which is where our Airbnb accommodation was. We had a studio apartment to ourselves, which was really really lovely. The owner met us and gave us an impressively thorough introduction to the apartment and also to Washington - she had maps and guides, plus provided breakfast foods and coffee and such like. It was a bus journey from the subway system, so it took a little while to get to and from Washington, but it was worth it to stay in such a nice place.

On our first full day in Washington, the weather forecast was for storms, so we planned a day of museum visits - specifically in the Smithsonian museums, which are mostly free. We started off at the American History Museum, which was decent, then moved on to the Air and Space Museum, which was good too. It's a shame we didn't get the chance to go to the zoo at some point during our trip, as that's also free (as is the one in Chicago that we didn't have time to visit either), but it was a bit out of the way.

Our second day in Washington was a nice sunny one (pretty hot in fact), so we had a day of sightseeing. We managed to squeeze in all the main sights, including the Capitol building, the FBI building (as a big X-Phile, I was particularly excited by this!), Ford's Theatre, The White House (of course), the Washington Monument (which is still being fixed up after the earthquake), the Lincoln Memorial and the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. Here are a few photos:

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On our third and final full day in Washington, we spent most of the day at the Newseum, which if you can't guess from the name is a museum about the news. It's not free, but it is very very good and well worth the money. Also, your entry ticket is valid for 2 days, so you don't need to rush around. We didn't have 2 days available, but we got there early and had plenty of time to see it in one day. There are a lot of interactive exhibits, plus an interesting variety of exhibits. It's aimed more at older children and adults and it's designed to be walked around in a specific order, so it's all very controlled and easy to ensure you don't miss out on anything. Definitely recommended. Afterwards we managed to squeeze in a quick visit to Arlington Cemetery before it closed. That was great to see, just because it's so iconic - being a fan of shows like The X-Files, The West Wing and Bones (all set in Washington), it was quite exciting to get to see all those small, white, uniform graves in person. Is it a bit weird and wrong to say a visit to a grave site was exciting? Oh well. Here's a photo:

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All in all I really enjoyed our time in Washington. Mostly because it's just full of iconic sights, which are all pretty close together. It would have been nice to have had a bit longer there so we could have explored some of the different neighbourhoods, like Dupont Circle and Georgetown, which are meant to be really nice. But hey, maybe some other time.

Posted by chantalpatton 11:47 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Chicago, USA (7th - 11th June)

Chicago was the first place we used Airbnb, which had been recommended to us by a few people. If you're unfamiliar, it's a website where people let out spare rooms or whole apartments, like they're running their own B&B (though breakfast's not always included!). We'd booked a room with its own bathroom, though it was pretty much like having our own apartment as it was totally separate from the apartment of the lady we were renting it from. It was down in the basement, but all was good - nice size, clean, tidy etc. Marie met us and showed us around, plus even did some laundry for us. The only problem we had while we were there was a problem with the plumbing, but that wasn't a major issue as we were mostly out and about anyway. We were staying a little way out of the centre, but we could get the subway in fairly quickly, plus there were a lot of good cafes and restaurants in the neighbourhood.

I didn't have a preconceived notion of what Chicago might be like, but I was still slightly surprised by how much I liked it. There was a good vibe to it as a city and there was loads to see. In fact we could easily have stayed longer as there were quite a few things we just didn't get time to do.

Talking about Chicago as a tourist destination, I just realised I forgot to mention our border crossing from Canada to the USA in my previous blog entry. As is usual, the border guards quizzed us on where we were going and why. When we said we were flying to Chicago the following morning, we were met with a derogatory "why are you going there? That's not exactly a tourist destination! It gets cold there." Jamie pointed out we'd just spent a year in Toronto, so were used to the cold. This seemed to arouse his suspicions even more - he asked us why we were over on the west coast when we could have just travelled directly from Toronto to Boston (where we'd said we were flying home from). We attempted to explain the appeal of travelling across Canada and getting to see the country, as well as a bit more of the USA, before just flying back to the UK. He still didn't seem hugely impressed but proceeded with the next stage of the inquisition, which involved scanning our passports. By doing this, it flagged up that we already had permission to be in the USA - we'd gotten it on our way to Buenos Aires when we'd had to change flights at Newark. Despite only being in Newark for about an hour, we'd been granted 60 days in the USA. It had seemed silly at the time, but was now incredibly useful and meant we didn't have to go through the whole fingerprinting rigmarole again. It was also funny to watch the customs guy instantly shift from suspicion to satisfaction.

But back to Chicago - after arriving at Marie's place, we pretty much headed straight back out for a gig we wanted to go to - Eleanor Friedberger at the Empty Bottle. We met up with a girl that Jamie knew via last.fm and had a good evening.

The rest of our time in Chicago can be bullet-pointed thusly:

- We had a nosey at The Bean and other interesting sights at Millennium Park and Grant Park

Buckingham Fountain:
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- We went to some great places for food. Chicago Diner was a standout - it's a veggie restaurant with some awesome food, plus a peanut butter milkshake that Jamie described as "amazing". The guy serving us was brilliant too - he spoke some Welsh and recommended other places for us to go. There was also a radio station on that seemed to only play songs that Jamie loves - it was freaky. Another place worth mentioning has to be The Wormhole - a coffee shop with an 80s/early-90s film and video games theme. They have a Delorean up in the rafters (for want of a better description) and an old Nintendo, complete with a load of games, which you can play. We had a coffee and played some Super Mario Land 3. Not a bad way to start the day.

- We went to the Museum of Science and Industry, which isn't cheap, but is really good. The exhibits are very interactive and there's a lot to see, including some chicks hatching (so cute). I also volunteered to make my DNA visible through an experiment you can do yourself at home (one I've seen Brian Cox do on one of his shows), which was cool. Another favourite part was where you could challenge another person at relaxation. Yep, competitive relaxation. You and your challenger put sensors on your head and a computer then monitors your brain activity and if you're more relaxed than your competitor, it moves a ball along a track in the direction of your opponent. It's quite hard to then stay relaxed as you see the ball heading towards you, but the less relaxed you are the quicker it's going to head your way. Jamie and I were fairly equally matched, we were both really relaxed, but he just had the edge and beat me, damn it.

- We went to the Art Institute of Chicago. That wasn't cheap either, but again it was really good with a lot to see.

On the morning we left Chicago, we went to say goodbye to Marie as she'd left us a note. Because she felt bad that we'd had to put up with the plumbing problems, she'd made us a pair of gloves each. How sweet is that? A great first experience of Airbnb.

Posted by chantalpatton 16:23 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Seattle, USA (6th - 7th June)

We got a Greyhound bus (yes another one) from Vancouver to Seattle. Thankfully it wasn't overnight, but it arrived half an hour late, despite being parked just a few bays away! That takes some skill. Almost every time we stopped, the driver said we'd just be there for 5 minutes, so we didn't risk getting off to get food or anything, but then we'd end up sitting there for about 20 minutes. This combined with the detour due to the collapsed bridge meant that we arrived 2 hours late in Seattle. As it was only meant to be a 4 hour journey, that's quite a big delay.

We visited Seattle in late 2011, so this time we were just passing through - it was cheaper to fly to Chicago from Seattle than it was from Vancouver (by quite a bit). We'd initially considered booking a flight on the same day, assuming the bus couldn't possibly be as much as 2 hours late! Thankfully we changed our minds and booked ourselves a place to stay up near the airport. It was a motel - specifically the Sea-Tac Valu (sic) Inn. We were initially given a room that already had some people in - people who weren't impressed we'd just walked into their supposedly private room. That mix up got sorted out and we made it to our people-free room, which was ok, though there was a sticky patch on the carpet near the bed and the door looked like it might have been kicked in on a few occasions. Basically, from things we heard and saw, there was definitely some prostitution going on at that motel.

As we were starving by this point, we headed out in search of food. Subway was the best we could find, though we also got some treats from a supermarket, then retreated to our room and holed ourselves up for the night.

The next morning we caught one of the public buses to the airport. We'd been expecting a free shuttle from the motel, but it turned out it wasn't actually free and instead cost slightly more than the public bus, so we declined that 'freebie'.

All in all, not the greatest of days, but vaguely entertaining in retrospect.

The wonderful area of Seattle we got to stay in:

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Posted by chantalpatton 15:44 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Vancouver, Canada (4th - 6th June)

Our journey from Banff to Vancouver involved a 13 hour overnight bus. And it was even less fun than that sounds! We'd foolishly assumed that on such a long journey we'd get one of the nice blue Greyhound buses with wi-fi and plug sockets. But no, we got one of the old white buses without wi-fi and plug sockets. It was also pretty full on arrival in Banff, so we couldn't even get a seat together. I sat in one empty seat and Jamie was in the one behind me. He was sat next to an Australian girl, who he got chatting to. One of the first things he said was how he'd been hoping we might be able to get 2 seats each, in order to spread out and try to sleep, but instead we weren't even able to sit next to each other. I thought this was almost guaranteed to elicit a response of "do you want me to switch with your girlfriend so the two of you can sit together?", but no, nothing. I guess she didn't want to give up her window seat, which I can understand as they do make it slightly easier to get some sleep, but still, I'd have given up my seat if things had been reversed. The girl next to me didn't offer either, though she looked bundled up and half-asleep already. So it wasn't the greatest start to the journey - disappointed by the lack of wi-fi and selfless individuals, I was sat without much to do but half listen to Jamie chatting to the Australian girl whilst a creepy couple opposite kept kissing really loudly, as if to amplify my frustration at not being able to snuggle up to someone in order to aid the sleeping process (the girl next to me might have objected). Oh and that couple opposite weren't creepy because of the kissing, there was just a general creepy vibe about them. Jamie saw the guy take photos of a car crash, which is pretty damn creepy. I also saw the woman picking her nose and then inspecting the contents, which was more unpleasant than creepy, but still. In order to keep my sanity, I used the first part of the journey to start writing a short story. It wasn't the most imaginative short story, seeing as it was set on a Greyhound bus, but it provided some necessary catharsis. I didn't finish it and I doubt I will (I'm not even sure I want to re-read it), but it killed some time and made me feel better.

After a brief stop at a petrol station, 2 hours in, we got back on the bus and attempted to get some sleep. I'd only sleep for brief little patches, but I was still in a general sleepy haze when at about 3am we stopped at a bus station and were told that we had to get off the bus for 20 minutes while it underwent maintenance. It wasn't that there was some unforeseen problem (as far as I know), it's just routine that they wake everyone up and make them stand in a bus station for 20 minutes in the middle of the night. We both vowed to never take another overnight Greyhound bus.

I don't remember much about the rest of the journey, but it was a relief to arrive in Vancouver. We checked into C&N Backpackers, where we were greeted by a picture of a waving otter, which slightly made up for the bus journey from hell. The Backpackers was ok - it wasn't hugely dissimilar to the one we'd stayed at on our previous trip to Vancouver. The guy at reception was brilliant and gave us loads of tips on places to go, plus our room was pretty decent (aside from a few bugs).

Our first trip to Vancouver was on our way back from New Zealand at the end of 2011. I liked the city, but not as much as I was expecting to - it was my first trip to Canada and I'd heard so many amazing things about it that it's unsurprising I was a little underwhelmed. Plus it's quite a big culture shift from New Zealand, so maybe I needed some adjustment time. Whatever the reason, I really enjoyed my 2nd visit - I was disappointed we'd not decided to stay longer. Some of the things we did while we were there:

- We went up to the 42nd floor of The Empire Landmark Hotel, where there's a revolving restaurant and lounge. We had a drink and enjoyed the moving view. This was one of the recommendations from the guy at the hostel reception.

- We went over to Lynn Canyon to see the suspension bridge and waterfalls.

Suspension bridge:
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- We travelled over to Wreck Beach, by the University of British Columbia, as it was recommended by a friend of Jamie's. It was a nice place to watch the sun dip and stick our hands in the pacific ocean. It's a 'clothing optional' beach, but thankfully most people had opted to keep their clothes on (as did we!). There were a few naked men about, including one who was weirdly only half-naked - weird because it was the bottom half. Whatever floats your boat I guess.

Wreck Beach:
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Posted by chantalpatton 00:02 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

Banff and The Rockies, Canada (28th May - 3rd June)

On the 28th May we took a bus from Edmonton to Banff. This was the start of our adventure in the Rocky Mountains. Banff's a really nice little town, albeit incredibly touristy. We lost count of how many times we heard English accents. It reminded me quite a bit of Queenstown in New Zealand, but without the whole bungy jumping element. We arrived fairly late so just went for food and then a brief walk. For food we went to a great vegetarian place called Nourish. Their portions are really big as they're designed for sharing, so we had the gourmet falafel and also some nachos between us. Their nachos are their signature dish and are fairly spectacular. You get the traditional beans and cheese and such like, but then there's also a load of fruit on there. I think there are about 27 toppings in total, if not slightly more. You'd imagine that strawberries with melted cheese on would be pretty gross, but it worked surprisingly well.

On our brief walk in the area near the hostel we managed to see Ground Squirrels and a Mule Deer. We'd not even heard of Ground Squirrels before, so had to ask the receptionist in the hostel what they were - they looked like a cross between regular squirrels and meerkats. We also weren't sure what the Mule Deer was at the time, so we were cautious to keep a safe distance. We also carried a stick around in case of bears or something else scary, but thankfully we were fine.

Here's a Ground Squirrel:
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The hostel we stayed in was the HI Alpine Centre, which was pretty decent, though the dorm room hadn't been cleaned that well (or recently at least). They also had a weird thing whereby you only got a free pancake breakfast if you booked through booking.com (I think - though this also seemed to include Hostelworld). Happily this meant that we did get it, but it seemed kinda unfair that other people didn't. I dunno, maybe we were charged a higher rate or something. Or they just wanted to keep us sweet so we'd give them a good review! Is that cynical?

We only had the 1 full day in Banff before starting on our 4 day bus tour with the Moose network. We went for a walk to Bow Falls and saw some more Mule Deer, plus had a better explore of the town. One really good thing about the hostel we stayed in is that you get use of a free bus pass.

The following day was the start of our group adventure in the Rockies. We thought we'd have plenty of time to get our free pancake breakfast first, but as there was just the one guy working in the restaurant (taking orders and doing all the cooking), it took quite a long time to actually get our pancakes, so we had to wolf down as much as possible in about 3 minutes. We then got to meet our tour guide and fellow passengers. You travel around in a minibus, so it's not like a whole coach load of people, which is good. Ryan was our guide and he was awesome - really laid back and friendly. Our fellow passengers were an English girl, an English guy (travelling separately), 3 Swiss girls (travelling together) and a couple from Singapore. Everyone was really nice and we got on really well as a group, which is rather useful when you're spending 4 days together. After introductions, our first mission was to buy food. We all agreed that it made sense to buy and cook meals as a group, so we were split up into breakfast, lunch and dinner teams and set loose in a supermarket. It felt a bit like being on some strange kind of game show. Or a really non-taxing episode of The Apprentice! I was on the dinner team and we managed to gather together the ingredients for a veggie stir-fry. After that we set off on our adventure.

My memory of the specific places we went is pretty bad, so apologies for any vagueness. We stopped in a few places and walked around, taking in the scenery. It was sadly quite rainy on our first 2 days of the bus tour, though it didn't impact us too negatively. The rain often seemed to hold off for a while when we were outside, so that was quite considerate. We generally couldn't see the mountain tops though. One place we did stop on that first day was Lake Louise. This was the one place in the Rockies that everyone had raved about and told us was amazing, so our expectations for it were pretty high. Maybe partly because of that and partly due to the bad weather, we were pretty underwhelmed. It's a nice enough lake, don't get me wrong, but it was far less spectacular than pretty much everywhere else we went during our 4 day trip. Infact it became a bit of a running joke: "yep, this is better than Lake Louise". I think another reason why it was underwhelming was because it was so touristy, with a big hotel right up next to it.

The moose bus tours are classed as adventure tours, so they're more about being travellers than tourists. We didn't spend a huge amount of time on the bus and we did a lot of hiking, which was great. We also got to see a lot of wildlife, quite often at the side of the road. You'd know there was something ahead as you'd see what's referred to as a 'bear jam'. This is when a load of tourists pull their cars over in order to get out and take photos of some animal (not necessarily a bear, though obviously they're desirable to see). We'd pull over as well, but we'd stay within the bus to take our photos, as that's the safe, sensible and respectful thing to do. Wild animals can easily get spooked and attack you, or you can easily spook them and cause them distress. As well as viewing the various animals, we also marvelled at the stupidity of some people getting right up close, quite often with their small children. Over the duration of the trip we got to see an array of animals, including deer, elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, a moose and some black bears.

On our first two nights we stayed in wilderness hostels, so called because you're out in the wilderness (strangely enough). This means no showers and no flush toilets. And you need to be on the lookout for bears! On our first night we stayed at Rampart Creek:

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We had a good dinner and then spent most of the evening talking about the possibility of running into a bear on the way to the toilet and how it felt a bit like we were in a horror film. Thankfully we all survived the night and no-one was hindered by wildlife on their way to wee.

On the second day we headed into the Columbia Icefield to check out the glaciers. We had a good long walk in that area, then headed on to a waterfall. We all climbed part way up it, then the more adventurous ones in the group (which was actually most of the group, though not me as I'm a total wuss) kept climbing up to the top. That was quite exhausting (even just watching!), plus it was raining, so after a brief trip to get some warm drinks, we treated ourselves to some time at the hot springs. That doubled as both a nice relaxing afternoon and also a good opportunity to shower.

That night we stayed at Athabasca Falls, our second wilderness hostel:

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We had a barbecue with some beef and some bison. I'd previously had bison in Cuba and found it pretty tough as it had possibly been overcooked, so it was good to get to try it again. It was cooked much more rare this time, which is how I like my meat, so it was definitely more enjoyable. I still found it much tougher than beef though. That night we also got to see the Northern Lights! That was really exciting as I've never seen them before. They weren't really strong in the sky, so not as spectacular as a lot of the photos you see, but they were still pretty impressive.

On our third day the sun finally appeared. Hoorah! We took full advantage of it and managed to fit in a lot. To start off we went to Athabasca Falls and walked all around there. Then we headed to a pier where you can stick your feet in the water and get one of those fish pedicures (but for free!). Sadly my feet were covered in plasters, due to blisters, so I didn't join in. We then headed to Maligne Canyon, where Ryan dropped us off at one end, then took Fenton (the bus) up to the other end to meet us there. Of course, being the only trek where we didn't have our guide with us, this ended up being the one trek where we encountered a bear. It wasn't far ahead of us, though it was just a small black bear, thankfully, not a grizzly (though it would have been cool to have seen a grizzly at some point on the trip). We all stopped, of course, not wanting to get too close. It ran off, though in the direction of the path we were heading towards, so we were slightly concerned we might round the corner and find it sitting there. As we were being cautious and keeping our distance, a couple came up the trail behind us. We told them there was a bear ahead, so that they could be equally cautious, but the lady just said "we're not interested in bears" and kept walking. Strange. The bear had totally scarpered anyway, so we continued on to the end of the trail where Ryan was waiting (and juggling). Of course it then started raining as we had our lunch (it rained during all our lunches at some point), but there was a handy tree to shelter under and stop our sandwiches getting soggy.

Before heading to the hostel in Jasper we had a final hike up to a lookout point. As well as the awesome view, we got to see some sheep and a chipmunk. The hostel we stayed in in Jasper was a bit disappointing really after the quiet secluded wilderness hostels. There were just the 2 massive dorms, one of which was female-only, though I stayed in the mixed gender one so I could be with Jamie. We were put in a fairly cramped and dark corner of the dorm, which didn't really help our slightly negative opinion of it. Not that it really mattered much as we didn't exactly spend much time there. We had a while for showering and such like but then we headed into town for food and drinks. The word 'town' might suggest it was sizeable, but it was smaller than Banff and Banff was pretty small. Not that size matters (*insert own joke here*). We had a good night out, drinking some drinks and playing some pool. We were mostly playing doubles and Jamie and I went undefeated. More down to Jamie than me, granted, but I'll still happily take some credit.

On our fourth and final day we headed back to Banff. The Swiss girls stayed in Jasper, so it was sad to lose them, but we gained a German guy instead! We went on a hike up through some waterfalls at Beauty Creek in the morning, then went and had lunch by the weeping mountain:

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In the afternoon we walked up through some snow to reach a lookout point for an amazingly blue lake, which was pretty spectacular. Ryan said he'd never seen it so blue. Annoyingly I can't remember what it was called, but look at how blue it was:

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Once we were back in Banff we checked into the Same Sun hostel, which was pretty decent. Our dorm room looked like it used to be a hotel suite or something, as it was split into different rooms and had a TV, fireplace and notices about a hot tub (though no actual hot tub, alas). Our meal was also included, so that acted as a good final group activity.

Jamie and I still had most of the following day in Banff as we were then catching a late overnight bus to Vancouver. The weather wasn't brilliant but we still went for a nice walk up to the caves. Sadly the caves weren't actually open (we managed to go there the one day they're closed), but we got to see a bit of the geothermal activity in the area. Plus we got to see an Elk. Then when we went and got dinner I decided to order an Elk burger! Yes, I admired the beauty of an animal and then got curious as to what it might taste like. Although, as it was in burger form, the taste wasn't as strong as it would likely have been in steak form or something like that. There was a subtle difference to beef, but if I'd not known it was Elk and had been told it was beef I wouldn't have doubted it. After dinner we headed to the Greyhound station to catch our overnight bus.

Posted by chantalpatton 15:55 Archived in Canada Comments (2)

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