Have you heard about the terrible medical condition that sometimes afflicts European travellers? There are a couple of different strains of this dreadful disease known as ABC including, Another Bloody Church, Another Bloody Castle or Another Bloody Chateau for the Francophiles.
Not to be outdone in the USA, they have ABM (Another Bloody Monument) but in Washington DC, I bloody loved it!
A couple of years ago we made a flying trip to the USA for The Brave Man* to complete a research project and attend a huge national conference in Washington, D.C. I was chief bag carrier and got to ‘play’ tourist to my heart’s content while he had to be serious. That worked for me!
Our introduction to Washington was on check-in at our hotel, the Gaylord National Harbour. It was an eye-popping 2 000 rooms and had a full-sized village constructed in its atrium area. This should have given us some inkling of the other big things waiting for us in this city. Yes, I know I am showing my small-town roots when I marvel at these things but having worked in the 5-star hotel industry in a previous life, I have some understanding of what it takes to run a hotel efficiently and effectively, yet I am still boggled by the idea of 2000 rooms.
We tossed our bags into our hotel room and headed out to explore. While the Gaylord was an amazing hotel, it was quite a distance from the centre of the city so it gave us a good opportunity to try out the local public transport system. It was our first experience with the concept of travel cards (that you load with credit) rather than paper tickets, so no doubt, we looked like typical dopey tourists as we inserted our unloaded travel cards into the turnstiles, only to have them spat back out. Oh well, all part of the fun.
We eventually arrived at the L’Enfant Plaza metro station in central Washington and strolled the block or two onto the Mall. It felt quite surreal to stand in that large open space with the Washington Monument at one end and Capitol Hill at the other. The Mall is like the glue that holds all the key sights together. It is an elongated, green expanse edged by all manner of monuments, museums and galleries. After seeing it on TV for so long, we were finally there.
As The Brave Man* only had the afternoon free before his conference commenced, we had to focus on what he would like to see and he chose the National Museum of American History. This museum was the ideal introduction to the entire country, both politically and socially. It had the most extensive coverage of USA military history which made The Brave Man* quip that it appears that the only countries the USA has not met in battle are Australia and New Zealand! (But perhaps if Donald Trump wins the Presidential race next month, that anomaly will be rectified!)
The next day dawned bright and clear and I prepared to play tourist while the other half prepared to play conference. I was rugged up to within an inch of my life as there were still patches of snow laying around, but the brilliant blue skies made the cold more than bearable.
With the day stretching out before me, I took a slightly different approach and jumped on the DC Old Town Trolley Company bus to help me to cover more territory. This was an effortless way to get an overview of the city and its history. First, I took the Green Line out to the north-west of Washington through historic suburbs, past all the embassies and then up and around the National Cathedral before returning back through Georgetown, Foggy Bottom (I love that name!!) and the White House. I jumped straight off that bus and onto the Orange Line, which travelled around the Mall – up to Capitol Hill, Union Station and the Jefferson Memorial. Both of these tours had comprehensive audio commentary and by the end of the day, my brain was fit to burst, it was so full of facts and figures. What it also achieved was to highlight all the places I wanted to visit on foot, and in depth, the next day.
With my running shoes on and firmly laced, I set out on my final day to cover a serious amount of territory. Stay out of the way of this tourist on a mission!
First stop was the Lincoln Memorial which was as imposing as I had imagined. They really know how to revere their presidents in that town, although I was a tad disappointed that Lincoln didn’t come to life as he does in the Night at the Museum II movie. Now that would have been memorable!
To continue the Lincoln theme, I spent a fascinating couple of hours at the Ford’s Theatre where Lincoln was fatally wounded by John Wilkes Booth. An absorbing snapshot of history, but far more American political shenanigans than this small Australian brain could ever process and retain. A tip for the unwary: get to the Theatre first thing in the day or be prepared for long queues.
The White House was high on the must-see list. Naturally, you couldn’t get close to the building, and who would want to with those crack snipers on the roof? Instead the official Visitor Centre provided useful videos and background on its construction, and many of its colourful residents. The next best thing to seeing inside the American seat of power.
The Korean War Memorial was powerful and sobering. Nineteen life size sculptures of men in army uniform make their way, in formation, through low shrubs as if on reconnaissance. At the same time, their images are mirrored in a marble wall, doubling the impact of the scene to 38 soldiers to reflect the geographic 38th parallel the War was fought on, and the 38 000 soldiers killed in the conflict.
Just around the corner, the Martin Luther King (MLK) Memorial was thought-provoking and ingenious at the same time. The massive stone statue of MLK links to one of his speeches that included ‘out of a mountain of despair, comes a stone of hope’. It is also surrounded by many of his iconic sayings – as if the sight of a nine metre tall man isn’t impactful enough, now it challenges me to have to think as well?? For once, my timing was good and I tacked myself onto a crowd standing around a National Parks ranger. You get so much more out of a visit when someone local, and passionate, shares their knowledge.
Time was running out as I jogged back up the Mall – with all the jogging locals – past the Washington Monument (closed to the public due to safety concerns after a recent earthquake), paying a quick visit to the Smithsonian Castle, and finally arriving at the National Museum of the American Indian. Thank goodness there were lots of interpretive videos and places to sit down in this facility, as that was all I was good for by that stage in the day – tired legs and overloaded brain.
As I stumbled back to the Metro, I felt a little guilty that I really hadn’t done Washington justice. This is a deeply fascinating city and you would need to commit at least a week to even scratch the surface…although, maybe short, targeted visits are just the ticket to avoid a bad dose of ABM!
The Basics Box
What: Two and a half days in Washington DC to capture the essence of the city. Definitely not long enough!
Where: Washington DC, United States of America – mostly within a 1-2km radius of The Mall.
When: We were there in Spring – just after a few days of serious snow! Cold but beautiful.
Why: Visit Washington if you enjoy history of all kinds, politics, architecture, art, science and spacious parks and lakes. Yes, just about something for everyone.
How: We used the public transport buses and trains to get to/from our hotel. It was faultless once we worked out how the thing worked.
Who: Myself, The Brave Man* and thousands of patriotic Americans and international tourists.
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!
The Brave Man* decided that we needed to escape the chills of Winter and he had his heart set on Hawaii. Hawaii was nowhere near the top of my bucket list but as I have been known to go to an envelope opening, who was I to argue?
By the time the trip rolled around we were both longing for some warmth. We got that in spades on Kauai Island, one of the many islands that make up the Hawaiian Island group.
It was like stepping onto the set of Gilligan’s Island – swaying palm trees, thatched roofs and a profusion of frangipani. If MaryAnn had stepped out of the jungle bearing a coconut cream pie I would not have blinked. Or maybe that was just the jetlag kicking in.
Kauai is called the Garden Island – picture lush green as far as the eye can see. The main road hugs the edge of the coast, almost completely circling the island, perfect for exploration – just keep the sea on your right or left depending on the direction travelled.
I believe that half the fun of travelling to other countries is the opportunity to experience a place on a whole range of different levels – from the tourist high spots to the local haunts. Nothing enables this more than using public transport. Yes, I could get somewhere more quickly, more easily and in more comfort if I hired a car, but where is the fun in that?
Kauai has a fantastic public transport system with air-conditioned buses almost every 20 minutes. You can ride east or west, as far as you like, for the princely sum of US$2.00. The bus system is pushbike-friendly too and each bus has a clever racking system attached to the outside of the front of the bus to easily and safely transport bicycles. That would be handy if you were planning a cycling tour of the island – simply ride for as long as you like and then pull up at the first bus stop and wait for your $2 chauffeur
We went East the first day to Hanalei Bay. It is lovely to sit and watch the world go, or to idle, peering into backyards, down small streets and dusty lanes, and past shops and buildings giving into age or giving up to the jungle. Not all of it was pretty but all of it was interesting.
Needless to say we were a bit of novelty – a couple of tourists on the local bus and Aussie ones at that. Perhaps it is the gentle rhythm of the road but it seems to encourage people to get to know their neighbours. One fellow passenger shared his concerns about the amount of Chinese investment in the island locking the locals out of property ownership. Conversations like these, eerily familiar, give a small insight into the ‘real’ life of the island rather than just the tourist gloss. The bus driver looked a bit puzzled as we rode the bus to the very last stop. We had nothing better to do and we had to get our $2 worth.
Hanalei Bay is the Hawaiian town of your imagination – wall-to-wall sarong shops interspersed with ukulele and surf shops. If you are not interested in any of this kitsch then retail pickings are slim, but the scenery makes up for it. This piece of paradise has been the setting for many movies including South Pacific and The Descendants. George Clooney was nowhere to be seen that day but we did strike up a conversation with a man who “loved the idea of traveling to Australia but there were too many things there that could kill you!” I guess that is one way we can manage our tourist numbers.
After the success of our bus journeys on Kauai, we thought we would adopt the same approach in Honolulu on Oahu Island. This is a completely different undertaking in a large city with multiple bus lines going every which way plus hotel shuttles, trolley buses and taxis. But being over-confident we were not deterred.
The Brave Man*, in need of some retail therapy, decided we needed to visit the Outlet Centre and bag a bargain or six. The concierge at the hotel recommended a shuttle bus ($10 each) but we were convinced we could navigate the public transport system for $2.50 each. What could go wrong? It was only a short, direct ride out there on the #42 bus.
Starving, dying of thirst and in dire need of a bathroom, we arrived at the Outlet Centre nearly four hours later! We had seen the seedier side of Honolulu, thousands of tents of the homeless and more graffiti and rundown businesses than we cared to count. We had changed buses, we had sat in the sun with the locals at the bus non-shelters, and had had plenty of time to consider our actions. All of which could have been avoided by investing in a 40 minute shuttle bus ride and $10.
A shuttle bus was immediately booked for the return trip to the hotel and we ran to make the most of the remaining 45 minutes shopping time! At least that limited the amount of damage to the credit card.
Taking the easiest option is sometimes the best option.
Take the time to travel simply but be prepared for things not to go to plan.
These little inconveniences are ‘first world problems’, so chalk it up to experience and enjoy it all regardless.
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!