David Whitley chats to an Australian bar owner, and discovers that there’s far more to Washington DC than first meets the eye.
If you fly into Washington, try and tick off the highlights and then leave within a couple of days, you could be forgiven for thinking there’s not much more to it than showpiece monuments and a rather unfulfilling downtown area. And it’s true that this is one major part of Washington. The museums and memorials around the National Mall are what a lot of people come for, and if you don’t venture too far afield from there, you’ll be surrounded by suit-clad types intent on showing how big their wallets/ balls are in hugely expensive be-seen steakhouses.
David Whitley is moved to tears at the tiny island in New York Harbor that provided the first taste of America for millions of people.
The start point
Shouty right-wing America may try and claim that the country rose to greatness on many things – low taxation, a mythical set of shared values, the will of God, you name it. But if there is one fundamental reason that the US has become the sole world superpower it is today, it is mass immigration.
Don’t believe me? Then take a trip to Ellis Island.
This tiny island in New York Harbor (although technically part of New Jersey) was, for so many new Americans, where it all began. Between 1892 and 1924, over twelve million immigrants came through Ellis Island – the country’s primary registration centre and checkpoint. Today, at least 100m Americans are descended from someone who was processed there. These days the island is a big museum and monument to those who flooded in from across the world – and if there’s a more moving place in the entire country, then I’d love to see it.
David Whitley braves an all day downpour to go and indulge his geek tendencies in Washington DC. And if there’s a better collection of museums, monuments and downright fascinating stuff anywhere in the world, he’d like to see it.
It took a single look out of the window for my heart to sink. It was pelting it down in almost Biblical proportions, and the only pedestrians I could see were fighting a losing battle with thoroughly inadequate umbrellas
David Whitley turns on the radio as he’s travelling down the California coast, and becomes transfixed by the local radio stations.
For all the reasons to go on a road trip through the United States – beautiful scenery, weird Americana, the opportunity to get stabbed to death by a redneck hitchhiker – perhaps the greatest incentive of all is the chance to spend hours and hours listening to American radio stations.
David Whitley discovers how the advent of nuclear testing in the Nevada desert coincided with the beginning of Sin City as a tourism hotspot.
For all the things that are incredible and absurd about Las Vegas, Sin City’s most remarkable achievement is how quickly it has grown. Today, the population of the Las Vegas metropolitan area is around 1.9 million. In 1960 – just 51 years ago – the population was 64,405.
I know this, because it says so in the Atomic Testing Museum – a Vegas attraction that deviates from the norm of faux Eiffel Towers, in-hotel roller coasters and Central American men trying to sell you prostitutes while you watch the dancing fountains at the Bellagio.
David Whitley discovers what happens if people stop whining about the money spent on public art, and let their city become a giant canvas.
I grew up in a town where possibly the most controversial thing to have ever happened was the erection of a statue that featured a man putting on a sock. It cost £23,000 and the townsfolk were outraged. A scandalous waste of public funds, they said. Couldn’t the money be better spent on something else, they said (without specifically going into what such a sum would achieve).
David Whitley hits Chicago, and dearly wishes he could hit it for longer.
Before I’d even ventured above ground, I felt that I was going to regret only having four days in Chicago. The airport seemed exciting – full of weird art – and when I finally got to the subway station, a four piece hip-hop act was putting on the sort of show that should shame most buskers into realising that they’ve got no talent and are better off getting a job stacking shelves at Tesco.
Travelling up the east coast of the United States, David Whitley encounters a few people who tell the tale of modern day immigration.
Past and present
The days of open door immigration in the United States, as told so profoundly at the old registration centre at Ellis Island, are long gone. These days, emigrating to the United States is a tough, ruthlessly controlled process, and most of the millions that came in the past would stand no chance now.
David Whitley gets the chills as he visits “the world’s most influential prison” – the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
I don’t believe in ghosts. But if they did exist, this would be where they hang out. The corridor may have a high arch, usually associated with light and space, but here it just seems to house vast chunks of extra bleakness. Either side of me is a line of evenly spaced doors, and lying behind them are ruins of the least stirring variety imaginable. Crumbing brick and plaster have just stayed where they’ve fallen, while the odd sliver of a chair or broken bottle rests in discomfort amongst the rubble.
Part of the fun of being in Las Vegas is watching idiots. There are plenty of the whooping, cheering variety, but this is America so you expect that. If there’s one thing that Americans like, it’s whooping.
David Whitley gets to know more than just a fuzzy legend when he hits the John F Kennedy trail in Boston.
It’s funny how some people become cultural icons without people knowing too much about them. Just ask any student wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt if they can tell you how many people he killed, and you’ll get my drift. One such person (at least as far as I’m concerned) is John Fitzgerald Kennedy. If most of us had to name an American president, he’d be near the top if not at the top of the list; JFK is the sort of figure that transcends the generations.
David Whitley discovers that the craft beer movement in the United States has hit the mainstream, and suspects there might not be a better country for drinking in.
The magic of sitting at a bar and just watching can often be underrated. On an unremarkable Sunday evening, I’ve shuffled up to my stool, and the show is underway. One TV is showing baseball, another is showing American football. Fighting for attention amongst this is a man with a guitar; evidently not one that the bar has paid to show up and perform. He has just brought it along, and is getting a bit of practice in.
David Whitley learns a few important lessons on New York’s art museum trail.
As a general rule, art galleries are not really my thing. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the odd painting or sculpture – I just don’t havethe level of knowledge and interest to make studying numerous works aparticularly enjoyable experience. I know I’m not alone in this. In fact, you can probably go into any art museum in the world and see a fair few people trudging around, tryingreally hard to enjoy it but ultimately failing. Still, when there’s an art museum that is generally regarded as world class, I’ll usually feel obligated to go and have a look while I’m in town. And, in New York, that meant the Solomon R Guggenheim museum.
David Whitley experiences the best and the worst of guided tours in history-packed Boston.
The atmosphere on the trolley bus had the feel of a post-hangover Sunday night where you really want to go to bed and put a miserable day to rest, but you force yourself to stay up because it’s probably a bit too early still. Prattling away half-heartedly into the microphone was a driver/ guide who had clearly sacrificed any enthusiasm he once had to the same demon who took his ability to speak in a vaguely clear manner. It was the partly incomprehensible rambling of a man who knew his script and hated it, yet hadn’t the energy or desire to depart from it.
David Whitley takes the time-honoured jaunt into uncharted territory in order to catch up with the American branch of his family.
There are few things more odd in the travel experience than the almost inevitable point where you go to stay with an obscure member of family who lives along the route you’re taking. In my case, it really shouldn’t have been that obscure. It’s just that due to fate, geographical distance and sheer laziness, I’ve not seen my uncle in a few years, and the rest of his family in nearly twenty. And after catching up with two long-lost cousins in Washington DC, it was time for the more typical meet-the-extended-family travel experience.
David Whitley does his credibility no favours, but has a great time at Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 in San Francisco.
‘Touristy’ places are often very unfairly maligned. After all, there’s usually a very good reason why tourists flock to them (Hard Rock Cafés being the main inexplicable exception to this general rule). And sometimes it’s better to fight the urge to be cool and just run with the crowd. After all, there are only so many pig blood-splattered poetry cafés in terrifying crime-blighted trendy suburbs that you can go to before you realise that trying to be hip all the time isn’t all that much fun.
David Whitley abandons all pretence of being cool in Philadelphia, and discovered that taking the touristy option shouldn’t necessarily be sneered at
A decision to make
Stood at the bottom of the steps, a dilemma crossed my mind. I had two options here, and the first was to calmly walk up them and enter the Philadelphia Museum of Art with measured decorum. The second was to run up them, humming Gonna Fly Now with unnerving enthusiasm, stopping at the top to perhaps punch the air or shout: “Adriiiiiiiian!”
David Whitley feels largely disappointed when he goes to the top of the highest building in the Western Hemisphere, but then discovers a far more appealing way to explore Chicago’s amazing architecture.
If there is one cast-iron way to induce disappointment in any city, it is stumping up hard cash in order to go to the top of the highest building there. Irrespective of which city it is or how high the tallest building is, the problems are usually similar.
David Whitley puts his guidebook away and prepares for a sensual bombardment as he ambles through the parks and streets of Manhattan.
There are many cities where attempting to drive is an extremely bad idea. And, providing that the public transport is vaguely decent, the usual advice will be to stick to the buses and the train network.
David Whitley is hit by surprise after surprise when he visits Hearst Castle, a publishing magnate’s dream house overlooking the Central California coast.
It’s a theoretical scenario that all children and most adults attempt to put themselves in: If I was so rich that I could do anything I wanted, what would I do?
I suspect most of us haven’t got the imaginative powers to come up with something that’s fantastical but feasible enough to wow the rest of the world. But one man had. And luckily, he also had the cash to throw at it.
David Whitley takes a trip out to the Nevada – Arizona border, and finds himself inside the Hoover Dam.
It’s a childish first thought when staring out at the Hoover Dam, but it struck me anyway. “Gee, it must have taken a hell of a lot of beavers to do that.” Of course, beavers didn’t really make the Hoover Dam. Lots and lots of people did, and it’s justifiably regarded as one of the greatest engineering projects of all time. It straddles what was formerly known as Black Canyon on the border between Nevada and Arizona, and as a result has created Lake Mead – one of the world’s largest man-made lakes.
David Whitley takes on the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas by helicopter.
There are some places in the world where, if you don’t put your hand in your pocket and do it properly, you’re just cheating yourself. And nowhere is that more true than the Grand Canyon.
In San Francisco, David Whitley visits the island that was once the world’s most notorious prison. And he doesn’t quite find what he was expecting.
I haven’t seen The Rock; it breaks the all important no Nicolas Cage rule. Nevertheless, I’m sure Sean Connery’s accent is splendid throughout the movie. It appears as though I am in something of a minority on this one, however. A show of hands on the dock of Alcatraz Island reveals that at least 60% have seen one film that features what was arguably the world’s most famous prison. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise – the legend of Alcatraz has built up through rumour and artistic interpretation over the years, arguably becoming something far bigger than it ever was during the jail years.
David Whitley enters the US by train, and discovers that life on the rails doesn’t necessarily have to be an unpleasant experience.
It’s fair to say that you’d never see this in Britain. The conductor wanders over the table, takes a perch on the seat arm and starts chatting to the passengers about what they can see through the window. “Keep an eye out for the big rocks – that’s where they like to hang out.”
David Whitley reverts to childhood in Santa Cruz, central California’s hippy-heavy seaside town.
There are a few things that are essential ingredients of a holiday. In fact, it’s not a proper holiday without them. Ice cream is the obvious one, going on a boat is pretty much mandatory and it would be sacrilegious to suggest foregoing the bit where you go to the shops to replace something you thought you’d packed but actually left on the spare bed at home.
David Whitley clears the diary and goes wandering through Las Vegas’ casino resorts – finding lions, murder scenes and Titanic wreckage on the way.
If there is one city in the world that people are likely to profess to hating without actually having been there, it’s Las Vegas. It’s pretty easy to understand the objections; it’s a huge den of vice, dominated by casinos, choked by enormous vehicles and where the only way to defeat ‘big’ is to go bigger.
On one extraordinarily long day that’s actually three, David Whitley visits two famous beaches on two continents.
With the possible exception of Santa Monica, Malibu Beach is arguably the most famous beach in the United States. In a way, it is indicative of Los Angeles’ sprawl – it feels like an incredibly long, stressful drive to downtown from there, but it is still regarded as part of the city. The Malibu sands stretch out for miles as well, prettying up the development that spreads along the California coastline north of LA.
David Whitley can’t help but get pulled along by the fame bandwagon in Los Angeles.
“I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about you. You’ve just got it. With the right people looking after you, you can make it,” the old soak continues, hauling an escaped globule of tell-tale drool back in from his lower lip. He’s worked himself up into a distinctly homoerotic frenzy over the poor chap who just happens to be on the stool next to him. A young actor, struggling with a bar job until his big break arrives, he’s just come in for a drink. Instead, he has stoically sat through an hour of amorous intentions being thinly disguised as a career pep talk.
And the well-oiled stranger, having racked his brain for a single black actor that may work as a comparison point, is ready for the killer line. “You could be the next Sidney Poitier,” he pants.
It’s met with an almost imperceptible roll of the eyes, and a tiny, exasperated head shake towards the bar. The barmaid has sensed his torture and security are on the way.
David Whitley escapes to Isla Mujeres - an island sanctuary off the coast of Mexico’s mass tourism capital.
It’s something of a miracle that more cartoons haven’t adopted baby turtles as their central characters. They are so adorably cute that even the most avowed animal hater couldn’t help but go gooey at the knees. Put hundreds of them together and hearts start melting like ice creams on hot days. They all seem to swim up and ask if they can come out to play.
David Whitley hacks through thick Guatemalan rainforest to visit one of the world’s great ancient sites – the abandoned Mayan city of Tikal.
The roars cry out over the thick Central American jungle. It’s all very Jurassic Park. As we plod through the puddles and over the slippery limestone it gets louder, nearer, more fearsome. That can only be a T-Rex. Our guide, Antonio, has different ideas. “Howler monkey,” he says. “And not a very happy one.”
David Whitley starts to get the sunshine lifestyle of Santa Barbara once the wine starts going down.
Take the average person’s snapshot of California, and you’ve got a place of sunshine, open-topped cars rolling down the freeways and have-a-nice-day good life oozing over the sides of the postcard. What will come as a surprise when you spend more than a few cursory hours in the right spot is that there is a multitude of Californias. The mountainous Sierra Nevada and the heat-trap deserts bear little resemblance to the thick forests of the north and the conservative agricultural centres that spring up as soon as you deviate more than a few miles from the coast.