The Big Apple for the perfect NY holiday

the empire state totally hidden within the clouds behing the 8th ave sign

the empire state totally hidden within the clouds behing the 8th ave sign

I often travel through New York since the city has 3 major airports within a few kilometers of eachother, offering an endless supply of travel opportunities. It also happens to be one of the cheapest cities to travel from, only a 4.5 hr direct flight away from Iceland (closer than west coast north america), and way cheaper and funner than London, the only other city i consider a major travel hub. I have been stalking flights to Cape Town, and often find flights with South African or British Airways that fly from new york, through london, and down to Cape Town, for cheaper than the exact same flight that just does the london to cape town segment. This time around, I made an actual visit to New York just to see New york, and spent 8 days in the city instead of 12 or 36 hrs like I usually do between flights enroute somewhere else.

Im glad to have done that since New York City is an amazing vacation place. I arrived 10 days ago, lasat Thursday, via an overnight bus from Montreal that was scheduled to arrive at 6:15 am and rolled in at a cool 7:45 after my cousin had wated in downtown rushour for an hour and half. By absolute coincidence, my mother and uncle from Vancouver were flying to Iceland via JFK and had that Thursday morning from 7 am til 11am in New York to meet up with me and my 3 cousins (and their wife/baby/husband) and we had the most glorious goat curry breakfast complete with rice, roti and merlot at some ridiculous time like 9 am. Then, dropping my mom and uncle at JFK at noon also coincided perfectly with Jon Smari, my partner in crime from Iceland, arriving in JFK from Iceland. New york is such a big city but only in new york would all our paths be able to collide like that!

Me and Jon Smari spent the week in my cousins basement apartment (were talking absolutely underground, no way to see sunlight or predict the weather/temperature… a strange feeling) and were joined by Clio from Montreal the next morning. We walked the entire island of manhattan, all of downtown, midtown, and the 51 city blocks of Central Park starting at 110th in Harlem where Jon Smari was a starkingly white minority. We literally shopped til we dropped, our feet covered in blisters and dirt after 10 hrs of city walking in poor foot attire. It also rained a few days, keeping us sore, dirty and wet, but with enough $7 pitchers of beer (Rudy’s Bar and Grill on 44th… an amazing find), we hardly noticed and just did the exact same exhausting marathon the following days. One cloudy day the entire top half of the empire state building disappeared in the clouds, and it so happened to be the only day we planned to go up to the top… but of course there was no use, so atleast there’s still one reason to go back.

Some of the highlights included seeing the typical sights: the world trade center site, the empire state, the flat iron building, rockafeller center, DUMBO and walking over the brooklyn bridge. Other strange highlights included meeting the Naked Cowboy (NYC mayor hopeful) and running into a 60kg 3m long snake at battery park… a little out of place, but still a beautiful creature. We also got to see a free concert by the salsa singer Frankie Negron in battery park, a free orchestra performance in prospect park by the NY Philharmonic, 2 broadway shows and a carriage ride through central park in the same carriage that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Angelina Jolie had once graced (or so the Irish driver told us).

My personal highlight was getting to spend time with some of my closest friends, all those mentioned already plus Ursula, my old roommate from one of the most amazing times in my life, Semester at Sea. We got a blissful 3 hour reunion together after almost a year without contact, which surely wasnt long enough, but since she’s in NYC for good now, then its just another great reason to make it back to New York a.s.a.p!

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The Maritimes

the boats in alma resting on the sea bottom at low tide

The boats in Alma resting on the sea bottom at low tide

After five weeks in Montreal studying French, it was definitely time for a less academic, more “fun-in-the-sun” vacation, so last week me and my best friend Clio set off for an 8 day road trip through the Maritimes. We started in Montreal on a 14 hour car journey through Quebec and New Brunswick all the way to Halifax, Nova Scotia, right on the Atlantic coast. We got there with a random stranger who posted on craigslist rideshare for only $100 each, a bargain compared to the $200+ bus or $250 flight. Unfortunately for us, he liked to talk, and talk a lot, and mostly about himself. He was a mid-twenties, Italian highschool teacher (also hairy and chubby with greasy curly hair) who boasted about the grade 11 girls who had crushes on him and boys who aspired to be him. Once in a while he would bring up his ex girlfriends and how he only dated or had interest in gorgeous women. Oh ignorance, but entertaining at the very least.

After taking turns fighting for the backseat (where we could pretend we were sleeping and not engage in conversation), we made it safely to Halifax where a peer student that I met from the French program lived. Our host was Tim, one of the most friendly, positive, and energetic people I’ve ever met. He lives in a residence called Trinity House, run by members from the adjacent church, complete with a guest bedroom for two where we stayed. The times that Tim walked with us, he knew every person that was in anyway involved with King’s College, the oldest university in Canada where he studied. We spent most of our days doing the touristic clichés, and even though we were there from Monday to Thursday, we hit the town every night for some drinking and dancing festivities. East coast Canadians were super nice, and the food was great since we managed to feast on a $10 lobster meal each, sucker our way into some free street sausages, and indulge in the local brews. On our last night there, we saw a cover band called Mellotones play at the Seahorse, and they rocked out to some of the best songs with a 9 piece soul/funk band whose blonde curly-haired lead singer who could mimic Michael Jackson pretty convincingly inbetween playing his saxophone.

After Halifax, we took this door to door shuttle service to get to Prince Edward Island; it was about a 5 hour drive in an 11 passenger packed like a sardine can that started at 6:45 am, so, not very comfortable. Once we arrived in Charlottetown, PEI’s capital, we had the first, true summer day with 26 degree heat and no clouds in the sky. We grabbed fried scallop lunch at Peake’s, a restaurant right on the wharf, and made friends with a lonely guy at the table beside us. We chatted with him a bit, and when he realized we were out of towners looking for a nice beach to camp, he offered us a ride to Tea Hill. We spent most of the afternoon there sunbathing and relaxing, and then our rideshare that we had organized for the following morning from PEI to New Brunswick called to make arrangements for another early morning pick up.

He sounded really nice on the phone, but again, another random stranger from craigslist. He offered to pick us up then and take us to a beach closer to where he was staying so that the following morning it would be easier to accept, so we accepted. We moved to Bedford, to some secluded beach with more sand and calmer water. Chris, the rideshare guy, ended up being super strange and talking all sorts of contradictory information on the short ride over, so when he asked to come hang out with us on the beach, we quickly denied with some lame excuse. Then, being 2 paranoid female backpackers on a lonely beach, we decided to be stealth about our camping location by walking a few hundred meters over to this deserted mansion, which ended up being inhabited by an elderly couple with 13 Porches and 1 Mercedes. We camped on their lawn and told them about our safety concerns, so they made us feel nice and cozy on their perfectly groomed lawn and woke us up with bottled water and an offer to use their porcelain toilet. Since we had almost no other choice, we still met Chris in the morning to catch our ride to New Brunswick, and we were a lot calmer to share the car with his 60 year old aunty for the three hour drive.

In Fredericton, the capital of NB, we stayed with my roommate from Montreal. Matthew, or, more affectionately, Turbo, is a burly faced, lumberjack shirt wearing teddybear who is always singing or strumming his guitar. As you can imagine, he was also great company and a wonderful host, and we took a day trip down to Alma in the Bay of Fundy where they have the highest tides in the world. They say that their 10 meter tide differences make their harbor only accessible during high tide, and all other times, the boats rest on the ocean floor. Alma is a tiny village with a huge lobster industry, so for lunch, we feasted on more fresh lobster (and some snow crab) for about $6 – $9 each, and further indulged with the most amazing sticky buns I’ve ever had, complete with hot chocolate to drink. It was a chilly, misty day, so hot chocolate could not have been more appropriate as we walked along the incoming tide. On the way home we somehow got lost in Fundy national park, but since its only 20km around, it didn’t cost us much time, just a lot of confusion since there’s only one road through it and getting lost on the way out is quite an accomplishment. From Fredericton, we came back to montreal late last night, and tonight I’ll regretfully be parting Montreal and Clio. Tomorrow morning I’ll be waking up in New York after an overnight bus. Hopefully there will be no more Italians or Chris to share the long drive with…

Budget traveling a blast even in big cities

if only the kronur was still strong

If only the krona was still strong

I’ve always thought of budget traveling being something that only happens in places like Southeast Asia or South America, because things are cheap there and their currency is usually valued less, but traveling Canada for 6 weeks on a Southeast Asia budget seems to be working out for me. I love the $0.99 pizza kiosks, dollar stores that sell virtually anything for a dollar, couchsurfing and rideshare networks.

Most people know what couchsurfing is, and rideshare is basically another way for roadtrip travelers to save money: If you have room in your car and want to split gas cost, you offer backpackers or other commuters a spot in your car, or if you are looking for a ride somewhere, you can go on web sites like craigslist and say you need a lift and than people taking that route can offer you a spot for a lot less than even major bus companies like Greyhound.

I took such a rideshare to Quebec City for St. Jean Babtiste day, otherwise known and celebrated as the Quebec national holiday, and also to Ottawa to celebrate Canada day in the country’s capital. Tomorrow I embark on a 1000km trek to Halifax, and of course rideshare pulled through and a ride has been arranged for 60% cheaper than a bus, and a lot less expensive than flying. And besides, the trip is about the journey and not the destination, so driving there seems like more fun. Slow travel is also better for the environment, no use emitting all that carbon on a plane when you can take the scenic route.

Anyway, back to budget travel surprises… I have never had so much free and consistent entertainment anywhere else before Montreal. I’ve seen so many free concerts, including Sarah Maclachlan and Stevie Wonder to name a few, and I’m just missing  Ben Harper by a few days. Canadians are also really nice people, they stand by their reputation of being friendly with all the free bbq’s and parties I’ve happily attended. I walked past a restaurant one day last week called Globe, and the manager wanted to commend me for my quebecoise patriotism ( I was wearing a Quebec flag in my hair) by inviting me in for some sangria that turned into a few more drinks and another similar visit the next day. All in all, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the $10 a day I’ve managed to get away with spending, excpet for on special occassions when I feel like splurging and spend a full 10$ on an amazing meal of mussles!

But, to put things in perspective, its difficult to be traveling with the issue of currency exchange, especially if your base currency is Icelandic kroner (now, not accepted anywhere for exchange), and everytime I swipe my Icelandic credit card, I think “imagine if the currency was still worth double that of the dollar?” Things would be a lot cheaper, or I would just live like a queen off double my budget.

Photo from www.bloomberg.com