Spanning the width of United States – East coast to West coast – Part I

My love for traveling, researching and writing fuels my desire to share my travel experiences and for the reader to feel like they were on the journey with me.  

Our dream holiday of a coast-to-coast trip finally turned into a reality.  In this digital era, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the huge stash of photos and videos we take home after a trip.  I had to go through ~4.5k pics between all our phones and the camera to select the relevant ones for this blog.  Also owing to the length of the trip (which was almost a month), I decided to split this experience in two parts – East coast and West coast. This country is so expansive and gorgeous, you cannot but capture the awesome landscape which changes from state to state!

My 14 year old was gifted a GoPro by his Dad prior to the trip.  Since he enjoys creating and editing videos I asked him to create a travel movie for my blog.
Note:  Atlanta and California is missing in this movie since he was having a blast with his cousins… the GoPro took a back seat… family first 

I spend sufficient time planning and organizing our trips.  I am one of the torch bearer of “Planning & Preparation” to ensure stress free holidays. So before each adventure/holiday, I prepare an organized travel folder that becomes our bible for the trip.  My folder has print-outs of the itinerary, weather forecast (I check this so we can pack accordingly), flight/ground transfers/hotel confirmations, important phone numbers, copies of important documents, destination specific info etc… etc… Most importantly, I truly enjoy being an organized traveler and all this comes effortlessly to me, so yeah no stress whatsoever.

Now that our boys are into their teens (16 & 14) a family holiday was more fun than usual. No baby-sitting… they took care of their own packing, planned activities that they wanted to do and more importantly they bonded brilliantly with cousins they never met. They were responsible teens.  US of A seems to have brought out the best in them 🙂

Routes below mapped using google map (cities have been marked with a green icon, flights with a straight line and road trips plotted in blue):

  • By flight:  Dubai to New York (outbound)
  • By road:   New York to Washington
  • By flight:  Washington to Atlanta
  • By flight:  Atlanta to Las Vegas
  • By flight:  Las Vegas to Oakland
  • By road:   Oakland to San Ramon
  • By road:   San Ramon to San Francisco and return
  • By road:   San Ramon to Yosemite
  • By road:   Yosemite to Los Angeles
  • By road:   Los Angeles to San Ramon
  • By flight:  San Francisco to Dubai (inbound)

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Not someone to compromise the uniqueness of the old and the new, I use TripIt to add and view my travel plans on the phone.  You get reminders which is really important when you travel.  I also carry a traditional print-out of the itinerary using the same format every time (sample page below).  I continue adding to it as we plan and changes are pencilled in along the way.  Paper copies of documents are your best friend because technology failures are inevitable/unavoidable when traveling abroad.

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We initially thought of doing the typical touristy things but at the eleventh hour we decided to be a traveler (someone who is interested in experiencing a culture outside of its sites and attractions) and not a tourist (who is focused on checking attractions off of their bucket list, which I usually do). We, therefore, did not buy any sightseeing passes, none of the typical touristy stuff and enjoyed each experience just as the locals did.

Day 1: Dubai to New York
We took a direct overnight flight from Dubai to New York on Emirates, upgraded to business class enjoying all the amenities on board and most importantly a flat bed.  

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We love flying with Emirates as the cabin crew are so friendly and they make all your special moments extra special.  A family celebrated their 6 year old daughter’s birthday on board and all the crew joined in for the birthday song with this special cake and card provided by them…. how sweet!

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A super comfortable 14 hr flight and we were finally in The Big Apple. Upon arrival at JKF T4, I was expecting a long immigration line.  Instead of the usual line-up of people to stamp passports, I found rows of machines with scanners and cameras.  Our boys decided we use two kiosks to expedite the process. When I reached the front of the line at the “Automated Passport Control,” I followed the directions on the touchscreen and began answering questions holding my passport up to the scanner as the machine snapped a picture. Was I traveling with family? Yes, I responded. The machine asked me to scan their passports. I quickly called out to my elder son to cancel his transaction and get his passport but alas too late I heard the sound of his machine printing a small slip of paper. Ominously, it had a large X over his name, photo, and birthday.  My younger son too received the X on his slip.  It really got us worried.  We reached out to the airport official who informed us that we needed to queue in the line which had a sign “slips with X queue here”.  Since we did not want to leave our boys alone, we joined the queue which surprisingly wasn’t too long and moved quickly.  I was wondering what kind of questions the officer would ask my boys but to our surprise no questions asked, all passports stamped and we were cleared in no time…. wow! that was cool.

And for the first time in our travel history our bags arrived on the belt just as we reached it (alleluia…all 5 of them!).  We paid $6 in the kiosk next to the luggage cart to to use one… luggage trolleys are free in Dubai, just saying 😉

I had pre-booked our airport pick-up through My Sedan but our airport rep was nowhere in sight. I called their customer service desk who stated that our airport pick-up was confirmed for 8.30 pm, not 8.30 am.  I looked at the time on my confirmation slip and darn he was right! How did I miss that?? Saying that, they were really efficient in dispatching another car which arrived at Area D within 5 mins. While waiting for our car I noticed the board (below) with a list of transportation services along with the contact details.  The Customer service desk (located next to the exit) informed us that passengers can book the transfer service using the phone booth located next to this board.  I picked up a flyer from their desk for Carmel Super Saver. The cost of the same transfer on the flyer was 1/2 of what we had paid… got it, for next time.  

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The car was really nice and the driver super friendly who took a slight detour to show us a street fair near our hotel which could be of interest to us.

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We stayed Central in mid-town

If it’s your first trip, I think you need to say central. With Times Square and Broadway on your doorstep – every spectacle is accessible. We were booked at Wellington Hotel on 7th avenue. The location is fantastic, within walking distance to Times Square, Broadway and Central Park. We were at the hotel by 11 am, however check-in was only at 4 pm. So we decided to leave our bags at the Concierge and explore our surroundings.

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Cute Christmas items sold in this shop next to the entrance of the hotel.

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New York has five boroughs which are the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island.  Each borough has its own set of neighborhoods, landmarks, parks, cultural institutions, ethnic communities, and more that is worth exploring.  There is so much to do and see in New York.  We had ~5 days to see the best of what New York had to offer.  To have an unparalleled travel experience we had to decide what we truly wished to get out of this trip. Like I said earlier “to be a traveler, not a tourist”.

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As soon as we stepped out of the hotel, we spotted a bunch of street vendors selling discounted tickets for bus tours, comedy shows, central park tours etc..  

We purchased the 1 day Downtown bus tour (15 stops) with Top View at $29 per ticket. Our thought process was to do a tour around Manhattan and along the way take note of places that we really wanted to visit.  The hop-on, hop-off tour bus was the most feasible way of achieving this. My younger son, Aryan, was really tired from the long flight and drifting in and out of sleep mode while the 3 of us enjoyed the tour. 

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We spotted this vintage market and decided to get off to explore. Broadway Market Co is a place where New York’s Independent Designers and Artists come together to sell their wares. From designer clothes and jewelry to vintage, art books, lamps, hand-made soap, artifacts, paintings, eyewear and collectibles – the Market pulsates with creativity.  Wish I had the luxury of time to explore this gorgeous market at leisure!

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I love hand crafted jewelry… this stall by Aris had such gorgeous pieces that I spent the limited time I had, just chatting with the lovely young lady who was manning this stall.

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Ok so no matter where you are from, your hometown has streets. In New York, however, the difference between streets and avenues is very critical.  For someone like me, who is not great with navigating unfamiliar routes this was bursting my grey cells (“bheja fry” as they would say in India).  So I left it to my 3 wise men to lead.  Why even try deciphering… I ain’t planning on becoming a New Yorker 😉

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We were fortunate to get passes for the IIFA awards function that was taking place at Metlife Stadium New Jersey that evening.  We had to cut short our Downtown bus tour and go to the Sheraton hotel to collect the tickets. Sheraton was next door to Wellington hotel which meant that we could go straight to the hotel thereafter. Sheraton was buzzing with activity as enthusiastic fans of Bollywood waited outside to get a glimpse of the celebrities staying at the Sheraton.  For a bollywood fan like me, this was too good to be true. 

Just as we reached the hotel I spotted Kabir Khan (director of Bajrangi Baijan, Ek Tha Tiger etc…) with his friends and family.  I asked him for a picture and he sweetly obliged. 

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A few minutes later Sushant Singh Rajput got out of his car.  Getting a picture with him was impossible so I scampered the stairs leading to the hotel while the fans gathered around him, and took a selfie with him in the background. The madness of New York couldn’t have been a more inspiring start to our trip 🙂

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Once at the hotel we had to wait in queue to complete the check-in formalities. We had requested a room on the higher floor to avoid the city noise and were allocated a room on the 16th floor.  In comparison to Dubai where hotel rooms are spectacular and good size, the rooms were considerably small and basic. The location is what really worked for us. We had to pay for wi-fi service. Our housekeeping staff, a Columbian lady (she did tell me her name but can’t recall it now), was extremely sweet and friendly. We left a few dollars each day with a note that said “Thank you, you are a Star!” She ensured the room was well cleaned with fresh sheets, towels and toiletries throughout our stay.  

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I picked up a sim card from this shop next to our hotel. Surprisingly no documents required for a local sim with 1 month unlimited data and unlimited local + international calls.  We paid $97 for the sim which I thought was steep but did not know of any other option at that time. Thereafter found this site freetoursbyfoot which provides good tips on purchasing a sim for USA.

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Day 2 – New York City Tour

We stuffed our faces to a soundtrack in Ellen’s Stardust Diner
Woke up early the next morning and checked out some interesting breakfast places close to the hotel depending on ratings and reviews and decided on Ellen’s Stardust Diner which was a few blocks from our hotel. Once inside we discovered it’s the next best thing to a Broadway show. The inside has downstairs seating and then a balcony all around so you can watch what is going on downstairs.  There is a “stage” where the servers get up and walk across as they sing or they may sing as they are walking around the tables.  They enthusiastically perform number after number to a bunch of foot-tapping diners.  A really entertaining way to spend the morning! The food came fast, was hot and pretty good.  The staff are friendly and since it was our first morning in New York they went out of their way to ensure we were having a good time.

We happened to pass this restaurant a few times while getting in and out of Times Square and noticed long queues for lunch and dinner.  I was glad we did the early breakfast where we did not have to queue and were seated immediately.

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Breakfast was pricey but hey this is a diner in Times Square so expected!  Gratuities had a heart drawn around it.. OK, we are first timers in New York… but we get it.  We are from Dubai (the most hospitable country in the Middle East)….we truly believe in the saying “the more you give, the more you get” 🙂

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I had read about theatre artists, history students, comedians etc who are licensed tour guides in New York.  I was quite keen to see the city the way they did – to be a ‘Traveler’. After reviewing a couple of options, we decided on the One Day New York City Tour with New York Tour 1.  A walking tour, with a knowledgeable and passionate guide is a must-do in New York city!

It was a pleasant morning and we were eagerly looking forward to see what this city had to offer beyond the madness of Times Square.  

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The next few hours was incredible commuting the way New Yorkers did i.e. by train, by ferry, on foot.  Initially we thought the 6 hours would be long and wearing, especially for Aryan since he is not someone who enjoys walking for long hours. But guess the GoPro (as you see in the image below) kept him busy as he did not complain even once 🙂

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We met our tour guide, Ester, at 9 am at George M Cohan Statue at 46th Street and Broadway, Times Square.  

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Ester requested each one of us to introduce ourselves as we would be together for the next 6 hours. Now this girl knows New York in and out.  She is a live wire with so much energy, such positive vibes and passion for her work. Being a theatre artist I guess this job helps her reach out to the different genre of people. I think, mentally, she feels like she is performing on stage for an audience.  The tonality of her voice, her body language, the theatrical displays – she was just too cute!  My husband thoroughly enjoyed her company and chatted with her during the breaks.

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Stop 1: We started our tour in Times Square followed by Broadway Theatre District. Ester provided a brief background on Times Square and Broadway.

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Stop 2:  Saint Patrick’s Cathedral 

Looking up at the skycrapers while walking around mid-town Manhattan is an experience in itself.

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Ester provided a brief history on the routes we were taking. 

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I  love visiting churches and cathedrals wherever I can. And as someone who grew up Catholic, I’ve seen my fair share of altars and stained glass windows. This Cathedral is a magnificent symbol of faith in the heart of the city, arguably, the finest Gothic building.

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Standing in front of this big and important church makes you feel very tiny. 

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Every line in the place points dramatically upward, drawing the eye and the mind of the visitor toward the transcendent order.

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I would have loved to attend a service or just spend some more time exploring this beautiful cathedral.

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Demonstrators near the church take to the streets to protest, attracting the world’s attention to the events in Belarus.

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Stop 3:  Rockefeller Center

As you exit the Cathedral the road ahead leads you to Rockefeller Center.

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Occupying an area in midtown along 5th Avenue between 47th and 50th Streets, Rockefeller Center is a complex of 19 buildings built between 1930 and 1933 – it’s massive.  It has the skating rink in the lower plaza, the main plaza with the statue of Prometheus as well as the flagpoles surrounding the main plaza, and the glass-walled ground floor studios of NBC’s Today morning show.

Ester mentioned that if you had a choice to visit one of the 3 Observation Decks (i.e. Empire State Building, Top of the Rock, One World Observatory) in New York City then opt for the “Top of the Rock” at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.  Because it is so uninspiring, you won’t miss out on anything by standing on it unlike with the “Empire State Building”. You can’t stand on Empire State and see Empire State now, can you?  So might as well stand in an uninspiring building and look at inspiring architecture around you.

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Rockefeller Center is home to corporate headquarters, offices, television studios, theaters, shops, and restaurants. The Art Deco design, both architectural and decorative, of the original buildings is some of the world’s finest.

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The Prometheus Statue (below), cast in bronze, from the original model of the Prometheus Statue at Rockefeller centre this sculpture is glided by hand in 24k gold leaf and bears the sculptor’s signature, P Manship. After the Statue of Liberty, the Prometheus statue is the most celebrated piece of artwork in America.

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An inflated seated ballerina perched on a stool, adjusting her shoe. Our guide mentioned this was a new public art project by artist Jeff Koons which is 45 feet tall on a seven-and-a-half-foot base. Jawdroppingly good as I actually thought it was a metal figure.

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The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon hosted at NBC Studios 

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We then made our way to the lobby of Rockefeller Center. Just inside the entrance is a large mural by Jose Maria Sert called American Progress, and the ceiling (also by Sert) is Time. 

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Stop 4: New York Public Library and Chrysler Building

We took the subway from Rockefeller Center to St Bryant Pk and walked to New York Public Library viewing the Chrysler Building enroute.

New York has the most complicated subway system on the face of this earth. The networks are so entangled with each other and so complicated that a visual representation on a map becomes too complex and ultimately useless. This was another “bheja fry” moment for me.  Take a look at the map below. In the name of The Father and of the Son, can someone please entangle these tracks! The OCD in me cannot bear to see this.  Is this the work of a sadist to just mess up everyone? 

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We all parked our bottoms on these chairs while Ester narrated some amazing facts of Bryant Park.  This park is one of the city’s most illustrious public spaces. The history and architecture reveal the many secrets that lie beneath and around the park today. OK so why do all these historical places in New York have so many secrets.  She told us about some of the hidden secrets of Grand Central Terminal too… spookey!

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Bryant Park is hemmed in by some great landmarks and skycrapers – the 945ft/288m tall Bank of America Tower, completed in 2009.

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Bryant Park Hotel with Empire State Building 6 blocks away

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On the east side of the park is the 1911 New York Public Library. The magnificent Beaux-Arts building was designed by Carrere & Hastings. The library’s entrance is at Fifth Avenue; from Bryant Park you look onto the back side of the building. 

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Passing the Chrysler building enroute Grand Central Terminal

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Stopped at this kiosk to pick up some snacks and water.

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Stop 5: Grand Central Terminal (stopped for lunch here).

Grand Central Terminal has the distinction of being one of the few New York City landmarks that regular New Yorkers actually frequent.  This isn’t just a train station, it is the symbol of a bygone era and one of the most popular attractions in the world. There are dozens of films that feature Grand Central Terminal.

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Among the several things that guarantee you are not a New Yorker, this stop sign is one of them.  The right time for New Yorkers to cross the street is ANYTIME THEY WANT. Everyone crosses oblivious to the stop sign!

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Entering the terminal though its central doors.

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Continuing into the massive main concourse, the heart of the terminal. At its center is the circular “Information Booth,” topped by Grand Central’s second, and even more famous clock. 

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This iconic four-sided clock in the middle of the floor is about the only immobile thing amongst the throng of bustling people. The clock has  been a popular meeting point for nearly a century.  As per auctioneers the clock is worth millions because of the four opal faces on the clock.  At New York’s most famous train station, time literally is money!

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125 feet up to the Grand Central Station ceiling is its spectacular mural of the zodiac and 2,500 stars.  Designed by artist Paul Helleu and painted in gold leaf, the 60 largest stars mark the constellations of the Zodiac from October to March and are illuminated with fiber optics.  Our guide informed us that after the ceiling was built it was discovered that its depiction of the night sky was backwards. While some believe that painter Charles Basing was holding the depiction the wrong way when replicating it, Cornelius Vanderbilt claimed that the mural was intended to depict the way it looks from heaven rather than earth.  Holy Moly! did he go to heaven and back? 

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Continuing into lower level is the Dining Concourse.  This was a good place to grab lunch as there were plenty of restaurants to chose from.  Table and benches are set up all over along with restrooms at either end.  

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My boys were so excited to find Shake Shack. They did not mind waiting in the long queue to pick up their favorite burgers.

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Me, not a burger fan, picked up lunch from the Mexican stall, La Chula.  I enjoyed the Mexican Cola!  Ester introduced us to a new dessert, banana bread pudding which she said we had to try.  I did not enjoy it though hence no picture of it.

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Ester then took us to the “Whispering Gallery” located near the Dining Concourse. You had to whisper into one corner only to be heard on the other side of this acoustic arch… we tried it out, it was super cool…architectural wonders I must say! 

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We then took the downtown (southbound) train (Green Line on the subway map) from Grand Central to Bowling Green. Once at Bowling Green, we exited the subway and walked to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal ~5 mins.

 

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Stop 6: Staten Island Ferry for a view of Statue of Liberty

A rare free experience was the ferry which took us from Battery Park to Staten Island. One should not fall into the tourist trap and pay for this as this ferry ride is FREE.  The trip from Manhattan to Staten Island takes about 30 minutes.  It is noteworthy that, when the boat arrives in Staten Island, all passengers must disembark. You can, however, proceed to the gate immediately to get the next Ferry back to Manhattan. Both stations – Manhattan and Staten Island are equipped with restrooms and several places to eat, plus free Wi-Fi. 

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Staten Island Ferry capacity is 1415 passengers.  

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A tip from our guide – as soon as the gate opens, you head to the lower deck and stand behind the metal barricade (image below) to get a good view of Lady Liberty. The upper deck was packed while the lower deck had ample seats.  So assuming not many are aware of this.  You indeed get a good view of the statue and you have the wind in your face so yeah try it out instead of dashing to the top following the herd.

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Once we did the ferry I realized there’s no reason to see the Statue of Liberty up-close. Ok so you may not get that classic photo with the Statue close to you, however you do get a stunning view of Lady Liberty by simply standing on the deck. Moreover, you get the incredible views of the Manhattan skyline, Brooklyn Bridge etc..  It’s a good deal.

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Upon disembarking we passed the New York Stock Exchange, Charging Bull on Wall Street to get to our next stop.

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We were keen to take a picture with the Charging Bull but since it was a Saturday the bull was surrounded with tourists.

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There are such cool sculptures all over Manhattan.  I love seeing art displayed on city streets.

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Stop 7: National 911 Memorial

No visit to lower Manhattan is complete without paying your respects at the September 11 Memorial. Both the outdoor memorial and accompanying museum are solemn, moving tributes to the nearly 3,000 victims who lost their lives during the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and February 26, 1993. Designed by Israeli architect Michael Arad, two of North America’s largest man-made waterfalls mark the footprint of each tower, framing the perimeter and cascading into reflecting pools almost an acre wide.  The memorial is simplistic yet powerful and the size of the fountains underscores the seriousness of the tragedy.  It’s a beautiful memorial — one of the best I’ve ever seen! 

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The names of the deceased are arranged, by a software algorithm, according to principles of “meaningful adjacencies” reflecting relationships between people who worked and died together.

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Ester gave us a print-out of our One World Observatory pass and bid adieu as she wasn’t accompanying us on this one.  We took a group picture with her before she left.

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Stop 8: One World Observatory

We concluded our tour with a visit to One World Observatory at One World Trade Center Tower (also know as “Freedom Tower”). If you are into modern technology this is the place for you.

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Queues in all these touristic attractions are inevitable.  Also security checks are done before entering the lobby.

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The program begins in the lobby of the Freedom Tower with “Voices” – a film dedicated to the men and women of the World Trade Towers and the new One World Trade Center. 

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We then took the “Sky Pod” elevator, which blew our mind.   Going up it’s a 360° virtual rendition of how New York City has grown and developed in the last 500 years rising 1,250 feet in the air in 60 seconds.  This ride was incredible!

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The Observation Deck begins on the 102nd floor with the See Forever video presentation. At first it just looks like one of those previews on giant screens, called a foreplay and then an audible gasp from me! The whole experience is futuristic/technology-centric proving that these tech geeks rule.

We then walked down to the 100th floor, where the main observation deck is situated. Immersive LED displays, interactive touch screen video, and dining options mean there’s plenty to do, but the true draw is the view- hundreds of feet above even the impressive New York Skyline stretching across all of Manhattan.  You can rent one of their state-of-the-art tablets during your visit for a non-refundable $15 which we avoided.

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This panoramic observation deck is indeed a marvel of engineering and architecture. But I love heights and prefer open-air observation decks.  So pressing myself against the glass wall to take pics of the skyline wasn’t really something that got me excited.  The boys liked it though as they went around clicking pictures on their phones.

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It is mandatory for us to take a picture like this. You will see similar pics all over my blog.

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Loads of name tags on the wall inside depicting which celebrities have eaten there. It seems for a celebrity to get their names on the wall they have to dine a few times.

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I had previously looked at the Central Park map.  Now this park is massive so we thought of either doing it on foot or renting a bike. We finally decided on the 4.5 hour “All-in-One-“Central Park” tour with FreeToursByFoot. Their tips only walking tours mean they work for any budget.  

We met our tour guide, Cory Jarvis, by the Pulitzer Fountain at 9 am.  The fountain is located between southwest corner of 59th St. and 5th Ave.  He was standing with the FreeTours sign board.  A quick self-introduction by each member of the group and we were on our way to explore this gorgeous park.

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Visiting Central Park was definitely one of the highlights of our trip to New York City. The park is so serene and beautiful, it should be on every travelers list while visiting New York City. We, as a family, love nature and the outdoors so this vast expanse of green space really appealed to us.  The park has so many sculptures, playgrounds, walking and jogging trails. The not-so-active ones who did not want to bike or walk were happily settled in a horse-carriage ride.  Truly unbelievable to see 840 acres of lush greenery right in the midst of a concrete jungle!!

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On this walking tour we visited the following places:

1. General Sherman Statue at Grand Army Plaza which is covered in 23.75 karat gold leaf

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2.  The Pond

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3.  Central Park Zoo

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4.   Glistening bronze statue of Balto which stands on a rocky outcrop about a block in from the East 67th Street entrance.

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It was a pleasure to see all these joggers, strollers, cyclists, fitness enthusiasts throughout the park.  In Dubai, recreational activities are determined by the weather which means between May to October we are unable to do any outdoor activities owing to the high temperature and humidity.  I think this was another reason we were doing all these outdoor walking tours… we were enjoying every moment!

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5.  Stopped at the gift store for a quick look-around

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Spotted so many squirrels all over the park.

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6.  The Mall and Literary Walk

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7.  Stopped to grab a quick bite at The Loeb Boathouse

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8.  Bethesda Terrace and Fountain

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I stopped at Bethesda Terrace to watch a photo shoot.  This venue is used for fashion shows, films etc.

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9.  Central Park’s Wildlife Center

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10.  Strawberry Fields

This small, 2.5 acre section is a living memorial to singer, songwriter and peace activist John Lennon.  Strawberry Fields was named for the popular Beatles song “Strawberry Fields Forever.”  The song was inspired by the childhood memories of John Lennon, who used to play in the garden of a Salvation Army children’s home called Strawberry Field. The location was chosen due to its proximity to Lennon’s NYC home, The Dakota Apartments, which is just across Central Park West.  

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11. One of the focal points of this area of the park is the “Imagine” mosaic, another tribute to John Lennon.  This mosaic was done by Italian artists and was a gift from the city of Naples.  The inscription in the center of the mosaic, “Imagine,” is the title of what is arguably Lennon’s best-known solo work.  

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12.  The “Delacorte Music Clock”, located near the Children’s Zoo and Wildlife Center, is a great attraction for kids. Playing music every half hour from 8am until 5pm daily, it plays a total of 44 songs that change with the season, including classic children’s tunes.

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13.  The large bronze statue below depicts Hans Christian Andersen seated upon a granite bench, reading from his book The Ugly Duckling. Sculpted by Georg John Lober, this children’s statue is meant to be climbed on and is a popular attraction for kids.

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14.  Sheep Meadow

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15.  Belvedere Castle – built in 1869 and now a weather station. Belvedere  in Italian means ‘beautiful view.’ Used precisely for what the name suggests, the castle provides picturesque views of other parts of the park. Designed by Jacob Wrey Mould and Calvert Vaux, the castle has two balconies that look over some of Central Park‘s most iconic features.

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16.  Obelisk –  the oldest monument in the park. The Cleopatra’s Needle of New York was erected in Central Park on February 22, 1881. It had been given to the US Consul General stationed in Cairo as a gift to the United States from the Egyptian Khedive (a title equivalent to a viceroy) as a gesture of gratitude for the US remaining neutral while Great Britain and France vied for control of the Egyptian government.

IMG_1698IMG_1701After watching this time-lapse video by photographer Jamie Scott, I would love to visit the Central Park during the remaining 3 seasons (Spring/Autumn/Winter) just to be able to see the transition of colors.  

I also came across an awesome site for a virtual tour of Central Park. Check it out  youvisit.com/tour/centralpark

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Our guide, Cory was fantastic with a vast knowledge on the history and beauty of Central Park.  To see some of his comedy, check out his site www.coryjarvis.com/media 

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At the end of this tour I realized most of the licensed tour guides in New York are actors, writers, former teachers, professionals and history students who are genuinely interested in showcasing New York’s history, architectural, artistic, literary, ecological, social history.  They add their own flair of drama to it with high-energy, intensity, humour and intelligent narrations. They believe that a good tour is not simply a matter of expounding a great deal of facts and figures or pointing out interesting buildings. It is the art of telling the city’s stories in an engaging, compelling and moving way. I was enthralled by their passion.

I would highly recommend going through all the tours listed on Freetoursbyfoot which gives a good overview on the different tour options in New York City. 

At the end of the tour both the boys were so exhausted they wanted to return to the hotel. Post a power nap we were all charged up and wanted to explore Times Square. However my kids seemed to have become immobile 🙂 They refused to budge from the bed. There was a Subway just next door so we asked them to order in and relax while we visited Times Square.

Being in Times Square is like being on the streets of Mumbai, a cleaner/nicer version though.  The similarities are uncanny – noise, lights, activities, people – all to the extreme. 

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Times Square and it’s world famous towering billboards and multi-million watt advertisements.  The place is buzzing 24 x 7! 

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Above your head, the billboard is always bigger than you imagine. 

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Subway and street performances across Broadway and Times Square… talent a galore..

Street artists dressed up or shall I say “undressed” who call out to you for cash in exchange for pictures.  The girls seem so confident flaunting their nude bodies with body paints, sporting the American flag across their breasts in the name of Art.  I heard someone say there’s so many boobs that you don’t look at them anymore.  And check this guy covering his lady’s eyes in the image below… this was really funny 🙂  I mean you are in Times Square… go with an open mind!

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Nothing artistic to this baby character acting really silly.

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Woody from Toy Story impersonator and Mickey + Minnie Mouse greeting tourists.

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I was impressed to see a multi-talented Bollywood actress from Bareilly shining bright on a giant hoarding in the heart of New York City’s favorite tourist spot – Times Square. The “Quantico” star has taken over the Times Square in New York City for GAP’s “Bridging the Gap” campaign. Kudos to Priyanka Chopra. Believe in your dreams, dreams do come true!

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We then walked to Carlo’s Bake Shop at 8th avenue.  I am a big fan of the Cake boss show hence did not want to miss the opportunity to visit his store in New York.

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Guess who was waiting outside Madam Tussaud’s to welcome me – tada… none other than my favorite Shahrukh Khan (aka SRK) ha ha ha…

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We had built up an appetite with all that walking and spotted Juniors restaurant around the corner. The service at the restaurant was impeccable and the food, portions, ambiance – spot on. Definitely a must visit resto in Times Square.

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OMG!! That finger-licking, lip-smacking taste of the most perfectly cooked ribs smothered with the most delicious bbq sauce along with mashed potatoes and delicious mushroom gravy.  This was seriously death by food!

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Day 4 – Biking around New York City and Broadway musical 

Juniors  had impressed us enough to follow it up with breakfast the next day.

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We then took a Uber to see Brooklyn Bridge and asked the driver to drop us at Hudson River.  Initially we planned on renting a cycle from one of the stores at Hudson River but just then we spotted the Citi bike station at Pier 40.  We purchased the 24 hours of Citi Bike access Day Pass which included unlimited 30-minute rides.  The way this works is the first 30 minutes of each ride is included in the pass price. If you keep a bike out for longer than 30 minutes at a time, it’s an extra $4 for each additional 15 minutes.  So to avoid additional usage fees, keep the rides to 30 minutes each and take as many rides while the pass is active!  They also block $101 on your card as a deposit against each bike. There are citi bike stations all over the place to dock the bike.

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It was a hot and humid morning so exploring the area on two wheels with dedicated bike paths was just what we needed.  

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Post 30 mins we docked our bikes at a docking station close to the nearest subway and took the train to Wall Street as we had to return to take a picture with the Charging Bull. Owing to the crowd we were unable to do so on the New York City walking tour.

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My boys were keen to watch a Broadway musical so we all decided on Lion King. The TKTS booth was our first stop to check for reduced-price seats to this show.  We were informed by the counter staff that popular shows such as Lion King, Jersey Boys etc are not on discount and we had to look up the board next to the booth to view a list of discounted tickets available on the day.  We eventually picked up the full-priced tickets from the theater itself.

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I had watched the Lion King musical on a business trip to London a few years ago.  It was actually the first musical I had ever watched and is still etched in my memory.  I was glad my boys decided to see this show. The theater was packed which did not come as a surprise to me as this is one of those shows with genuinely universal appeal and still at the top of its game. We had booked the higher-priced balcony seats to take in the full scope. This show of shows is just about the best theatrical experience you’re likely to have beginning with the magnificent opening number, “Circle of Life”.  

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When the show ended it was time for dinner so we wandered around trying to figure out a place to dine and spotted Dallas BBQ Restaurant.  For a restaurant the place is massive, has a party-like atmosphere. The food is terrific with delicious multi-colored drinks and best of all, reasonably priced.  I am a foodie but the portions served in New York is seriously disturbing.  No more feasting, only fasting hereon 🙂

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This was our last night in New York city!

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Day 5 – Drive from New York to Washington DC

We were up early to check-out of the hotel and had booked an Uber (the previous day) to Washington DC.  A quick breakfast at Premier Deli Cafe diagonally across our hotel and we were on our way.

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The drive was scenic with a light shower when we crossed the New Jersey state line.

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Enroute stopped for Starbucks coffee and a snack.

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We arrived at the Churchill Hotel Near Embassy Row around late noon.  This hotel far exceeded our expectations. Quaint with an old world charm to it.  Check-in was quick and efficient, lobby and corridors spectacular.  The room was beautiful and extremely spacious with a nice sized bathroom and a little corner room with a table & chair with space to store luggage. 

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Before leaving for our trip we had seen some videos of the Segway tours in Washington and were keen to do it.  However when we tried booking it we were informed that Washington DC has an age limit for Segway users which meant my 14 year old was not permitted. We therefore decided to book the Monuments@Nite bike tour with BikeandRoll  since all of us enjoy cycling.

Our Uber driver was kind enough to wait for us until we freshened up and dropped us off to L’enfant Plaza near National Mall so we could grab a bite and go to Bike and Roll which is on the roof level of L’Enfant Plaza.

We had lunch at California Tortilla located in the food court on the ground floor of L’Enfant Plaza. The restaurant has an entire wall dedicated to sauces from heat range of 1 to 10. We love our curries and sauces so yeah this was awesome!

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Post lunch we walked around the plaza which seemed quite small with a limited number of shops.  We were done visiting them all by ~5.15 pm which meant we had to wait for an hour… our tour was booked for 6.30 pm.  We decided to try our luck and see if they could accommodate us earlier so we could retire early.  Lady luck on our side, the team were really nice.  Initially they told us it was not possible since they only booked limited people on each tour.  But we somehow managed to convince them to add our names to their 5.30 pm tour.  We completed the registration formality and the guides equipped the riders with reflective vests and safety lights.

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The start of the tour is very organised and it wasn’t long before we were all split into our groups. Post a quick briefing on the “dos & dont’s” by our tour guide, we were on our way.

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I plotted all the historical monuments that we rode on the map below. Our guide was great (unfortunately, can’t recall her name – what’s with me and forgetting names now!). Being an history student, her knowledge of the city and its monuments was commendable. She also paced it so everyone could keep up and be part of the group. 

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1. Thomas Jefferson Memorial

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2.  The Washington Monument (looks gorgeous at sunset)

Our guide gave us a snack bar once we were done visiting the monument.

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3.  Lincoln Memorial (another gorgeous monument – transitioning into sunset)

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4.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

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5.  Martin Luther King Memorial

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6.  Korean War Veterans Memorial

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7.  WWII Memorial

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We switched on our bike lights around the halfway mark.  Since Washington DC is flat the ride was not at all strenuous.

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It was beautiful to see all these monuments illuminated at night.

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Washington monument lit up at night – stunning!!!

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8. Vietnam Veterans Memorial

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9.  White House

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Biking the sites gave us a nice orientation to the area and allowed us to see all the major monuments in one evening.  Our guide shared unique facts and historical trivia at each stop and allowed us sufficient time for exploration and photos.  A terrific way to see the city… I’d recommend it 100 times over. 

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Day 6 –  Washington DC to Atlanta

Since breakfast was included in our hotel rate we went to the lounge before proceeding on our museum visits.  The hotel had limited options for breakfast and were seriously short-staffed.

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We had a flight from Washington to Atlanta at 4 pm.  Since we did not want to overload our senses and really enjoy what we were seeing we decided to do one, max 2 museums in the morning. Washington DC isn’t just the capital of the United States, it is also the museum capital of America!  Our guide had recommended these two museums which we were glad we did.  Aryan enjoyed the National Museum of Natural History located at 10th Street & Constitution Avenue NW and Brandon loved the National Air and Space Museum.

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The museum houses the largest exhibits of complete dinosaur fossils in addition to displays of earth sciences, meteorites, minerals, gems (including the Hope Diamond), evolution and world cultures.

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The museum has an enormous collection of minerals and gemstones.  For a gem enthusiast like me this section was a major attraction so I spent most of my time here while the boys explored the various level to view all the exhibits.

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A few blocks away is the National Air and Space Museum which spotlights the history of human flight from the Wright Brothers to space flight. Exhibits include Kitty Hawk, capsules from the Apollo space missions and much, much more. The National Air and Space Museum holds the largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft in the world.

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Once done we took an Uber to the hotel to collect our luggage and onward to the airport.

We had booked Southwest Airlines for all the domestic flights on this trip for two reasons (1) we could carry 2 checked bags for free (2) we had quite a few internal flights. I was able to use their multiple trip option to book all the flights – seemed to have worked out cheaper than booking several airlines + not all their local carriers had multiple trip options on their website.  This was our first time with Southwest. They have an alphabetized, numbered, then free-for-all boarding process which was something new for us. You just have to find a free seat. Except for having to sit in different rows, the boarding process was smooth, flight attendants extremely courteous and friendly. They provided free aerated drinks and nuts on board. We weren’t aware that you could pay $15 Early Bird check-in to get a specific seat. The flight landed on time and suddenly we heard one of the attendants singing this song that got us in splits and left us impressed! 

Atlanta has the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport which is massive.  We had to take a train from the terminal to the baggage claim area.

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My niece and nephew were at the airport to collect us.  It was a ~40 min drive from the airport to their house in Merion drive, Duluth. The home of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coke, Atlanta is also known as “the city in a forest” because 36% of the city is covered in trees.

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Situated on a golf course in Duluth, Gwinnett County this house belonging to my cousin Danny and his wife Sharon, is incredibly gorgeous and massive.  I love houses like these – spacious, well planned with stoned walls, french windows, manicured gardens. The house had a warm and rustic feel to it – just perfect!  So Aryan’s dream of living in a mansion semi-fulfilled 🙂

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The front is incredibly well landscaped. For nature lovers like us this was paradise! 

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Their backyard is surrounded in lush greenery and a stream. We could have just spend endless hours listening to the many sounds of nature in their enormous backyard. 

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with Danny (owner of this gorgeous property)

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Finally!!! “yummy in my tummy” home cooked dinner and drinks that night.  Sharon is an incredible cook!  

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Day 7 –  Atlanta

The story of this bag – So we forgot this bag with some items and most importantly my mobile phone (No!!!!!!!!) which was connected to a portable charger, outside Atlanta airport. My nephew submitted a “lost & found” report the previous night and we called the airport desk in the morning to check if they found a red Carlos bakery bag and they confirmed in the negative. We decided to go to the airport to check in person. Lady luck seemed to have favored us again as someone had deposited the bag with their “Lost and Found” department 1/2 hour before we had arrived at the airport terminal. Can you imagine my joy, that an “unattended” bag in America which has been left outside the airport was not destroyed!! Alleluia!!!

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When we were done it was almost lunch time so we decided to meet Danny at his favorite Thai restaurant “Pad Thai” which was close to his office.  I ordered for a Pepsi and was informed that the only soft drink in Atlanta is Coke. That’s it. Don’t even bother trying to order Pepsi! 🙂

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With Danny and his wife Sharon

We picked up our boys to visit the 2 department stores on my list – Walmart and Target. Atlanta seems to be a city of strip malls.  Living in Dubai for almost 2 decades now and patronizing the massive malls, I kind of liked this strip mall concept.  It seemed really easy to get in and out unlike the mall parking lots in Dubai which can be a nightmare on weekends.

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With my gorgeous niece, Megha

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Danny was keen for our boys to do a round of horse riding before calling it a day. We visited a stable close to his house but couldn’t spot anyone so assumed it was closed. We then looked up google map to find another stable in the area and located one a few miles away (can’t recall the name now). While waiting for the owner to show up, the board below caught my eye which I found hilarious and assumed the owner would be equally witty.  However the owner turned out to be a crazy woman. She shooed us off saying it was her bed time and the next time we should make it a point to call and come.  Woman – it is only 6 pm!! Who sleeps at 6??  But yes being a stable owner she must be up early so her irritation was justified 🙂

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Since we were in Atlanta only for 3 days my sweetheart of a cousin was adamant to drive us around this beautiful city which they call home.  So instead of returning home he took us to Windermere Park in Cumming.  This is a really nice big park, good for recreation with nature trail, open grass field, paved walking trail, playground and restrooms.

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Day 8 – Atlanta

The next morning we drove to Mall of Georgia followed by Cost Plus and Bed, Bath & Beyond for some retail therapy.  

I loved this mall since it had quite a few brands which are not available in Dubai so thoroughly enjoyed the company and the shopping experience.  The mall also has a nice food court which was buzzing.

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We were excited to see an Apple store in the mall.  

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and my favorite Lush products…

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Oh I loved Cost Plus!! Most of my trip’s shopping was done here. Come to think of it we enjoyed shopping in Atlanta the most.  Much cheaper than the other places we visited.

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Day 9 – Atlanta

The morning was spent chilling at home followed by lunch at another of Danny’s favorite, a Vietnamese restaurant in Duluth “What the Pho”.  Very authentic food, service was fast. Lots to choose from on the menu with huge portions.

20170723_151503IMG_1855We then drove around town with our first stop being the Chinese market.  I don’t think I have ever see such a massive range of fish… you name it, they have it I think!!

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Next stop was Sweet Hut – Danny’s favorite korean sweet shop.  This place had everything from cupcakes, to donuts (gourmet ones), all sorts of custards, and wide variety of speciality sodas and and ice cream! 

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We then drove to Atlantic Station for some more retail therapy.

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Danny then took us to another one of his favorite place – Kilwins in Atlantic Station. He was hell bent on showing us all his must-visit places to eat… he is a foodie just like me 🙂 Kilwins is THE place to go for chocolates and ice cream. I couldn’t contain myself gazing into the chocolate display trying to figure out which one to pick up.  One is spoilt for choice! Danny picked up his usual ice cream flavor (think it was raisins or something) and I picked up the chocolate pecan fudge which was a melt in your mouth decadence!

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Next stop: Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic site

The legacy behind the man who shaped a nation lies in Georgia’s capital – The Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site (or MLK Museum).  This site is ranked #2 in attractions in Atlanta.  Comprising of several blocks in the Sweet Auburn part of downtown; the site commemorates the life and work of King and the civil rights movement.

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The church where Martin Luther King was baptized
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Martin Luther King’s childhood home

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The eternal flame “symbolizes the continuing effort to realize King’s ideals for the ‘beloved community’ which requires lasting personal commitment that cannot weaken when faced with obstacles.”

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Reflection fountain, burial site of Dr. King and his wife, Coretta.

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We did not need a tour guide since Sharon used to work in their admin office so knew the site well.  She was our tour guide on this one 🙂

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Just behind the main building is a statue of one of King’s idols. Gandhi was a huge influence on the young MLK, who traveled to India and met surviving relatives of Gandhi’s family. King admired and was inspired by the leader’s insistence on nonviolent resistance.

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Established in 2004, the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame features the footsteps of numerous leaders and influential figures, including Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, Thurgood Marshall, Magic Johnson, Hank Aaron, Medgar Evers, and even Presidents Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson.

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We drove around and stopped to take pictures at Coco-Cola, Georgia Aquarium, CNN etc.. Atlanta has boomed, first as home to such giants as Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines, and more recently as a vital regional and headquarters business center for large corporations. Home offices for Home Depot, UPS, CNN and Bellsouth are in the area, and almost any company you can think of has an operation here, and some are quite large.

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While the adults were busy exploring Atlanta, the kids were having a fun time in Atlanta Zoo.

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It was almost time for dinner so we drove to Global Mall.  It should have been named Indian mall or similar as it is a one-stop-shop for everything Indian.  We picked up some gujju food from Mumbai Masala which was delicious ending the meal with meetha paan (beetle leaves with sweet stuffing). Overall a decent place if you want an Indian experience in Atlanta.

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Day 10 – Atlanta to Las Vegas

During our 3 day stay in Atlanta, Danny gave us a sneak preview of this gorgeous urban jungle. There’s so much more to the southern metropolis than Coca-Cola and CNN.  We had a fantastic time in Atlanta and our boys loved it.  They are already thinking of a trip to the US next year.. hahaha

It was our last day in Atlanta so with a heavy heart we said our final goodbyes to this lovely family and their beautiful home. We love you Danny, Sharon, Suraj and Megha! Thank you for being such generous hosts!!

We were all meeting up in California a week later so yippee!! Just couldn’t wait to get to San Ramon now.

Spending time with our extended family in East and West coast was one of the best parts of our holiday.  It was a laughter riot reminiscing old memories while creating new ones.

…. To be continued

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10 Comments Add yours

  1. This write up is done very well and the flow of the blog is just so perfect it keeps you so engrossed throughout.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Leni, Many thanks for the positive feedback on the blog content. Take care 🙂

      Like

  2. Sunita Gaekwad says:

    Excellent write-up on the first part of your trip waiting for the next. And Aryan amazing job on the video. Loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the feedback!

      Sunita Aunty – I am glad you enjoyed my video… thank you… lots of love Aryan

      Like

  3. Dalida D'souza says:

    Amazing job Aryan … so proud of my nephew’s talent !! Loved the video !! Amazin!!
    Pats what do I say ?? You made me a ant to pack my bags and head there … good job and most of all glad to know you guys enjoyed 😊
    But made sense to make this trip with teenage kids .. So I guess we will have to wait till my boys enter their teens so this is one trip to make without carrying diapers .. baby cream , baby food and on it goes ha ha ha ..

    Loved all the tips too !! Thanks ones again for sharing.. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your lovely comments Dalu! And a big thank you from your nephew! He seems to be following Uncle Niren’s footsteps 😉

      Like

  4. Sangita D'sa says:

    Patricia, really nice experience! Enjoyed your blog. Felt like I was touring the NYC with you. I love NYC and New York State. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Sangita for taking the time to read and comment. Next time we are in New York, will surely get in touch. Take care and love to the family!

      Like

  5. kripahadani2 says:

    wow Patsy ! Throughly enjoyed reading this. Felt like I was living each day there with you. So well described.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks Kripa! Looking forward to our next “girl gang” trip now 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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