Underground and underappreciated New York

 

 

In what’s now an expensive part of Lower Manhattan, David Whitley gets much more than be bargained for.

Sometimes, the most enjoyable moments in travel are when what you’re expecting turns out to be something else. Granted, these can often be the least enjoyable moments in travel too, but when serendipity strikes in your favour, it’s really quite wonderful.

What had sounded interesting about the tour was the chance to wander through the catacombs of the Basilica of St Patrick’s Old Cathedral. I mean, who knew there were catacombs to wander around in Manhattan, right?

And, as it turns out, the catacombs are moderately interesting. They’re not the ancient, dusty, spooky things that the word “catacombs” might evoke – more subterranean corridors. Included down here are the impressively large vault of General Thomas Eckert, whose desk the Emancipation Proclamation was drawn on, and the tomb of the Delmonicos. The latter are generally regarded as bringing the a la carte restaurant to the United States, and the Delmonico steak – something New Yorkers will still ask for by name.

This absolutely falls in the “moderately interesting” category, and you’d have to be really geekily fascinated by the individuals in question to push it to any higher level than that. What ends up being unexpectedly fascinating is what comes before getting down into the catacombs.

The Basilica is in what’s now known as Nolita, one of the most expensive areas in Manhattan to buy or rent property. To say it has not always been like this is a considerable understatement. In the 1830s, this was the North End of the Five Points, an area so densely populated and crime-ridden that Charles Dickens called it more dangerous than the London slums.

 

 

The first group of immigrants to settle here were the Irish – as the name of the Basilica would suggest. Most of the names on the gravestones in the surrounding cemetery – which predates the church – are Irish. But by the middle of the 20th century, it was a predominantly Italian area. And the Italian names can be seen on little post box-style niches that became popular after the Catholic Church permitted cremation in 1863.

Perhaps more unusual are the thick, tall walls around the cemetery, and these date back to the gangs of the Five Points, which included some pretty brutal nativists who wanted the immigrants out. They burned down several Catholic churches, and St Patrick’s was constantly guarded in a bid to stop it meeting the same fate. It eventually did – but at the hands of a stove fire rather than malevolent arsonists.

Extraordinary characters are unveiled along the way. There’s a bust of ‘Dagger’ John Hughes, the first Archbishop of the New York diocese, who’d have probably risen further in the church were it not for his notorious sharp tongue.

Then there’s the tomb of John Dubois, built into the church steps. His theory was that people walked all over him in life, so they may as well in death too.

And, in the north cemetery, there’s the grave of Pierre Toussaint, who was born as a slave in Santo Domingo (now Haiti). His owners brought him to New York, where he became the most sought-after hairdresser in the city, bought his freedom, became incredibly rich and then the church’s chief financier. He’s on the second stage of the track to sainthood – the Church is just waiting for sufficient miracles to occur that are related to him.

The range of backgrounds is fascinating – and the congregation at the Basilica these days is heavily Latin American-skewed – and the whole place becomes a microcosm of the greater New York story. It’s a city where waves of people have arrived, been fought by hostile groups already there, then replaced by another wave from somewhere else. It’ll probably be like that for a few more centuries yet, irrespective of who ends up in the catacombs.

David went on the Tommy’s New York Catacombs and Candlelight Tour 

by David Whitley   

 

 

 

 

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

 

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   

 

The Dry Past - Vancouver under Prohibition

 

 

 

“You might have seen a blind pig here,” says Lenard, leader of the Forbidden Tour which probes Vancouver’s less respectable past.

We’re standing at the top of Market Alley, an unsavoury back street strung with electrical cables. What he’s talking about isn’t an animal, but a nickname for the illegal drinking dens which flourished here a century ago.

The Prohibition era in 1920s USA is well known, but Vancouver got there first – the Canadian city banned alcoholic drinks between 1917 and 1921.

The result was the speakeasy and gangster activity you might expect, all of which make a great tale as our group walks the streets between the Downtown and Gastown.

Lenard, dressed in gangster gear of black suit, black tie and black hat, starts us out in an earlier alcoholic age when the Klondike Gold Rush brought thirsty prospectors through town.

We pause opposite the attractive Victorian Hotel, a restored relic of an era awash with saloons serving whisky, gin and rum. The average North American drank three times as much then as now, says our guide, and we wonder how they got anything done.

The tour focuses as much on period highlights as it does on Prohibition, as Lenard points out grand architectural landmarks such as the Permanent Building (once a bank), the Dominion Building (once the tallest commercial building in the British Empire), and the World Building (with then-scandalous nude sculptures on its facade).

At a stop by the Cenotaph, we learn that 1898 Vancouver had 60 saloons serving a population of 20,000; but the anti-alcohol Temperance movement was on the rise. The women of the movement protested by praying and singing hymns outside these bars, hoping to shame men into returning to their families. 

When British Columbia went dry in October 1917, the Mob moved in with their blind pigs and bathtub gin.

There were ways to obtain alcohol legally during this period, says Lenard. You could take your chances with dangerously adulterated industrial alcohol; ask your doctor to prescribe it as medicine; or see if your church would sell you a bottle of communion wine on the sly.

Even with these options, there was plenty of corruption. We pause by the gate to Chinatown to hear about Walter Findlay. Though an anti-alcohol campaigner and appointed Prohibition Commissioner, he led a double life as a major bootlegger with a warehouse packed with illicit whisky.

In Chinatown we learn of other vices, including the smoking of opium in local dens. One parking lot is pointed out as the former site of an opium factory, damaged in the terrible anti-Asian riots of 1907.

In Gastown, we turn to the aftermath of the Prohibition era. Though the ban was overturned in 1921, the provincial government maintained strict controls on the sale of alcoholic beverages.

Outside the former Rainier Hotel, Lenard tells us about the “beer parlours” invented by the government, which allowed no music, no standing, no games and no women. The aim being, of course, to make drinking as boring as possible.

 

 

Luckily, 21st century Vancouver is more relaxed about the devil’s brew, and there are plenty of pleasant places to drink in the heart of Gastown. That’s where Lenard ends the tour, after reciting an amusing poem outside the former Grand Hotel.

It’s been fun. Now it’s time for a nightcap.

The Forbidden Tour runs nightly. Fee C$28, book via forbiddenvancouver.ca.

Tim Richards visited Vancouver courtesy of Destination Canada (destinationcanada.com) and Tourism Vancouver (tourismvancouver.com).

You can get Vancouver included as a stopover on our Discoverer round the world

 

Published by Stuart Lodge

YVR Forever - Vancouver Airport Highlights

 

I never pay much attention to airports, partly because I only travel with cabin luggage. If lucky with the length of the passport control queue, I leave the aircraft and zip through the terminal as quickly as possible.

Even I, however, have noticed the interior of Vancouver International Airport (YVR). There’s something about its blue-green decor, dotted with timber carvings, that relaxes the incoming passenger on the long march to Customs. And I’m not the only passenger who likes the place. In 2017, YVR was named the Best Airport in North America for the eighth consecutive year in the Skytrax World Airport Awards. These awards are voted on by millions of passengers worldwide, conveying credibility. 

So what’s so good about this airport, and why does it make an attractive alternative entry point to North America? Here are some highlights.

1. City Train

YVR is connected to Downtown Vancouver by trains on the Canada Line, which depart from an elevated station just outside the terminals. Trains operate from 5am to 1am every day, taking about 30 minutes to reach Waterfront Station on a C$9.10 fare.

2. Local Food

Beyond the usual chains, there are eateries with a local flavour within the airport. One of the most recent openings is an outlet of the popular Lift Bar & Grill, adding to its original premises overlooking Vancouver Harbour. Wrapped around the airport’s aquarium, the restaurant is decorated in a coastal waters theme and serves Oceanwise certified seafood. 

3. De-stress Dogs

In late 2017, the airport introduced Ambassador Dogs to its terminals in an effort to lower travel tension. These calming canines are trained to interact with humans, reducing pre-flight nerves by allowing passengers to pat a friendly dog before a flight.

 

 

4. Lounge Access

Even if you’re not flying in First or Business, you can gain access to the facilities of YVR’s Plaza Premium Lounge. There are four of these lounges scattered through the domestic and international terminals, providing free food and drink, and free wifi. Entry is $C52.50 for a two-hour stay, book via yvr.ca

5. Traditional Art

One of the things that makes YVR distinctive is its plentiful artwork crafted by local First Nations people, drawing on themes of land, sea and sky. In the Customs Hall, look for the Musqueam Welcome Figures, inspired by traditional house posts.

6. Airport Views

The Public Observation Area in the Domestic Terminal is a good place to meet up with local friends or family, as it’s located before security. Through its big windows you can watch flights taking off, and there’s complimentary telescope use for close-up views. There’s also an interactive model of Sea Island, upon which the airport is located. 

7. Aviation Recreation

A local secret next to YVR is Larry Berg Flight Path Park. On the east side of Sea Island, it’s lined up with the end of the south runway, which means it’s a spectacular place to go plane spotting while picnicking. The park also includes a centrepiece globe and signage about the airport’s history. If you can’t get enough of aviation, this place is for you.

 

 

For more about Vancouver International Airport’s highlights and services, visit yvr.ca.

Tim Richards visited Vancouver courtesy of Destination Canada (destinationcanada.com) and Tourism Vancouver (tourismvancouver.com).

You can get Vancouver included as a stopover on our Discoverer round the world

 

Published by Stuart Lodge