Guide to driving in the US

 

Heading stateside for a road trip? Well, there are a few things it might be handy to know… 

The US is a country set up for driving. By and large, it is a doddle – and occasionally very boring – as you just slip into cruise control and eat the miles across the country. But there are a few things to look out for that drivers accustomed to British roads might struggle with.

Right or wrong side? Driving on the right is usually the big fear for those who haven’t done it before, but it clicks fairly quickly – especially given that most hire cars in the US are automatics, so you don’t have to go fumbling around with the gear stick that often. The time to watch out is when you’re coming out of car parks – there’s a strong, absent-minded temptation to turn the wrong way.

Right on red? As a general rule, it is OK to turn right on a red light providing there is nothing coming the other way or there’s no sign specifically prohibiting it. New York City is an exception here. People will honk at you if you don’t go when it’s clear in such situations.

Four-ways: Far more common, however, are four way junctions where there are no lights at all. The British thing to do in such scenarios is for everybody to politely way for the others to go, but in the States, the rule of thumb is that whichever car got to the junction first gets to go first. And bear in mind there are an awful lot of these junctions, because Americans are for some reason utterly terrified of building roundabouts.

 

Lane discipline: One aspect of American driving that will either annoy or terrify a novice is that there is no compunction about overtaking in the inside lane. The idea the you stay in the inside lane unless overtaking just hasn’t caught on in the States, meaning you have to use your mirrors a lot more than you might in the UK. In more urban areas, it’s often wise to stick to the middle lane anyway, as lanes can suddenly change into exit ramps on either side, leaving you no choice but to exit because no-one will let you out.

American driving standards: As hinted above, American drivers are terrible for letting people out of a lane they don’t want to be in. And that conforms to the overall picture of American driving. It doesn’t tend to be bad, per se, but slightly switched off. It’s a country of automatics, cruse control and large distances, so drivers tend to slip into a mental cruise control themselves, making them a little less attentive to what’s going on around them than might be ideal. Although, that said, the standard of the American driving test is widely thought to be much lower than the British test.

Freeway faux-pas: The interstate freeways that cross the country can be extremely monotonous to drive on, but they’re the best way of getting from A to B fast. However, they can have surprisingly few exits. So if you miss yours, you can end up driving 30 or 40 miles in the wrong direction before you get to branch off and go the right way again…

 

 

by David Whitley   

 

 

 

We have some great US car rental deals here

 

You can get the USA included as a stopover on a Globehopper round the world or a Navigator round the world

 

Ten reasons why Chicago is the best city in the US

 

 

David Whitley rates Chicago as his favourite city in the US – and here a ten reasons why.

Architecture: The birthplace of the skyscraper looks undeniably astonishing. And that applies to both classic old-school towers like the Carbon and Carbide Building, and newer additions such as the corncob-esque Marina City. It’s somewhere you’re never going to get bored of going on architecture tours.

The glass art: The buildings don’t just look amazing from the outside. Go inside a few, and you’ll often find extraordinary decoration, sometimes the handiwork of the Tiffany Glass Company. These include the giant coloured glass dome in the Macy’s department store and the gorgeous, story-telling glass mosaics inside the Marquette Building.

 

 

The ‘L’: Rattling around these fine buildings is the world’s coolest public transit system. The elevated trains – or ‘L’ – have a rickety rollercoaster feel to them, but it is undoubtedly an impressive spectacle watching trains shaking along just above street level.

The neighbourhoods: Those trains head out into Chicago’s neighbourhoods, which tend to have a different character from the centre. Pilsen has a strong Latin influence and dozens of murals; Logan Square is creatively hipster; Wicker Park has come out the other end of its hipster phase and now is just a great place to shop, eat and drink. And those three are just scratching the surface.

The attitude: It’s a big city, but it’s also midwestern. And, on the whole, Chicago feels remarkably unpretentious. It doesn’t really care what you’re wearing – and it feels several times less intense than Manhattan or judgemental than LA as a result.

The public art: Millennium Park is an absolute belter – with the spitting faces of Crown Fountain and the ultra-reflective, curvy Cloud Gate competing for attention. Other cities would kill for either, but Chicago has plenty more dotted around. Where can casually drop Picasso sculptures in the city centre?

The blues: Chicago is the birthplace of the electric blues, and still full of monstrously atmospheric blues clubs such as Rosa’s Lounge where old timers will pour their hearts out, hit the harmonicas and get feet tapping along to the twelve-bar.

African-American heritage: The blues came to town when African-Americans came north looking for work. Many of them ended up working on the railroads, and the Pullman Porter Museum tells this story – plus the more important one of how the porter organised and fought for civil rights.

The Field Museum: It’s famous for its dinosaurs, but the Field Museum is vast and covering multiple topics. What’s special about it, though, is the way it builds cool stuff into grander, well-presented narratives. For example, those massive dino skeletons come in half way through a huge, interactive section about the development and evolution of life on earth.

Laughs: Chicago is a fantastic city to see live comedy, especially when it comes to the legendary Second City club, which can count Steve Carell and Tina Fey amongst its alumni. It may be a relatively unpretentious place, but it absolutely knows how to put on a show.

We have some great round the worlds via Chicago here

We have some great round the world hotels in Chicago here

 

by David Whitley   

 

10 important lessons learned from a week in New York City


 

A week in New York might not be enough to properly get to grips with the city – but it’s long enough to learn some valuable lessons for next time. Such as…

Weekly Metrocards are far less hassle

You’re going to use the Subway a lot, and that means using Metrocards a lot. Buying single cards each time is madness, while multiple trip cards involve keeping track of how many journeys you’ve got left. It’s far better to just get the $30 weekly card, with unlimited trips.

If trying to pay for it by card, don’t get stumped by having to enter a US zipcode – putting in 99999 will work for foreign cards.

Beware cash-only restaurants

You expect to see cash-only signs in small, cheap eateries, but New York has an annoyingly high amount of mid-range to pricy restaurants that won’t let you pay by card too. This is particularly so in Brooklyn. They’ll claim it’s because of the high fees they’re charged by credit card companies, but it’s basically about tax dodging or trying to be cool. If planning to pay by card, check before you order.

 

 

Brooklyn can be closer

It is generally cheaper to stay in Brooklyn than Manhattan – but don’t assume that it’s further away from the action. For the Statue of Liberty cruises and the 9/11 Museum in Lower Manhattan, for example, you’re only one Subway stop away in downtown Brooklyn. It’d take a lot longer to get there from Midtown.

Beware weekend Subways

The main drawback of staying in Brooklyn is that weekend subway closures can wreak havoc with travel plans. On Saturdays and Sundays, vast swathes of the network are closed for maintenance – check online to see which lines are affected before sauntering to a station.

Dodge the lights

If you prefer to walk (and that is the best way to see the city), it can be worth heading west if trying to cover a big distance. Walking along the High Line (a park along what was once an elevated railway line) or through the Hudson River Park ends up being much faster than waiting for the lights to change at every block.

Stick to the outer avenues

If you do head that way, you’ll find that New York’s outer avenues are far more interesting in terms of bars and restaurants. The soullessness tends to congregate between 4th and 7th Avenue. The main thoroughfares either side of that are much more fun.

Prebook the big attractions

Show up at pretty much any major attraction and you’re likely to find a depressingly long queue outside. This certainly applies to the Empire State Building, Top of the Rock observation deck, 9/11 Museum and Statue of Liberty cruises. Save time and temper by booking pre-allocated time slots online.

And don’t rule out the small ones

Some of New York’s less heralded museums can end up being more interesting than the bigger ones. The Museum of American Finance on Wall Street, is a geekily fascinating look at how money works. The Skyscraper Museum is brilliant for tall building enthusiasts and the JP Morgan Library is packed with rare books in visually astounding settings.

Look inside

Many of the city’s favourite buildings are ogled from the outside, but they’re just as gorgeous inside. Grand Central Terminal’s celestial ceiling is the obvious example, but the Chrysler Building’s marble-drenched, stunningly painted lobby is often overlooked too.

Drink early, and drink on Mondays

Happy hour drinking is the way to merriment without stripping the wallet too badly. These generally finish at around 7pm, but a lot of bars keep happy hour prices all day on Mondays. It’s the slowest day of the week, and they want to lure punters in….

 

 

 

 

Taos Pueblo

 

David Whitley visits one of the oldest settlements in the US, and quickly gets over the photography ban

 

The reaction was one of spluttering disgruntlement. Being asked to pay $16 to see what is essentially a collection of quite cool-looking buildings, and then being told you’re not allowed to take any photographs, is always likely to raise the hackles.

 

That we’d driven for over four hours to get to Taos Pueblo didn’t help. But, playing the responsible tourist, we left the cameras in the car boot and wandered on in.

 

The initial appeal of the Taos Pueblo is the setting. It’s on a 2,100m-high plateau beneath the tallest mountains in New Mexico. Wheeler Peak, the biggest of the Sangre de Cristo range, comes in at just over 4,000m tall.

 

But a close second comes the buildings, made traditional adobe style from earth, sand, straw and water. They’re recoated every year as the winter weather cracks the exteriors. They’re remarkably simple, but highly distinctive – the clay-like orange/ brown colour and flat roofs organised in up to five unsymmetrical tiers have a hugely photogenic quality to them.

 

What is truly remarkable, however, is how long the village has been there. The inhabitants reckon it’s the oldest continually inhabited settlement in the United States, having been built somewhere between 1000AD and 1450AD. There are plenty of other places that would debate that assertion, but there can be no doubt that the tribe was living there way before Spanish adventurers arrived in the area.

 

The inhabitants are known as the Red Willow People, after the trees lining the stream which provides the Pueblo’s water supply. They’re not easily lumped in as part of a larger tribe, as the village historically kept itself to itself, mixing with outsiders through trade rather than attempts at empire-building. Their language has never been written down or recorded, and the Red Willow People insist it never will be.

 

The homes within the Pueblo boundaries – although most now live outside with modern amenities – have no running water or electricity. A sign by the stream asks people not to wade in it – an attempt to keep the water quality as high as possible.

 

Many of the buildings have been turned into arts and crafts shops, or rudimentary restaurants where fry bread tacos are cooked in traditional outdoor ovens. We walked into one of them, perused the tiles, and asked about the photography ban.

 

It turns out that we’ve arrived on a feast day – it’s part of the San Geromino festival – and that photography has long been banned on all feast days. Any spectacles are for the people, not the world.

 

But why the festival? And who is San Geronimo? Well, it’s not the Apache warrior Geronimo, as I’d been expecting – he has nothing to do with this area. It’s boring old St Jerome – a Catholic saint who was born somewhere in central Europe in 347AD. He too has nothing to do with Taos, but the woman selling postcards explains that his feast day was the crucial factor in him being celebrated.

 

There has been an autumn fair going on around September 30th for centuries, it seems. People from other tribes and villages would come to sell crops and pelts. When the Spanish came and foisted Catholicism on Taos Pueblo, they just picked the saint whose dates matched.

 

Elsewhere, we leaf through textiles for sale in another house, assuming that weaving is a traditional thing in Taos. “It’s not,” the woman replies. “These are made elsewhere, inspired by the Pueblo, but nothing in them has symbolic significance to use.”

 

Well, if that’s the case, why aren’t they making their own? “Because we’ve never made textiles here. Only a few villages do. We’ve always been a corn-growing community – there are no sheep to raise, and there’s no cotton to grow here.”

 

The afternoon continues like this, idly asking questions and having expectations confounded. That we’re not allowed to take photos is soon forgotten. Treat people like people, rather than human statues that will look good in a photo album, talk to them, and it’s amazing how much more vivid the picture you get is.

 

by David Whitley

  

 

 

You can get the USA included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW

Earthships of the desert

 

In New Mexico, David Whitley goes to have a laugh at some weird hippy houses – but comes away with a less cynical view

  

On closer inspection, it seems that the circular blue and green spots on the walls are made from glass. Or, more specifically, they’re the bottoms of glass bottles. Decorative, surreal and making good use of recyclable materials then.

 

In all honesty, though, the glass bottles are probably the least weird thing about the homes in the Greater World Community. On a high altitude desert plain, just outside Taos in New Mexico, this initially appears to be an odd-looking hippy commune. But there’s more to it than that – the emphasis is as much on saving money as saving the environment.

 

The houses aren’t really houses – they’re ‘Earthships’, and the Greater World Community acts as a showcase for them. From here, workers go around the world to construct these weird little homes – some of which look like Gaudi has been let loose on an igloo.

 

They’re designed for people who want to live sustainably and off-the-grid. Heating and cooling systems are built into the construction, water is reused as many times as it feasibly can be, and a combination of new science and old wisdom is used to make everything work.

 

The outer walls are done adobe style (clay, sand, straw and water), just as the native Americans in the area have done for centuries. But those walls are made thick to keep the heat in – and the interior insulation is hundreds of old tyres, packed with earth. The theory is that you can find old tyres pretty much everywhere in the world – it’s as close as you’re going to get to a renewable building material.

 

The sun-facing wall, however, is made of large glass windows – natural lighting at its finest. And behind those windows are all manner of plants, grown using an aquaponic system that requires 90% less water than soil-based gardening. Fish are kept in tanks, their droppings used as fertiliser for the plants. The water for watering those plants? Well that’s channelled from the sinks and showers.

 

Drinkable water comes from rain and snow, stored in rooftop tanks. Energy comes from sun and wind – notably the solar panels on the roof. And utility bills come in at under $100 a year.

 

In theory, they can be built anywhere – and Earthships have cropped up all over the world, from France to Honduras.

 

The disturbing thing is how eminently sensible this all seems. I’d come for a cheap, curious giggle at some weird-looking houses. But unconventional doesn’t necessarily mean stupid. Particularly in areas with plenty of sunshine, this is a practical way of building and running affordable housing. It might not look like anyone’s dream home, but sometimes dreams have to be tempered down for the real world. Strip away the hippy feel, and that’s where these odd-looking homes are grounded.

 

by David Whitley

  

   

You can get the USA included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW