So, I realized recently how silly it is to start a travel blog without giving context to where you originally come from. If you can’t rep your own place, then can you really rep other peoples’ places? I think not. So without further ado, here is my home.
I grew up in a little town called Ocean Beach on a little island called Fire Island, which is off the coast of Long Island, off the coast of mainland New York State. It sounds really remote, but it is not so bad. You can get a train to a ferry from Manhattan, so the people that know about my hometown do come in droves. We are what you may consider a resort town, but like every other resort, some stay behind when everyone else leaves.
Growing up, Ocean Beach only had about 100 full-time residents. Our elementary school had about 60 kids in its entirety (it serviced the entire island except for kids going to private school), and my class of 12 was the largest in their history. We are only allowed to drive on and off of the island in the winter, and that is only after an extensive wait list to vet you as a full-time resident. Our winters were rough but incredibly beautiful, summer filled with stunning sunsets and a bit too many people, but lots of fun.
Our little town is considered a “party town” since we have a lot of bar/restaurants in a small block radius, but it is incredibly family-friendly also. There is a camp, basketball courts, three ice cream shops (in a nine block radius- that’s a lot!) and a huge expanse of free beach. And it felt like one of the safest places to call home in this wide world. Even after seeing more of the world, I still feel that way. Even when we do have cars in the winter, the speed limit is 8 MPH, so kids run free in the streets. You know your neighbor always, and every police officer by name. We have clam shucking contests, street art fairs, bicycle permits, and again, the most beautiful sunset on the Northeast coast (if I do say so myself.)
Other communities on “the island” are even more well-known, including, The Pines and Cherry Grove, considered “gay mecca” by many. Here is where disco started, where drag queens come and sing and dance and everyone is welcome. Oscar Wilde even came in the 1800s! Our lighthouse is the fifth tallest in the United States and one of the prettiest (in my humble opinion, of course.)
So come visit my little Isle of Fire. You won’t regret it.
Sorry about the extended… ridiculously extended… hiatus. I got into a bit of a blues, and writing about traveling just made me itch to travel, but now I am landlocked for a bit. However, I did indulge in a short weekend trip to Philadelphia, my favorite city in the USA and perhaps ever. We went for a concert, but stayed for other activities as well. For this trip, we began…
…at Eastern State Penitentiary: The world’s first penitentiary of its kind. This jail, built more like a medieval castle, was the first to house inmates in solitary confinement and the first to allow them exercise yards. Here was also the first place to hold Al Capone, whose luxurious cell is still on display at the jail. The prison closed for good in 1971, but re-opened as a park in 2001 the newly formed non-profit corporation, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. Now you can walk almost all of the grounds, narrated through audio tour in part by actor Steve Buscemi, learning about the history of jails and its famous inmates. Bonus: Student discounts! This is a must-see for me every time I am in the city, and Mike loved it also.
Lunch was at my favorite London Grill / Paris Wine Bar, a fun fusion place with patio seating and drinks that knock your socks off. The food is always top-notch, and it is a perfectly short walk from Eastern State.
After that, we strolled down the promenade of Museum Row, with some of the best views of the city around. On your way is the Philadelphia Art Museum and the science-minded Franklin Institute, both fan favorites also. We didn’t get to hit those up on this trip, but next time… always next time. However, we did get to hang out on the famous Rocky Steps and line up for pictures next to the statue- Mike ran up, I most certainly did not.
As we walked back down the promenade from the museum, I got to see all of the change the city has been through since leaving in 2011. Most especially, there is this enchanting children’s area where traffic does not go that I wish as a 25-year-old I could come play in.
Mike was more amazed that, despite it being illegal, no one hassled the children playing in fountains. Honestly, at 95 degrees, I think it is a courtesy. Note to all traveling parents: That is a thing in Philadelphia. You CAN bring your bathing-suited child to the fountains at Museum Row for a dip.
Another way to beat the heat (slightly more legally) is the actual run-through fountains in front of City Hall. Pretty building, cool water, life is good. And it is wide open, so if you have your kid, you can’t miss them.
I swear, I could sit in front of the fountains for hours in the cool air. However, we were off again to the concert at the Mann Center, an all-out cool venue that has lawn seating and another killer view of the city (as if Philly isn’t photogenic enough). Their beer selection is a little lame (think Brooklyn and Goose Island) but the vibe is great. There is always freebies (I won a CD!) and the tickets on the lawn are only $35.00. Can’t beat that.
The trip home was a little rough- Philadelphia’s public transit is spotty at beat, with only two subway lines and the rest of the city serviced by a combination of buses, trolleys, and trains. Our bus was a whopping twenty minutes late (kind of a theme in the city), but cheaper than the Uber up-charge. A word of caution: All subways shut down at midnight.Yes, midnight. Watch your times. Also, there seems to be a constant state of flux and construction in the city, so make sure you check your schedule to see if there is a re-route on your route. Mike and I waited almost an hour for a bus that was re-routed.
Our room that night was perfect. Literally perfect. I could write an entire post about La Reserve B & B and how perfect it was. The rooms are all charmingly Victorian, and the house is restored to its original grandeur. Breakfast in the morning is cooked to order with specials all the time. The downstairs lounge has books and a piano, as well as hot tea and coffee at all hours. Located on Pine between 18th and 19th, you honestly can’t get a quieter stay in Philadelphia. Also, super affordable, considering!
The next day was hard to get out of bed and get breakfast, but so worth it. As we trekked our way out, Mike is looking up bus schedules and I am marching my way straight o my favorite spot in the city: Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, the most quirky and beautiful place ever. It is here that, in the 70’s, a young artist named Isaac Zagar decided that South Street was worth saving from the super highway planned to replace it. Him and a group of artists set up shop, making South Street the funky and accepting place that it is today. In 1994, Zagar started building a labyrinth of mosaics from all sorts of materials that he picked up from around the world – dolls, plates, pottery, bottles, and even bicycle tires. His little haven of found objects became a non-profit art organization in 2004, and now you can explore it all. Come check out this amazing attraction and maybe even meet the artist at 1020 South Street, between 10th and 11th.
While you are here, you check out my personal favorite place for Philly Cheesesteaks, Jim’s on South Street. No one puts cheese whiz, bread, and meat together quite like those guys. Sadly, the line was too long for our starving stomachs, so we ended up at The Boyler Room, a fun dive with good beer and better cheesesteaks. Bones: Mets/Phillies game!
Our last stop (sadly) before the long bus ride back to New York was Yards Brewing Company, one of the city’s best breweries. Those who read this blog probably know that I am an avid beer drinker, so this is high praise for me. It is here that they make the Founding Fathers brew line, where they take original recipes from what the Founding Fathers used to drink and actually brew them. My favorite is the Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce, based off of Benjamin Franklin. You can find these pretty kick ass brews at City Tavern, another culinary favorite that we missed out on this trip. Go for the Colonial garb, stay for the beer. Another pro-tip: Philly beer is exponentially cheaper than anywhere in New York. Including the boonies of New York. For your next brew holiday, come here.
So, Mike had asked me to trim this post down, and I probably will end up editing this to shit, but for now, here is Philadelphia in all of its unedited glory- just the way I like it.
I apologize in advance for the crappy photos of the Los Angeles area; I didn’t feel comfortable taking out my camera in some of these areas, which is telling coming from an avid New York amateur photographer.
After being in the San Diego area for two whole weeks, we journeyed up the coast a ways to reach Los Angeles, the city where many of my friend’s dream went to die. Staying with another family member in the ‘burbs, our first complaint was, of course, the traffic. If you can do the LA area without a car, I’d highly recommend it. Parking was the next big one, but that goes with the territory as well.
Our first day in the area was spent on the Venice Beach Boardwalk, soaking up the sun and the general air of weird. The boardwalk is famous for its fun and interesting characters, and our trip was no exception. the people-watching is golden here, from street performers to artists to general public that feel at home in this little slice of bizarre heaven.
My favorite part other than my inevitable obsession with the beach itself was the pop-up “weed doctors,” which seemed to be on every street corner. These doctors appeared in tiny holes in the wall, peddling prescriptions to anyone with headaches, loss of appetite, or insomnia. If you could come up with an excuse, you could get a prescription. While I am not an avid smoker, this was a novelty, and entertaining to watch.
Mike and I enjoyed Acai bowls on the boardwalk before soaking in the rays, and all was well in Venice Beach.
Next stop was, of course, Hollywood. We couldn’t be in LA and not stop there. Mike and I hunted around for one of those tour bus deals, but the one we signed up for ended up getting cancelled from lack of interest. People are apparently lame on Wednesdays. Our general impression, however, wasn’t particularly favorable.
First of all, the best attractions are at your feet, literally. We were stopping every five feet or so to take pictures of the famed Hollywood Stars, much to the annoyance of the non-tourists in LA (wait, those exist? Native LA-ers? I’m so sorry for you…)
Next, you have the street graffiti, which is also centered on the ground.
Last you have the beautiful Chinese Theater, with its hand and foot prints on- you guessed it- the floor. This was one of my favorites because it added a personal touch to some of the stars, with their love notes to the famous Sid Grauman. I loved the history encompassed in this portion of our LA discovery since so much of the rest of the city is new and gaudy.
Anyway, all of this culminated in my head pointed at the ground with Mike navigating us through the crowd. Thankfully I didn’t get pick-pocketed, but we saw a woman have her wallet taken right out from her purse in Starbucks, and when we told her, the guy gave it back to her as though it was no big deal. What an odd culture.
After we found out our tour got cancelled, we drove around trying to find the closest view of the Hollywood sign. Another disappointment, of course. For those that don’t know, you can’t simply walk up to it like in the movies. Personally, I was naive before this trip and thought that was the way of things- my mistake. There is a viewing point set up miles away on a hill that you can go and take photos from, but there is literally no parking available… Mike had to circle the car around while I fired off a few measly shots.
All in all, our impression of the Los Angeles area was unfavorable. the commercialism, while definitely more expected than some other places we visited, was rampant and in your face, and no one that you talked to didn’t have a gimmick. Even the gentlemen that we met at this little Irish bar off the strip were struggling actors hoping that we knew people. The best part of this leg of the journey was hanging out with my awesome cousin Brian Taylor, who put us up and let us drink his booze and eat. Thank you for making Los Angeles not a waste of time!
Next Stop: the beautiful drive up the coast to San Francisco!
After the Hoover Dam came and went, Mike and I made a beeline for the West Coast to San Diego for some beautiful weather and quality family time. We were both ready for coastal settings again, and to be at sea level was a breath of relief.
We arrived in San Diego on a beautiful day, and decided to bounce around the city a bit. First stop was the marina, and a walk around the Convention Center, and exploring the Gaslamp District. Crowd watching with a pint of beer on the outdoor patio was definitely a good way to start our California stint. A word of warning for our fellow travelers: It isn’t the most kid-friendly area, but there is a cool Children’s Museum in town not too far from this particular area.
After a long day in San Diego and awesome dinner with Grandma, we set out for Ballast Point Brewery, where my cousin’s roommate recently became a Brewmaster (shoutout to Matt!) He gave us an awesome tour of their newer location, complete with a glass of Sculpin right from the vat.
I recommend this beer to basically anyone, but their IPA is the absolute best, and has even won multiple awards. They now also have a Grapefruit Sculpin and Habanero Sculpin, for the sugar and spice crowds.
We also stopped at White Labs Tasting Room around the corner, which is an awesome spot for anyone who is interested in brewing, home brews, and the different types of way to brew beer. The premise behind their tasting room is that you get a flight of one kind of beer (e.g. Porter, IPA) and the only difference is a different type of yeast. You can also go there to buy their yeasts and homebrew goods, which are very popular.
The next five days were spent in the Carlsbad area, bouncing around different beaches. First stop was La Jolla Beach, a beautiful cove beach that is shared between humans and sea lions. We had a wonderful time down at the beach, but beware: The sea lions are right on the beach with you, and it isn’t smart to make them angry. The water was crystal clear, and we saw many snorkelers; I was jealous! We went swimming, but the riptide is very strong. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone that isn’t a strong swimmer. During low tide, the tide pools are spectacular and so much fun to go exploring on, but be careful: The tide comes quick, and there’s not much left when they come in.
Next was Carlsbad State Beach, a long stretch of white sands and calm waters. Mike and I stayed until the sun set, and sat with some kids who had a beach fire going. (Side note to east coasters: California beaches all allow beach fires; it blew our minds! Not even fair how restrictive NY is.)
After fun times in the Carlsbad area, we traveled back down to Chula Vista to spend time with my aunt and uncle, and to enjoy some good Tex-Mex. Since our first day there was a Tuesday, the first stop had to be Imperial Beach for beachside cocktails and dinner at the lovely Sea 180, a restaurant in the new Pier South Hotel. Here we had Taco Tuesday and Cocktail Hour, a little indulgence that both of us found to be worth it on such a cloudy day.
We hit up Ocean Beach for its awesome Farmer’s Market next, which happens every Wednesday all year. Here you can find all sorts of goods, from jewelry to clothing and the freshest produce in the area. While we weren’t in the market for produce, if you are from the area I recommend checking it out!
Mike and I bought some Watermelon juice and strolled the town, waiting for the sunset over the pier. We people watched all of the surfers trying to catch some late-day waves, and generally enjoyed the salt air. If you are into hooping, there is a big population for that also.
This is always one of my favorite stops, since my hometown is Ocean Beach, NY, across the country. There always seems to be a certain symmetry, and it makes me feel at home even while miles away from home. A word to fellow travelers: Try to stay grounded. It is always nice to remember where you came from, even when you are far away.
One of our last stops was Coronado Island, another one of my favorite places in the San Diego area. We drove the bridge over the bay and parked as close to the beach as possible. I was very excited to show Mike the glistening sand, which he didn’t believe had fool’s gold in it until I dragged him down to the ocean.
We walked the beach and the bluffs, then settled in for some delicious gelato at one of the gelato places on the island. A word of caution for fellow travelers: Everything is a little pricey here, but it is worth the trip. The views are beautiful here, and it is cool to see the planes fly by (there’s a Navy base near the island.)
When not being beach bums, Mike and I spent beautiful times with my family, who welcomed us with open arms. I appreciate everything they did for us, and hope they come visit us on the East Coast sooner than later!
After leaving Las Vegas, Mike and I really needed a pick-me-up, and what better way to cheer up an engineer than to take him to one of America’s best ‘dam’ architectural feats? (No seriously, it’s one of USA’s 7 Modern Civil Engineering Wonders). I was also fairly interested as well, if only for the road trip cred and to feel particularly patriotic.
We went right by the new bridge without even realizing, following signs around winding road. (Seriously, Nevada, what’s with your twisty roads?) The bridge itself is a beautiful piece of architecture, and I spent longer than I want to admit gawking at it once we parked our car.
I was happy to learn that the bridge was only unveiled for use in 2010, meaning all of my relatives who have seen the Hoover Dam haven’t seen this. It was fun to write home about. The bridge is crucial for people to get to the dam, so that’s so ‘dam’ fine planning.
Getting into the actual information area to even see the dam proved to be harder than you’d think. Mike and I thought we had taken all offending items out of our pockets/purse, but unsurprisingly, the electronic sensor buzzed. Oh yes, a word of caution: To visit the dam, you must first pass a security checkpoint that basically resembles an airport terminal, complete with emptying your pockets into a plastic bin and walking through a terminal with your arms outspread. Make sure you have no weapons, liquids, etc n you when entering. Mike and I both forgot about our pocket knives and had to make the trip back to the car garage, which almost cost us the ability to see the extended tour.
Another caution: Even though this is just, well, a dam, the Hoover Dam is a hoppin’ place. We got there at 1:30, and the tours were booked solid until the last one at 3:30. Mike and I quickly bought our tickets for the Hoover Dam Tour (vs. the Power plant Tour, which sounded kind of lame) and got ready for a fun-filled dam tour.
The tour begins with a 30-minute movie that is essentially American Greatness propaganda, but does give a LOT of information about the origins of the dam project and its construction from start to finish. I would not recommend missing it because a lot of the material isn’t covered in the tour, since the tour is more focused on the hydroelectric power. The end credits reminded me eerily of Hunger Games “Panem today, Panem tomorrow, Panem forever,” but also somehow manages to make one feel a little more patriotic than you did upon entering.
After the movie, you are given the opportunity to explore the museum, which gives you in-depth facts about the building, how the dam is powered, and firsthand accounts from workers on the dam. Your tour guide meets up with you and leads you into the dam itself not long after this.
The elevator that everyone crowds into is too ‘dam’ small for 20 people, so if you are claustrophobic, I would suggest not taking this tour. The dam also has very narrow portions, so you may want to rethink it and just do the light tour that does the upper levels of the dam.
We had the rare pleasure of seeing one of the turbines being serviced, which was pretty cool. The Hoover Dam has these huge turbines that circulate the water from the Colorado River and harness the energy before dumping the water back into the manmade Lake Mead. It’s a pretty intense process, and was petty cool to see in action.
The tour also gives you pretty awesome views inside of the dam into the older portions, where the workers used to use. On the walls is the faint outlines of their plans written out on the most available writing surface. We got to take turns looking out of a grate onto the river, which was ‘dam’ cool.
After the tour was over, Mike and I took a walk around the grounds outside of the dam itself, which proved pretty interesting in themselves. There is a whole monument dedicated to the day that the dam was unveiled and all of the people there in the form of two angels, surrounded by a map engraved with bronze of the star positions the night of the unveiling. The whole thing was very beautiful , but a little bit too smug for my taste. They did have a grave for the resident dog that was the workers’ mascot during constructions, which I thought was very sweet.
All in all, I recommend the Hoover Dam to just about everyone. It is fun to learn about American history, a bit of science, and to take in the beauty of the scenery. Go forth and admire American exceptionalism!
Ah, Vegas. We entered Las Vegas a bit demoralized after our failed Grand Canyon excursion, and the City of Lights didn’t help that feeling. First thing we noticed was that there are no hotels near The Strip that aren’t under $100.00. If you plan on “doing the Strip” for all that it’s worth, and don’t want to drive your car from a further-out hotel, make sure you budget for a more expensive hotel. Mike and I splurged on the Hooters Hotel and Casino, which is one block away from MGM. There is a 24-hour casino in almost every single hotel in Vegas, so don’t get stuck in a rut by just gambling at your own hotel.
Mike and I dropped our stuff off at the hotel, got a cheap dinner in Hooters Restaurant, and went for a tour of the strip. The best thing to do when visiting Vegas on a budget is eating cheap and seeing all of the sights on your own on foot. Boy, is there a lot to see. The lights alone at all of the casinos are worth the walk around, and then you have the great towering sculptures and fun billboards.
We killed a good two hours walking all around the strip looking at the lights and exploring the Miracle Mile Shops inside of Planet Hollywood Casino. The ceiling of the building is painted and lit magnificently, and we found Sin City Brewing Company inside, a great find for brewery seekers like Mike and I. The bartender was fun and interactive, so even though the bar-like setting in the middle of the mall was a little off-putting, we had a good time.
Our next stop, timed perfectly, was to see the Bellagio Fountain Show, a beautiful fountain performance in which the jets shoot out water in time to classical music. The fountain is beautifully lit, and it is great to see everyone stop their hurried walks to the nearest money pit in order to see the grandeur.
After that little detour, we tried our hands at the slots and tables of Caesar’s Palace and New York New York. Here is where your money goes to die; you have been warned.
First, the Pros:
When you gamble in a Las Vegas casino, there are cocktail waitresses that circle the floor taking drink orders. These drinks are free, since the casino is making enough money off of you through high-risk slots and tables. The more you move around on the casino floor, the more drinks you are likely to receive. The only exception to this rule is if you are staying on one table for a while; usually, the waitresses have a specific table they hit if there are heavy-tipping or heavy betting customers.
The casinos are open 24 hours a day, so you can also do the option of late-night pre-gaming at the hotel to save money and not get to the casino until 11:00 p.m. or later and you’ll still be fine.
There are plenty of “cheap” options in casinos, including $.01 slots and $5.00 tables. On a budget, this is the best way to go; most of the casinos advertise if they have options like this.
You are, 9 times out of 10, going to lose money. If you are “up” (gaining money for your original investment) you don;t want to stop playing, but if you are down you want to keep playing until you get your money back.
If you don’t know how to play card games, now is not the time to learn. You can learn by watching a table, but that’s discouraged, so either come prepared or don’t play a table.
The slots are boring.
If you aren’t dressed nicely, you won’t get as much attention from the waitresses.
You can easily lose track of time and all of the sudden realize you’ve lost $500.00 and an entire day.
Mike and I went into the gambling scene with personal budgets under $100.00, and we both lost basically all of it, not from lack of trying. Hint: It is no fun to do Las Vegas on a budget if you like to gamble. We also didn’t get to see any shows, which is half of the fun.
We managed to get back to our hotel room around 3:00 a.m., a little drunk and a little poorer. The sights were fun and gambling more so, but neither of us have much desire to return in the near future.
After we left Arches National Park, Mike and I did a mad dash to the Four Corners Monument because that’s the quintessential ‘Merican Road Trip thing to do. While I get that it’s “cool” to stand in four different states and three Native American reservations, I personally would have avoided the experience. For the price of $5.00 a person (not including gas wasted to get to a far-out place), you get to stand on a slab in the ground with a lot of other tourists and vie for a personal photo. We got lucky and arrived on a quiet day, but there was still a lot of competition. The entire area is surrounded by vendors trying to sell you overpriced souvenirs; even the postcards were more than a dollar apiece.
The whole experience kind of fell flat for us, considering that the location is pretty out of the way. It was a cool experience in name, and for people without a schedule or a strict budget, I can completely understand stopping here.
The next stop on our trip was the Grand Canyon, but since we had a huge driving gap to get there, we made a “layover” stop in Flagstaff, Arizona. I have been told there is a lot to do there, but instead we decided to check out Sedona because of all the vortexes (vortices? haha) and spas. Upon arriving, it was made clear that the only thing the Sedonans (I think) cared about was money and not their beloved energy portals. It was impossible to find a map of where to find the sweet spots, the town itself was full of overpriced shops selling anything that slightly resembled a New Age aesthetic, and the people were supremely unhelpful. Each vortex was a separate park (obviously, since they are in four different corners), and parking prices for each were $15.00. We saw a sign for a very discounted helicopter tour, only to find out that the deal was for people ages 25+ (I’m 23) and that the full price was $300.00, more than any tour I have ever heard of.
The only upside to this excursion was some nice hikes and pretty scenery that led us to a beautiful Buddhist temple called Amitabha Stupa, probably the only free thing in town and the most beautiful.
The next day, Mike and I woke up excited to be on our way to see the Grand Canyon Skywalk, the western part of the canyon that has a glass floor over the canyon for you to walk out and look at. To be honest, we (I) didn’t do much research; we decided not to go to the Grand Canyon Village in the eastern part of the canyon because how cool would it be to see it from right above? There was a big mistake.
The drive on the way to the Grand Canyon Skywalk was very flat and long, to the point where you think that you may be lost. There’s an abundance of Joshua Trees along the way, which was a treat, but other than that, there isn’t much signs of life.
We arrived at the gate to get into the Skywalk, and it was upon entering that we realized this wasn’t quite what we were expecting. The road is blocked by “rent-a-cops” and diverted to a huge parking lot near something that resembled an inflated airport hangar, and everyone was ushered into the building. Once inside, the workers gave us the fee guide, which explains that you cannot drive to the canyon area yourself, but need to take a shuttle. Just to be on the shuttle was $45.00 per person, not including fuel surcharges. To get to the Skyview platform, it was an extra $30.00 per person, and that was WITHOUT photography. No cameras on the skydeck, no exceptions. Basically, it would have costed Mike and I about $150.00 to get onto the Skywalk and not even get to take pictures of it. The reservation has quite a monopoly here, in the western part of the Grand Canyon. We ended up sitting in our car and making the agonizing decision to not see the Grand Canyon on this road trip, a decision that kind of broke my heart a little since it was through my own lack of research.
A word to other travelers: Do your research, and make your decisions wisely. It may be worth it to you to walk the Skywalk despite the cost, but be aware of it. The Grand Canyon State Park, about 93 miles east of the Skywalk, is only $25.00 per car, you can drive right in, and take as many pictures as you want. I can only hope that I do better next trip and get to see one of America’s greatest landmarks.