The Capitol, White House, Lincoln Memorial and towering Washington Monument will seem strangely familiar to first-time visitors. The seat of government and its box-set assortment of landmarks create the desired impact but put many of DC’s greatest attractions in the shade. Just a few avenues away are the lavish townhouses of Georgetown, elegant period homes that rub shoulders with inviting restaurants that serve up a delicious variety of menus. The district of Adams Morgan is busy with thriving sidewalk cafés and speciality shops, there’s hip design on Seventh Street and pioneering craft in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. Downtown evenings are alive with shows and revues, from the National to the Woolly Mammoth Theater.
The USA is so all-pervasive in today’s world that it can be a shock to recall how new it is. Native American roots go deep into history but “We the People of the United States” was written down only just over 200 years ago. And in two centuries, that People has built and rebuilt the most dynamic civilisation yet seen. Take New York; world-recognised icons like the Statue of Liberty abound … while famous arena, Madison Square Gardens, is already in its fourth incarnation. Up the coast to Boston, launch point for the War of Independence, with its Freedom Trail that you can actually walk. Follow the gold rush to California for a laid-back society, the Golden Gate, and where only Americans could turn a grim prison (Alcatraz) into a tourist attraction. Look in on federal capital Washington to glimpse the White House’s incumbent … then detour to Mount Rushmore, to see former Presidents in granite. The US is a country of great cities; ‘old’ Philadelphia and modern Chicago with its Sears Tower – longtime ‘tallest building’. And we still haven’t mentioned the natural world of the Rockies, Grand Canyon, the Everglades, the deserts, the…
From anti-colonial tea-parties onwards, Boston is an historic city. One of the most popular tourist activities is to follow the sidewalk-inlaid Freedom Trail which (done in easy stages!) takes you to many key points in American history. Founded by puritan pilgrims in 1630, it was a focus of the War of Independence – Bunker Hill is inside the city limits - and the home of scientist and political leader Benjamin Franklin. It has the oldest college in the US (Harvard), with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology just across the Charles River. A more recent attraction is the amazing Aquarium with its vast central cylinder tank.
‘The Windy City’ on the fringes of Lake Michigan has long been a cosmopolitan hub. While Al Capone may have been sent packing, thousands of other immigrants have stayed, agreeing with Sinatra that this ‘is my kinda town’. Prohibition has made way for progress, the city’s signature subway preferring to circle the Loop (the business and shopping district) above the traffic, the Sears Tower still the daddy in the city where the skyscraper grew up. Frank Lloyd Wright scaled other architectural heights from his home in Oak Park. His Prairie-style homes still share the street with Victorian homes, while boutiques beckon in Wicker Park and boats tease you out over the water from Navy Pier to get the full measure of the city’s granite and glass profile.
Grand Canyon Nat Park, AZ
You can’t describe the Canyon without numbers – but equally can’t just with them. So:- 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide, 1 mile deep … and one of the most visually amazing natural phenomena in the world. A National Park since 1919, inhabited for 12,000 years. The South Rim is more popular and accessible, the North is 1,000ft higher (snow-bound in winter) – and only with difficulty do the twain meet. One road bridge (Navajo) early in the route, then the only way is down/across on foot. ‘Rim to Rim’ is 21m with an overnight camp and a narrow footbridge across the Colorado – but a lifetime talking point. (More easily, try pack-mules along the bottom or a leisurely boat along the river.) No hotels within the Canyon, but there are lodgings and camp sites.
‘Indy’ is at the centre of the mid-west state of Indiana and is thus almost literally the capital of ‘Middle America’. In fact, it developed on the very first East-West highway and was a major rail link between rich mid-western farmlands and industrial centres like Chicago and Detroit. Now a major business centre, it still depends to some extent on its ‘hub’ role. For many, it is synonymous with the Indianapolis 500, regarded as one of the toughest motor races in the calendar and by far the premier event outside Formula 1 racing. A linguistic oddity is that the official name for the state’s inhabitants, ‘hoosiers’, has no official derivation.
Once an important steamship centre, Kissimmee is now single-mindedly devoted to the comfort and pleasure of countless visitors to the sunshine state of Florida. Kissimmee itself (hit the 2nd syllable to impress the locals) has many attractions – a record 300ft high ‘Sky Coaster’ at the Old Town park for starters – plus fishing, ‘innumerable’ golf courses and the amazing Florida sunshine. What else? Well how about Disneyworld, Sea World, Universal Studios, the Kennedy Space Centre, the Everglades; all within the most impatient kids’ travel-time. And a few miles only from Orlando International Airport for easy access.
Los Angeles, CA
The ‘City of Angels’, universally known simply as L.A., has a history inextricably entwined with that of the film industry. Hollywood itself is a suburb, complete with iconic hillside sign, the Oscar-awarding Academy of Motion Pictures is there, Graumann’s Chinese Theatre, Sunset Strip, Beverley Hills, a multitude of studios including Disney. The city is also the actual setting for countless films – often ‘noir’ with a nod to the gambling and gangster past. If you tire of movie links, there is still the California sunshine and the Pacific – the adjoining port of Long Beach is now the home of the Queen Mary liner.
Miami Beach, FL
In fact there are really two main beaches – ‘South’ and ‘North’, with the southern shore divided at 5th Street – important to know which part you’re in since one accepts toplessness while the other doesn’t. ‘The Beach’ as the locals know it, is a pretty substantial town too, popular with winter escapees from further north. It’s actually on a barrier island facing Miami itself across Biscayne Bay. The town has a colorful Art Deco district where new buildings are constructed to fit in and even the lifeguard towers are of matching design. SoBe, the ‘South’ district, is a vast entertainment centre, with literally hundreds of clubs, restaurants and hotels, many overlooking the ocean.
New York City, NY
The city that never sleeps was built on the vision of rags-to-riches men like Andrew Carnegie, the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts.
Towering high over every sidewalk is an architectural meze, from Midtown Arc Deco skyscrapers (none finer than the Chrysler Building) to sturdy Brownstones in Lower Manhattan. Neighbourhoods like Chinatown or Little Italy each serve up their own salad of sights and sensations.
Shoppers dream on Fifth Avenue and flex their credit cards in Bloomingdale’s or in the chic arts and crafts boutiques of SoHo. Broadway revues will set your feet tapping, Times Square will light up the night, and your Yellow Cab driver is sure to share his feelings on the meaning of life on the ride home.
Orlando exists for visitors. The equable climate makes it a respite for those living in more rigorous climes and the inland location even offers a degree of protection from the Gulf hurricanes. The ‘Orange County’ address is an indicator of the kind of environment we’re talking about. But then Orlando adds an unrivalled list of attractions specifically created for vacationers. Disney World, of course, but remembering that this is far more than a single attraction – the Magic Kingdom, Epcot Animal World, Seaworld and more. Universal Studios has a similar lengthy list, together with the Island of Adventure, a superb Museum of Art, the Shakespeare Theatre, the Science Centre, it goes on and on. In fact try to see even half … and you’ll need a holiday to recover.
Philadelphia isn’t just an historic city, it truly is the birthplace of the USA. The thriving colony established by William Penn’s 1682 Charter rapidly became a major port, trading centre and, critically, a political focus. At that stage it was the largest city after London in the then British Empire and the fight to leave that empire was led from here. Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were framed here – by local patriots such as Franklin and Washington. The Liberty Bell has its own visitor Center, the house of Betsy Ross who sewed the original ‘Old Glory’ still stands, Independence Hall is an active symbol of the ‘Brotherly Love’ the city’s name denotes and the Constitution’s averral that ‘all men are created equal’. The cobbled square mile of the historic city centre throws up images and associations with freedom everywhere you look.
San Diego, CA
San Diego is naval city and a tourist city, both related to its location on California’s Pacific coast. It has long been a major base for the US navy and is now home to one of the world’s largest fleets as well as a key shipbuilding industry including submarines. The spectacular 2 mile graceful curve of the Coronado Bridge rises to over 200ft specifically to allow giant warships to pass beneath. Sea World is probably the best known tourist destination, though joined by the San Diego Zoo and the Wild Animal Park and, more recently, a large Legoland. Sea World blends high-excitement water-based rides with an astonishing array of orcas (‘killer whales’) dolphins, other whales and penguins, who interact with and perform for enthralled visitors.
San Francisco, CA
Everyone’s seen it on film, everyone’s musically left their heart there, but the real thing is still amazing. The original adobe Mission San Francisco de Asís which marked the city’s founding (1776) still stands and there are many reminders of the 1849 Gold Rush that within a year brought statehood to California. The modern city is largely rebuilt from the devastation of the 1906 earthquake (it stands on the notorious San Andreas fault) with perhaps the best-known landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge, dating from 1937. (Remember the ‘Gate’ is the Pacific inlet, not the bridge itself.) The escape-proof penitentiary, Alcatraz, dates from the same period. San Francisco is a city of hills – 50 is the usual count – accounting for the iconic cable cars. As a first landing place for Asian immigrants for the gold rush and as labour to build the transcontinental railroad, Chinatown is the oldest and largest community outside China itself.
Seattle lies on the Puget Sound in the north-western State of Washington. The modern city was founded by the 19th century ‘moving frontier’ westward settler drive, first on the Oregon Trail and then moving on by ship along the coast. Its growth and importance were boosted by the 1890’s Yukon/Klondike gold rush when it was the jumping off and grubstake assembly point for avid prospectors. It is still an important harbour and calling port for cruise ships, especially en route for the Alaskan coast, and for whale-watching trips in the Sound. For fans of TV’s ‘Frasier’, of course, the ‘Goodnight Seattle!’ show-end call epitomises the city and the show’s logo includes the distinctive Spaceneedle tower, constructed for the 1962 World Fair. 20th Century commercial strength came from the Boeing Aircraft company which still has a large plant although no longer the headquarters.
Yosemite National Park, CA
Yosemite (pron: yo /semi / tee), in Californias’s Sierra Nevada, was created by a protective grant signed in 1864 by Abraham Lincoln, that evolved into the first National Park a decade later. Its splendour is partly due to its remoteness - no nearby towns and surrounded by open country. At first only reached on horseback, it is now far more accessible but the big message is how much more there is than the Valley where most people head. The mountains, other valleys, meadows, falls and rivers, mean that 95% of the entire park is wilderness. As well as the giant Sequoia redwoods (some, three or four thousand years old), the extensive wildlife includes black bear, bobcat, marmots, grey fox, deer and a host of birdlife – all more readily seen away from habitation (except the bears who have become habituated to an unwelcome degree). Overnighting is almost essential to view Yosemite properly and there is a wide choice, from cabin or tented lodgings to hotels, including the historic Wawona.