USA round up ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ ๐Ÿฆ…

We’ve just spent 48 days travelling more than 20,000 km across 15 states and 5 different timezones in the USA. Summarising our journey across this huge country in a single post isn’t going to be easy, but here goes…

We started off by flying from Auckland to the Hawaiian island of O’ahu, where we swam with sea turtles and climbed Diamond Head. We then took a second flight to Portland, Oregon, where we dived headfirst into the street food and craft beer scene.

We then began our coast-to-coast adventure by hiking Mount Walker on the Olympic Peninsula and touring Seattle’s Museum of Flight with two renowned aviation experts (Helen and Mick ๐Ÿ˜‰). Our first overnight Amtrak took us to Glacier National Park where we Drove to the Sun, and our second sleeper train brought us to Minneapolis where we explored Mill Ruins Park. We completed our journey on the Empire Builder railroad by celebrating Summerfest in Milwaukee and road tripping around Lake Michigan. This took us through the Indiana Dunes National Park just in time to catch the 4th of July fireworks in Chicago. Next, we popped our heads into the rust-belt cities of Cleveland and Pittsburgh along with an unexpectedly homely stop in Amish Country. Our two final stops included a search for the perfect Philadelphia cheesesteak and as many bites at the Big Apple as we could stomach in 4 days. Looking back on the route reminds me just how big the USA is and what an epic adventure this was!

Carbon ๐Ÿš†

Our travel to and across the USA produced nearly 4 tonnes of carbon dioxide – our highest total of any country to date. Having said this, we did travel much further in the USA than any other country.

Our flights across the Pacific Ocean were responsible for the bulk of our carbon emissions. I find I often underestimate quite how large this body of water is especially given its underrepresentation on the Mercator map projection – the Pacific Ocean actually covers over 30% of the globe’s surface! Obviously we would have preferred to avoid flying such a large distance, but there’s simply no lower carbon alternative to economy class flights for this route.

Despite making almost all of our long-distance connections via train and bus, we also covered a fair distance in the USA by car. The USA is a famously car-centric country, and visiting national parks without one is nigh on impossible. In most cases we were travelling with four people per vehicle, which at least means that the carbon emissions were shared between four people rather than two.

We’ve taken responsibility for the carbon emitted by our USA adventure by offsetting 4 tonnes of CO2 through Gold Standard’s Climate+ portfolio. In this instance, our offsets helped fund the construction of a hydro-electric power station in Turkey, which will provide carbon-neutral power along with land irrigation benefits to the people of the Bugra village in the Ankara province of Turkey.

Cost ๐Ÿ’ฐ

We also spent more money per day in the USA than any other country. Our high transport costs were partly due to our flights across the Pacific, although they would have been even higher had Helen & Mick not generously covered the costs of the hire cars we shared while they were travelling with us.

We also noticed that we spent about as much on accommodation per day in the USA as we did in total each day in some other countries (such as Georgia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia and Thailand). While this isn’t a total surprise, it really does illustrate the difference in how far your money goes in different parts of the world. While everything seems to have become more expensive since the pandemic, this was more apparent to us in the USA than other countries we visited.

Cats ๐Ÿˆ

Cats were pretty thin on the ground (not literally!) in the USA. We suspect that, much like in New Zealand, most cats are kept inside, although presumably more for the cats’ safety (because of predators like coyotes) than for the benefit of the local bird population. This meant that Sara spent a lot of time peering into windows – an art that she’s perfected over the past few months!

๐Ÿ…Most pampered stray felines

The “stray” cats in Port Angeles were both beautiful animals and responsible for a sizeable chunk of the USA’s cat count. I could hardly believe it when the old chap who was feeding them told us that each of the cats were registered at the local vet!

This is basically how Sara looks when I turn on the light to make coffee in the morning

๐Ÿ…Snappiest dresser

We met Chip while he was visiting the far northwestern point of the United States, and he had dressed up for the occasion. I don’t think he was at all prepared for how much attention he might get!

๐Ÿ…Least intimidating biker gang

The USA is definitely a country of dog-lovers, and this duo really made us chuckle. They were both clearly enjoying the attention, as they revved their engine outside one of Milwaukee’s busiest bars.

๐Ÿ…Chubbiest squirrel

Okay, this is obviously not a squirrel, but I did think that the groundhogs looked a little like squirrels whose tales had been deflated and bodies had been inflated. We first spotted them in Michigan, but then continued to see them all over the place on our route through Ohio and Pennsylvania. Sara absolutely loved them, and could often be found at the window of our apartments chanting “HOGS, HOGS, HOGS!

Culture ๐Ÿ‘จโ€๐Ÿ‘ฉโ€๐Ÿ‘ง

Normally, weโ€™re overflowing with ideas of what to discuss in this section of our round up, but weโ€™d both visited the United States many times before this trip and this made it incredibly difficult to look at it with fresh eyes!

Eagerness to display affiliation ๐Ÿชง

We probably spent more time in suburban areas on this trip than we would do normally, since we mostly rented apartments for the four of us rather than staying in hotels. One thing that did really stick out was the proportion of houses that had some kind of sign outside, like “Proud Army Mom,” or as below, “Don’t blame me, I voted for Trump.” I don’t think we tend to have the same willingness to publicise our affiliations in the UK so we found this pretty interesting.

Walking as transport ๐Ÿšถ

The lifestyle in the United States was quite at odds with how we wanted to travel, and this sometimes caused us one or two problems. We’re happiest on our own two legs, which meant we spent a lot of our time Brysoning around the country, like when we discovered that Cleveland Station had neither any public transport links nor pedestrian access (but that didn’t stop us!). At best, this meant we got strange and sometimes fearful looks when walking with our backpacks (“Oh, we’re hiking to work today, are we?” one man laughed, while we were literally outside a station that was served by long-distance trains) and at worst, we had multiple cars shout and throw things at us when heading to dinner on foot in a small Wisconsin town. I won’t pretend to understand the cultural context fully, but I think this is because, outside of cities like New York, the only people who walk as transport are those who have no other choice, and they are often already marginalised. We started to realise that in every residential area, people were only pounding the pavements if they were specifically exercising or out walking their dogs. In general, we found this pretty annoying, but it sometimes gave us a good laugh, like when we overheard two (young, fit-looking) women exclaiming, “Can you believe we just did that?” after having completed the relatively tame Diamond Head hike in Hawaii. This became our catchphrase for the rest of the trip.

Breweries and craft beer ๐Ÿป

We were generally blown away by the quality and variety of beer at most bars, restaurants and brewery tap rooms. It seemed normal for restaurants to offer five or so craft beers in addition to the better-known American lager brands, while every brewery seemed to produce an overwhelming array of stouts, porters, IPAs, lagers and wheat beers. On top of this, breweries generally had excellent restaurants whose food was taken at least as seriously as the beers themselves. Our favourite was Copper Plate Brewery in Green Bay, who had converted a portion of their car park into an alfresco dining area / beer garden. Their peanut butter nitro-porter even managed to lure Mick’s heart away from English ales!

With one leg of our trip coming to an end, another is just beginning, as we take one of the shortest trans-Atlantic flights possible from New York to Lisbon.

Eating the Big Apple

We arrived in New York (by bus from Philadelphia) feeling pretty accomplished, having completed our traversal of the United States. We’d both visited the city previously, so were happy to skip most of the main tourist sights in favour of eating as much good food as possible while spending as little money as possible (our budget is in TATTERS)!

We began our visit with an attempt to witness Manhattanhenge, a twice-annual phenomena where the sun sets in line with the east-west direction of Manhattan’s urban canyons. Unfortunately, it was cloudy around the horizon so we didn’t see it in all its glory, but we did still thoroughly enjoy getting involved in the rabble who had gathered to photograph it.

The Pastrami on Rye

I knew that there was a legendary deli in NYC that was known for its pastrami sandwiches, but the fact that it took all of about 3 seconds of Googling to remind myself of the name did get me a little worried – was this just hype? Many of the reviews I read suggested otherwise, so we made our way to Katz’s Deli to join in the lunchtime chaos.

Our pastrami was hand cut in front of us, and the chap added mustard to just one half of the rye bread (me being a lover and Oli a hater of the yellow stuff). Then we settled down and dug in – one sandwich between the two of us due to its very generous size! We were also given a whole plate of pickles, which I happily took care of. They were pretty chunky, so I’m not sure if I was supposed to poke them into the sandwich but I went for chomping them like a rabbit with a raw carrot. To be honest, these were the weak link – more salty than vinegary, but it was still good to eat something green with my lunch.

We loved the hectic atmosphere in the deli, but the meat was the real star – smoky, salty and melt-in-the-mouth. It was also the thickest-cut pastrami we’d ever seen and reminded us more of smoked brisket, which got us wondering – what was the difference between the two? (Short answer: it’s complicated!)

To help us digest our feast, we took a walk through Chinatown and the Financial District, and then hopped on the (free!) Staten Island ferry. This gave us a great view of the Statue of Liberty and back towards Manhattan without spending a cent, so it was the perfect activity for us.

The Xi’an Feast

That evening, we headed back to Chinatown to pay a visit to Xi’an Famous Foods, a small chain that serves food from western China and had appeared on a couple of best-in-NY lists. We ordered the spicy cumin lamb hand-ripped noodles (left) and the spicy and sour pork and cabbage dumplings (right).

Yes, the presentation on paper plates left a little to be desired but that just reflected how low-key and casual this place was – just as we like it. And it was evident how much they cared about the quality of food they served, because there were long-winded posters on display imploring customers to reconsider ordering food to take away.

There were even informational videos playing on a loop encouraging customers to try the noodles as they were meant to be served, rather than requesting a drop in spice level. We love a bit of spice so ordered ‘medium’ as recommended, and they were no joke – we were both crying with joy by the end! Oli loved the wide noodles, which had a satisfying bite and paired so well with the warm, cumin-spiced lamb and fiery chilli crisp. Meanwhile, I couldn’t get enough of the dumplings, which were less spicy but sat in a seriously tangy sauce.

It was the cheapest meal we ate in the city by some margin, but it was also our top pick for the food itself. My mouth is watering thinking of those dumplings ๐Ÿคค.

The Coal-fired Pizza

To warm up (quite literally – it was baking hot) for our next feast, we headed on a Tourguide Oli-led walk around Greenwich village, which took us through the leafy streets past Monica’s apartment building from Friends (well, the exterior anyway, the interior was a set in Los Angeles) and the Stonewall National Monument commemorating the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, which marked the beginning of the LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States.

Once we’d worked up an appetite, we headed to John’s of Bleecker Street, which we’d read was a good example of a NY speciality: the coal-fired pizza.

We really liked the decor of this restaurant, which felt very NY, with photographs of famous customers plastering most available surfaces and scratched graffiti covering every remaining square inch. But in the end, the pizza just tasted much like a pizza, really, regardless of the cooking fuel! It also has to be one of the least nearly neutral meals we’ve eaten on the whole trip ๐Ÿ˜ฌ. Perhaps it’s for the best that new regulation will require these iconic New York establishments to install emissions control devices wherever possible, even if it has caused a bit of a stir amongst traditionalists (and proprietors)…

To help digest this meal, we took a walk on The High Line, a raised urban park set along the old freight railway line that ran through the Meatpacking District, Chelsea and Hudson Yards. It’s an ingenious design, with lovely planting and places to stroll, lounge and buy ice cream (don’t worry – even we couldn’t find space for this). It also has mini-amphitheatres that allow you to sit and admire the street scenes below. We loved this, and it renewed our hopes that the proposal to build a London version on the disused freight line that runs just past our place in Camden might someday come to fruition.

The Neighbourhood Favourite

When our friend Erin saw that we were staying pretty near her old apartment in Brooklyn, she told us that we had to visit Colina Cuervo for an Ecuadorian breakfast. “I still think about their breakfast all the time,” she told us. This sounded important, so we made our way there on Sunday morning even though it was raining so hard that there were rivers flowing down the roads. On the way, we received a flash flood emergency alert and had to shelter under the awning of a funeral home until the worst passed! But we made it there eventually and it was well worth the swim.

We shared an Ecuadorian fried rice (left) and a pork hash (right). Both contained generous helpings of crispy roasted and shredded pork, but the pork hash was especially intriguing, being centred around hominy rather than the usual potato. I’ve seen this on menus before but never really stopped to think what it was – cue a lengthy Googling session where we attempted to understand the differences between what we mean by corn and maize in the UK versus the US (yes, this is really what suffices as our mealtime conversations these days). I’m still not certain we can visualise from which crop this kernel came, but it was tasty either way!

Our post-brunch activity was a trip to Coney Island, an old-school beach resort with a boardwalk and several amusement parks. It probably wasn’t the best idea to make the trip on a rainy Sunday afternoon, but it sounded like the kind of offbeat attraction we might just enjoy, and it’s also known as the birthplace of the hot dog so we just had to make the pilgrimage. In the end, we simply couldn’t find space even to share a hot dog, but we reassured ourselves that we could guess how it would taste!

The Blast from the Past

Our final meal in New York was a long time in the making – in fact, I’ve had it planned ever since we were in Japan. We developed a bit of a taste for the ramen chain Ichiran, which serves up delicious Hakata-style ramen and allows you to specify exactly how you’d like your meal to be prepared using a paper form and then sit in a booth with minimal distractions to enjoy it. Upon leaving Japan, I was devastated at the thought that the constant flow of ramen was coming to an end. Most of the places we’d eaten were individually owned, but I discovered that Ichiran had three branches in New York, so it was inevitable that we’d find our way to one of them while we were in town.

If I’m being exceptionally picky, the broth was slightly oiler and not as spicy as it should have been based on my order form selections, but it still made me incredibly happy and I managed to burn my mouth in my enthusiasm, so I can’t complain too much.

Our final post-meal activity was a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, which is an iconic attraction but something we’d both missed on previous trips. Crucially, it is also free! There were no less than five 3D photography vendors on the bridge playing Empire State of Mind by Jay-Z feat. Alisha Keys – as if we needed any help to get that stuck in our heads (the sixth vendor, mercifully, hadn’t got the memo and was playing something different). Thankfully, the views more than made up for the slightly irritating music.

This excellent few days of eating concluded our time in the United States, so we took a long and convoluted journey on public transport to JFK and hopped on a transatlantic flight to Lisbon, Portugal.

Rocky runs and Philly cheesesteaks

With less than 48 hours in Philadelphia and an ambitious itinerary featuring Rocky filming locations, bells, Philly cheesesteaks and street art, we had no choice but to hit the ground running…

๐Ÿ›ค The Pennsylvanian Railroad

Our route from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia started with a sunrise walk across the David McCullough Bridge on our way to Pittsburgh Union Station. I had to do extensive Google street-viewing the night before to check that the whole route had pavements (not a guarantee here!), but in the end, this wasn’t the problem – finding the station entrance was! I’d routed us towards the grand station entrance, but only after rattling each of the locked front doors did we realise that this was no longer part of the station. It turns out that the original station building was converted into residential and commercial space in 1988, and the current station is now housed in an ugly annex which I mistook for a car park! Anyway, we used all our contingency time doing laps of the building but made it onto the train just in time ๐Ÿ˜…

Our final Amtrak journey took 7.5 hours to cover the 476 km to Philadelphia. As always, it was a pleasure watching the landscape slowly change outside the windows – from the forested hills, gorges and steel bridges of southwestern Pennsylvania to the open landscape and neat farms of eastern Pennsylvania.

We arrived at Philadelphia’s grand and catchily named William H. Gray III 30th Street Station. After Cleveland and Pittsburgh’s rather under-utilised stations, it was encouraging to be back in a bustling transport hub once again.

๐Ÿƒ Gonna fly now (running like Rocky Balboa)

The Rocky franchise is famously set in Philadelphia, and as a big fan, I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to recreate his epic training run through the city. I set out just after sunrise with my headphones on and my phone loaded with the Rocky soundtrack. My first stop was the Italian Market along 9th Street, which has barely changed since the original Rocky movie was filmed in the 1970s. With a few hours until the market opened for business, I had the road to myself for the moment.

My route continued through leafy residential streets towards the increasingly commercial city downtown and along the grand Benjamin Franklin Parkway to the iconic Philadelphia Library stairs. By this point the temperature was already hitting 30 degrees, even though it was still only 07:20 in the morning. Time for a shower and some coffee!

๐Ÿ”” Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell

Philadelphia is often referred to as the “birthplace of America”, since it’s where the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution were debated and adopted back in 1776. We visited this very site, which is now known as Independence Hall, but at the time was the Pennsylvania State House.

We also had the chance to check out the Liberty Bell, a 940 kg symbol of independence. We enjoyed learning (from our friend George) that this symbol of American patriotism was actually cast in London, although to our amusement we didn’t see this mentioned anywhere in the exhibit surrounding the bell. Then again, given it cracked shortly after arriving in Philadelphia, maybe it’s not something to shout about…

๐Ÿฅ– Searching for the perfect Philly cheesesteak

Philly cheesesteaks (or just cheesesteaks, as they’re known in Philadelphia) are an absolute city staple. They consist of thinly sliced rib-eye steak packed into a bread roll along with (optional) sautรฉed onions and (crucial) melted cheese. Traditionally Cheez Whiz is used, which is an orange-yellow spreadable cheese, but trust us – it’s way better than it sounds! The cheesesteaks were pretty filling too, and we found that one each more than satisfied us for dinner. We sampled as many as our time in the city and appetites would allow, and our favourites came from Sonny’s Famous Steaks. They managed to pack a ton of flavour into the roll as well as keeping the steak moist enough not to need any further sauce, but not to the extent that it turned into a dripping mess. Now, I don’t think the end result is supposed to look pretty, but we really did our best in photo below!

๐Ÿง‘โ€๐ŸŽจ Walking the Mural Mile

The street art programme in Philadelphia began in 1984 as an attempt to beautify the city and reduce the amount of graffiti. Since then, the programme has been hugely successful, with Philadelphia becoming undoubtedly the street art capital of the US, and with the medium bridging many divides within the city’s communities. The programme is still active today, and we saw evidence of several new murals in progress. The art works cover themes such as Philadelphia’s history, civil rights, diversity and inclusion. We thoroughly enjoyed walking the Mural Mile, and tried to take as many photos as possible along the way.

For some reason, we both had the preconception that Philadelphia was a bit rough, so it wasn’t really on our radar until we happened across our guidebook’s description of it as a city with “rich history and small town charm”. And sure enough, we loved Philadelphia almost immediately. The narrow streets and mixture of high-rise and residential neighbourhoods gave the city an almost European feel. Downtown Philadelphia was walkable too, with most neighbourhoods interspersed with leafy parks to escape the summer heat. Sitting in some of these parks, I could have easily mistaken the scene for a London park, had it not been for the Italian-American accents surrounding us.

From Philadelphia, we hopped on a bus to our final stop in the US; New York City.