A Travellerspoint blog

Lima, Peru

overcast 16 °C
View Our Trip on chiaramichael's travel map.


Trip to cell block.
We arrived to Lima airport at 1am, to a chaotic arrivals hall where we searched for our names amongst hundreds of others, and we were swiftly taken into our overpriced airport-hostel transfer (non english speaking driver, unmarked black Mercedes, luxurious but slightly paranoia inducing) and after passing through some very sketchy neighbourhoods we arrived to our first South American hostel, Family Backpackers in the Miraflores district. Dying for a bottle of water after the flight and knowing we couldn't drink the tap water for the foreseeable future, we were gutted to find out the hostel did not have any for its guests. There was no kettle either, so twenty minutes later, with two steaming mugs of boiled pan water in hand we were shown to our room, or on first impressions, a prison cell on the roof. Out of the top floor of the hostel, up a flight of stairs, then a wooden ladder, scrambled onto the top of the building, (a joy with our backpacks) and into quite a large room, displaying two single beds with about a foot difference in height, and a single lightbulb hanging. The door bolted closed and a solitary square window of about 20cm was our only outlook into the Lima rooftops. After a 16 hour flight we wanted to at least connect to wifi, no chance. But we were so tired that we made do, and would sort out a room change in the morning, sharing a single bed in the chilly spring weather.

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Lima rooftops, door to our cell, new favourite drink (perhaps was won over by the packaging)

When I woke up, I was a bit angry mainly because of the logistics of showering from our cell, and the fact it was so dark in there, so wrote a list in Spanish of reasons why we wanted a room change. This was my practised speech:

"La otres habitaciones dobles son más bonitas! Nuestra habitacion non puede ser el mismo precio! Sin lampera! Sin espejo! Non hay baño cera del habitacion! No hay wifi! Las camas son de different alturas! Queremos cambiar habitación, pronto."

Well, it didn't go to plan, and I probably forgot all the important words and we had to stay in roof cell for another night as there was no room in the main hostel. Plus the dude on reception was one of the many we encountered who clearly hates tourists, and definitely pretended not to understand my woes, as he infuriatingly strummed his guitar. Thanks Lonely Planet 'top pick'.

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Smoggy skies

The nicer owner did eventually move us into a proper double the day after, he said most people like the privacy of the roof top... Ok mate! I said I'd prefer to have the option to go to the toilet in the night, tar.

In our time in Lima there was a huge food festival on called Mistura, (had write ups in UK press) it was the size of a music festival, thousands of pushy people packed into tent after tent, serving traditional Peruvian fare, street food, and many other Latin American gastronomic delicacies. It was quite overwhelming. There were some important names in the culinary world cooking and speaking there, its definitely the biggest food-fest in South America and seemed to be a huge deal. Sprawled across the cliff edges overlooking the highly polluted beach and ocean, mouth watering smells followed by insane queues made us laugh - we'd witnessed Peruvians who couldn't sit for a second in traffic yet waited happily for hours in line for a meat slab. My food of choice was a Chicharrón - heaps of pork rib meat stuffed in a soft roll with crispy crackling and sweet potato slices, and we did queue for 1.5 hours for it, no exaggeration. I've never queued that long for anything but it was worth it, the best thing I'd eaten in a long time. We set about finding Micheal a vegetarian option, but it was hard, as anything that looked meat free wasn't. But eventually we stumbled across a veggie stall, and he picked an amazing cheesy potato pie and peppers stuffed with spinach and cheese. Funnily enough that queue didn't take half as long as mine had! It was good food though. Huge flags with little cartoons showed each tent's offerings, palo world featured enormous traditional bbq, grilling whole goats at a time, plus underground ovens pouring smoke over the floodlit crowds, nestled amongst pisco world (the longest queues) dulce de leche stands (SA is obsessed with this stuff) bizarrely a lot of Asian food, anticuchos (kebabs of speared beef heart) ceviche (marinated raw fish/seafood) chocolate world, bread world, dessert world, beer world, china world, and cuy (guinea pig) world which we couldn't figure out for ages and Michael though it was a sweet corn with eyes.

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Highlights of our time in Lima:

- Visiting our first inca ruins
- Nightlife around cool Barranco area, with pretty suspension bridge, fairy lights and gardens
- Pisco sours, cheese tequeños with fresh palta guacamole in an old train carriage
- Parque Kennedy heaving with cats hiding in the flowers, and old couples dancing to Latin music in the square
- Mistura food festival
- Coastal views from the shopping centre carved out of a cliff
- Seeing indigenous women spinning yarn to make colourful scarves

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Won't miss:

- Not seeing the sun
- Prison cell
- Dirty polluted city
- Being ripped off by taxis
- Insane bouts of PDAs from young Peruvian couples

Lima is sadly foggy 95% of the time, and was a funny introduction to our South American trip. We'd heard lots of stories about crime, but generally we felt safeish, although we clearly stuck out like a sore thumb in many areas, local children stopped to stare at us, and didn't seem particularly friendly. Good to get settled as backpackers but we were happy to move on. Next stop, Cusco, on a (well researched) Cruz Del Sur premier bus for 24 hours to land of Machu Picchu, Sacred Inca Valley, very high altitudes and hopefully a nicer hostel, hooray!

Posted by chiaramichael 02:18 Archived in Peru Tagged food street peru lima hostel miraflores travels south_america pisco lonely_planet sour mistura Comments (0)

Huntington Beach, OC, CA

sunny 29 °C
View Our Trip on chiaramichael's travel map.


Last stop in America before our flight to Peru was chosen for a quiet time of relaxation and preparation, and a final soak up of the Orange County sun. As we rang the chiming doorbell on the huge detached house in suburban HB, two set of outstretched arms awaited us, "here are our weary travellers!" cooed Debbie; "We're extremely excited to have you here" added Robert. Oh boy, Americana overload!

We were shown to the guest room, and as soon as we were left alone Michael's face was stricken. "The wifi password is 'GodIsGood', there's weird stuff everywhere. They're going to make us join a cult, we need to leave." They were fine really, but did want to share a candlelit dinner that first night on their long dining table ~ we politely declined choosing to head down to the famous Huntington Beach Pier and grab tacos and a beer. It had been a long day driving from Vegas and now this super surreal accommodation reminded us of an American teen flick, perfectly groomed front lawns, wide driveways lined with monster trucks and flash cars, and flapping Stars and Stripes flags the only noise after dark on the picture perfect streets.

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Huntington Beach was pretty quiet actually as the kids were back to school, and summer season was on its way out, although it barely ever rains or gets cold here. We had the beach to ourselves the next day, bar a few surfers and Michael made good use of the boogie board Debbie had lent him, and we planned what we needed to take to South America the next morning, both excited and very nervous at the prospect of this huge continent we were about to travel across.

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It was September 11th on our last day and we caught a very moving ceremony on the beach which still 12 years on bought the locals to tears and the HB fire department rang bells and fired shots to remember the fallen officers. A sombre experience for our last evening in America after 27 days, speeches were about reflection and fresh thoughts of sadness for the victims of the attack were washed by the mayors words of a united the community.

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After an evening walk along HB pier and a final marvel at the sunset surfers dotted along the therapeutic ocean, we chose Sandys beachside location for our last supper and it didn't disappoint. With a tray of local beers to sample, we got convinced to try the cornbread in a skillet (I'd always wondered what cornbread is, but its basically a sweet bread-cake in a shallow frying pan) and some amazing fresh tuna fish and veggie treats. The restaurant was the sunset spot and as the huge glowing pink sun went down (somehow different to all the other sunsets we'd seen) we realised how easy our trip had been in America, essentially a super-fun extra long holiday exploring all the different towns, culinary treats, local offerings and delights. Quite a luxury to spend a month of our travels this way, and were very thankful to all the wonderful people and things that we've encountered.

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We've actually loved the US of A, and it was very good to us. Our only qualm was not making it to New Orleans and the Deep South, but we will save that for another trip.

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Some musings about America, from two Brits.
Mere observations, not critical in any way.

Activity:
No one walks anywhere. We were frequently told it was too far to walk, or given an, "are you crazy you wanna walk there" face when it was actually quite close

Cuisine:
Free refills of soft drinks, everywhere, even normal restaurants, cool, no rationing that coca cola
Cake-like bread? Sandwiches are meant to be savoury!
Free pouring spirits at bars. What! Ok can we do this
Giant portion sizes. We often could have shared one meal. And had leftovers.
Restaurant we saw in LV, if you weigh over 350lbs you eat free. Also served a burger called quadruple bypass, and a heart attack grill, that shit cray.
Big fake GM fruit, who needs need giant apples and plums pumped with hormones
You can get a hot dog, anywhere
People walking on streets have a drink. It's like a law, if you're walking somewhere, buy a massive iced coffee
Grape flavoured stuff smells orrible
Cans of beer are very big, but didn't see anyone drinking them ever, called a tall-e
Funny attitude to alcohol, you're not allowed to drink in public. But if its in a brown paper bag that's ok. Everyone knows what's in the bag.
Lite beers only for Americans, Bud Lite, Miller Lite, Coors lite. Looking forward to a proper creamy Timothy Taylor in a proper pub - oh aye.

General:
Enthusiasm, bags of it, makes a lot of stuff funner than UK. Also makes people abit creepy
Most Americans we've met since, hate Americans
Drive through ATM, ultimate lazy, but in hindsight quite useful
Guns, kind of weird to think that the people's houses we stayed at probably had guns lurking
Big big family monster cars, that tower off the road, how do they get out?
Nicer communities, effort, events for locals
Patriotic, flags, flags everywhere
Shit toilet flushes, ok sorry that is a criticism
Speaking of toilets, public loos had gaps round door, like door is not big enough to fill the frame. People can see you!
So much dated signage was like stepping in a time warp, MacDonalds reminiscent of childhood, posters, stations, decor like a 70s set up, and not in an intentional way

On money:
Tax not being added until the til. Why not just include on price tag so you can figure out how much you're spending
No chip and pin, Michael tested out some funny signatures and no one batted an eye lid, often no signature either, wha?
Good service, but only for tip really. Waiters sound scripted y'all.
Being told how much to tip = weird, think it should reflect their service and your personal experience. Plus if bad at maths trying to work out a forced tip of 12.5% while an angry old man is trying to hurry you out of his cab on the spot is confusing
You have to tip $1 / 20% for every drink you buy at a bar, even though no table service or any service apart from pouring your drink!
Feeling like Tony Soprano with wads of cash = win

God bless this crazy country.

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And now onto the Southern Land....

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Posted by chiaramichael 19:21 Archived in USA Tagged sunset beach culture usa america backpacker huntington uk 9/11 comparison musings hbpier suburbia Comments (0)

Las Vegas, NV

sunny 32 °C
View Our Trip on chiaramichael's travel map.

I'm not entirely sure how many travellers end up in Vegas, but I'm guessing the bright lights and pseudo glamour doesn't sit well with the 'finding yourself new age dreadlocked hackey sack backpackers'. Also, as travellers on a strict daily budget (including accommodation) who could possibly afford Vegas 1/10th of the way through the trip? But hey, they give you free drinks if you gamble... So we heard.

We had hired a car from LAX airport and slightly overwhelmed by the prospect of driving across LA Chiara was hesitant over the choice of car.
"Dodge!"
"Dodge what?"
"Dodge Dodge lets get the white Dodge!"
Chiara wanted a small car, easy to manoeuvre and control. I chose the Dodge Avenger because it was flash, huge and ugly all at the same time. Kind of like America, definitely like Vegas.
I won.

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We drove out of LA across a maze of highways, freeways and interstates including 66, before the long stretch of route 15 to Nevada. The radio we picked up was Bierber-esque teenage angst or classic rock bangers. The latter was just perfect for a roadtrip. Skynard again! Yes. We made it by 4pm.

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We turned up at the Flamingo hotel (from Fear and Loathing, Hunter S Thompson fame) where we were to spend 2 nights and stood to check in behind hundreds of others, in total amazement, the hotel was like an airport but with people walking around in flip flops drinking beers and sitting on the slots early afternoon. The hotel must have housed thousands of people, with 75 rooms on each floor and 21 floors.

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Our room was HUGE, a king bed, futon, plasma screen, insane views of the strip from the 14th floor and ironically the cheapest we had paid for accommodation in weeks. We offloaded and headed out to the strip. Chiara's ankle hugely swollen from Venice mosquito bites, we took it easy and drank in the sites of the strip. Ceasar's Palace, MGM, New York New York, Little Venice and Paris, and the Bellagio fountain show, filled with people from all over the globe slowly departing with their cash with huge smiles on their faces. It's a parallel universe, people en masse in their own raucous street party, grasping enormous novelty cups (resembling huge child beakers with super long straws) spilling with booze, and loads of whooping from excited gamblers and stag dos. Also smoking indoors - well you wouldn't want to have to leave the casino to smoke now!

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Torn between wanting to bet big and not wanting to lose everything within the first hour of being there, we walked the length of the strip and headed up to the Wynn Casino where we had been tipped they do the best cocktails, for free!

We hit the blackjack and roulette tables, but with a minimum of $15 bets, the stakes were a little high for budget travellers. Yes, the drinks were free... But the rounds of blackjack were very quick, and the hostess didn't come by for 20 minutes... So much to lose in this time! After a bit of yoyoing with our chips we nailed the blagger's technique and played on the roulette machine where you can stake a quarter and still get free drinks... all night! (+ tipping $1 a drink) Few margeritas later, we had fallen into the Vegas trap - no windows = no idea how late it is, and we headed back to the Flamingo a little down but definitely not out.

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The plan for the next day was to drive to the Grand Canyon and back to Vegas for the evening. But Chiara's ankle had gotten really bad so much that it was difficult to walk, nevermind a whole day of driving. Unfortunately we had to give it a miss and opted for a hotel day, poolside. Not a bad fallback plan. The sun was beating down with desert force and terrible music blared out to the hungover heads surrounding the huge faux-glam pool in the bizarre tropical grounds of our hotel; which featured a sanctuary with flamingos, wild birds, catfish and turtles. The crowd was very tacky and even the leathered oldies were supping cocktails from their flashy beakers in the pool, bikini clad and getting a bit too involved in the aqua dancing, like an unwatchable Eric Prydz video. Our hotel had three wedding chapels, and a ceremony was taking place whilst we were there. We didn't elope don't worry, although we had joked about it before we came.

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When in Rome...
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Pre-gamble pizza delivered to our room with margheritas in a can... We are classy!

In the evening we bussed to Fremont Street, the original strip and we heard that the stakes were more budget friendly and the vibe was more "authentic" of old Vegas, although the spectacle was still dazzlingly tacky and high wattage naff. We settled on 4 Queens, after a quick round in Binions where the World Poker Series is held.

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That afternoon Chiara had received a message from her mums partner Jon, "Get $5 on 22".... We had both turned $50 into chips, and without me even knowing she sneaked the $5 on. Being the 'locals casinos' they don't tolerate novice tourists, its very fast and they don't announce the results... Chiara didn't even know 22 had come in until a huge pile of chips were pushed towards her and the others at the table gawped at her luck.

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It was such a big win (relative to our budget) that we didn't really know what to do - be sensible travellers and put it towards our trip or bet big?? We bet half of it and Chiara fast learnt blackjack, and even faster burnt the spending money. The croupiers at these casinos were fast and aloof, rounds flying by and we lost and regained chips many times. We both walked away up that evening though! Nothing could top the early evening victory, we tried 22 again later on... Obviously it didn't come in!

A surreal desert jaunt in the midst of our whirlwind month in America, and an experience we definitely wont forget...
We do plan to come back one day.... but with a slightly bigger budget! Thanks for the top up and we'll see you sometime LV.

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Posted by chiaramichael 15:29 Archived in USA Tagged vegas flamingo roadtrip fremont winning strip betting roulette margheritas blackjack eloping Comments (0)

Venice Beach, CA

sunny 29 °C
View Our Trip on chiaramichael's travel map.

Todays 14 hour stint on the Coast Starlight will be the final leg of our Amtrak journey. By the end of today, nearly 5000 miles and 4 days will have been spent on these beastly trains. This is the last and best route, and the one we've been waiting for. For hours we passed through beautiful vineyards inland until we finally turned coastal for the main event. Closer to the ocean than the cars, our train chugged along the stunning coastline giving us a final treat of spectacular scenery, as we saw dolphins, crashing waves, secluded coves and finally dusk set in as the Los Angeles palms swayed in the typical Californian sunset.

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Not our photo... but our route!

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A sad goodbye to the trains which (bar the one set back) served us so well. We would recommend it for sure, if you have plenty of time to spare. We got the USA rail pass and it cost $350 for 14 days and 8 stops. Thank you Amtrak.

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We were only in downtown LA for about 5 minutes before we departed for the coast on an hour bus. We opted for the huge sandy stretches and the Venice Beach freakshow over the city's sight-seeing landmark checklist. Skyscrapers Vs Sand in the toes... Easy choice to make for Londoners, plus we've both done the sights before.

Arriving at our AirBnB minutes from the beach, but late at night, we tracked down our temporary abode. Only to be greeted by, nothing. No one home. Slumped on the stoop, we called our host (cost about £5!) and were told the housemate was returning from the store soon. Ratty after 20 hours travelling, when we were finally in, Chiara's impression changed after discovering our fresh towels, a huge lit scented candle, impressive flowers and red wine with two glasses on our dresser. Not so bad, although the red wine would wait as we dropped and and slept for hours.

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BEACH DAY! After all the subways, bus stops, walk, don't walk, briefcases, flat whites, horn beeping, cell phone city life we were ready for sea, sand and the warm Californian sun. Heaven.

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The next 3 days were spent horizontal, Chiara dozing and reading whilst I was pumping iron on Muscle Beach. Not really I was just getting boshed around by waves and lamenting Yorkshire for having no surf. I would have made a great surfer, had the Pennines been waves. The sunsets in Venice Beach are out of this world, we caught them from rooftop bars, beachside, or sat watching the varying levels of skateboarders on the boardwalk. The palm trees and gentle waves make the perfect setting, as the hues of orange and burnt pink turned deep dark blue as the sun dropped behind the ocean. Really magnificent.

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Heck I don't even think it was on sunset mode!

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At nightfall the boardwalk and all the markets pack up, which did disappoint us, as we would have loved to sit beachside into the evening, soaking up the quirky atmosphere. The many stories of dodgy characters on the boardwalk after dark must surely be dispelled, or perhaps its just similar to East London and were immune to it.

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As luck would have it, it was First Friday during our stay, and whilst our first evening consisted of mexican food, margheritas and a late night canal visit (more on these later), we were treated to another celebration of art and design on Abbot Kinney Boulevard the next evening. Our hosts 'yard' was a total bonus. When Chiara said garden they looked blankly as apparently this term is mostly applied to rolling green lawns and flower beds. We made use of it a few nights - pool table, bbq, huge sofas and strung with fairy lights... It was hard not to.

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The First Friday was a big deal, with apparently all of Venice turning up - you couldn't move on the 'sidewalks' and there were many, many food vans. We stopped counting at 37. And it took us a very long time to choose what to eat. We settled on incredible burgers and Michael got hassled with people asking him for his autograph, he even posed for a photo (honestly). They thought he was Frodo, and I think they were being serious.

Make your own minds up...
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The event offered late night openings from galleries, jewellery and clothes shops, and Chiara hit lots of inspiration from the many craft stores and markets. Every shop here is very design conscious, stylish, trendy and pretty pricey. Again a stark contrast to London's events, people were out on show here, but I guess it's LA.

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So these canals, wow! Yes it's called Venice Beach, but we didn't realise it had canals. Like Venice... A complete network and what looked like million dollar properties lining them, with paths and little walking bridges, we even saw people floating around on gondolas and boats. When we passed at night we caught a glimpse of the local life - young professionals drinking in designer back yards, straight out of high end interior magazines, the low trees adorned with lanterns, candles and lights reflecting in the still waters. How the other half live.

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On our last night we tried the Italian with an open air roof over on Washington. With our almost hysterically enthusiastic waitress, its free and endless supply of Killer Garlic Rolls, wine by caraffe and pretty good "gargantuan"?! pasta all was well until we "jointly" dropped the camera into a full glass of water. When the battery socket was opened water poured out. Our only proper camera, (and a bloody expensive one) this was a huge problem. It was assigned to a rice bag tomb for the next 2 days, and in the morning we were off to pick up our hire car, for our road trip to Las Vegas.

Did a little prayer for camera that night, when was thanking god for Venice Beach.

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Posted by chiaramichael 14:40 Archived in USA Tagged canals venice beach scenery sunsets santa usa los angeles beers monica abbot kinney ewins Comments (1)

San Francisco, CA

sunny 25 °C
View Our Trip on chiaramichael's travel map.

The train to San Francisco was smooth, on time and had beautiful scenery. Amtrak was almost back in our good books. We came through thick fog on the Golden Gate bridge, it was like a planes descent through clouds - and out into the sunshine the other side. We were back on air bnbs for SF, and made our way to Mission District where our host awaited us...

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Our room was fantastic, the best we'd stayed in so far, with an enormous comfy bed in a beautiful period property, plus there was a very fluffy Siamese cat, and two sweet pooches with long tails which our host W had dyed bright turquoise (It doesn't hurt the pups and as its no where near their skin, apparently). W was a camp dad of four kids who had flown the nest, and has a 28 year old Brazilian boyfriend. So San Fran. He rents out all four spare bedrooms to air bnbers in his children's absence, although we did wonder if the kids knew about Júlio..

San Francisco was action packed for us. As Michael had never been before, over the next few days we took in big city walks, including Lombard Street, trolleys, cable cars, the harbour, Crissy Fields, Haight-Ashbury, Nob Hill, plus great restaurants and crazy bars in Mission. Seeing as neither of us had been to Alcatraz, we went to get tickets from the pier, only to be told it was fully booked for weeks. Our only option was to come at 6am the following morning and queue for the overflow tickets, which we might do, seeing how the evening went... We found an amazing vegetarian restaurant in Mission called Herbivore, and absolutely exhausted from the days walk, a rewarding beer and delicious dinner down we were ready to say goodnight.
Alcatraz it is!

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It's quite refreshing to see the city before sunrise, and we flew over the hills in our taxi, and made it to the Pier 39 by 6am - there were already 40 people in the queue! There were 60 tickets for sale though so we were in. With a few hours to kill we wandered down Fishersman's Wharf and breakfasted with the stinky sea lions, with no one else in sight. I remembered coming here with my mum and brother years ago and doing a green screen enactment which made it look as though we were on a magic carpet over San Fran! Must dig out that VHS.

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Alcatraz was definitely worth the early wake up. We did the audio tour and learnt all about the inmates, the plotted escapes and the creepy cells. It's so weird that the inmates could watch the city, and sometimes even hear people on the piers if the wind was right. Being inside Alcatraz blows your imagination for what life must have been like for the select criminals who called this island home. We like to think that the guys who escaped just before Alcatraz closed made it to South America and maybe we'll bump into them in the mountains of Bolivia...
'The Rock' itself provides great views of SF and we could see the crazy hills that we dragged ourselves up the day before, glistening in parallel lines across the City.

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Alcatraz was a total hit... Until we got to the gift shop, where Chiara went to buy our friends Charlie & Alex a postcard (they strongly recommended Alcatraz) only to discover her purse was gone. A tense boat journey back... But so thankfully someone had found it on the pier and handed it in. It had her driving license in, so that would have meant the road trip to Vegas was off! THANK YOU to that kind person! (All cards and $100 returned).

In the afternoon we met with a friend from London - Tom, and his friend Harry and we sat in Dolores Park with some beers in the sunshine swapping travel stories and observing all the local nutters in the park. (SF's version of London Fields and the first place in America where drinking tinnies seems to be acceptable! PS. their cans of beer are HUGE)

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It was good to see a friendly face after our few weeks away and when it got cold we did a mini bar-tour in Mission (so many good watering holes was hard to know when to end...) and got pretty steaming in some cool places. Nice to see you guys, wonder if you felt as rough as us the next day for our train journey!

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We packed so much in to our three days and could have stayed much longer, we loved the fact this city has the ocean, the culture, and so much to fill your days with. San Francisco is different to the rest of the states, it doesn't feel like California, shin splitting hills, crazy unpredictable weather, ancient trams, and I imagine the people of San Francisco like it just like that... Truly unique.
We vote it our favourite place on our journey through America!

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Posted by chiaramichael 09:32 Archived in USA Tagged party america tourists san_francisco pizza trams alcatraz sunshine mission lombard sealions vegetarian golden_gate vegan nobhill crissy_fields Comments (0)

Portland, OR

sunny 28 °C
View Our Trip on chiaramichael's travel map.

We were staying in a hostel here, the HI, spread over a few typical Portland-esque properties in NW which is a really nice area. Mainly because all air bnbs were out of our price range! We had a private room and it was pretty good.

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Portland has an insane amount of microbreweries, such a huge pub culture (nowhere else in America says 'pub'), as well as a massive arts and music scene... we were bound to love it. The weather was glorious for our time here, often too hot to keep walking... So, a little refresher was necessary along the way.

On our first day we only managed to gorge on lunchtime sushi, wander across an outdoor live music show on Main St and then fell asleep for hours, catching up from bus drama. Later that night we took a trip to a few local breweries, finishing at the Blue Moon on 23rd in the NW district. Other areas on our agenda were Burnside, Alberta, Mississippi, Pearl and Hawthorne. Portland is our secret highlight, we've both never been, so allowed 4 days here, and are dying to see what the fuss is about.

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Our second day happened to fall on the last Thursday of the month... So as per London's First Thursday gallery openings, Portland puts on their version - Last Thursday. (They also have a First Thursday and a First Friday - London take note!) A really good, free, weekly local paper called The Mercury listed all the cultural and trendy goings on, and it puts London to shame... There's SO much happening and it's half the size of our capital!
Last Thursday Portland turned out to be nothing like the ducking in and out of East London's galleries; instead we discovered 15 blocks of Alberta Street were made a pedestrian, colourful, vibrant street fair of art, food, music and kooky shit. Artists, actors, designers, poets, healers, musicians, children, adults filled the street and by 6pm it was HEAVING. In England, something of this effort and community participation would happen once a year perhaps, or on a huge occasion like the jubilee; sorry for the London bashing, but the comparison is startling.

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We did our rounds and then obviously set to discover the great breweries, dive and live music bars of the area (of which there are plenty...) and our first encounter with those who definitely deserve the affectionate 'Keep Portland Weird' tag. This topped by a greying eccentric, resembling Iggy Pop; who took his Hawaiian shirt off, put on magnifying glasses and a torch head light, which he switched on for the sole purpose of threading a needle on the bus, in the dark, to repair a button on his Hawaiian shirt. Michael asked for a photo, to which he was baffled, and said he'd prefer not. "People got to repair more things these days". He buttoned his freshly fixed shirt up, and hopped off at his stop.

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Safe to say the next morning was a late one, and the day consisted of a trip across the river to Burnside skatepark, all the sight spots, and an amazing, cheap lunch at Little Big Burger which finished us off entirely. Later we tried the tasty food at the street fest Cartopia and discovered the SE & Hawthorne area.

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Portland is big on hippies and vegans, so with Michael being vegetarian and myself trying (but often failing) to live a clean living wholesome diet, we set out to discover the best veggie spots in town. We found the best were in the super trendy area on Stark, and the food we had was incredible! Canteen was our favourite. As you can imagine, from there we just had to scope out a few more of the breweries in the area... Portland is crazy on ale. Each brewery or pub offers small samplers for $1 which is a great way of discovering the many, many beers on draught. We tried dark, roasty, chocolatey stouts; golden, hoppy locals; fruity, light pales along the way . Michael chose his beers mostly based on the cool name/logo.

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Our last day saw a trip to the most beautiful, sprawling rose gardens, set up on a hill overlooking the city and Chiara literally had to be dragged away. It was enchanting. Portland is nicknamed the City of Roses and after seeing these gardens in person, you can understand. The trees surrounding the park were so tall, and the Japanese gardens so well kept, the whole experience is cool and calming, from the moment you step into the forest and the sun can barely peek through the high pines.

Rose porn:

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We could have stayed a while longer, the Portlandia lifestyle suited us very nicely.

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Posted by chiaramichael 09:30 Archived in USA Tagged art gardens culture alberta roses portland weird beers brewery portlandia burnside Comments (0)

Whitefish, MT

sunny 28 °C
View Our Trip on chiaramichael's travel map.

The 31 hour train journey to Whitefish was a breeze, honestly! On a train its so easy to break the time up - watch this, read that, go for dinner, have a beer, play cards, have a snack, bed time, breakfast, scenery watching, and we were there!
Ok a few things happened along the way; sat in the sightseeing lounge (huge ceiling windows which enables amazing views) we passed through stunning rivers, lakes, waterfalls and the Rocky Mountains for the most jaw dropping sunset, whilst a local volunteer talked us through the spectacular scenery as we enjoyed red wine and cheese, (THIS is why we didn't drive!) a crazy girl got drunk in said carriage which resulted in her being escorted off the train by local police at 1am, kicking and screaming, cuffed and in the arse-end of nowhere; AND we finally got our Sleeper Packs.

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Rocky Sunset

In Whitefish we stayed in a proper Motel, which was ace! (Definitely no air bnbs here) Tons of bikers were staying there too, their shiny motors all parked in a row out front. We sought out a bar for a night cap, and found $1 beers, in the alpine town hotspot "The Great Northern", which was going off for a Monday night. It reminded us of a ski town, and was quite cold with the clear night sky, showing off amazing constellations. We chose Whitefish to break up the long trip to Portland; it's high in Montana state near the Canadian border, and is gateway to the National Glacier Park, where we had a tour booked for the next day, so early night for us.

Our morning began with a walk to the calming Whitefish lake, where we soaked up the sun on the dock; surrounded by just a few familys holidaying, some ducks, a deer and many tall pines. Michael couldn't resist a dip, he loves a wild water swim.

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Being the "gateway" to the National Glacier Park, you would assume a bus/train/shuttle would transport visitors to the park 30 miles away, but our request was met by blank faces and the suggestion of a taxi. EVERYONE here hires a car, and we were stuck! We paid the only taxi firm in Whitefish (actually we rang the only two, to try and haggle the hefty cost, and the same guy picked up) to take us through the stunning scenic towns and into the forests...

Our tour was run by a sweet old lady called Debbie, with a really southern drawl, who drove us up the windy, narrow mountains on the Going To The Sun Road; in her original restored open air 1960s bus (which she cleans by hand every night!).

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She talked us through the spectacular scenery; and with many stops we learnt about how the park was discovered and protected, the mountains, the families who live there, the children who grew up there, the grizzly and brown bears who prowl the woods, (we didn't see any though!) the goats, the birds, the waterfalls, and most importantly the glaciers.

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Sheer drops the whole way, the road is carved into the mountains, nicknamed the Garden Wall, reaching 2000ft, and at 53 miles long, is the only road in the whole park; one way in, and one way out.

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It was a mind blowing day and we got back to Whitefish to catch the weekly market where we tried local produce including the Huckleberry jam which they're crazy on; Whitefish is one of those places that no one has heard of, not even Americans... It's the kind of place you might see mentioned on some fishing documentary on a channel that nobody watches. Our itinerary in the states was all major cities, except Whitefish. It's a town for local people, driving huge pick up trucks. They go fishing and advise you carry bear spray about your person just in case you meet a Grizzly, pretty different from Harpenden and Ripponden respectively.

To visit a place like this untouched from all the advertising bullshit and heart attack fast food of the cities we had seen in the US was refreshing. The rolling mountains, the epic Douglas Fir trees which grow tall given the slightest chance, the fresh air and the still lakes make for breathtaking views, without a Dunkin Donuts in sight.

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Leaving Whitefish we hopped over to the train station (made of logs with a museum inside!) just to check everything was fine with our 9pm - 14 hour train to Portland. Best to check as sometimes the trains might be half an hour late...

"No train"... "Replacement"... "Air-con broken" ... "Engine problems"

Our overnight train of 14 hours was cancelled. It pulled in on time and stopped there, ejecting all passengers to undergo repairs.
We were getting to Portland by bus.
Cool.
600+ miles. It better be a nice bus.

To put it mildly, it was worse than a Mega Bus, easily 20 years older than us, and SO rattly and hot; plus our driver had clearly NEVER EVER driven stick shift before, or maybe even driven a motor vehicle before, Chiara nervously tuned into the gear box, and swears he never even made it to 5th gear. If we ever managed to doze off we were awoken by his lurching gear grinding and bad attempts to work the clutch and accelerator at the same time. His heart really was in the right place though and we all got a Subways packed lunch for our 14 hour bus ride. Hm.

We clunked into every train station along the way to pick up other bleary eyed passengers to get to our changing destination, Spokane (where?). The mishaps of our driver thickened as at one point he ran into the bushes with a torch, (engine still running), no one had a clue what was going on, everyone had their iPhone maps up, children asleep everywhere, and all we could do was laugh at the situation. Nervously. Around 4am we finally arrived at Spokane, where we were transferred to a proper coach and managed to get a few hours sleep. It really was uncomfortable, but funnily enough, we got in at the same time as the train was due. Says a lot!

Portland better be worth it...

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Posted by chiaramichael 13:32 Archived in USA Tagged mountains trees trains nature glaciers travels whitefish montana amtrak national_glacier_park Comments (0)

Chicago, IL

sunny 27 °C
View Our Trip on chiaramichael's travel map.

Our very keen hosts had loaded up the fridge, put out toiletries and towels out for us, and offered real "hosting" for our first air bnb America experience, including a handwritten black board sign which stated how delighted they were to have us stay! On previous holidays we air bnb in our own private apartment, but here our budget stretched to a private room only, which is very different, and we found many American hosts wanted lots of interaction with their guests, even to enjoy dinner together! Enter a reserved English couple, who will probably be out everyday until late at night, oops. Apparently air bnb is quite new to America, and lots of older families whose children have flown the nest rent out the spare room. Their place was pretty cool though, the hosts are a young couple, so we were a little jealous of their amazing apartment. Situated in the Wicker Park area of Chicago we dumped bags and made a beeline for the shore of Lake Michigan. We kept calling it the sea, its so big.

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The city's canals weave through the buildings

A long boat trip round the city and out to the lake gave us a good starting point, we were very lucky with clear blue skies and supped a cold smoothie/beer on the harbour, taking in the now tacky Navy Pier, and the shiny sky scrapers dotted around the city's canal systems.

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We went to Chicago with no expectations, and we were pleasantly surprised. Our kind of nightlife revolved around the Wicker Park / Division area, and we had some of the best tacos we've ever tasted at the heaving Big Star, where Michael spotted Henry Rollins, and we washed them down with cheap beers, the cocktail days of NY long gone. A few bars in, we stumbled upon Phyllis' Rock (read dive) Bar. Hours later, we were transfixed watching a lifelong, half-talented (but confident of playing a 10 minute 'Free Bird' solo) wannabe banging out any dad-rock requests from Roy Orbison to Pink Floyd (much to the dismay of his make shift band, who to be fair had strong improvisational skills) we found ourselves whooping and singing (shouting) along with the audience*. The first of many dive bars in we knew we wanted to try more of these across America, cheap PBRs, stereotypical bar maids, flickering neon signs, the only thing missing was the smokey saloon atmosphere. Between the classics, Mick interjected half funny jokes about his wife, (am sure she doesn't exist) and in the early hours he dedicated the last song to us, and we all danced around to the Beatles. So much fun.

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Our second day saw our exploration of the city - Chicago has a lot to offer and we started with a huge brunch (who needs three eggs benedict on scone bases?!) and a trip into the city - North Lake Shore Beach, which was insane: a huge Ibiza style party, tons of volleyball, and a great stretch of sand - our first beach time so far, and Michael obviously took straight to the freezing lake. Right near the beach is an amazing free wildlife centre and zoo, after an hour or so sunning, we popped in and really couldn't believe it was free, as it was bloody ace!

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It was Saturday, and a stroll around the shore saw us getting nearly wiped out by enthusiatic roller-bladders, skateboarders, tandem, tri and unicyclists, but we caught a spectacular sunset, and the city's al fresco nightlife appeared at sundown with beachside strings of festoon lights twinkling against the dusky skys, and happy hours aplenty.

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We got a bottle of red wine (in obligatory paper bag) and turned our attention to the looming culinary excitement - a proper Chicago deep-pan cheese pizza pie. Picked up said pie (from #1 recommended on Trip Advisor obvs), and took it to Millenium Park to sample.

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The park is home to the huge 'Bean' sculpture, where every tourist and his family are snapping away their reflections, mirrored in the lights of the cityscape. We managed to catch one of Chicago's free outdoor concerts, which had ballet dancers and a full philharmonic orchestra on offer that evening, and thousands of "Chi-Town" residents pile down to the events every weekend. Anyway back to the important point - 1.5 inches of deep, thick savoury pastry, filled with so much mozzarella and cheddar cheese, topped with tomato sauce. Insane, and definitely not a pizza, we managed three heavy slices each and took the rest down to the shore to catch the again weekly, free, fireworks display over the moon and the harbour at 10pm. Chicagoans are so proud of their city, they have a very strong community, there are many discounts, cheap galleries, shows and offers for its residents. We began to think that London really doesn't offer a lot to its people. That last slice of cold pizza beckoned (usually a late treat) and as our teeth sank in, it felt like we were chomping on a baked cheese cake. Nail in the coffin, we're not fans of the pie.

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The open air concert grounds

A walk back through the park saw the perfect Bean photo-op with no one in sight, bar plenty of harmless, nutty characters.

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We didn't see our hosts at all, and the next morning set off for our 31 hour train journey across four states to Whitefish, Montana, where glaciers and bears await us...

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*audience of 5

Posted by chiaramichael 16:33 Archived in USA Tagged boats nature chicago america travels pizza lake_michigan tacos wicker_park Comments (0)

Introduction to Amtrak

The Lakeshore Limited. NYC > CHI, 14:00. 18 hrs duration.

sunny 30 °C
View Our Trip on chiaramichael's travel map.

We arrived at New York Penn Station with a 15 day USA rail pass, tummies full of $1 pizza, some emergency vino, and very little knowledge or understanding of the US railway (why don't the people of America get the train.... Ever?!) Let's find out...

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Looks pretty impressive!

We found two seats next to each other with great window views, parked our bags, and prepared for the interstate trip. 30 mins into the journey New York City which had dwarfed us for days became a dot, the skyscrapers and taxis were replaced by lakes and fishing boats.

For us, this is the perfect way travel. This epic vast land, carefully dissected by little lines of a map can't be skipped with a 5 hour flight from NYC to LA. No way! A 2 week train ride spanning 10 states, with 8 city stops, through lakes, mountains, desert and many many odd 'American as Apple Pie' towns. Sounds perfect for two travellers who would both like the option of window gazing, afternoon naps, and perhaps having a beer or wine along the way (sorry Route 66, but this was the deal breaker).

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We had read about the dining car, the cafe and the option to buy a Amtrak sleeper Pack (pillow, blanket, ear plugs, eye mask) perfect for the traveller who opted for Coach (sleeping in your seat). Although, these seats are very disimillar to the overcrowded claustrophobic trains we are used to in the UK; more like the first class beds we are forced to pass, on our way through to economy on a BA flight.. They recline almost horizontal and have what feels like acres of legroom. Cushty. Off we went to purchase the 'sleeper pack' from the cafe carriage, only to be told they didn't have any left. After Chiara's unimpressed reaction, the over friendly train conductor offered us the alternative... Four crisp linen white tablecloths, which he promised would keep us warm. Deal.

An attendant came round and took reservations for our evening meal in the dining car, and we spent the next few hours glued to the windows, the promise of free wifi long broken, and the novelty of these super trains still very high. At dinner, we were Initially sat with an older couple, but they soon retired to bed, (you could stay in a sleeper bedroom for $500+) and we were left with a single carnation between us, a glass of wine each, complimentary salads, bread rolls and surprisingly nice train food - again we couldn't believe more people didn't travel this way.

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Another over friendly attendant overheard our conversation and offered his two cents on the topic, and most American's favourite opener, "Are you guys from England or Australia?! Love your accents". (We think Michael's northerness throws them a bit). He told us "The only people who travel Amtrak are old people, and guys who are your age and have too many babies to afford flights." Trains just aren't a big deal in America, they're slow, the tracks are ancient, and freight takes priority over passengers, resulting in lots of delays. For us, with no agenda, and a curiosity to see more than your average tourist, it was ideal. We met passengers who had never been to their neighbouring towns, and every proud citizen had a suggestion for us, as foreigners in this huge country. We met many interesting folk on our many long journeys, some crazier than others we were soon to find out.

Back at our seats and cocooned in white table cloths, we watched the landscape fade to black, read a little, and lights out til Chicago. Sleep was easier than expected, although without ear plugs we were awoken by a great snorer firing up his engines around 3am much to Michael's extreme annoyance. But, with the sweet sounds of Yo La Tengo and our shiny new electronic wonder appliance (dual headphone adapter) we dozed off til dawn with the train rocking and night horn becoming slightly therapeutic.

Pleasantly trouble free, we loved the first taste of our chosen cross country transport, and much to the astonished faces of people we met we were excited for our next few very long journeys.

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Stepping bleary eyed into the unexpected heat of Chicago - the lack of wifi had meant a slight lack of research... The Windy City?
What's all that about?
It can't be windier than Yorkshire surely?

Posted by chiaramichael 20:02 Archived in USA Tagged lakes trains chicago usa america travels amtrak Comments (0)

New York, NY

It begins...

sunny 30 °C
View Our Trip on chiaramichael's travel map.

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This photo was taken at 6.30am on 16th August 2013; before we went to check in, and before we found out we weren't booked on a flight to New York, at all, ever. Shaky start, with a big mess up from our travel agents. Countless calls, a few tears shed, many unhelpful BA staff, some gin and tonics and two hours later than planned we set off for New York.

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These happy faces awaited us, on the most amazing rooftop of their apartment in Manhattan. Beers and lots of catching up followed til sunset.

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Our first night was a blur of jet lag, margaritas, amazing tacos and gin and tonics.

Day 2, saw an early rise for the 1920's Lawn Jazz Party on Governors Island, which Claire and Jeff treated us to. Our limited attire didn't quite stretch to full 1920s glamour, but we did our best, with a little help! A ferry trip over to the island, prepped with a wine and cheese picnic courtesy of Claire and our day looked like this.

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The next few days featured copious cocktails and beers in Brooklyn, many city walks, exploring Central Park, Dosas, mimosas, open air cinema, New York Giants at Met Life stadium, Brooklyn bridge walk, 2 bros $1 pizza, tea at the Plaza (for Chiara and Claire), surf bars, diners, flea markets, the high line, dog surfing, East Village, and good times with good pals.

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The day Claire and Jeff flew back to London was a sad one as we won't see them for ages, but it marks the beginning of our trip, and our Amtrak train journey across America. Chicago... See you soon!

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Michael enjoying his last slice of 2 bros pizza a bit too much.

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Posted by chiaramichael 12:35 Archived in USA Tagged skylines party america nyc travels pizza sunshine cocktails brooklyn 1920s Comments (1)

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