The last post was in the summer and I am neglecting this haunt for the same reasons – laziness, writers’ block, etc. What better way than to restart it with another travel post :) This new year’s day found me driving down I-95 from NYC to our new city – Richmond in Virginia. So far the winter in the US has not been so harsh. That prompted me to plan a beach trip in our long weekend of Jan-16. My family is still in India and I wanted a break from the relocation hassles of the past 2 weeks. My friend suggested the Pearl of the Outer Banks Ocracoke. OBX or Outer Banks of North Carolina is the popular beach destination for the capital beltway folks (all those in Washington DC).
We did not really mind that the weather forecast was real low and the beach might not be a great idea in the low 40s/high 30s. We just wanted to use our last long weekend for a while. In the last 2 days, we rent a car and book stay at the Seaside Inn of Hatteras (the tip of the little island), primarily for their good deals. After reading up a few pages on the OBX site, I figure out 3 days will not be enough to do all their attractions. We go to the rental place early on the Saturday and we get a free upgrade to a 4 Wheel Drive, which proves very useful later incidentally. We hit the I-64 east to Norfolk beach and have a leisurely drive until the car sounds an alarm for low fuel. We refuel somewhere before Hampton – it had been a typical VA drive (large roads, plenty of green, 70mph limits, aircraft traffic enforcement warning signs) and go through a tunnel to get scenic views off Chesapeake bay. Also we bye-pass the typical route (Chesapeake Expressway) to a scenic drive on NC-17. Luckily we get some fast food before we enter this stretch. This looks like the farm stretch – there were hardly any cars – big large flat fields. We are finally out of the city and its strip malls. Slowly we enter NC and inch towards the coast. We cross the magnificent Wright Memorial Bridge and stop at the visitor center for a quick break, just as we enter the Croatan Highway. We later realize that this is not the beach drive. NC-12 goes close to the beach, with awesome beach houses / vacation homes on both sides.
Our only attraction of the day is the Wright Brothers memorial, the site of the First Flight (the slogan of North Carolina) at Kitty Hawk. We walk up the memorial and the field where the memories are preserved. One profound plaque catches our eyes – 100 years ago, the great Orville Wright said, “Isn’t it astounding that these secrets have been preserved for all of those years just so we can discover them?” A NPS guide explains the hard work that went behind the First Flight in a dramatic way. This gives us a great opportunity to ponder over the ubiquity of flight and how challenging it was just 100 years back :) The rest of the 50+ mile drive is slow along NC-12 amidst the myriad vacation homes. The Oregon Inlet bridge is amazing and offers wonderful views of the ocean and the sound. We stop for a while and take a lot of pictures with my friend’s advanced camera. It soon gets dark and we pick some rations for the next day or two. We reach the charming Seaside Inn pretty late at 6.30pm and are pleasantly surprised by the quaint historic rooms and the affable hosts.
We dine at the only open Breakwater restaurant – our first disappointment of the day. We were hoping to have great seafood, but hardly anything was open when we went in spite of it being a long weekend. This proves to be our story of the next day as well. The evening had become so cold so we don’t venture to the beach. Just some late night chat about our lives! We get ready early and have our complimentary continental breakfast – hot muffins, fruits, etc. I walk to the Ocean through one of the beach accesses. I peek into one of the vacation homes – they are mostly similar – 3 or 4 storeys, with plenty of ventilation and a pool. It is hard for me to think why they need a pool when the biggest pool is just across. Well, that’s the way of the rich, I suspect and America is such a wasteful nation :( Also, I have seen better beaches in Cape Cod ( my first national seashore). We make our way to the Hatteras ferry point, where we just miss the free hourly ferry to Ocracoke. So we drive for the first time on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore with the 4WD. It is slightly tricky to maneuver the sands and it feels as if the sands control the ride, but we enjoy it very much. It is a short ride to the farther end of the ocean on the island, but we need to be back for our Ocracoke ferry at 10am.
We have high hopes for our time on the Ocracoke island. After all, it is the end of the OBX and there are a lot of tales about the lighthouses and pirates. We are also craving for Thai food. Another guest at the hotel had recommended a Thai eatery. We drive about 15 miles from the ferry landing to the Ocracoke village. Funnily there was almost nothing open as it is a Sunday. Every place is deserted. We visit the hyped Ocracoke lighthouse, our only attraction in the island. We are famished and discover quickly unfortunately that no restaurant is open except for one. We grab some bites there and decide to do one more 4WD in the island before heading back. That is a long stretch with mostly us out on the ocean. We struggle at one exit and fear we might be stranded without fuel. Luckily, the next exit is simple and we board the Hatteras ferry back at 1pm after stopping briefly to view the wild ponies on the island. Our search for a good eatery continues in Hatteras and we find nothing. We see the other attraction Cape Hatteras lighthouse and grab some burgers at Hatterasman close to the inn. Again, it is the only open place. We concede defeat in our quest for good seafood and call it a day. We rest by the fireplace for a long time, reading a book about Hatteras, which talks about BlackBeard, the pirate, who was killed in Ocracoke. We exchange stories with the host of the inn Chris before we retire to our room.
Yet another summer weekend in NYC and this time, we plan a biking trip. Our first options are the Poconos mountains (NYC’s most popular weekend getaway) and the Hudson valley. A simple search reveals the Lehigh Gorge trail in the Poconos and being lazy, we pick that option as there are quite a few bike rental shops. My friends have been there many times. This also lists among the top 50 rides(check Northeast) in the US. We start at 9.45am and Jim Thorpe (a historic town) is our destination to rent the bikes. I first thought that it is the name of a man before realizing it is the town‘s name with an interesting story behind the name. Well, it’s even got a tagline to it – History Adventure Inspiring – whoa! We drive through I78 when my friend tells me of some one’s comment about the highways – “Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything.” My other friend has chosen our breakfast destination, the Waffle House (surprisingly missing in NY, NY) at Allentown in the State of Independence (PA still welcomes you with that sign). He is quite focused on the food before the biking. I eat my first waffle there. It is just another pancake. I have a hearty breakfast. We take the Penna turnpike and we hit Jim Thorpe at 1.30pm. The views are beautiful as we pass the Lehigh tunnel under the famed Blue Mountain.
We sign waiver forms and rent the bikes. The shuttle takes us to the top of the trail, White Haven for the 25 mile ride. The bike and the shuttle cost us $40 each. The shop selects the bike seeing our height. We banter with the driver about game options in the area. He tells us that there is an interesting race on the route, the Weatherly Hillclimb. Maybe, next time we should plan to see it. He also did tell us that the I80 was heavily backed up because of the Pocono Race. This is a happening area, most definitely. He tries to pull a lame joke on us that we have passed the 25 mile point and we will have to do the 50 mile trip :) A charming girl tells us about the trail, its delights and its hazards. We start at 2.15 pm and we have 5+ hours to make our way down before the shop closes at 8pm. The Lehigh river is on our right initially and we quickly cross over a road and the river now is on our right. We slowly make our way. Supposedly, there could be bears and possibly snakes. We see a lot of rafts and kayaks, who are enjoying their white water adventures (Grade 3 stuff). Since it is downhill and the gradient is very gentle (rail road), it is quite pleasant. The predicted thunderstorm thankfully stayed away. There are a lot of stops – mile markers and trails that lead down to the river. I climb down one and it is steep indeed. Very soon, the rail track appears on the other side of the river. We keep going. There is a ‘Locks’ map and all of us walk to the river, where we take a few snaps.
We pass a small waterfall and we cross the midway point Rockport, which is just another point. A few rafters are done here. At the next halt, we spot a rock that sits high on the gorge and offers a splendid view of the rafters. We wave to them. We cross a bridge and the rail track also crosses the river. We pass the tracks. From now, the trail is between the river and the rail. We have almost done 15 miles and our legs start to pain. We decide not to stop any further and finish off the ride faster. Off we pedal and touch Glen Onoko. I spot the Falls trail and force the others to join me on the hike. The hike is a little tricky and the falls is not as pretty as its picture is. Nevertheless, we see a photo shoot near the falls in bikinis. This makes our day :) We cross another bridge and decide not to walk to the bridge view. My friends tell me last time they had to bike on the road from here, but this year they have connected Jim Thorpe also by trail. We bike across a spectacular bridge and soon reach downtown Jim Thorpe at 6.15pm. Yay, we made it in 4 hours. We take a short walk in the town before we start back to I80. We cross the World’s largest general store shortly.We dine at a Turkish place in Stroudsburg and make it back on I80 through the Delaware water gap. That is two weekends of activity after such a long lull. May the force be with us this summer!
I have been very lazy to blog for a long time. I keep getting distracted by other activities and I am not disciplined enough to spend the effort. But I got to write about the interesting things I did this weekend.
On Friday night, it was turning out to be just another summer weekend with chores and some tennis. I was 2 weeks into my forced bachelorhood and was working a little on the weekends. My collegemate GK calls me at 9pm and asks if I am game for a hike along a trail. Ever since Nila is out, I am low on my physical activity needs and so I happily say yes to my first ever hike in the US ( my last experience was tramping in down under.) Interestingly, it is on the National Trails day (the first Sat of June). He had asked me to get ready by 8am, as we will need to leave early for the hike. I eat my breakfast quite early (thanks to my neighbour’s chicken curry) and eagerly await the trio – my fellow hikers (2 of my engineering mates and one’s spouse). I tried to read up on the splendid NYNJ trail conference site about possible hikes near NYC and there are quite a bit of them. I had selected Ramapo Mountains and Norvin Green state forest as the nearest from my town. But my more experienced friends had other ideas. They had selected the Fahnestock park for the trip. We picked up breakfast at the GSP rest area and proceeded to the end of the Palisades Parkway where we crossed the Hudson over the Bear Mountain bridge (pretty short one compared to the Tappan Zee or GWB). We read up the printed park overview and planned to park close to Highway 9 and combine 3 trails (the white School Mountain Rd, the yellow Perkins and the blue eponymous trail – white, yellow and blue in order). After a short detour, we found the parking spot and started on our hike. We are happy to see a few faces.
It is just before noon and the weather is quite pleasant for a hike. We plod on for a hour on the white trail and seem not to catch the yellow one. If we miss it, we will have no option except to come back on the white trail to trace our way to the car. Luckily we see a lady on the hike and she graciously shows her coloured map of the hike and gives us clear instructions to turn left when we see an abandoned house. We stay close to a stream and soon see the house where we take our first break. We keep walking while seriously keeping an eye for the yellow trail markers. We try several paths, but none of them are yellow. We go much further up the trail before we realize that we have come the wrong way. We did not see any good views yet and we were just continuing through the trees. The iphone location confirms our worst fears. We retreat back to the abandoned house. We have walked almost 1.5 hours all on the wrong side. My friend then spots the yellow trail just before the house. All along, we were searching for it after the house. Fate led us astray!
We decide not to go back on the white trail and instead take the yellow and blue trails as planned earlier. The yellow starts with a steep ascent, but in 20 minutes we hit the intersection of yellow and black. We decide that we need to hurry back, as it is almost 2.30 and we need to get back. The map shows that the blue trail has a couple of good views and we start on our hike back. We have walked almost 3 hours with just a couple of short breaks and we are getting tired. We eat our snacks and apples. Now the trail turns narrow and we are climbing rapidly. A big black rat snake just wriggles past in front of me and the four of us stay still for sometime. This has scared the wits out of two of us and now our priority is to get out of the park in good shape. I later read that this is a nonvenomous snake. We quickly rush fast but the hills are taxing us. We go uphill again and end up seeing a good view of the valley. One of my friends picks up a stick just in case. After a brief halt, we bump into two senior folks (it is interesting to see healthy seniors engaged in hikes) and they tell us it is about a mile and a half to the parking lot. We are very relieved to hear it.
It is mostly downhill from there. We catch a few more views – one includes Rt.301 and Rt. 9 where we had parked the car and that is further proof for us being on the right path. I walk on a fallen log across the simple stream and soon we are out of the park. We have hiked about 5 hours and 8 miles. We feel good about the experience. My legs are paining and I feel sleepy too. We have walked most of this loop except for the Red trail, which we have compensated by further venturing out on the white trail. We stop by the Mallu restaurant in Nanuet Karavalli, where we over-ate. Overall, it is a very satisfying day. The park itself is a good place to visit again.
We reserve our first weekend mostly for the BOFA Museums On Us program. BOFA had added quite a few good museums in NYC this year. As I was finalizing my Sunday plan for the museum of June, I chanced upon the World Science Festival street fair at Washington Square and decide to go there. We cannot help if they call a NY event a World Festival. I start early. My feet are still aching. It is my first visit to the Washington Square and I start at the Robotics stall. Science starts really early here and the many families/kids that visit the festival are proof. I glance at all the stalls – sign up for the Connect a Million Kids connectory, read about the Atlas Experiment and was amazed to hear kids ask very interesting questions. As an adult, my curiosity levels are getting lower and it will be a tough ask to appear intelligent to our kids. My wife and I must read science again. I stopped by the Smell Lab from IFF, where they concocted a special perfume just for me and I was able to associate colours to smells quite well. I always imagined that my olfactory nerves were weak. I walk up to the open stages and see funny scientific events like Doktor Kaboom. Also, the Math exhibits are quite interesting too. The upcoming Museum of Math will be a definite stop for the family next year. I also stop by the NY Hall of Science stall, where the Maker Faire will happen later this Sep. I realize, no wonder, NYC remains one of the top cities to live in the world. It will be difficult to justify moving out of here, in spite of the snow and the fickle weather. I wind up the day, with an interesting talk on Mammals from Dia Michels with her book If my Mom were a Platypus. Next year, I should hope to see it with family. This definitely counts as one of my memorable NYC experiences and finishes a perfect summer weekend.
After months of planning, we finally made it to the Bronx Zoo last Sunday. That just leaves Queens in our list of NYC boroughs (the most Indian of them) to visit. This has free admissions under the BOFA Museums on Us program and we have dedicated all our first weekends to exploiting the offer. Back in India, we had visited the much bigger Vandalur zoo twice, but the zoos here have a Children’s or Petting Zoo where kids can pet sheep, llamas, goats, … and Nila loved to feed them at the smaller Central Park zoo.
We start the day early, as we stay an hour away from Manhattan and there are not many trains running on Sundays. We did manage to get ready by 7.45. That is a big achievement because Nila is not used to waking up early here. The train to NYC is at 7.56 and it arrives sharp. We are at a 5 min walk from the station, but have been forced to run on a few days to catch the train, thanks to our late planning. Nothing like that on this day though! At the station, we are pleasantly surprised to see our friends who are off to see the Natural History museum (another item on our To-Visit list). They tell us they are inspired to start the day early by seeing us. For us, we are almost sure that we will not see everything in the zoo given that there are too many exhibits and activities and we have to allow for Nila’s schedule.
We used the planning tool on the zoo site to make a personalized tour of exhibits that we should not miss. The tool said it will take us 5.5 hours to see the Wild Asia Monorail, African Plains, Butterfly Garden, Bug Carousel, Children’s Zoo, Madagascar, Himalayan Highlands, Tiger Mountain, Congo Gorilla Forest and Carter Giraffe Building. This is an awesome feature. If we had done it a couple of days earlier, we could have printed the trip planner PDF because it had a lot of details. It is so easy to plan trips here, right?
We are in Manhattan well before 9am and we have got an hour to get uptown to The Bronx. We are on schedule to catch the 2 train, but then thanks to the weekend subway construction work, the 2 train is not running to our destination and the only train that will go is the 5 one. In order to avoid walking, I decide that I could go downtown on the 2 and transfer to the 5 train. When we get to our transfer station, the weekend schedule change again plays havoc on our plans. The 5 train is not running from downtown. This forces us to catch the 6 train to transfer. So much for planning the trip. Thank you MTA for all these disruptions. Finally after 45 min, we catch the 5 train to the zoo.
The train is fast and Nila starts to sleep on the 4th train we have boarded since we left home. The zoo is 3 blocks up from the station and we could already see a crowd heading towards it. Inside the zoo, we wait for her to wake up. All the sounds accomplish the task faster. We upgrade to a Total Experience ticket which pays for most of the special exhibits. Our first stop is the Wild Asia monorail, a mini-train 25-min ride over the Bronx river and above paddocks having the elephant, tiger, rhino, deer among other things with a supposedly humorous guide. But I still think the Aussie and Kiwi guides are the most humorous of the lot. Maybe, it’s just that I spent a lot of time with them :) Nila goes wild with her KidiZoom camera. She adores it so much that she gets into so many angles just like her mom.
Our next hop is on the shuttle to the other end of the zoo where a lot of our paid exhibits are there. The shuttle stops only at 4 places and we get off at the 2nd. The Children’s Zoo is our next stop. Nila is afraid to feed the goats today. Her change surprises us. It has not been 3 months since our Central Park zoo visit. Fear grips us humans early than we think. All of us are hungry and get our brown bag lunch out. We had brought parotta and chicken curry. It is so yummy. We did not see a microwave here, though we had seen one at the Brooklyn Kids Museum. We are really surprised to see that quite a few families have brought brown bags and it is not just us. That saved us a neat $30+, I would think. Next time, we will bring kothu parota. What a change for us! In India, we never bothered to brown bag on our many week-end trips and we do not think twice about eating out on many days a week. But here, we have been consciously trying to limit our eating out to once a week because it is a significant expense.
Nila has spotted the Dora board and so we walk to the 4D theater featuring Dora. On the way, we see the Bug Carousel and happily board it. Nila loves carousels. We had been on one at the Prospect Park where it cost just $2 and here it is $3 if you don’t have the Total Experience ticket. Nila loves the ride so much. Forward to the theater. It has got the biggest queue for a 8min short 4d film. Dora and the kids – such a thick bond! Nila does not wear the 3D glasses, but she is thrilled by the sensory extras of the 4D movie. It has been a long day and she is tired. We push through the Butterfly Garden and the Mouse House fast. The variety of butterflies we see is amazing. We take a break to allow her to sleep well. Our legs also need rest. We have not walked so much for sometime.
After allowing a short nap for her, we go to the Congo Gorilla Forest. We see cute pink flamingos on the way. The okapi is something we have not seen before. The big gorillas are a feast for the eyes and they come so playfully near us. We see quite a few giraffes next. There is a crowd to see the lions. There are no geladas to see in the Baboon Reserve. Lest I forget, the zoo has a lot of peafowl (our national animal) everywhere. I have seen wild peacocks in Tuticorin who run on hearing us, but here they are happy to pose for pictures on the trees, in the enclosures, … Enough has been said about their beauty! The zoo closes its exhibits at 5, half an hour before it closes. That brings us to the end of our exciting and exhaustive trip. We have not seen everything, but have used the Total Experience ticket well and we need to pay another visit to cover the others that we have missed. One more first summer weekend gone!!!
- New York City is the world’s capital. Period.
- The NYC commute reminds me so much of India – the multi-coloured crowds, the usual delays and the increasing police presence, …
- The daunting skyscrapers amaze me every single time I see them.
- The huge/wide Hudson river seems like a sea to me (incidentally the venue for the thrilling Macy’s July 4 fireworks this year.
- We have hardly seen 1% of the attractions that define the city and the good thing is we have all the time to see them at leisure.
- We have got integrated into the largest Indian community in the US. It is hard to get anywhere without bumping into someone I know (especially so if you visit the theatre or the temple or Anjappar).
- We don’t stay in that quintessentially India place in New Jersey. We stay in one of those so many little towns NJ is reputed for in spite of being one of the smallest states.
- Local government is amazing in our little town. We watched the Memorial Day parade and felt overjoyed by the amazing community sense they display. We also felt the same at the crowded MVC office, when everyone waiting for Drivers’ license, renewals, … was buzzed off with an unAmerican ‘computers are not responding’ message and they started talking about paying taxes.
- We can eat almost every cuisine that can be named. We are testing our tastebuds with new varieties – Greek, Malay/Thai, Peruvian, …
Following up on my year-old post, I shall recommend three tools that are very promising.
Ixigo (http://www.ixigo.com) has been introducing several cool features, the latest being a comparison with OTAs like cleartrip. It is an innovation in the Indian travel space and one which I very much like, though I have seen it on kayak.com Another great feature is its anywhere to anywhere connectivity, connecting smaller towns also. The interface is also slick. It is definitely the best aggregator for Indian flights.
90DI Travel (http://www.90di.com/travel/index.html) includes trains and flights in its routes. I recently searched for a Bangalore to Kannur route and found good suggestions. On an aside, I’ve been planning to see Maniratnam-famous Kannur and Fort Bekal for a long time now and I’d be getting to see it next year. Trains are my favourite mode of travel. Hats off to the team for providing train route search on selected days in a simple and easy manner! They say the fare and seat availability is real-time.
IndiaGroove (http://indiagroove.com/trains/train_finder/search) is a good trainfinder site. If only the Indian Railways site is as intuitive and easy to use! In its beta, IndiaGroove only has trains, but is very effective, though outdated. It allows you to search for all the days in the week and also with layovers upto 24 hours. My Bangalore to Kannur/Cannanore train search gives me good results (not the latest schedules though), which I was not able to get easily from the Indian Rail site.
PS: Later I chanced upon a thread in Indiamike, which lists a few more train search sites.
I have been lucky to see two of the most friendly countries for solo travellers on a budget. When you are checking that out, there is another such list which gives you more options. Some day, I will see Argentina and I will learn Spanish. The USA in its small cities is definitely not backpacker-friendly. There are some countries where you are better off earning your money, not spending it. That explains my almost-zero travel here. But I am excited at visiting friends in the Golden state (is it also called the Sunshine state?) next month.