In praise of the back roads

 

David Whitley goes the long way round in New Mexico, and is very glad that he did so

 

What on earth is that? We’ve come through the high pine forest, careering around curving roads that look down into deep gullies. It’s one of those roads that’s an undisputed joy to drive along, yet suddenly it changes. After a descent, the horizon gets all big – but with something rather weird blocking the way.

 

They look like rolling sand dunes, but seem oddly crusted – as if the sand has been baked and hardened. As far as I can work out, they’re not sandstone, and they’re not your usual rock formations either. They’re, well, a field of lightly toasted yellow hills.

 

This is the sort of thing you get when you go the long way. When there are two routes, and one might take an hour or so longer than the boring, obvious one, it’s almost always better to take the fun option.

 

It’s a theory that proves itself again and again as we travel through New Mexico. Detour one from Santa Fe to Albuquerque loops past a giant, green, volcanic caldera, then rusty, red rock monuments that feel like they’ve come from central Australia.

 

Detour two heads through turquoise country, and Cerrillos, a town that looks so old-fashioned Wild West that westerns are still shot there. It also has an unfathomably weird Turquoise Mining Museum, which is less a museum and more a collection of junk that the owners couldn’t bear to throw out. Dozens of old poison bottles, rattlesnake skulls and bison horns leave little space for the undoubted highlight – a wall full of different types of barbed wire.

 

Shortly after comes Madrid, one of those delightful little hippy villages that only hangs out on back roads. It’s all bright paint, ramshackle wooden buildings and tie-dye. A sign in the café says: “In 1897 nothing happened here”. And no-one seems to mind – it’s an old mining town that artists moved into back in the 1970s because housing was cheap. They’ve stayed and it’s now the sort of place that bikers come miles out of their way for in order to get a brownie and a smoothie.

 

But it’s not the stops that count so much as the journey. It’s all about doing something because you can rather than because you have to, and that changes the mindset. Whimsy and silliness creep in, time stops feeling so restrictive.

 

The final detour comes on the way to Tucson. It turns a four hour drive into a five-and-a-half hour drive, but provides us with the most astonishing scenery we’ve seen in a state that’s pretty much 100% astonishing scenery.  Blackened stumps of recently burned trees sprinkle the backdrop as we climb high over the continental divide, mountain range after mountain range lining up in waves in the distance. We start adding to the drive time: there are going to be plenty of photo stops.

 

Eventually the road ends up in Silver City, an unexpectedly lovely university town that has preserved its pioneer-style buildings and turned many of them into galleries, cafés and pubs. We plonk down in a gelato bar, and get chatting to the owners. They’re from Baltimore originally, but after a few visits, Silver City got under their skin and they decided to move. What they’ve created is something more than an ice cream shop, however. People are sat around playing board games and one part of the room can be sectioned off for community meetings. It’s important to be sociable, that’s the message. And it’s one that fizzles through the town that has fallen firmly on the creative side of New Mexico’s arts vs military divide.

 

A short refreshment break turns into something more – a glimpse of a town’s heart. We wander for an hour or so, increasingly charmed and less concerned about getting to Tucson for any particular time. The back roads, again, have worked a curious magic.

by David Whitley

  

Roswell: Why the flying saucers never returned

 

David Whitley heads to Roswell in New Mexico – site of the most infamous ‘alien landing’ – to find that the truth is much darker than he initially imagined


The giant inflatable alien outside the McDonalds on the way in doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. Roswell has one major gimmick, and that the odd business milks it is no great shocker.

In fact, what’s most unexpected is that the whole little green man connection is underplayed. A few shops in the starkly empty downtown area sell any UFO-related guff they can get away with, the odd streetlight has been made to look like an alien head, and that’s just about it.

Well, apart from the International UFO Museum, anyway. The curators here clearly believe that the truth is out there, and have collected shedloads of testimonies about Roswell’s most notorious moment in 1947. That was when, according to the military, a weather balloon crashed.

Conspiracy theorists don’t believe that, of course. And they’re right not to, as it’s clearly a preposterous cover story for something else. The museum sets out the case for it being an alien craft that crash-landed – and plenty of witnesses (some rather reluctant and on their deathbed) attest to cover-ups, the silencing of key protagonists and sightings of non-human bodies.

The museum does its case no favours with amateurish presentation and an overly adamant belief in its case, but a couple of things stand out. The Roswell incident happened within a couple of weeks of the modern era’s first UFO sighting – in Idaho. A few more had followed, getting excitable coverage across the US media.

This suggests one of two things – firstly, that a lot of aliens were taking a look at Earth during that period or, secondly, that it was a new fad that excitable people were all too happy to get wrapped up in. The sort of hysteria, of course, that makes people see what they want to see.

The other interesting thing is the massive military presence around Roswell – air force bases, missile testing ranges, you name it. On the way in, stealth bombers are spotted racing across the sky. It doesn’t take too big a leap of faith to think that it’s not aliens that were being covered up, but some rather unsavoury and potentially embarrassing experiments.

 



It turns out that aliens aren’t the scariest thing about Roswell, however. The horror lies not in recovered bodies, but the ones moving around almost exclusively in Chevy Silverados. If ever there was a place to encapsulate the ugly side of modern America, this regional hub in south-western New Mexico is it.

It’s a world where nobody walks, and everyone drives a vehicle that’s way bigger than necessary. It’s a place where every sign is recognisable – Denny’s, Applebee’s, Wendy’s – and any hint of independent, non-franchised thought has been stripped out. The Walmart is gargantuan, its car park even more so. And everyone shops there.

US flags are everywhere, unquestioningly worshipped in a way that would be laughed at if it was North Korea. And the military can do no wrong – just about every business boasts of its military discounts, while bumper stickers alternate between support our troops and “proud veteran” sloganeering.

It’s a city that’s dead behind the eyes, and quite happy to be that way. One that any teenager with a brain and ounce of creative energy will be desperate to escape. The more pliant will have it drummed into them that there’s no other way and stay there forever, happy in their air-conditioned drone world.

The terror is not that this exists, but that it’s not a one-off. Roswell is replicated numerous times across the US, making identikit British small towns look positively utopian.

If the aliens did visit, it’s no surprise that they didn’t come back.

by David Whitley

  

 

You can get the USA included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW

Los Alamos: The town that made the atom bomb

 

In the middle of New Mexico, David Whitley discovers the secrets of the hilltop town that created the most fearsome monster ever used

The road up to the top of the mountain – a mesa, realistically – is packed with espionage thriller-style drama. It snakes up the canyon wall before morphing into a town that, at one point, didn’t officially exist.

During the Second World War, this was simply “PO Box 1663, Santa Fe”. Yet, high on the hill, many of the world’s top scientists were gathering to create something that would change the world forever – and in the darkest of ways.

In 1943, Los Alamos – once home to just a ranch school for shy, sickly boys – became the top secret home to the Manhattan Project. The military moved in to create a town from nothing. The scientists moved in to create the deadliest weapon ever used in battle.

The story of the atomic bomb – part of it, anyway – is told inside the Bradbury Science Center. And it’s full of surprises. For example, Vice President Harry Truman – who would eventually give the order to drop the bomb on Hiroshima - didn’t know the project existed until the second week after he took over the presidency.

I also didn’t know that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were different types. When the project started, they didn’t know which would work (one used the uranium-235 isotope, the other plutonium-239), so they worked on both in tandem.

The copies of once-classified documents are utterly grossing. There’s Albert Einstein’s letter to President Roosevelt warning him of the possibility of nuclear chain reactions being used to make bombs – and that the Germans may have been working on such weapons. There’s also physicist Enrico Fermi’s dry, descriptive reaction to the first ever atomic bomb detonation – at the Trinity site in the White Sands Missile Range, around 200 miles south.

 

 

Just about everything to do with that Trinity test sends shivers down the spine. The video of the original mushroom cloud going up is terrifying, as are the reactions to it. A voice of a witness gasps: “What have we done?” Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist in charge of the Manhattan Project, recalled a line from the Bhagavad Gita – “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

The devastating impact was enough to move some scientists who worked on the bomb to write to the President, begging him never to let the bomb be used.

Less chilling, but fascinating in a different way, are the tales of everyday life on The Hill. Some are told in the Bradbury Center, others in the Los Alamos Historical Museum – once the guest cottage for the ranch school that was appropriated by the military for the secret mission. It wasn’t just a hidden-away lab – it was a town, and one with a very young, lively population. A maternity wing had to be built onto the hospital as so many children were born there. Their birth certificates don’t say Los Alamos though – just PO Box 1663, Santa Fe. Imagine trying to explain that to an employer.

Equally stunning are the testimonies from the people who worked at Los Alamos, without ever knowing what they were working on. A lab technician who worked on the detonators says that he only worked it out after reading the papers following the Hiroshima bombing.

It’s a place where you could spend days happily reading the letters home to parents, where the moral quandaries over whether to drop the bomb are not glossed over, and the realities of keeping something so monstrous so secret hit home.

But it’s all a slice of the past until you drive out of town. On the main road out, there’s a security checkpoint, and all cars are thoroughly checked out. They still do nuclear research here. A lot of it. And much of it is highly classified.

by David Whitley

  

 

You can get the USA included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW

Choose your Own Adventure in New York City

 

 

 

There's so much to do and catch up on in NYC that I'm in my hotel room barely long enough to catch a wink of sleep, so my choice of accommodation is based on three factors - cost, location and free wifi.

New York is a city where you can be yourself, or create a character and play out your fantasies - whatever your taste and budget, you'll find somewhere to suit your persona. Here are five NYC hotels offering very different experiences, as well as a good locale and free wifi:

 

In The Navy

Jane Hotel

From $89 (£57) per night for a single room, plus taxes

Finding your own room in Manhattan for $95 a night is near-impossible unless you want to stay in a hostel on the Upper West Side and share with roaches.

The Jane Hotel is my favourite in New York; it's not only a great budget option, but it's in a picturesque neighbourhood and stuffed full of history. The hotel was a seaman's flophouse when built in 1908, and provided shelter for the surviving crew of the Titanic in 1912.

While the small rooms and shared (but pristinely kept) bathrooms won't suit all tastes, the location is ideal - two blocks from the High Line, and far from the neon and noise of Midtown. As an added bonus, the Jane Ballroom is a favourite spot for the city's nightlife to play in the shadows, and Cafe Gitane isn't a bad shout for a civilised Sunday brunch.

 

A Parisian in New York

Washington Square Hotel

From $253 (£161) per night for a single room, plus taxes

Tucked away on the North West corner of Washington Square Park is this petite Art Deco hotel, surprisingly serene despite its proximity to one of the city's major tourist attractions. A favourite haunt for writers and artists, everything from the furniture to the hand painted tile mosaics will lure you into the past. Wake up to a park view on a warm Autumn day with the golden Manhattan rays filtering through the island's streets, and you'll be all set for a Parisienne state of mind.

 

Soldier, Soldier

The Bowery House

From $82 (£52) per night for a single cabin, plus taxes

On the edge of both Soho and Chinatown, the Bowery is slower than most neighbourhoods to succumb to gentrification. The city's oldest thoroughfare was known as Skid Row for much of the 20th Century, but while new bars and restaurants are popping up all the time, there's still enough grit to distinguish it from elsewhere in Manhattan.

Originally opened in the 1920s as The Prince Hotel, The Bowery House was converted to cabins to house soldiers returning home from the second World War. Although there are some private and bunk rooms to choose from, the Bowery House is essentially a hostel; while you have your own space with your own front door, the ceilings are partially open, covered by a wooden lattice. This means you'll hear every snore, fart and early morning alarm of your fellow guests, without the need to suffer their death stares when you're the culprit.

The rooftop garden is a fun space in the summer months and reception is perfect for lounging about on long leather sofas. But while the price tag is tempting, it's worth thinking twice if you're above average height - the beds in the cabins are just 69" (75 cm) long.

 

Born to be Wild

The Standard

From $495 (£316) per night for a double room, plus taxes

The High Line carves a lush path of flora through the apartments of Manhattan's West Side; the park that stretches along an abandoned elevated freight track is fast becoming a favourite with locals and tourists alike.

So what you don't really expect, certainly not at half past ten on a Tuesday morning, is the sight of a couple enjoying moderately energetic sex against the windows of the Standard Hotel, which straddles the park.

It's a whopping price-tag, but the views are amongst the best in Manhattan. To the south, the Hudson River, the Statue of Liberty and Downtown; to the North, the Empire State Building and the chaos of light and skyscrapers marking Time Square.

The hotel does insist that guests refrain from performing in their rooms for the audience below, but plenty do regardless - and that's before they've enjoyed a night of cocktails and depravity in the Boom Boom Rooms at the top of the Standard.

 

Futureheads

Yotel

From $309 (£197) per night for a double room, plus taxes

There aren't many hotels where crowds gather in reception to watch the luggage being stored, but most hotels don't have a talking robot arm called Yobot.

From the moment you check-in; the mood and reliance on technology makes Yotel feel like a place from some indeterminate point in the near-future. Not necessarily a world of transporters and starships, but certainly one where a flying car might collect you from the door. Rooms are small (like most in NYC) but perfectly comfortable, and the uber-cool bar area is perfect for wearing Apple headphones and ignoring like-minded travellers.

 

Tip - Thinking Frugally, Living in Luxury

It may not be the most desirable time to travel, but if you want luxury on a budget, January in NYC is the time to do it. If you arrive in the week after New Year's Day then it's not unusual to find three and four star hotels dropping their rates close to £100 per night, and many more will be up to half price.

The reason? It's still the holidays; everyone has spent up on celebrating Christmas and New Year so hotels need to lure guests in. That, and New York's weather in January is colder than Hoth, with Arctic blasts freezing the Eastern seaboard. Yet the city that never sleeps won't be found snoozing through the cold, so pack the thermals and you'll still enjoy yourself

 



   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
 

16 reasons for Brooklyn

 

David Whitley heads across the bridge from Manhattan to New York’s second borough. And here are 16 reasons why you should too 
 
Brooklyn Bridge
When it opened in 1883, ‘the eighth wonder of the world’ was the longest bridge on the planet. The mayor had to arrange for a herd of elephants to cross it before people were convinced it was safe – and remarkably safe it has proved to be. The cables holding it up have never been replaced, and their almost dainty web balances the majesty of the arched stone towers wonderfully. It’s a genuinely beautiful bridge – and it’s no surprise that it has enchanted people for over a century.

The Promenade
The walk along Brooklyn’s waterfront, from the bridge southwards, will undoubtedly be a greater treasure in ten to twenty years’ time. It is slowly being turned into a connecting series of parks, with old industrial remnants being turned into performance venues and kayak launch sites. For now, it’s a bit scraggly, but the views more than make up for that. The Manhattan skyline, Governor’s Island and the Statue of Liberty line up dutifully for prime gawping.

Bargemusic
Of those performance venues, Bargemusic has the head start. There are bigger and more architecturally saliva-inducing places to enjoy classical music in New York, but none have Bargemusic’s level of charm. As the name suggests, it’s an old coffee barge moored near the Brooklyn Bridge, and the regular concerts held on it have a living room-like intimacy. Best of all, the 3pm Saturday afternoon concerts are free – and seats are given away on a first come, first served basis.

DUMBO
Nearby is a former industrial district that the artists have well and truly taken over. DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) hosts scores of studios, galleries and performance spaces. 111 Front Street is the prime mooching ground – it hosts over 20 separate galleries, most of which are artist-run. 145 Front Street is great too – it’s a collection of independent craft and fashion shops, where the creators can often be found at work making jewellery or spray-painting in a back corner.




 
Street Art
The most exciting art scene is found outdoors, however. Levys’ Unique Tours runs special runs special jaunts around the street art hotbeds in Williamsburg and Bushwick, pointing out the most impressive murals, stencil work and guerrilla redecorations. It ranges from the cute to the deliciously subversive, using everything from glued-on wood to indelible road paint. The tours introduce some of the major players in the street art scene and point out works that most people would pass without noticing. 

Pointing and Laughing
Brooklyn is the Serengeti of people-watching. Williamsburg, in particular, is a seething hive of affectation and ludicrous outfits that the wearers genuinely think look good. A walk around the streets can become a gleeful idiot safari, with plentiful spottings of absurd facial hair, patchwork quilt waistcoats and painful tight drainpipe trousers turned up to reveal an immaculate sockless ankle. Watching this scenester descent to the Mariana Trench of self-parody is a tremendous fun.

Bar-hopping
The plus side of all this self-styled (and self-conscious) cool is a phenomenal bar scene. Brooklyn is teeming with highly individual bars, often created out of old factories and warehouses, and regularly competing for the best beer and cocktail selections. Excellent examples include the Pine Box Rock Shop in Bushwick and Bierkraft in Park Slope, while the stalwart Brooklyn Brewery site in Williamsburg is a hugely enjoyable – and surprisingly egalitarian for the area – hang-out.

Live music
Everyone in Brooklyn seems to be either in a band or has a friend that’s in one. This leads to bars, cafés, garages – you name it – regularly being taken over by indie-rockers. The Music Hall of Williamsburg is the best bet for catching a big name on the scene amongst people who say the band was much better when no-one else had heard of them. Zebulon, meanwhile has an utterly eclectic mix of genres and no cover charge. 

Movie magic
Hundreds of classic movie scenes have been shot in Brooklyn. John Travolta strutting along the street in the opening sequence to Saturday Night Fever? That’s Bensonhurst. Al Pacino driving blind in a red sports car in Scent of a Woman? DUMBO. But it’s not just about going to the locations – during the summer months, Pier 1 by the Brooklyn Bridge is turned into what is arguably the world’s most spectacular open air cinema. Best of all, the film favourites and the Manhattan backdrop are free to watch at Movies With A View




 
Pizza
Many of the movie locations are covered and pointed out in A Slice Of Brooklyn’s wide-ranging tours. But the main focus is pizza – something that is an undisputed strength in a borough with a historically huge Italian population.  The Neapolitan-style margaritas at Grimaldi’s in DUMBO and the thick Sicilian-style slices at L&B Spumoni Gardens in Bensonhurst are both the stuff of legend in these parts. 

Coney Island
The pizza tour finishes at Coney Island, a gloriously shabby throwback to the days when theme park rides invoked fear through dubious-looking construction rather than multiple loop-the-loops. It’s a blue collar place of staggering along the boardwalk with your shirt off after too much beer. Or watching fire-eaters, contortionists and people who’ll hammer metal spikes through their bodies in the name of sideshow entertainment. Then there’s the Cyclone, the wooden rollercoaster that may as well be the dictionary definition of “rickety”. 

Freaky festivals
It’s Coney Island’s mix of old-fashioned and odd that elevates it above run-down seediness. And that odd factor comes bursting to the fore twice a year at the Mermaid Parade and Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. The former takes place in mid-June, offering a surreal cavalcade of OTT aquatic costumes. The latter – taking place on July 4th - is gross-out viewing. Junk food warriors attempt to stuff as many hotdogs down their gullets as possible in ten minutes in front of a bearpit-like crowd. The record? A terrifying 68, buns and all.

Beacon’s Closet
There are second hand stores, and there are second hand stores. Beacon’s Closet is the Colosseum of clothing exchange, with rows of specialist buyers casting their eye over the items brought in, then putting a value on them. Sellers get 35% of that value in cash or a 55% store credit. And in that store, amongst some fairly generic chain store garments, are some world class vintage finds and outfits that push ‘individual’ to its outer limits. Beacon’s Closet has spread over several locations, but the biggest is in Williamsburg.



 

Brooklyn Flea
Fans of such delving for jewels can extend beyond clothing into antiques, furniture and, well, just about anything at one of the world’s great flea markets. Taking place in Fort Greene on Saturdays, and Williamsburg on Sundays, the Brooklyn Flea blurs the traditional tat-flogging boundaries by throwing craftspeople, jewellers and locally-made fresh food into a highly pleasurable mix. 

New York Transport Museum
Inside a still-working but decommissioned subway station, which is often used for action film shoots, the New York Transport Museum tells the unexpectedly absorbing story of the city’s Subway network. The sections on buses and power supply to the transport system are take-or-leave, but the opening salvo on the construction of the Subway is superb. The photographs brim with stories, whilst tales of workers being thrust out of the tunnels under the river on a blowhole of compressed air are terrifying. 

Prospect Park
Central Park in Manhattan isn’t New York’s only world class green space. Prospect Park was planned by the same man – Frederick Law Olmstead – but it has a much wilder, forest-like vibe to it. Until you emerge at the boating lake or Picnic House, it feels hundreds of miles away from the biggest city in the US. But there’s space in the 585 acres of often untamed woodland for a few crowd-pleasers – including a small zoo, a music pagoda and an atmospheric Quaker cemetery.
 

 

by David Whitley

 

 

You can get New York included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW or on our Discoverer RTW deal