Friday, February 26, 2016

New York, New York

Between Christmas and New Year we took a trip up to New York for a few days.  We decided to try out the train service from our local Amtrak station in Lancaster, and it was surprisingly easy - only 2 1/2 hours to Penn Station.  (I can see us taking more train trips in the future...)  From Penn Station, we eventually navigated the process of getting new metro cards and the metro itself to get to our hotel near Times Square.

And then we hit the sights!  Despite being very chilly, it was still extremely busy.  We headed along 5th Avenue towards the Rockefeller Center, taking in St Patricks Cathedral (looking very pretty in the fading light)...

...and then the very loud and flashy (and eventually, annoyingly repetitive), light show at Saks.  

The huge Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Center looked beautiful all lit up.  We also found some oversized Christmas lights and baubles on nearby 6th Avenue.

We had intended to head to the top of the Rockefeller Tower (supposedly better views from there than from the Empire State Building), but sadly it was too overcast and foggy, so we bought tickets for the following evening, hoping to beat the queues.  By this time we were hungry and thirsty, and stopped at the Spotted Pig (apparently co-owned by Jay-Z) for much needed sustenance.

Day Two started out at Ground Zero, with a first stop at Trinity Church.  The Church dates back to 1766 and was George Washington's place of worship.  It also survived the events of 9/11 completely unscathed, whilst the surrounding buildings were destroyed.  It served as a refuge base for the rescue workers on the days following the attacks. and there is a thought-provoking display of service memorabilia inside.  We were also lucky to catch an orchestral rehearsal in progress - lovely to just sit and listen to the musical acoustics inside the small church.

From there, we wondered past the huge queues at Memorial Plaza and the Reflecting Pools, and past One World Trade Center (which disappeared disconcertingly into the lingering low cloud above us), before a gentle stroll along the Hudson River and some murky views of the Statue of Liberty.

After a pit-stop for food, we headed into Central Park, visiting Strawberry Fields...

... the Bow Bridge 

and my favourite, the Alice in Wonderland sculpture.  

A few more minor sights later (the cubist Apple Store, Grand Central Station and the Chrysler Building), and it was time for our trip to the "Top of the Rock" - the observation decks of the Rockefeller Tower.  And despite the low cloud and mist we had experienced all day, it magically lifted as the sun went down, and we were able to get some amazingly clear views of downtown New York at night.

All too soon, it was our final day, but we still managed to squeeze in some final sights.  The High Line is a re-purposed train line, now a walking trail ("linear park") which runs through the historic meat packing district.  We walked a small stretch of this, taking in more views along the Hudson, 

before we reached the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum.  Lots of historic aircraft, and also the USS Enterprise Shuttle.  

And then our brief few days in New York were over, and we were headed back to Penn Station. But after all that walking, it was nice to just rest our legs and relax on the train with happy memories for the journey home!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Lititz Fire & Ice Festival

As the snowy weather over here continues, last weekend was, quite literally, freezing cold. The forecast low temperature was 0°F  (-17°C) with a wind chill making it even colder. It wasn't unusual to see people going out in their ski gear, with only their eyes peeking out between lowered woolly hats and raised scarves.

Driving anywhere was interesting, as the freezing wind blew snow across the road from the open farmlands either side:

So, naturally, it seemed like the perfect weekend to check out the annual Fire & Ice Festival in Lititz! This event is held annually, and combines beautiful ice sculptures (sponsored by local businesses) with a chilli cook-off.  Many of the sculptures are placed around Springs Park, which is where we headed, but some were also hidden in spots around the town itself (we didn't venture that far!).  On the previous night,  they had been lit up, and some were even sculpted "live".

We'd sadly missed the warming chilli by the time we got there, late afternoon, but were content to brave the temperatures and check out the ice sculptures.  It was so cold, in fact, that even the spring water was steaming!  

In the chilly winter sunshine and remaining snow in Springs Park, the ice looked very pretty. Some of them were a little tricky photograph in the sunshine, but see if you can work out what they are!

Thoroughly frozen by this time, we were happy to head back to the car and to somewhere much warmer for a well-deserved hot-chocolate!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Florida and the Everglades

So, whilst Winter Storm Jonas was silently burying much of the North East in 3 feet of snow, we were enjoying the more temperate (if a little soggy) climes of Florida. 

Not quite without its own weather anomalies - Florida is currently suffering a very wet winter. Typically, winter is their dry season, with perhaps an inch of rain in total - drought is not uncommon.  This winter, they've already had 20" of rain, and it was showing - flooded fields, overflowing run-offs, bedraggled looking wildlife...  It doesn't look good for the rainy season to come!

But we were able to enjoy a few days of sunshine.  Obviously it would have been rude not to enjoy some cocktails whilst we watched the famous Naples sunset from the beach bar...

But it wasn't all just lazing by the beach.  We also took a trip into the Everglades, mostly in the hope we'd see a real life alligator.  Admittedly it poured with rain for the entire trip, but we had the best time!

We'd booked an airboat trip, which took us into the mangrove waterways.  Our airboat was piloted by a very authentic-looking sea-dog, with curly white hair, a beard and a limp, and he raced us through the maze of waterways at exhilarating speeds.  Occasionally, the narrow avenues would open out into wide stretches of water - apparently perfect for hand-brake turns as we skidded sideways across the top of the water!  The whole area was a complete maze of water lanes, closed in with slightly creepy looking mangrove roots, and we were reassured when the pilot told us he knew the area like his backyard.

We saw an alligator almost immediately - just hanging out at the edge of the forest, not far from the harbour, the top of its head just visible above the water in the teeming rain.  And as we came back into the harbour, soaking wet but with the biggest smiles, we were also treated to the site of a mother dolphin and her calf.  Amazing.

Afterwards, we got to hold a baby alligator called, appropriately, Snappy, who was about 3 feet long.  He was actually quite cute, surprisingly soft-skinned, and he closed his eyes in apparent bliss if you scratched the top of his head!

From there, our tour guide took us on a back-road tour of the Everglades for a glimpse of more native wildlife.  So many species of birds, we lost count - wood storks, kingfishers, spoonbills, vultures, herons, pelicans, moorhens (just the ones I can remember!).  We also briefly saw the rising heads of manatees in the flooded pools as they popped up to breathe.  
And so many alligators - again just hanging out in the water by the sides of the road. The biggest one we saw was allegedly 12 feet in length - difficult to tell when you can only see their eyes above the water! 

 I think we definitely fulfilled our wish to see alligators in the Everglades!