Saturday, 11 June 2011

Wet Wet Wet

The Americans have an adjective which is used to describe mundane objects such as socks or coffee - Awesome.  "Awesome socks dude" or "This framazapacinno is awesome!".  Well, the framazapathingy (even with sprinkles) probably isn't actually something which inspires awe. At best it's a nice hot drink.

However, Niagara Falls IS awesome.

The Niagara River connects two of the "Great Lakes" (note, not the "Awesome Lakes", just "Great"), Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, and it divides the US and Canada.  About half way between those two lakes, the river has eroded a step in the rocks - quite a big step.  There are a number of islands in the river and two of these, Luna Island and Goat Island cause the upper part of the river to split into three, just before it crashes over the edge. So there are three "falls", the smallest, Bridal Falls is in the middle, with the American Falls next to it, and further along on the other side of Goat Island is the largest, the Horseshoe Falls.

The American, Bridal and (in the distance) Horseshoe Falls

From the park on Goat Island you can get very close to the river as it drops over the edge (almost within touching distance) and the noise, the spray and the feeling of power is - well, awesome.

However, to really appreciate the power of the falls we had to do two things. First, The Maid of the Mist is a boat trip which takes you past the American and Bridal Falls and on into the middle of the Horseshoe Falls. When you buy your tickets you are issued with big blue plastic rain capes, mine seems supersized - it's a Big Mac!

These are completely necessary. We're on the top deck along with many others, and as we approach the heart of the Horseshoe, it's like someone has taken a jetwash and turned it on us.

The Maid of the Mist in the eye of the storm
I've enjoyed many wet weekends in North Wales but I've never seen so many grinning faces simply because they're getting very wet. Justine has thought ahead and is wearing a pair of plastic pumps, but I've not been quite so clever and my Converse Baseball Boots are not the most waterproof footwear I own - they're starting to fill up with water! Still, at least the rest of me is reasonably dry and as I narrowly avoid joining a very friendly American Bachelor Party, we leave the boat - everyone still grinning.

From the jetty, some wooden steps allow you to get part of the way up the cliff beside the curtain of water and, again, the rain capes earn their keep as we get soaked by the spray and the mist. This feels a lot like the other attraction we were intending to try, The Cave Of The Winds, and we're tempted to give that a miss as it feels like we've already got as close and as as wet as is possible.

But The Cave Of The Winds is only another $11 each and we'll probably never come here again. So, we're issued with another rain cape, yellow this time and significantly shorter - this one only comes down to my knees. I guess we're not going to get as wet on this one, right? We also get a pair of stylish plastic sandals, which is a good thing for me as my feet now feel like they're encased in custard and I'm making embarrassing squelches with every step I take. So I put on my sandals and, just in case, I wear both my capes - the long blue one underneath and the nice yellow one on top. With my long flowing two-piece robes and my plastic sandals I feel like "Polythene Jesus", and I'm getting some envious looks from some of the style gurus around here.

We climb the steps up past the Bridal Veils Falls and head towards the "Hurricane Deck". It's like someone is firing golf ball-sized hailstones at you. Most people are backing into the spray as it lashes into their backs, shrieking and laughing.

Me on the Hurricane Deck - Observing the "No Smoking" sign!
An Indian man who I've never set eyes on before, smiles at me, slaps me on the back and shouts something in my ear, but I can't hear a word. Everyone is getting soaked and everyone's faces are beaming. If you want world peace, organise a coach trip from the UN, kit the world's leaders out in big blue rain macs and send them up to the Hurricane Deck... sorted. Oh, and tell them not to wear "sneakers" - mine still haven't dried out!

Friday, 10 June 2011

Pollywogg Holler

And so we leave Lancaster and travel 240 miles north, through Halifax, Mansfield and Liverpool. During our car journeys we've been playing Radio Roulette.  We listen to a local FM station until we begin to get out of range, and the signal starts to break up - then we press search to find the next strong frequency signal and listen to that… whatever it might be!  Well for the last couple of hours it's been Country-Rock all the way.  Tales of hard-drinkin' men whose best girls have walked out on them, but they still have their old V8.  Or soldiers, fighting the A-Rabs, because "Freedom Don't Come Free".

As we get further north, we start to see "Gentleman's Clubs" dotted along the side of the Interstate.  There's an advertisement for a bare-knuckle boxing event tied to a lamp post.  And I'm convinced I can hear the sound of banjos - duelling.

After several miles of driving past tree-lined hills with no signs of habitation at all, we turn off the Interstate onto a deserted dirt-track and drive into the forest.  Ten minutes later we see a figure moving by the side of the road.  A man with long flowing grey hair and an even longer flowing grey beard waves at us.  We stop and I wind down the window, while Justine tries to remember whether the rental car came equipped with a shotgun.  The hairy man extends his hand and welcomes us, to Pollywogg Holler.  Bill (for that is his name, and this is his place) tells us to park in the parking-lot.  The "parking lot" is a clearing, just big enough for our car (the Black Slug, as we now call it - due, mainly, to it's incredible powers of acceleration).  We park there and set off in the direction Bill had indicated, passing through a large steel dome, then back into the woods.

We hear something moving in the trees to our left and wish we'd purchased handguns in Philly.  But it's a deer which, disturbed by our arrival, bounds off to safety through a series of strange sculptures scattered in between the trees.

We finally reach a few wooden cabins.  As we stand looking at the cabins, wondering what to do next, a golf buggy whizzes into view, piloted expertly by Pat - boyfriend of Micky (son of Bill).

She invites us to hop on the back of the buggy so that she can show us round Pollywogg Holler's various lodgings.  We'd reserved a place in the Phantasy Dome, a canvas-covered geodesic structure which has a suspended, floating circular bed.  However, Pat informs us that a particularly bad hailstorm has peppered the dome with holes and that we might want to consider some of the other accommodation.  The golf buggy has the sort of acceleration that the Black Slug can only dream of and we do well to avoid being fired off the back as Pat puts the pedal to the metal.  She takes us to see the Phantasy Dome and, whilst it does look like a cool place for a party of 100 or more, we agree that the weather does seem to have taken it's toll - if it rains tonight, we'll have a wet bed (no funny comments thank-you).

So we drive on to the Sugar Shack, a cute little cabin with a fireplace (and the only place which boasts its own toilet).  Then we see a couple of "lean-to" cabins - imagine a wooden bus shelter with a double bed and a curtain across the front overlooking a frog's pond.  If you really want to feel "outdoorsy" these would be perfect.  Trouble is, I'm a bit of a wuss when it comes to flying bugs, and this looks like the place they come to hang out and chill.

Finally we settle on "The Sauna".  A beautifully carved front door reveals a wood-fired sauna room with a sleeping platform above it.  You get to the sleeping area by climbing a series of wooden planks, no more than 8 inches long which stick out of the wall, before stepping onto the last plank which is supported by a steel band and which dips and creaks loudly the moment you put your weight on to it.

Once you've conquered this mini assault course you're rewarded with a cosy little room with a double mattress on the floor and a pair of handmade doors which take you on to a small balcony.  Although lacking en-suite facilities, the balcony does feature something which even the top boutique hotels we've visited lack - underneath a rocking chair, find and lift up a small plank from the floor to reveal a "piddle spot" - perfect if you're caught short in the night and don't have the necessary ropes, crampons and sherpas to complete an expedition to the toilet cabin.

The "Piddle Spot"
Having chosen our home for the night we join Pat in the main lodge and are served cheese and crackers with some local wine.  We meet The Holler's two cats, one of which is named Margaret Thatcher, for reasons I never quite understood - something to do with her being a strong, powerful woman who destroyed the trade unions and ate mice?

Finally we meet Micky, who at first seems to have a slightly zany sense of humour, but over time you realise he has a very zany sense of humour - we warm to him.  He cooks steaks and shrimps on the grill and the four of us sit, talk, drink wine and laugh - we all have a thoroughly good time.  Then it's over to the bar area.  Near the bar is a little stage with a PA system - Pollywogg Holler hosts musical acts from near and far, while people eat pizza, drink beer and party.  As we continue sipping our wine, Micky and Pat share their musical tastes and we play "Pollyw-oke" as music drifts out of the Poll-iPod.

After a few more hours, we've had more than our fill of wine and are shown the way back to the sauna by torchlight.  Justine's greeted home by a June Bug flying up into her face - Micky snatches the flying beetle out of the air, and before Jus can tell him not to hurt it, he pops it into his mouth and crunches into it.  "Tastes like shrimp" he tells us in his Jack Black tones (if they ever make "Pollywogg Holler, The Movie", Mr Black has got to be top of the cast list).

Once we're alone we sit on our balcony and look out across the pond.  All you can hear are the frogs "hollering" (Pollywoggs are apparently tadpoles) and all you can see are fireflies sparking on and off as they hover over the water.  Maybe its just the wine but this place really does feel quite magical.

The Sauna
In the morning I'm feeling a little unwell (probably that last glass of wine) and begin to question the wisdom of sleeping at the top of a climbing wall.  Still, by the time we've had bagels and bacon and coffee and juice, I'm on the mend.  We're joined at breakfast by a family of four who arrived late last night.  Mom and Dad are in the area for a college reunion (Mom used to come to Pollywogg Holler, 20 years ago for some "wild" parties).  Their two kids keep Micky busy by insisting that he drives them around on the golf cart, or showing him the collection of slugs they've found (thankfully, Micky restrains himself and doesn't eat any).  They are also delighted to meet Mr Nuts - Micky's hand-trained squirrel who comes to the table and takes food from your hand.

We leave with hugs from Pat and a warm handshake from Micky and make our way back to the car.  As we prepare to drive off, Micky and Pat hurtle past on the golf cart, spewing dust into the air - he's probably off to find more bugs!

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Battle of Sweatysburg!

Having furnished ourselves with the full details of the American War of Independence when we visited Philadelphia, we now need to brush up on the other one - the Civil War.  The largest battle of this conflict between the American people was fought over 3 days at Gettysburg.  We've made the hour-or-so journey out to Gettysburg and are now being kitted out to take to the battlefields - on horseback.  We're greeted by Pam, the owner of a number of horses and after waiving our rights to take any form of litigation should anything bad happen, we mount our steeds.

I'm on Dakota, who seems to be interested in only one thing - eating.  Justine is presented with Rio who, apparently, is the boss all the others, but a bit of a problem horse.  Whether Rio's prone to missing drug tests or losing concentration at crucial moments I'm not sure.  (If you don't understand this reference, speak to someone who's into football).

So we head out through the woods with Andi, our guide and she begins to explain how, after about a year of conflict between North and South, the Union Army led by General George G. Meade and the Confederate Army led by Robert E. Lee stumbled across each other.  Now my knowledge of the American Civil War is limited and the only thing I know about General Lee has been picked up from The Dukes of Hazzard, so I had to ask Andi to backtrack a bit and give me a quick idiots guide, which she did very well.  Armed with enough background information, we emerged onto the battlefield.

There are a huge number of monuments out here - it seems that every state has one commemorating their fallen - but other than the monuments the whole area has been preserved and looks exactly as it did around the time of the battle.

As our horses walk in single file, we can start to imagine Confederate sharp shooters lurking behind trees, waiting to pick us off one by one.  It's around 100 degrees farenheit (20 degrees hotter than normal for the time of year) and a severe heat warning has been issued for parts of Pennsylvania and Maryland.  Andi tells us that the battle was fought in hot and humid conditions, not dissimilar to these - we're absolutely boiling and the thought of wearing wool uniforms and carrying equipment and supplies whilst cannons are being fired towards us is not a pleasant one.

By the time we'd finished our tour, I was starting to feel that I was in control of Dakota, rather than the other way round.  Justine had been hit (by the heat) and I feared that Gettysburg may claim one final casualty, but once we got her down from Rio and into the shade she started to recover, and we were able to continue our tour… time for the pub we think!

Monday, 6 June 2011

Scooters, Buggies and Blackberries

We leave Philadelphia having really enjoyed the place.  We haven't even got round to mentioning the huge number of cool urban bicycles that everyone seems to use to get around, or the Irish dancing out at the harbour where it felt more like Ireland than when we were actually in Ireland, or the amazing delicatessen just round the corner which made us wish we'd been self-catering.

Anyway we have to move on, and we pick up a hire car (an automatic with the driver's seat on the wrong side) and take the first tentative steps of our "Road Trip".  In an unusual departure for me, I sit and read a good chunk of the owners manual before even starting the engine.  It took a while to get used to the automatic transmission (I can't help feeling you're not really in control of a car if it decides when to change gear for you) but eventually we were on the Interstate (or the Freeway, or Turnpike, or whatever a dual-carriageway is called over here).

After an hour and a half we've passed through the familiar sounding town names of Devon, Bradford and Chester, but as we get nearer to Lancaster things start to get odd.  We go through "Paradise" which seems nice enough but I think they're over-egging it a little on the naming front.  Signs point to "Blue Ball", and "Fertility", and "Virginville".  We pass though "Bird-In-Hand" and finally,  we get to "Intercourse".

What's even stranger than the names is the population.  First we see a man with a beard and a big straw hat scooting along the side of the road on what can only be described as, a scooter.  Then there's a couple driving a little black horse-drawn buggy along the street.  And over in the fields there's a man ploughing a field on an old-fashioned plough pulled by a team of six horses.

This is Amish, or Pennsylvania Dutch country (Dutch should be Deutsch as the Amish people originate from around Germany and Switzerland).  The Amish emigrated from Europe to the United States so that they could practice their form of Christianity without fear of persecution.

What we found really interesting was how much a part of the wider community they appear to be.  I expected very private people who wouldn't speak to "The English" (as the rest of the population are referred to), and would avoid contact with us.  But they have local businesses and sell things in the markets - we bought some fantastic home-made lemonade and a "Whoopie Pie".

There are obvious differences between the Amish and the English - the Amish rejection of technology and their deliberately plain uniform dress, but everyone seems to respect each other's way of life - when the big new Target Supermarket was built it became the first branch in the USA which has a buggy shed where you can tie up your horses.  And while we were driving around we were frequently greeted with a friendly wave from an Amish farmer ploughing his field or a young lad driving a cart along the road.  But I'm not sure I understand where the line is drawn - while walking round the farmers market I saw a teenage Amish girl sitting in the corner typing a message into her Blackberry!

Sunday, 5 June 2011


One more thing you have to do if you visit Philadelphia is run up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and throw your hands in the air, mimicking the actions of the legendary Rocky in the famous film… erm, Rocky.

Down at the bottom of the steps in a little grassy area is a life-size statue of the great Rocky, and a line of tourists waiting patiently for their turn to be photographed next to the amazing Rocky.

Is now a good time for us to point out that neither of us has ever actually watched Rocky??!!?!

Independence Day

In 1776, the Declaration of Independence was drawn up and signed in Philadelphia's Independence Hall.  This document essentially listed the stuff that George III had done that had got up the noses of the American Colonists and caused them to go to war with us a year earlier.  We felt we'd better go and have a look at the place where we lost control of the USA.

So we joined a queue to go into Independence Hall and were the last two people to be allowed in by the National Parks tour guide.  Once we got inside the building we were confronted by about 150 school kids and some of their teachers.  We tried to tiptoe across the room to take the two seats which had been left for us, but our guide destroyed our hopes of remaining incognito when he loudly announced the presence of two British guests, who were "what this place was all about".

It became clear that the guide had spotted our Englishness (maybe our delight at being able to join a queue had tipped him off) and he jumped at the opportunity to add a touch of class to his historic lecture.  We became part of the tour - every time the British were mentioned (which was a lot) we were highlighted by the guide.  I developed a Royal Wave to acknowledge our role in the proceedings.  We were able to use this power bestowed on us to do good.  For example, we have managed to educate a small but significant proportion of future Americans that "Autumn" is called "Autumn", not "Fall".  I might also have mentioned the correct spelling of "colour".  I think they all went away much wiser, and thankful that they'd been so fortunate to run into us.

Assembly Room - Independence Hall - Philadelphia

We also went to see the Liberty Bell - didn't think it was all it was cracked up to be!  (Comedy trumpet noise here!)

I didn't plan this, honestly!

We always try to look for the local delicacies and, in Philadelphia, you have to try the Philly Cheesesteak.  So we find a restaurant and are taken to our table by our waitress "Brogan" who will be looking after us tonight.  Having established that we're English, but not from London (we're going to get this a lot) she steers us towards the Philly Cheesesteak with Wizz.  Now usually if someone suggests they might put "Wizz" on my food I'd take that as a cue to leave, but she assures us that Wizz (essentially yellow squirty cheese) is the stuff to have, so we bow to her local knowledge.

I ask if they have any local beers and am offered a surprising list of different ales, and again, take Brogan's recommendation.  She returns minutes later with an unexpectedly good pint of something whose name I can't remember but which wouldn't have been out of place if it had been served at the Fighting Cock, Bradford's premiere real ale pub (in my humble opinion).  Realising that I am something of a beer academic, Brogan drops the bombshell… it's Philly Beer Week and she points us in the direction of a free newspaper giving details of all the events, bars and brews (a paper which she happens to help publish).  If I wasn't already married…….

So we get our Cheesesteaks, which are good, kind of shredded steak on a long bread roll, and you can really taste the Wizz!  But I've already got other things on my mind.  Philly Beer Week seems to be a big event which has grown over a number of years and some of the bars are fantastic.  Long, old fashioned pubs with hundreds of Belgian beers, local draught ales and various things which are clearly viewed as exotic here - Magners "Irish" Cider anyone?  We visited a few of these and the following night ate at one of them, The Farmers Cabinet.

Here our waiter provides us with a food menu and a beer menu (and the beer menu is bigger).  While I browse, like a kid in a sweetshop, he tries to find something that Jus will drink.  Not interested in Beer, maybe a Cider? No, OK, well what about a cocktail?  What kind of spirits do you like? OK, you don't like whisky, maybe rum, No?  She asks about one of the cocktails which had rhubarb, rye whisky and some other stuff in it - maybe she could have that but use something else instead of whisky.  The waiter whispers conspiratorially that "The cocktail bar here is a little pretentious.  If I ask for that they'll probably suggest that you shouldn't try that cocktail".  

"A Little Pretentious" describes this place quite well.  Some of the beers are around $40 for a glass.  I try a Brandywine (which the waiter assures me is an English concept, but I've never heard of it) which has been matured in J.W.Lees beer barrels (J.W. Lees I have heard of, and I'm told later that Mr Lees from England is sitting over at the table in the corner, enjoying his visit to Philly Beer week).  The menu declares this beer to be "Life Changing", and it wasn't like anything I've ever tried before - I couldn't drink many, especially given the price, but it was certainly "Evening Changing".

Oh, what does Justine end up choosing?  A Gummy Bear cocktail.  It tasted of Gummy Bears!