Saturday, 30 August 2014

Summer 2014 - New York

It's only a short hop from Ottawa to New York - 45 minutes on the plane if that.  The planes have been getting progressively smaller too, as we've travelled north from Orlando and this one's the smallest yet - but it means that it's easy to get a good view of the city that never sleeps as we fly into La Guardia airport.

We were expecting it to be considerably busier than Ottawa, and it was! As our taxi took us into the centre of the city, the traffic slowed down to crawling point.  All around us, the pavements (sidewalks!) were thronged with people. It was quite a culture shock.

We took a hop-on hop-off bus tour which also included a ferry trip to try to pack as much as we could into our three days and as we drove around the streets, it made me wonder what exactly it is about New York that draws so many people.  There's a magnetism about the place that attracts attention, both good and bad, and I found myself looking around to see if I could work out what it was.  

There are the iconic buildings, of course, which seemed familiar even though we'd never actually seen them before because of all the films and TV programmes which are set in New York.  Who wouldn't be tempted to live on a film set?

The Empire State Building ...

... the Chrysler Building ... I loved the way it gleamed in the blue sky ...

... Grand Central Terminal ...

I couldn't resist showing you this rather wonderful picture that big daughter took of the inside of the station ...

... and here's her favourite, the Flatiron Building.

These buildings are all so tall that you spend all your time craning your neck to look up, and they look as if they are leaning in on each other in the photos. It seems as if every street corner as another view of somewhere that you feel you've seen only yesterday.  

The tall skyscraper in this picture is the Freedom Tower, built at One World Trade Center.  It's a gesture of defiance, the tallest building in America. Perhaps that is what New York is -a city that refuses to be beaten - and people want to be part of that.  Close by are the memorials to the Twin Towers, huge pools of constantly moving water built on the footprints of the original towers.  It's a strangely peaceful place; surrounded by trees and with the sound of the water muting the traffic noise. Names are inscribed on panels around the memorial and we found ourselves drawn to touch them, as if in some way that gave us a connection to the people who were lost.  After all, we are all someone's son or daughter, husband or wife, brother or sister.

Another peaceful place in the midst of the bustle of the city is Central Park.  It covers 843 acres of Manhattan Island, so it's no wonder that you can forget that you're in the middle of a city when you are in the park.  Instead, we listened to birdsong, children laughing in the playgrounds, the soft hiss of bike tyres and the rhythmic tread of jogging feet.  Is that what New York is, the contrast between the bricks and the trees?

I expect you'll recognise this zoo entrance if you've ever seen the film Madagascar ...

And then down another path, there's the city again.  

It's not all skyscrapers in New York.  The Guggenheim Museum building fascinated me with it's curved walls although we didn't have time to do more than admire it from the outside.

Big daughter has wanted to visit New York for a long time and was looking forward to a bit of retail therapy.  We'd been warned that New York would be very expensive after the other places we had visited, but we were pleasantly surprised to find that wasn't the case.  On the advice of the tour guide, we moved away from Times Square and Broadway, and found restaurants that were just as good but much cheaper, plus we got to see a side of the city where souvenir shops made way for hardware stores and greengrocers' shops.

Small daughter loved the souvenir shops and wanted to stock up on gifts for her friends.  She insisted on buying a foam Statue of Liberty crown which she modelled with great delight, holding up an ice-cream for a torch and our rather crumpled map as her book.  She was very pleased with herself!  Big daughter had her sights set on a different store ...

Again, we were surprised to find that what she wanted to buy was mostly within her budget, and she left the store with several bags!  Big daughter has wanted to go to New York for a long time, and our visit didn't disappoint.  She spent most of our three days there with a huge beam on her face which was lovely to see instead of the rather worried look we've got used to over the exam period.

And then, all too soon, it was time to head back to the airport.  We saw so much in our short visit but there is still so much more to see.  Have I worked out what it is about New York?  Of course not, and that is also part of the magic.  It's the people, the buildings, the food, the contrasts, the noise and the bustle - all of those things together create a whole which would be diminished if any of them were removed.  It's impossible to define a city in one or two words when it has evolved over time and been shaped by people from many different countries to become the place it is today.  There's no harm in trying, though, and if that involves a return visit in the future, then so be it.  We won't be complaining.


Friday, 29 August 2014

Summer 2014 - Ottawa

It took longer than we would have imagined to get to Ottawa; a flight to Toronto and then a connecting flight to Ottawa.  It's a surprise that it's not easier to get there seeing as it's Canada's capital city, but for some reason most planes go in and out of Toronto instead.

My aunt and uncle were waiting for us when we landed in Ottawa.  Although they've travelled to the UK quite a few times over the last few years, it's been about thirteen years since we were in Canada ourselves (we were actually there on 9/11 which was quite a frightening experience, but that's a different story) and we were very excited at the thought that we would see for ourselves the houses and places that they have only been able to show us pictures of before.  

After finding our hotel and a good night's sleep, we started our week with a trip to a local park before heading off to meet up with the family.  One of the things that has always struck us about Canada is how big it seems - not just because it is a huge country with a very small population - but because the sky always seems so open.  It's not the same all over the country, but the part that we visit is very flat so the sky seems to go on forever as there are none of the tall buildings you find elsewhere to break up the horizon.  You can get an idea of what I mean if you look past the lighthouse and the fisherman, but a photo doesn't really give you that sense of open-ness in quite the same way. It's quite extraordinary.

Then it was time to catch up with the family.  It's strange to think that these people are connected to us, and yet we don't see them often and don't really know that much about their day-to-day lives at all other than the condensed versions of events that you exchange in emails and phone calls.  

Within minutes, however, it felt as if we'd seen them only yesterday.  Chatting to my cousin in the kitchen as we prepared dinner was like chatting to an old friend.  My husband was involved in an animated conversation with my uncle and other cousins which came to us through the kitchen window amidst burst of uproarious laughter.  My girls were immediately caught up with throwing toys for the dog in a game with their younger cousins (and later shucking corn which is the picture below) - and the three-year-old twins who we were warned were very shy with strangers gravitated towards small daughter and held on to her hands as if they never intended to let her go.  It was one of those moments when you feel your heart swell and you never want it to end.

The rest of the week was spent sight-seeing and "hanging out" with the family. In fact, we spent very little time in our hotel at all!  We ate breakfast there every morning before heading out; small daughter had a ritual of eating the same things in the same order, but in such a way that involved her going back to the buffet to collect it as many times as possible.  I think she just liked being able to go and help herself; she's always been an independent type of girl!  Big daughter loved the pancake machine which produced breakfast pancakes to order - she did suggest we might like one at home but I'm not convinced!  My husband smiled every morning at the coffee cup.  He said he imagined people dragging themselves out of bed and across the floor to get to the coffee station!

We visited the Governor's residence, we went to a water park, the National Gallery of Canada (lovely cafe - well worth a visit!); this is the ceiling - isn't it fabulous?

We saw the Parliament Buildings, which look so very similar to our own ...

... considering that it was supposed to be a quieter week than our Disney week, we never stopped!  We had our own personal tour guides in our family which was great as we got to see even more of them, and they got to look at their city from a visitor's perspective, which reminded them how much they liked the city they lived in.

And then my aunt said that she wanted to show me her local yarn store, Wool-Tyme, which it turns out, is the largest wool shop in Canada.  Local - ha!  It was a 40 minute drive!  It was one of those places that you could easily have missed from the outside, but inside - goodness me - there was more yarn than I think I've ever seen in one place and definitely worth the journey!  

Racks and racks of it of all colours and makes -a lot of it was English yarn which surprised me as I expected far more of it to be locally produced.  There were sample garments hanging from the ceiling, books and books of patterns, shelves of buttons and displays of needles, crochet hooks and any other accessory you could think of.

I've never been anywhere quite like it.

And then I spotted the sock yarn.  Big daughter, who had come with us, actually asked me if I was drooling.  This picture isn't even half of it, so yes, I think I probably was! 

The surprise again was that hardly any of it came from Canada and what they did have was very expensive and more suited to shawls than socks.  I found that a little disappointing -having come all this way I wasn't going to return empty-handed and some Canadian sock yarn would have been nice. However, I did manage to find another couple of balls to tempt me ...

One's a ball of Opal yarn which I can get at home but I've only seen that colour-way on the internet and big daughter particularly wanted a pair of socks for college knitted in the colour.  The other is Swedish yarn which I've never seen before and lastly a skein of hand-painted alpaca, merino and silk sock yarn which actually comes from Peru but as I'm a bit of a sucker for alpaca yarn, I wasn't going to leave it in the store!

All in all then, a wonderful week in Ottawa.  We were very sad to leave, but at least had the excitement of a few days in New York to look forward to.  The good news is that our visit has pulled our family closer together again; emails have already been flying backwards and forwards, we've spoken on the phone, Skype calls between the children are planned and there's even talk of a holiday together.  It was definitely worth the time it took us to get there.

Our holiday's nearly over - just a few days in New York to go.  Are you coming? 

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Summer 2014 - Orlando

The first time we went to Orlando, when big daughter was six years old, my husband and I told ourselves that we were going for her and although we weren't really into Disney ourselves, we'd have a nice time because she would. What we hadn't allowed for was the Disney magic which is somehow in the air and wraps you up in childhood excitement so that whatever age you are, the six year old in you comes to the surface.  

Fast forward ten years and here we are again.  This time, we don't try to pretend that we're just here for the girls.  Small daughter is so excited that there's a danger she's going to bounce right through the back seat of our rental car.  She's been bouncing for the last few months, counting down weeks, days and hours until we finally got here.

We've got a week to see as much as we can before heading back to the airport for our next adventure - and small daughter has a very big list of things that she wants to see!  Top of the list and as you'd imagine - lots of Disney princesses.  Big daughter is almost too grown up for Disney princesses now, but she's hoping that Stitch will be around as he's her absolute favourite. We've got time to visit three Disney parks (Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom and of course, the Magic Kingdom).  We also plan to visit Universal Studios and the Islands of Adventure and - thanks to Lesley who managed to get us tickets after we thought they'd sold out - Discovery Cove.  Big daughter suggested hopefully that we might be able to go there to swim with the dolphins there and amazingly, that's what we we're going to do.  

Orlando is perhaps much as you'd imagine it to be.  Wide roads, three or four lanes across, full of huge cars.  Diners and restaurants on every corner next to gifts shops selling souvenirs of varying qualities.  Enormous billboards advertising attractions that try to compete with Disney.  It's quite an assault on the senses.  And then there's the heat.  When we're there, it's approaching the hurricane season so the heat and humidity is at it's highest, and we saw some spectacular lightning displays - nature competing with anything you can buy a park pass for.  At the Disney parks, however, the show goes on ...

Whatever the weather, Mickey and his friends are at the heart of everything, even in the gardens! 

I have no intention of showing you endless family shots of small daughter over-awed in the presence of Disney royalty or the rest of us with permanent cheesy grins fixed to our faces as we pack more into our week than we ever thought possible.  What I do want to show you though, is what never failed to impress me, whatever park we were in, and that's the attention to detail.

What Harry Potter fan in the world wouldn't recognise these spires?

Or this train?

Or this alley where you can buy anything from robes to owls?

The girls even wanted to try Butterbeer, although the sickly-sweet concoctions available from The Three Broomsticks weren't quite what they were expecting!

The attention to detail is everywhere; the Princesses were ready to answer questions from even the most fanatical of children (I thought we'd watched Frozen more times than anybody else but clearly not!).  The queueing areas for the rides immerse you in the worlds of Toy Story, 
Despicable Me, The Mummy and any number of other rides.  It's not just about the five minutes you are hurtled about at sickening speeds or blast aliens with laser guns, it's about the entire time you set foot into the ride area - which is just as well in case of the new Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios which had a five hour wait time even at 8.30am.  And no, we didn't queue up to wait!

However, it's easy to forget that there's more to Orlando than the Disney and Universal parks.  This is Astra, the beautiful dolphin who chose to come and meet us.

Yes - chose - which was very important to us.  We had a few misgivings over the idea of meeting dolphins that lived in captivity and greeted visitors every day, but the trainers we spoke to allayed our concerns.  All of the dolphins at Discovery Cove have either been born there or have come from another park; none of them have been brought in from the wild. These dolphins live on average ten years longer than wild dolphins because they don't have to face the hazards of predators, lack of food or tuna fishermen.  They always have a choice of whether to come and greet visitors or not, and if they don't want to, nobody is going to make a 300lb (21 stone) dolphin change it's mind.  They certainly didn't seem mistreated in any way or as if they were having a terrible life, and we felt very blessed to have had the opportunity to get up close.

We also felt very lucky every morning to wake up to this.

Our accommodation was on the shore of a large lake with a lovely sandy beach.  Small daughter was rather concerned to see the notices warning visitors not to feed the alligators, but we didn't see any.  

It was calm and peaceful and seemed a million miles away from from the theme parks, diners and malls which were actually not very far away at all. The diners reminded us very much of Little Chef restaurants which are always a stopping-place for a breakfast treat on our days out to Wales.  My husband enjoyed his mugs of coffee which seemed to be endlessly re-filled, although he had to be careful he didn't drink too much or he left the diner walking like a Thunderbirds puppet!

A week passes all too quickly when you're having fun, and it was soon time to pack up our suitcases and head off to the airport for our internal flight to Canada.  And just in case you're wondering, big daughter did meet Stitch ...


Pack your cases and come with us as we fly to Ottawa, Canada's capital city!

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Summer 2014 - a tale of three cities!

Well, strictly speaking it's two cities and a Magic Kingdom, but that doesn't quite have the same ring to it!

We've been such a lucky family this summer - our summer holiday was three holidays all rolled into one.  It's a trip that we've been planning for and saving up to take for a few years as we needed to time it between big daughter's GCSEs and A levels, and also at a time when small daughter was at age when she would appreciate it most.

Can you guess where we've been?

I don't think this place needs many clues ...!

This one's a bit trickier - it might look familiar but look again ...

What about this one?  It's not the usual view of this city but it's one of our favourites ...

Did you get it?  Well done, I'm impressed! 

It was a pretty big trip - Disneyland in Orlando, Ottawa in Canada and New York.  The photos are Cinderella's castle (of course!), the Parliament buildings in Ottawa which are based on the same design as our Parliament buildings in London, and a view from Central Park, a wonderfully lush green space in the heart of a bustling city.

We took big daughter to Disneyland when she was small and had always promised that we would take small daughter too.  Instead of staying in Orlando for our full two week holiday, though, we decided to take an internal flight to Canada to see our relatives before coming home via New York - a place that has been on big daughter's travel wish list for quite some time.

We planned our travels with the help of our very own personal travel agent, a lovely lady called Lesley Howard.  Normally, I would have organised all of the bookings myself, but as it was such a big, special holiday, we decided to get a bit of help.  Lesley co-ordinated international and internal flights, hotel rooms and car hire across two countries (often at a discount too!) and even managed to get us tickets to visit a very special place ... but more about that later. 

Three very different places and three very different experiences, and we loved them all.  We crossed oceans, rivers and borders, showed our passports more times than we can remember, marvelled at skyscrapers and gasped at Disney magic.  I hope you won't mind if I share some of our highlights with you.  

First up, Disneyland.  Come with us as we visit the world of Mickey Mouse ...

Monday, 4 August 2014

Monthly Musing - August 2014 - To know or not to know?

It's just so happened that I've had a few conversations with different people over the last few weeks that have involved the words "if I'd only known ..." or "if I'd only done this or that ...".  Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and if our hindsight was our foresight, the world would have been saved a great deal of trauma and we'd all be millionaires.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), hindsight is exactly that and we live each day with no idea about the surprises, both good and bad, that are in store for us.  Is this a good thing, do you think?  Would you rather know what was coming up around the bend, or is it better to take each day as it comes and deal with joys and challenges as they arrive?  Would you still make the same decisions if you knew in advance what the outcome was going to be?

Fortunately (or unfortunately), we'll never know the answer to this question.  Who knows how many relationships might never have got off the ground because one partner knew in advance that the strength of their pairing would truly be tested "in sickness and in health?"  Or what about those times where something wonderful and unexpected comes from a bad situation?  Would we really want to miss out on those possibilities even though there was pain involved?

I think how you feel about this depends on your view on life in general.  Some people face life head on, taking each day as a new adventure and relishing the challenges.  Others are afraid of the changes that might happen, of losing people and possessions in their lives and preferring instead to keep their heads below the parapet.  I suspect that most of us are a combination of those extremes, preferring for the most part to steer our way through calmer waters than head for rough seas.  Hindsight would be a valuable tool, helping us to avoid dangers and disasters - but where would the fun be in that?  How would we grow as people if we weren't exposed to a few "what if" moments every now and again?  We make our decisions based on the information that we have at the time, and we always make what we think is the best decision.  Whether it turns out to be right or wrong, we have learned something from the experience which will make us stronger, braver and more confident in an other situation - even if we don't see it at the time.

We can't live our lives regretting the "if onlys" as they do nothing except take away the joy of today - which even if you can't see it right now, is probably just around the corner.  Life never stands still.
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