Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Mandaura the Explorer (with esteemed comrade Hugo) – Part IV

on December 8, 2013

The Midwest to NY

Ahhh the Midwest… Home of bourbon, motor sports and rednecks. We felt our trip would be incomplete without a (small) taste of this part of America. So from Washington D.C we headed out toward Kentucky. Our first stop was a picturesque bourbon distillery called Four Roses in a little town called Lawrenceburg. I’m not so much a whiskey girl, but Hugo and Laura are big fans.

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The tour took us through the working distillery and the process of bourbon making. To be called bourbon, the whiskey has to be made in the United States with a minimum of 51% corn grain, distilled at no more than 160 proof and aged in a new white oak barrel charred on the inside. The barrel can only be used once, as this gives bourbon its distinctive flavour. Four Roses has been around since 1860 and they are interesting as they have 10 different types of bourbon produced form two ‘mash’ (the grain combination) recipes and 5 different strains of yeast- you can buy the single barrel varieties too, which all taste slightly different. I didn’t mind at least one of the varieties we tried after the tour, but Hugo and Laura both left with some bottles!

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We headed on to Bardstown, which advertised itself as ‘America’s most beautiful small town’ (not sure if they were given the title or if they just made it up…) Here we had a delicious lunch of Kentucky specialties at a little family restaurant- some fried chicken of course, and a ‘hot brown’- like an extreme welsh rarebit. It’s a piece of toast layered with sliced turkey breast, smothered in cheese sauce and topped with bacon strips then grilled!

The hot brown came served with a ‘congealed salad’ which I can only assume is another Kentucky specialty except it sounds disgusting. We asked the waitress what it was and she replied ‘It’s Jell-o with pineapple in it’, which sounded more like a dessert, but it showed up in a big slab with mayonnaise! It tasted ok (better sans mayo), but Kentucky, this is a problem… Just because it is served on a piece of lettuce, it does not even remotely constitute a salad, and as such, should not be adorned with this false title! Maybe you could consider changing the gross name too…

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After lunch we visited the history of whiskey museum which took us through prohibition, as well as having lots of fun paraphernalia to look at…

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After all the whiskey touring, we went to St Louis, Missouri. We drove by the famous Gateway Arch and checked out Forest Park, an urban green space bigger than Central Park, with it’s beautiful, with lakes and streams. Later, we headed to The Hill district, St Louis’s ‘Little Italy’ for dinner to try the local toasted ravioli. We ended up at Mama’s, one of the two restaurants in the district that claims they invented the dish. The little parcels are actually deep fried and naturally, were delicious. We then headed into town to visit the City Museum which was open til midnight.

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This place was definitely a highlight- it’s like a crazy playground maze made out of urban materials with a few little exhibits on antiques or preserved insects thrown in for good measure. It’s quite hard to describe what it was like, the place is designed by a sculptor and is just amazing. We started up on the roof where there is a ferris wheel, a couple of giant slides, and an old school bus hanging off the edge of the building.

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Inside a few of the exhibits were closed, but we made a shadow puppet with an interesting character called Stuart and then explored a bit of the ground level, including two suspended aeroplanes which were part of the creation. I would absolutely go back again, you could spend ages in there exploring! And they are still creating new spaces so it’ll probably be even better in a couple of years… I’ll see you again St Louis 🙂

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The next day we were off to Kansas City for… wait for it… NASCAR! We’d managed to get some cheap tickets and thought the experience would be well worth the hike. Luckily for us, there was a Walmart about a 20 minute walk from the speedway, so we were set! We had by this point gotten into the habit of counting how many ‘friends’ (other campers) we have in each parking lot. And Kansas was a record- there would’ve been at least 20 other vans/RVs. We’d looked into camping at the speedway and it was $150, so Walmart campers: Winning!

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So here’s another fun fact: you can BYO booze to NASCAR! You are only limited by the size of the bag you bring, but we picked up two cooler bags that hold 16 cans for $10 each and a case of 30 beers for $20 so we were set!! Booze is soooooo cheap in the states… The only thing you weren’t allowed to bring in with you were firearms… phew!

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NASCAR is pretty much as boring and repetitive to watch as you’d expect. Which is probably why you need all that beer. Sad to say, but this means it is actually more exciting when something goes wrong! Whenever anyone spins off the track or crashes the crowd is up on their feet yelling and cheering! NASCAR is actually the 2nd most watched sport in America (only to football) which is worrying… watching the cars go round n round n round on TV is not quite the same as being in the crowd at the speedway… They can be more entertaining than the cars at times!

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We watched the whole 200 laps (a short race!) then went across the road to Hooters to round out our experience… Hooters was also what you’d expect… greasy food, beers, a whole lot of dudes and teeny underage waitresses in minuscule shorts running around the place. It was good to check out once but not somewhere I’ll rush back to (though the wings were very good…)

The next day we started making our way up toward Chicago, driving part of Historic Route 66, which included a giant statue of Paul Bunyan holding a hotdog, and visiting a maple sirop farm at Funk Grove. We had lunch at Sonic, a drive-in restaurant (kind of the epitome of laziness) but we felt we had to try it. We just sat in the car, ordered through a speaker and then someone brought out our food and we ate it in the car!

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My first night in Chicago I stayed with Hugo at his friend Joe’s place- Laura had a conference to attend in the city. Joe has a gorgeous dog called Zeus who is part wolf and freaked a lot of people out when we walked him down to Humboldt Park! We had a pretty quiet night in but did get to try some deep dish pizza from Giordano’s which was AWESOME!

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The following day I met up with Chelsea who I’d met in Nicaragua. We had a great day wandering around the parks, visiting Buckingham Fountain (apparently featured in the opening credits of Married With Children), visited Cloud Gate- colloquially known as ‘the bean’- which is a giant mirrored sculpture in Millennium Park and then walked into the city where I saw a piece of the Sydney Opera House attached to the Tribune Building.

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We ate Italian beef sandwiches for lunch, went up the John Hancock Building for a drink with a view at Signature Bar on the 96th floor, and wound up at a Cupcake ATM! Best invention ever!! After saying goodbye to Chelsea, I finished the day with a run out on Lake Michigan which was beautiful.

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Chicago is a big city, but seems pretty laid back and is really clean and pretty- I really enjoyed it. On our way out of town we did the last foodie taste test- the Chicago dog, traditionally served with relish, peppers and a pickle spear, but NEVER tomato sauce (a challenge for me, but even more so for Laura who ‘likes ketchup on her ketchup’!). We went to a little store called Gene and Jude’s who did a roaring trade in simple, unattractive but delicious hot dogs, and we managed to eat them without cheating and adding tomato sauce!

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We next headed to Cincinnati, Ohio, for some Friday night college football! We used AirBnB again and stayed with a couple of college students a short walk from campus, so we were right in the thick of all the action. During the day we checked out Eden Park, overlooking the city from the top of Mt Adams, and then visited the Freedom Centre, a museum about slavery and particularly escape via the Underground Railroad. This was a network of people who risked their lives to help shelter and guide escaped slaves to freedom in the states of the north (of which Ohio was on the border). There were some really incredible stories in there.

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In the evening all the festivities had kicked off in the neighbourhood, with every 2nd house seeming to be ‘tailgating’ (pre-drinking/partying before the game). The street was covered in red and black, the colours of the University of Cincinnati’s team, the Bearcats, and when we left for the game there was a steady stream of people moving toward the stadium.

We arrived in time to see the team run onto the field accompanied by a 300 piece marching band, a show of fireworks and the rah-rah-rahs of 4 troupes of cheerleaders! Pretty epic. There were about 32000 people at the game and I don’t think anyone was cheering for the opposition, Temple… When Temple scored, the huge crowd was dead silent, but when the Bearcats scored, the sea of red erupted with shouts and applause, the cheerleaders stirred into action, music played and the army cadets even fired off a cannon and dropped for a round of push ups!

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The half time entertainment was the 300-piece marching band playing some Beethoven excepts while marching into different formations surrounded by some baton twirlers and girls waving big flags. There was even a bearcat called Lucy from the local zoo visiting- I had no idea a bearcat was even a real animal! I thought it was a made up name, but it is actually the informal name for the binturong, an animal native to Southeast Asia. Who knew!

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After the game, Hugo’s dream of attending a college party was realised when our hosts took us to one around the corner. There was a guy on the door playing bouncer and enjoying his power trip, but he let us in and we inched our way upstairs into the packed house. I felt so old, everyone looked about 17! There was a keg in the kitchen and people were selling beers for $5 (!). Beer-pong was also going but to stop mess they were using cups with water in and just sipping their beers which Laura was appalled at. Naturally she stepped up to show the kids how it should be done. Hugo on the other hand fell asleep on the couch after all his excitement much to our amusement!

After hitting Columbus and Pittsburgh, we then headed on to Philadelphia, via Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital. It was here we ate our first ever cheesesteak (it didn’t disappoint!) and afterward visited Pottsville, where we toured America’s oldest brewery, Yeungling- since 1829. The brewery tour was awesome, but packed as it was a public holiday and a free tour so everyone was doing it!

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We saw the old hand-dug caves which were used for temperature control back in the days before refrigeration (took them 10 years to dig!), the kegging room, the currently used kettles and brewing equipment and also the bottling shed. We finished off with two decent samples- the beer is great, but not very widely distributed- mostly just the north-eastern states of the US.

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We arrived in Philly in the evening, celebrated Canadian thanksgiving with a nice meal on South St and parked up at the lovely riverfront view Walmart for the night. It was actually quite close to town for once, but bit of a scary clientele with domestics in the car park and shoplifting scandals in store!

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My next morning was spent at the University of Pennsylvania’s dental school as I’d had a horrible toothache over the past week and decided it was time to stop putting off getting it checked out. Unfortunately the verdict was I needed a root canal, but I managed to get away with a temporary procedure that should tide me over until I’m back in Aus and covered by health insurance! 3 hours later I met up with Laura and Hugo and we explored a bit in town.

We ate Philly cheesesteaks (again!) at Pat’s King of Steaks, allegedly the home of the ‘original’ cheesesteak and open since 1930. Sylvester Stallone also apparently ate here in the filming of Rocky (one of them), and there is a little memorial stone in the pavement to commemorate the occasion. We walked into the centre through the Italian Market, a stretch of Mediterranean and Mexican stores and restaurants, as well as Washington Square, one of the original parks William Penn laid out in Philly and arrived at the Independence Park where sadly we really noticed the effects of the US government shutdown which was still dragging on.

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We peeked at the famous Liberty Bell through a pane of glass, but many of the historical buildings such as the US Mint; Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed; Congress Hall, the seat of government when Philadelphia was the capital and the National Portrait Gallery were all closed.

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We then visited the Reading Terminal Market, full of amazing food, and walked by City Hall, which is topped with a statue of William Penn and is supposed to be the tallest masonry building without steel infrastructure in the world.

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Hugo and I then walked up to the Art Museum to join all the other Rocky fans running up the stairs and posing at the top just like Sly Stallone did!

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Hugo took a bus to New York the next morning to catch a friend, so Laura and I went on a little adventure to Jersey before meeting him there. We stopped in the faded casino resort of Atlantic City and ate some fish and chips on the boardwalk, then headed up to Seaside Heights, home of the trashy reality TV show, Jersey Shore. Both towns were pretty dreary and abandoned looking, probably a mix of the off season, grey weather and the still tangible after-effects of Hurricane Sandy. We didn’t hang around long and rolled up to the interestingly named Cheesequake State Park that afternoon.

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Cheesequake was a bit strange as it bordered with suburban streets and had a freeway running over the top of part of it, but still felt like you were out of the city! We went for a run to the lake as the sun was setting over the autumn coloured trees, then cooked a curry for dinner and made smores over the camp stove while two racoons watched us. It was a really nice last night of actual camping (as opposed to the Walmart variety!).

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From there it was off to New York, New York! We kick started our visit with lunch at the renowned Carnegie’s Deli which was packed. We shared a ridiculously expensive but extremely enormous corned beef sandwich which was plenty to feed us both as it came with 5 pickles too! Our afternoon was spent at the Natural History Museum (of ‘Night at the Museum’ fame).

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After a couple of hours in the incredible museum looking at the fantastic displays of dinosaur bones and taxidermy animals amongst other things, we went to Magee’s Pub for a beer, which the set of How I Met Your Mother is based on.

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We stayed with Laura’s friend Dave that night in a cool area of town called Hell’s Kitchen- his 28th floor apartment had a wicked view over the city.

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We dragged ourselves up next morning after a few too many beers to hit more Manhattan sights. We started the day with NY bagels and headed to MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art) which was a bit strange at times, but had some really impressive work. Strange was mostly the performance art, one of which was this lady walking slowly backwards through the museum (I don’t get it) and some of the really abstract stuff, like this painting called ‘Boy and a knapsack’…

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But there were some amazing pieces by Monet, Matisse, Picasso, Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol amongst many others. We left for lunch at a hidden place called The Burger Joint, located in the lobby of the fancy Le Parker Meridien behind a red curtain. There is just a long line of people and a little neon burger sign telling you it exists. The burgers were good but not spectacular considering the wait, but I guess you mostly wait for the novelty of it.

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From there we walked 5th Avenue, visited Grand Central Station (which made you feel a bit like you were in a movie) and then walked the High Line, a mile long piece of old railway that has been converted into a park running above the city. Super cool concept. During the day we noticed that Pie Face has made it to NY- I wonder how long til they’ll be on every block like in Melbourne?! Last activity for the long day was taking the ferry across to Staten Island for a free view of the Statue of Liberty by night. It actually goes pretty close to the statue and the ferry is free, so I’d totally recommend it for budget travellers in NYC!

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As an aside, the ferry website is pretty hilarious, with many ferry ‘facts’, many of which actually just recount disasters from the ferry’s history! For example:

  • ‘On July 30, 1871 at about 1:30 pm the ferry boat Westfield II experienced a catastrophic boiler explosion while in the slip at Whitehall. Several days after the disaster it was revealed that at least 85 people had lost their lives. Several more were added to the death toll weeks later.’
  • ‘On February 8, 1958 The Dongan Hills was hit by the Norwegian tanker Tynefield. 15 passengers were injured.’
  • ‘In 1960, a bomb was set off on the Knickerbocker.’
  • ‘July 7th, 1986 a mentally disturbed person (Juan Gonzalez) with a machete attacked passengers on a ferry. Two people were killed and nine others were wounded.’

…etc, etc… So if that doesn’t put you off- go for it!

After a night out in West Village, we headed out to Brooklyn to meet my friends Ange and CJ for brunch at a trendy little place called Reynard’s. Ange and I went to uni together and haven’t seen each other for 2 years since she and CJ have been living and working in the UK, but as fate would have it, we were all in NY on the same weekend! It was really nice to catch up, and as the Brooklyn Brewery was across the street we continued our catch up there til Laura and I had to head off for the first of our wedding activities.

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Laura’s friend Ariela was getting married and I was lucky enough to score an invite too, but the activities for this big Jewish wedding were a multi-day affair! I was pretty excited to be going as I’ve never been to a Jewish wedding before. Saturday afternoon was a meet-n-greet at a friend of Ariela’s place, an amazing house in Great Neck (near Queens) with had a 4-tier backyard which went right down to the waterfront on the bay.

Later was a special ‘VIP mystery activity’ which we had to get on a bus for and drove for about an hour to arrive at an indoor multisport centre! Ariela and Harris had wanted all their friends to meet and have some fun so everyone was familiar with each other at the wedding, so we were all split into teams and had to do a range of novelty races and activities against each other, winding up with a 50 strong adult game of musical chairs. A really awesome idea which was lots of fun!

Sunday morning Laura and I spent in Flushing, a huge Chinese neighbourhood near Queens. We enjoyed a walk through the park, saw the ‘Unisphere’ sculpture and the tennis centre where the US open is played, and ended with some quality dumplings, noodles, pork buns and bubble tea, reminding us of our Asian adventures in Victoria St, Melbourne back in days of old!

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In the afternoon, it was wedding time! We prettied ourselves up and walked down to the Queens County Farm Museum which was like a little slice of countryside right in the heart of Queens. It is actually the oldest continuously farmed piece of land in NY State (since 1697!). At the beginning of the wedding Ariela and Harris had their own separate receptions- the guys drank whiskey and sang songs and the girls drank cocktails and went to greet Ariela and the mothers of the bride and groom. We went on a hayride around the farm before Harris was danced in to Ariela’s reception, held overhead on a chair of course, with all of the guys singing raucously and even a couple of brass instruments playing along!

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Afterwards  was the ceremony, which was beautiful. It was conducted under what is called the chuppah, a piece of fabric strung up on 4 poles which represents the home that the newlyweds will share. Ariela and Harris had got all their friends and family to make a little square which were patchworked together in the centre of the chuppah- gorgeous! After the breaking of the glass, it was time for the reception.

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The main part is called the Horah and involves a lot of singing, dancing in circles and entertaining the bride and groom who are every now and then lifted up on their chairs above the crowd. Ariela and Harris had a particularly long horah, and it was so cool to see everyone get involved! After there was the meal, more dancing, some amazing speeches and of course more dancing. It was such a fun wedding, I felt very lucky to have been invited along to join in the festivities!

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The last wedding activity was a breakfast the next morning where Hugo joined us, and then we hit the road once more. We stopped in the interestingly named town of Mystic, Connecticut for a seafood lunch, before rolling in to Boston in the afternoon. We checked out Bunker Hill where a massive obelisk has been erected to commemorate the first battle of the revolutionary war. The patriots actually lost, but apparently ‘severely damaged’ British forces, ‘killing or injuring half of their troops’… but the numbers indicated only about a 10th of the British forces had been killed, and who knows what counted as injured in these stats!

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A short walk away was the USS Constitution, nicknamed ‘Old Ironsides’, the oldest warship in the world still afloat. There was a little museum there which had an upper level appearing to be mostly aimed at kids, but entertained and informed us just as well on what life was like on the sea back in the 1800s!

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Our evening was spent walking a little of the Freedom Trail (though we were too late to go in to any other museums) and hunting down the best Boston Crème Pie in Boston. We ended up at Mike’s Pastry Shop, and walked out with a delicious slice of crème pie… as well as a choc-chip cannoli and a piece of NY style cheesecake!

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Our final night in the US was fittingly spent at- you guessed it! Walmart. We pulled up in Salem, New Hampshire, which meant crossing into our 5th state for the day! The following day’s trip to the Canadian border was made a little more exciting by pulling up for gas in a town called Franconia, which had one gas station, unfortunately adorned with a hand-written sign saying ‘No gas’! So for the 3rd time this trip, we refilled from our 5 gallon reserve in the back. After we’d filled up in the next town, we said goodbye to cheap gas and booze, and it was off to Canada, the final leg our our epic roadie!

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