Care to cross a country? Well I recently took an amazing road trip across the United States. This all-encompassing journey included some of the most stunning natural scenery and historic, fun cities imaginable and even though I’d been to some of the locations before, there were a few I visited for the first time.
All are treasures to Americans, and the chances are you’ll feel the same after such a trip. I took the southern route across much of the US, as I wanted to see some unique southwestern landscapes. The trip’s beginning and end were not strictly “down South”, but the central part was. Each region and stop had its own flavour – literally, in terms of food – and culture, to some degree.
Start in San Fran
If you start in San Francisco, you’ll get the sense of what a truly multicultural American city has to offer. Not only will you experience the widest range of peoples from other countries, as California is an entryway for many visiting and immigrating people, but its beauty and attractions draw people from all over the world too, and many stay.
Thanks to Hollywood and HBO, the sights of San Francisco are all well known landmarks. You obviously have to see the Golden Gate Bridge, and equally magnetic is a visit to Alcatraz. Another “must-do” is a trip to Fisherman’s Wharf, watching the permanent Californian sea lions gathered on floats just west of the pier and browsing the countless funky shops. No SF trip would be complete without a visit to Chinatown. Enjoy all of its aromatic herb and tea shops, “dim sum” lunch spots, and watch fortune cookies being made.
I try to eat a different country’s food for each meal in San Fran – an easy task in this culinary capital, with food from every nation around the globe gracing the menus. My fave food-jammin’ joints included the wildly erotic and erratic selections at Chocolate Lab, while at Hakkasan, a downtown San Francisco treat that is not cheap, but will blow you away with dishes like Roasted silver cod in Champagne and Chinese honey sauce.
Only hours away from San Francisco, this dynamic, breathtaking place is somewhere no-one can ever see enough – just ask the Park Rangers. It changes daily, indeed minute-to-minute, with constant shifts in lighting, weather and reflections off towering massifs of stunning beauty.
With 1,170 square miles of non-stop scenery, you can hike through for days (bring very comfortable, broken-in, gripping hiking boots), and you’ll not leave short of photographs or memories. Walking is a great way to see the park, as you can smell the amazing variety of wildflowers as you change from valley to valley.
The park rises from 2,000 ft to over 13,000 ft above sea level, and is open year round, but do NOT go hiking or camping (reservations are required for the latter) without learning about “bear safety”. Black bears are common in the park, and while they’re basically shy creatures, they’re hungry, so you must secure food well. My own scare came from a short wander off road during a driving segment of my visit, just to take pictures of a stream. It wasn’t a bear but a five-foot tall mule deer buck that burst out of some bushes only a few yards away. My heart almost escaped my chest, but we both ran away from each other rather quickly, no harm done.
You would think Yosemite is unbeatable, but you’d be wrong. Any visit to the Grand Canyon makes almost any other national park pale by comparison due to its sheer size, magnificence and geological stature. Over 277 miles long, 18 miles wide, and 6,000 ft deep, this is a truly amazing Arizona feature, even if you only stop and look out from one viewpoint, for one minute.
If you’re tough as nails and have a heart (and nerves and knees) of steel, take a hike down Hermit’s Trail, one of the unmaintained paths that passes through time into the canyon’s depths. Not, repeat, not for beginners, this trail will truly test your abilities in trail-finding, rock-hiking, and learning to save your water and ration it. The rewards of the wild Colorado River tumbling through the narrow canyon at the bottom are amazing, but, let’s get back to reality – this is probably the toughest of paths you can take.
For non-hikers, the canyon provides a lot of viewing opportunities as well. Go eat at the El Tovar hotel, a beautiful old lodge that perches on the south canyon’s edge and offers many viewpoints. The food is great, too, especially the morning buffets. The rustic feel of this historic lodge is palpable. Of course, if you want to leap forward in time and really “get high” on the canyon, you can take a helicopter ride into it. Personally, I do not like to hear these beasts, so I wouldn’t do it; but if you feel differently, you’ll see gorges you would take days to reach, and some you could never even experience, all within 30 minutes or so.
A cheaper, but still amazing way to see the sprawling colours of the canyon is to venture out onto the Grand Canyon Skywalk. Made of glass, the Skywalk is 70 feet long, open-air, and is suspended out at a 4,000 ft overlook of the canyon. I was so stunned, I almost forgot to take pictures…it’s that powerful. Overlooking the West Rim, this is the highest man-made structure in the world, by more than 2,300 ft, and you know it when you’re looking down at the canyon’s floor below.
Mesa Verde, located in Colorado, offers a stunning look into America’s past. A UNESCO World Heritage Site created in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt, it is the largest archeological preserve in the country and contains cliff dwellings that were created by the Anasazi Indians, also called the Ancestral Pueblo people, between 600-1300 AD.
Try to get there early in the morning, before the crowds hit, to enjoy these uniquely carved dwellings. Cliff Palace may be the largest cliff dwelling in North America, and requires ranger-guided tours. I was drawn to the majestic length and strange in/out depths of housing at Spruce Tree House. Taking a guided tour provides a clearer understanding of the structures, and offers a look into the lives of the people, by understanding their architecture.
San Antonio Texas is a unique blend of America’s Spanish roots, woven into the country’s Wild West past. It is also home to The Alamo, one of the country’s most important historical landmarks. Once an early mission, the structure was already a century old when it was moved to its present location. There, in an 1836 battle, over 150 “Texians”, as they were then called, lost their lives and among them were folk heroes such as Davie Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Barrett Travis. It really must be seen, and admission is free. What’s more, it’s right in downtown San Antonio. Just don’t go on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, or you’ll feel more alone than those “Texians”: – it will be closed.
Be sure to do the river walk along the San Antonio, or take the (now tired hiker’s) option, and do a boat trip. Also try and visit the San Antonio Zoo – and hop on the Zoo Train tour, a fun ride offering a close up look at a stunning collection of over 3,500 animals in very natural habitats. Then Cool down by strolling through Cascade Caverns, just outside town, where you can see a 100 ft underground waterfall, an unusual sight in any state. Finish up in La Villita. This bright and festive setting, one of the earliest of the city’s neighbourhoods, is full of artisan studios, unique gift shops, and home to the Guadalajara Grill, where you’ll get some of the best Tex Mex cooking you have ever eaten.
The Big Easy
New Orleans is a pastiche of Creole, Cajun, European and seemingly every other culture on the planet. Nowhere is friendliness so sublimely woven into the local way of life, along with a pride in their home. The French Quarter is the heart and soul of the city and just walking through Jackson Square, with its statue of Andrew Jackson was a real thrill. The square contains The Cabildo – a former city hall within which the Louisiana Purchase was signed. It also boasts the stunningly beautiful St. Louis Cathedral, a wondrous display of the early southern style of architecture and decor; and the Presbytere, a former courthouse that is now the proud flagship centre of Lousiana State Museum.
Get thee to a Po-Boy eatery of any kind in this town, to taste the true greatness of southern cooking. When crusty French bread meets a slathering of mayo and Gulf shrimp or oysters (OK, I had the combo), heaven is right here on Earth, or at least Earth’s taste buds. If you can’t decide whether the local version is better than the newer Vietnamese one, called a Ba’nh mi, arrive in November for the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival to sample 30 makers’ works with 40,000 other visitors.
Home of the Blues
Memphis Tennessee cannot be bypassed on a cross country trip to the USA. In fact, that’s the same route (with some large side trips through Chicago and other cities) the music itself and many early Black citizens took. Traditional music clubs still proliferate in city streets, where you’ll hear the familiar twang of blues music at all hours. Well, I heard most of it after midnight, as that’s when Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters and B.B. King played, so that’s when the real blues players come out.
Find your way to the banks of the great Mississippi River, to understand the power of the nation’s second longest river and its use through time as a course-way of man, beast and all things American. Take a riverboat cruise, and you’ll know the feeling of the nation’s first long-distance water travellers. Beale Street, a famed strip of the city, is home to many authentic local restaurants, where you’ll enjoy the best Memphis soul food in the world, or wander over to The Rendezvous Restaurant, for famously tasty barbecue delights.
The Big Apple
Just say “New York” and you’ll raise eyebrows, expectations, attitudes and inspire a lot of talk. As the urban (and urbane) centre of American commercialism, commerce, consciousness and conscience, it inspires and awes every visitor. The list of places to see in the Big Apple could fill volumes, but a few must-visit places are most likely already in your mind. Times Square, The Statue of Liberty, New York’s MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
You probably won’t be able to resist a trip to Central Park to see where the city’s quiet soul resides. I took a bicycle trip (solo for 2 hours: $20), and ended up at the charmingly funky Sarabeth’s Central Park South. There, I recharged from the bike-burnout with a feast of wild proportions, including pumpkin waffles gently eased down with Four Flowers Juice, a cool and refreshing mix of fruit flavours.
These are obviously just the highlights of what was a mammoth trip through the U.S of A. I made a hundred more mini-stops along the way because I love side-trips almost as much as side dishes. Even then, I by-passed an equal number of amazing and historic cities that would have added weeks to the journey. However you decide to do it, a trip towards the sunrise takes in some of the United States’ most amazing scenery and culture. Try it, you’ll love it.
Thanks to its size and diversity, the USA is very much a world unto itself. A few cultural insights can help you plan a trip that makes works with the local way of life as well as fulfilling your holiday aspirations.
- Despite what you have seen in the movies or on TV, it is useful to bear in mind that this is the most culturally diverse nation in the world. The basic ethnic groups include White American, American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian, African American and Native Hawaiian, but within these groups there’s a whole world of nuances.
- Even with a vast diversity of origin among the population, most Americans are fiercely proud of their nation and jokes or comments that are seen as un-patriotic are therefore frowned upon.
- Americans are very social and open people and they expect the same of others, expect to be greeted by strangers in shops and even on the streets in smaller towns, and show courtesy by returning the salutation or you may be considered rude or impolite.
- Beyond its major cosmopolitan centres like New York City, most Americans have a somewhat limited world view and in many ways see their country as the world. They are, however, genuinely fascinated by other countries and always keen to hear about them once they realise you are a visitor from abroad.
- Sport is a national obsession but tends to be limited to American sports. It’s always good to know a little about baseball, basketball or American football if you want to endear yourself to the locals, no matter which part of the country you are travelling through.