- Quick Facts
- Full country name: The United States of America (USA)
- Population: 285,000,000
- Area: 3,618,000 sq miles (9,370,000 sq km)
- Capital City: Washington, DC (pop: 570,000)
- People: Caucasian (71%), African American (12%), Latino (12%), Asian (4%), Native American (0.9%)
- Languages: English, plus many secondary languages, chiefly Spanish
- Religion: Protestant (56%), Roman Catholic (28%), Jewish (2%), Muslim (1%)
- Government: Federal republic of 50 states
- President: Barack Obama
- GDP: US$9.3 trillion
- GDP per head: US$33,900
- Annual Growth: 4.1%
- Inflation: 2.2%
- Major Industries: Oil, electronics, computers, automobile manufacturing, aerospace industries, agriculture, telecommunications, chemicals, mining, processing and packaging
- Major trading partners: Canada, Japan, Mexico, the EU
- Country Facts
January: Super Bowl, the roving American-football finale.
February: New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, a rowdy, touristy, bacchanalian knees-up.
March: St Patrick’s Day is celebrated with parades and pitchers of green beer.
May: The Kentucky Derby, raced in Louisville.
August: National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa.
October: Halloween is a big deal for kids, who go trick-or-treating around their neighborhood.
US dollar (USD)
You’ll save yourself hassle and expense if your traveler’s checks are in US dollars. Restaurants, hotels and most stores accept US dollar traveler’s checks as if they were cash. Major credit cards are widely accepted; you’ll find it hard to perform certain transactions (such as renting a car or reserving tickets over the phone) without one. You may also be able to access your bank account using US ATMs. Tipping is expected in restaurants and better hotels. The going rate in restaurants is 15% or more of the bill.
- Highway 395: Out where the Sierras drop straight down into the sagebrush of eastern California’s Owens Valley, truckers, hunters and road-trippers cruise Hwy 395. Though the road runs several thousand miles from the northern fringes of the Los Angeles basin to the Canadian border, the best leg stretches 250mi (400km) between Lone Pine, in the shadow of 14,500ft (4350m) Mt Whitney, and Carson City, Nevada. You can reenact scenes from Gunga Din and How the West Was Won, both shot in the Alabama Hills just west of Lone Pine, where’s there’s a film festival every October.
- The Manzanar National Historic Site, about half an hour’s drive north of Lone Pine, consists of the remains of one of the infamous ‘relocation’ camps in which American citizens of Japanese descent were imprisoned during WW II. A little farther on is the funky Eastern California Museum, a mixed bag of displays on natural history, Paiute Indian basketry and ancient Milk of Magnesia bottles. If you’ve still got a nest egg left when you reach Carson City, east of Lake Tahoe just over the Nevada border, let it ride at one of the town’s many casinos.
- Flagstaff: If the strip-mall chintz of small-town Arizona leaves you dry, drop in on Flagstaff, a cultural oasis in this otherwise arid landscape. The historic downtown area, harking back to the town’s early days as a railroad whistle stop, comes as a welcome relief from the region’s dusty motels and truck stop diners. In this neighborhood, antique inns sidle up against vegetarian cafes, and you’re more likely to hear strains of a local jazz combo than any rumble of RV traffic. And as the novelty of non-touristy downtown wears thin, there’s always a visit to the Lowell Observatory, where in 1930 the planet Pluto was discovered, or a stroll through the 200 blissfully green acres at the local arboretum. Flagstaff makes a great base for day trips, since the Southwest’s greatest attraction, the Grand Canyon, is less than a two-hour drive away. Within an hour of town you can explore ancient Anasazi and Sinagua Indian pueblos; marvel at the site of a mile-wide meteor crater; hike, bike and ski some of the state’s most pristine mountains and forests; and even have your chakras realigned in the New Age mecca of Sedona.
- Cleveland: Once infamous for its ‘burning river’ of the 1950s and ’60s, Cleveland has overcome its image as an environmental disaster area and now boasts one of the country’s most all-American attractions: the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Among its displays are Janis Joplin’s Porsche, a kaleidoscopic, candy-colored acid trip on wheels, as well as Elvis’ black leather ‘Comeback Special’ suite and Ray Charles’ sunglasses. Why Cleveland? ‘Cause it’s the hometown of Alan Freed, the disk jockey who popularized the term ‘rock and roll’ in the early 1950s.plus some heavy lobbying by the mayor. If you’re a fan of IM Pei, you’ll love the record-player-shaped building.
The continent’s first inhabitants walked into North America across what is now the Bering Strait from Asia. For the next 20,000 years these pioneering settlers were essentially left alone to develop distinct and dynamic cultures. In the modern US, their descendants include the Pueblo people in what is now New Mexico; Apache in Texas; Navajo in Arizona, Colorado and Utah; Hopi in Arizona; Crow in Montana; Cherokee in North Carolina; and Mohawk and Iroquois in New York State.
The Norwegian explorer Leif Eriksson was the first European to reach North America, some 500 years before a disoriented Columbus accidentally discovered ‘Indians’ in Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti) in 1492. By the mid-1550s, much of the Americas had been poked and prodded by a parade of explorers from Spain, Portugal, England and France. The first colonies attracted immigrants looking to get rich quickly and return home, but they were soon followed by migrants whose primary goal was to colonize.
The Spanish founded the first permanent European settlement in St Augustine, Florida, in 1565; the French moved in on Maine in 1602, and Jamestown, Virginia, became the first British settlement in 1607. The first Africans arrived as ‘indentured laborers’ with the Brits a year prior to English Puritan pilgrims’ escape of religious persecution. The pilgrims founded a colony at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, in 1620 and signed the famous Mayflower Compact – a declaration of self-government that would later be echoed in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.
British attempts to assert authority in its 13 North American colonies led to the French and Indian War (1757-63). The British were victorious but were left with a nasty war debt, which they tried to recoup by imposing new taxes. The rallying cry ‘no taxation without representation’ united the colonies, who ceremoniously dumped the tea cargo overboard during the Boston Tea Party. Besieged British general Cornwallis surrendered to American commander George Washington five years later at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781.
In the 19th century, America’s mantra was ‘Manifest Destiny.’ A combination of land purchases, diplomacy and outright wars of conquest had by 1850 given the US roughly its present shape. In 1803, Napoleon dumped the entire Great Plains for a pittance, and Spain chipped in with Florida in 1819. The Battle of the Alamo during the 1835 Texan Revolution paved the way for Texan independence from Mexico, and the war with Mexico (1846-48) secured most of the southwest, including California.
Nineteenth-century immigration drastically altered the cultural landscape as settlers of predominantly British stock were joined by Central Europeans and Chinese, many attracted by the 1849 gold rush in California. The South remained firmly committed to an agrarian life heavily reliant on African American slave labor. Tensions were on the rise when abolitionist Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860. The South seceded from the Union, and the Civil War, by far the bloodiest war in America’s history, began the following year. The North prevailed in 1865, freed the slaves and introduced universal adult male suffrage. Lincoln’s vision for reconstruction, however, died with his assassination.
America’s trouncing of the Spaniards in 1898 marked the USA’s ascendancy as a superpower and woke the country out of its isolationist slumber. The US still did its best not to get its feet dirty in WW I’s trenches, but finally capitulated in 1917, sending over a million troops to help sort out the pesky Germans. Postwar celebrations were cut short by Prohibition in 1920, which banned alcohol in the country. The 1929 stock-market crash signaled the start of the Great Depression and eventually brought about Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which sought to lift the country back to prosperity.
After the Japanese dropped in uninvited on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the US played a major role in defeating the Axis powers. Atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 not only ended the war with Japan, but also ushered in the nuclear age. The end of WW II segued into the Cold War – a period of great domestic prosperity and a surface uniformity belied by paranoia and betrayal. Politicians like Senator Joe McCarthy took advantage of the climate to fan anticommunist flames, while the USSR and USA stockpiled nuclear weapons and fought wars by proxy in Korea, Africa and Southeast Asia. Tensions between the two countries reached their peak in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The 1960s was a decade of profound social change, thanks largely to the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War protests and the discovery of sex, drugs and rock & roll. The Civil Rights movement gained momentum in 1955 with a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. As a nonviolent mass protest movement, it aimed at breaking down segregation and regaining the vote for disfranchised Southern blacks. The movement peaked in 1963 with Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I have a dream speech’ in Washington, DC, and the passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act.
In 1974 Richard Nixon became the first US president to resign from office, due to his involvement in the cover-up of the Watergate burglaries, bringing American patriotism to a new low. The 1970s and ’80s were a period of technological advancement and declining industrialism. Self-image took a battering at the hands of Iranian Ayatollah Khomeni.
A conservative backlash, symbolized by the election and popular two-term presidency of actor Ronald Reagan, sought to put some backbone in the country. The US then concentrated on bullying its poor neighbors in Central America and the Caribbean, meddling in the affairs of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama and Grenada. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc’s ‘Evil Empire’ in 1991 left the US as the world’s sole superpower, and the Gulf War in 1992 gave George Bush the opportunity to lead a coalition supposedly representing a ‘new world order’ into battle against Iraq.
The 2000 presidential election made history by being the most tightly contested race in the nation’s history. The Democratic candidate, Al Gore, secured the majority of the popular vote but lost the election when all of Florida’s electoral college votes went to George W Bush, who was ahead of Gore in that state by only 500 votes. Demands for recounts, a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court in favor of partial recounts, and a handful of lawsuits generated by both parties were brought to a halt when the US Supreme Court split along party lines and ruled that all recounts should cease. After five tumultuous weeks, Bush was declared the winner.
‘Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,’ reads the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. And the world did, fueling the dynamism of America with waves of ambitious immigrants from every downtrodden corner of the globe. Immigration is one of the defining characteristics of America’s national identity, though calling the US a ‘nation of immigrants’ neatly sidesteps Native Americans (already here) and African American slaves (brought against their will).
In the past 30 years, the old notion of America as a melting pot – a stew in which immigrants’ individual differences are lost in uniformity – has given way to the salad-bowl model, in which the individual pieces still retain their flavor while contributing to the whole.
Americans are constitutionally guaranteed freedom of worship; dominant faiths include Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism, among others. There are plenty of indigenous faiths as well, such as Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons.
American English encompasses a multitude of regional accents of differing degrees of intelligibility. Spanish has effective dual-language status in parts of southern California, New Mexico, Texas and Miami. There are 400,000 speakers of Native American dialects.
Modern American culture is a juicy burger of mass culture garnished with 15 minutes of fame. It owes as much to marketing savvy, communications technology and mass-production techniques as it does to artists and entertainers. If you can name it, American companies have invented, packaged and disseminated it to as many consumers as cheaply and conveniently as possible.
The elusive concept of ‘American-ness’ is often defined by cinema and television. The advent of TV in the 1950s shook Hollywood’s hegemony to its core, but both forms of media have managed to coexist, even operating synergistically. The global distribution of American movies and TV shows has shaped the world’s perception of the country to a high, if not completely accurate, degree.
The American music industry is the world’s most powerful and pervasive, though groundswell movements remain the driving force of American pop. African Americans’ influence, including blues, jazz and hip-hop, can hardly be exaggerated.
Rap, America’s inner-city sound, places an equal emphasis on an ultra heavy beat, sound montage, street creed and macho posturing. Its appeal to middle-class white America will no doubt bemuse sociologists for decades.
The US has churned out a veritable forest of literature. The illustrious lineup begins with Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Henry James and Edith Wharton, and moves into the modern era with William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Jack ‘Backpack’ Kerouac, Arthur Miller, both the Williamses, Saul Bellow, John Updike and Toni Morisson.
After WW II, the focus of the international art world shifted from Paris to New York. Artists leaving war-torn Europe brought the remnants of surrealism to the Big Apple, inspiring a group of young American painters to create the first distinct American painting style, abstract expressionism.
The relentless ascendancy of mass media gave birth to pop art. Slick, surface-oriented and purposely-banal paintings like Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans are now American icons.
When we think of US cities, we think of skyscrapers, those architectural testaments to market forces and American optimism. Chicago is a living museum of high-rise development. New York boasts its fair share of stunners too. Despite increasing homogenization, rural America retains its idiosyncrasies, and distinctive vernacular architectural styles persist in New England (clapboard), California (Spanish Mission) and New Mexico (adobe).
American sports developed separately from the rest of the world and, consequently, homegrown games such as baseball, football and basketball dominate the sports scene. Soccer and ice hockey are runners-up to the Big Three. Urban America also invented the great indoors: aerobics and the gym, indoor skiing and rock-climbing – examples of what can go wrong when too much disposable income hits up against too little leisure time.
The continental US stretches across North America ‘from sea to shining sea.’ It borders Canada to the north and Mexico to the south. Alaska juts out from northwestern Canada; Hawaii lies 2500 miles (4000km) off the country’s western coast, in the middle of the Pacific. There are three major mountain ranges: the Appalachians in the east, the titanic Rocky Mountains in the west and the Sierra Nevada along the border of Nevada and California. The country has abundant natural resources and vast swaths of fertile soil.
The Atlantic Coast is the most heavily populated area and retains strong traces of its European heritage. This is where the oldest American cities, such as Boston, New York, Washington and Philadelphia are located, and where most of the major events in early American history took place. The central northeast is marked by the humongous Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario), which occupy an area larger than most European countries. The rivers and canals linking the lakes to the Atlantic Ocean made virtual seaports out of Midwestern cities like Chicago and Detroit.
The central area drained by the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio Rivers is the grain basket of the country. Farther west, on the Great Plains, are the country’s chief grazing areas. This is cowboy country, though today the trusty steeds tend to be battered pickup trucks rather than hi-ho Silvers. Desert predominates in the southwest, where the climate and degraded soils keep population density to a minimum, and where you really don’t need much of a wind to see tumbleweed bouncing across the highway. Cross the Sierra Nevada and you’re on the West Coast, which was settled by Americans only 150 years ago but has been on a headlong rush into the future ever since.
With such varied topography, the US has extremely diverse ecosystems. The most impressive flora are the huge evergreens of the West Coast, the sequoia and the redwood, some of which are believed to be the oldest living things on Earth. The eastern states are home to leafy hardwood forests of maple, oak and elm, which burst into color in autumn. The three most famous national parks are Yellowstone, in the Rockies; Yosemite, in the Sierra Nevada; and the Grand Canyon, in Arizona. The largest land mammals, such as black and grizzly bears, elk and deer, roam the northwestern states. The southern states are home to some of the most interesting fauna, including the marsupial opossum and the mean old alligator. Beasties to avoid include rattlesnakes, bears, wild boar, alligators and Hank, a gas station attendant from Perth Amboy, New Jersey.
The climate is temperate in most of the US. Generally, it gets hotter the farther south you go and seasonally more extreme the farther you are north and inland from the coasts. Winters in the northeast and upper Midwest can have long periods below freezing while it’s still warm enough to swim at the beaches in Florida (which has a tropical climate) and southern California.
Most visitors arrive by air, and heavy competition on popular routes means that inexpensive flights are often available. The main international airports are in Boston, New York, Washington, Miami, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Atlanta, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. There are connecting flights from these airports to hundreds of other US cities. There are plenty of efficient overland border crossings between the US and Canada and Mexico.
The number of domestic airlines, competition on popular routes and frequent discounting makes flying in the US a relatively inexpensive proposition (though fares can be high on less popular routes). For a country that owes so much to the penetration of railroads and has such a potent railroad mythology, traveling by train in the US can be surprisingly impractical and not always comfortable. Ticket prices vary in value, but the earlier you make a reservation, the cheaper the ticket. Greyhound has an extensive, cheap and efficient bus network, and traveling by bus enables you to meet the 35 other people stuck in America without a car.
America created the ultimate car culture, so don’t be surprised by the fact that nearly everyone of legal driving age has a car and uses it at every possible opportunity. Anyone who has seen an American road movie will know that the country’s highways are not only nifty ways to cover large distances, they are also rich in mythic resonance. A road trip along Route 66, for example, is no A to B from Chicago to Los Angeles – it’s a pilgrimage along America’s ‘mother road,’ closely bound up with the history of America’s expansionist West, the Dust Bowl refugees and, of course, the sweet voice of Nat King Cole.
The ubiquity of the automobile often means that local public transportation options are few and far between, but the good news is that Americans tend to be casual with their car keys and far from stingy with their vehicles, so if you’re sticking around for a while you may well find wheels easier to borrow than you think. Rental cars are plentiful and relatively cheap, though major agencies require you to be at least 25 years old. Drive-aways are a peculiarly American phenomenon. It’s basically a car delivery system that unites cars that need to be delivered over long distances with willing drivers. If a car needs delivering to a place you’re prepared to go, you’re given insurance, a delivery date and a set of keys, and Bob’s yer uncle.
In rural areas, local bus services are often less than adequate. Urban public transportation is generally much better; catching the subway in New York, the El in Chicago and a cable car in San Francisco is as integral a part of the American traveling experience as hopping on a double-decker bus in London. Cycling is an increasingly popular way to travel around small areas, since roads are good, shoulders are wide and cars generally travel at safe speeds. Walking is considered an un-American activity unless it takes place on hiking trails in national parks.
- When to Go
The US is most popular with travelers during the summer. To avoid crowds it’s better to go during autumn or early spring. Autumn is an especially good time to visit New England and the upper Great Lakes because fall colors are at their best. Most of the country east of the Rockies is hot and humid during summer, especially the south.
- Explore Attractions
Las Vegas is glitz for its own sake, over-the-top hustle and flash as means and end. It’s crowds of people in polyester pantsuits, big hair and gold chains, staring at neon signs and spinning lemons like deer hypnotized by headlights. But if you tire of pulling the handle on that one-armed bandit and drinking watered-down (albeit free) screwdrivers, the surrounding area has some of the region’s most beautiful scenery.
- Population: 480,000
- Area: 85 sq mi (215 sq km)
- Elevation: 2178ft (664m)
- State: Nevada
- Time Zone: Pacific Time (GMT/UTC -8)
- Telephone area code: 702
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It’s hard to outdo the nonstop party that is Las Vegas, but the city does have a few annual events and festivals. Locals wear the green for the St Patrick’s Day parade in March. It’s chaps and chili during the Helldorado Days Rodeo & Western Festival in May and the National Finals Rodeo in December.
Las Vegas is in the southern part of the state of Nevada, about 80 km east of the California border and 50 km west of the Arizona border. The city is divided into two main parts: a compact downtown called Glitter Gulch, and the Strip, a corridor of hotels and casinos.
The casinos are divided between downtown’s Glitter Gulch and the Strip; most hotels are on or near the Strip. McCarran International Airport is located at the southern end of the Strip. The Greyhound bus and Amtrak railway stations are downtown (the railway station is located inside Gaughan’s Plaza Hotel and Casino).
When to go:
You should factor at least two criteria into your travel plans; the weather and conventions. The summers are hot and the winters are cool, making spring and fall the best times to visit. February, March and November are busy convention months, with over 200,000 conventioneers in town over each of these months. Not only are colossal crowds at these times annoying but also they’re costly; hotels jack up room rates and buffet prices.
Hoover Dam and Lake Mead
Few dams are artistic achievements, but Hoover Dam is an architectural gem, with a simple form and Art Deco embellishments and design. The sensuous geometry of the 220 m high concrete wall contrasts sharply with the rugged red rock of the canyon walls. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks against the USA only dam personnel are allowed to enter the structure. Everyone else is limited to seeing a movie on the history of the dam and exhibits on its construction and inner workings in the visitor center. Stretching to the north and east of the dam is the artificial body of water it created: the 180 km long Lake Mead. It’s a good spot for boating, water-skiing, fishing and even scuba diving.
Just a few hours’ drive east from Las Vegas is America’s second most popular national park. The south rim of the Grand Canyon is an easy overnighter from The Strip (the north rim is an additional five hours). The canyon is 365 km long and nearly 16 km wide, and the multicolored rock strata go down a mile to the Colorado River below. You may think your life is complete just to stand at the edge and look down at one-third of the earth’s geologic history (though from the top you can’t see the 1.7 billion year old rocks at the bottom). The canyon offers excellent hiking, horse riding and rafting.
If you can tear yourself away from the gaming tables, the rough-hewn areas around Las Vegas offer great hiking. Red Rock Canyon, about 30 km west of the city, has multicolored sandstone scenery. Toiyabe National Forest, further west, features 3700 m Charleston Peak and trails that wind through pine forests and desert scrub. Camping is allowed.
For boating and water-skiing, smear on the sunscreen, slither into your wetsuit and head over to Lake Mead, about 50 km east of Las Vegas. You can even scuba dive here. Skiers can thrill to the downhill at the Lee Canyon Ski Area on Charleston Peak in the Toiyabe National Forest. Then there’s tenpin bowling – it’s a huge pastime in Las Vegas. There are dozens of golf courses in Las Vegas Valley, most 16 km of The Strip.
The only natural feature to account for the location of Las Vegas is a spring north of downtown. Once used by Paiute Indians on their seasonal visits to the area, it was re-discovered by Mexican scout Rafael Rivera in 1829. The area became known to overland travelers as las vegas – ‘the meadows’ – a place with reliable water and feed for horses.
Las Vegas became a regular stop on the southern emigrant route to California, the Spanish Trail. In the 1850s, Mormons built the town’s first structures, a small mission and fort; the fort became a ranch house, but there was little development until 1902, when much of the land was sold to a railroad company. The area that is now downtown was subdivided when the tracks came through, with 1200 lots sold on 15 May 1905 alone – a date now celebrated as the city’s birthday.
As a railroad town, Las Vegas had machine shops, an ice works and a good number of hotels, saloons and gambling houses. The railroad laid off hundreds in the mid 1920s, but one Depression-era development gave the city a new life. The huge Hoover Dam (then known as Boulder Dam) project commenced in 1931, providing jobs and growth in the short term and water and power for the city’s long-term growth.
Also in 1931, Nevada legalized gambling and simplified its divorce laws, paving the way for the first big casino on the Strip, El Rancho, which was built by Los Angeles developers and opened in 1941. The next wave of investors, also from out of town, were mobsters like Bugsy Siegel, who built the Flamingo in 1946 and set the tone for the new casinos – big and flashy, with lavish entertainment laid on to attract high rollers.
The glitter that brought in the high rollers also attracted smaller spenders, but in larger numbers. Southern California provided a growing market for Las Vegas entertainment, and improvements in transport made it accessible to the rest of the country. Thanks to air conditioning and reliable water supplies, Vegas became one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations.
Today Las Vegas boasts 19 of the world’s 20 largest hotels, attracts 33 million visitors per year, earns over US$5.25 billion in annual gaming revenue, and marries over 100,000 people each year. There are other cities with terrific entertainment and gaming opportunities, but there is no place in the world like Las Vegas, and no city even pretending to be.
Las Vegas is served by McCarran International Airport (MIA), where travelers from other US cities and Canada and Europe have the best connections. Greyhound runs bus services between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and Phoenix, Arizona. They have a station in downtown Las Vegas. Green Tortoise offers a low-budget, communal bus experience between Las Vegas and major cities on the West Coast. There is no direct train service to Las Vegas. One of the best, and most picturesque, ways to get to Las Vegas is by car. Highways traverse the desert and converge on Las Vegas from the major cities of the Southwest.
If you’re staying on The Strip, the best ways to get around are the inexpensive shuttle buses and trams that run between the big casinos and hotels 24 hours a day. Taxis are also a good option. The local bus company CAT offers excellent, inexpensive service along The Strip, downtown and between the two. There are also four-wheeled cable-car-resembling trolleys servicing The Strip and the downtown area. Those who want to get out of town will need their own wheels. You can rent a car at one of the many agencies in town.
San Fransisco has an atmosphere of genteel chic mixed with offbeat innovation. This is a place that breeds alternatives: it’s the home of the Beat Generation, flower power, Critical Mass direct action bike rides and gay pride.
One of the USA’s most attractive cities, San Francisco’s hilly streets provide some gorgeous glimpses of the San Francisco Bay and its famous bridges. This is a mosaic of a city, a big picture made from the colorful tiles of bustling Chinatown, the gentrifying Mission, gay Castro, clubby SoMa, hippie Haight-Ashbury and faux-hemian North Beach.
Population: 775,000 (7 million in the San Francisco Bay Area, including 400,000 in Oakland, 100,000 in Berkeley and 895,000 in San Jose)
Area: 49 sq mi (127 sq km)
Elevation: 155ft (45m)
Time Zone: Pacific Time (GMT/UTC -8)
Telephone area codes: San Francisco and Marin County 415; Oakland and Berkeley 510; the Peninsula 650; Wine Country 707; San Jose and Santa Cruz 408
February: Chinese New Year is celebrated in Chinatown with color and verve similar to Chinese centers in Asia.
April: Cherry Blossom Festival is celebrated in Japantown with martial arts demos, tea ceremonies and other Japanese events.
May: On the third Sunday, over 100,000 joggers take part in the Bay to Breakers run.
June: A celebratory month for San Francisco’s gay community, with a film festival and Gay Pride Week leading up to the last Sunday, when the Gay Freedom Day Parade is held.
September: A month of festivals including Opera in the Park, Blues Festival and the Folsom St Fair.
San Francisco covers the tip of a 50 km peninsula in Northern California, with the Pacific Ocean on its western side and the San Francisco Bay to the north and east. San Francisco is just one of many cities in the Bay Area. The most touristy part of the city resembles a slice of pie, with Van Ness Ave and Market St making the two sides and the Embarcadero the round edge of the pie. The steaming toppings of this homebaked slice are the classy shops around Union Square, the high-rise Financial District, the classy Civic Center, the down-and-out but up-and-coming Tenderloin, swanky Nob Hill and Russian Hill, Chinatown, North Beach and the epicenter of tourist kitsch, Fisherman’s Wharf.
The vast swathe from Van Ness Ave west to the Pacific Ocean encompasses upscale neighborhoods like the Marina and Pacific Heights, ethnically diverse zones like the Richmond and Sunset districts as well as the self-conscious time warp of Haight-Ashbury. Three of the city’s great parklands – the Presidio, Lincoln Park and Golden Gate Park – are also in this area.
When to go:
San Francisco is a popular location any time of the year. Summer is the prime tourist season, so prices are higher, lines are longer and finding a parking place is very difficult. San Francisco’s summer weather is none too hospitable anyway: the bay is often foggy, while inland or north in the Wine Country it’s often too hot and dusty for comfort.
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Washington’s tree-lined avenues and grand 19th-century buildings create a surprisingly warm, almost cozy atmosphere. Washington certainly isn’t as hip a town as New York or San Francisco, but its museums rank with some of the country’s best, its architecture is impressive and its dining and nightlife are more cosmopolitan than you might think. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, security has remained high around Washington’s key monuments, with access to some tourist attractions limited.
Area: 65 sq mi (170 sq km)
Elevation: 30ft (9m)
Region: District of Columbia
Time Zone: Eastern Time (GMT/UTC -5)
Telephone area code: 202
March: The Smithsonian Kite Festival when kite designers, flyers and competitors gather on the Mall for this rite of spring.
April: White House Easter Egg Roll, which the First Lady hosts for children under eight.
June: Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival.
September: Adams-Morgan Day is a huge international block party with global music, food and crafts along and around 18th St NW and Columbia Rd.
Washington is bounded on one side by the Potomac River and on the other sides by the state of Maryland. The city covers 111 sq km. A freeway bypass called the Beltway, which divides the urban insiders from the suburbanites, rings Washington. The Capitol isn’t just the symbolic center of Washington: from here the city is divided into four compass-point quadrants along axes following N Capitol St, E Capitol St, S Capitol St and the Mall.
Streets are arranged on a grid of north south numbered streets and east-west lettered streets. Broad diagonal avenues overlay this grid. The geometric pattern is further interrupted by traffic circles that add to the city’s appeal but can make DC a challenging place for outsiders to navigate by car.
Most tourist sights are located around the Capitol, along the Mall and in the northwest quadrant. Downtown includes the monuments dotting the Mall but is otherwise strictly business.
When to go:
The most comfortable times to visit Washington are in spring (March to May) and fall (September to November). The official tourist season runs from April through September. It’s a good idea to buy advance tickets to popular attractions during this period because the queues can be monstrous.
Within the Beltway (the interstate highway bypass that surrounds Washington, DC), Arlington, Virginia, offers several attractions worth a trip out of urban Washington. One of the DC area’s most-visited sights is Arlington National Cemetery, just west of central Washington, which is best known for its Tomb of the Unknowns, where a ritualized changing of the guard takes place periodically throughout the day. Visitors also make a pilgrimage to the Kennedy gravesites, the final resting place of John F Kennedy (memorialized with an eternal flame), Robert Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The nearby Pentagon – severely damaged in a terrorist attack in 2001 that claimed hundreds of lives – is the headquarters of the powerful Department of Defense.
Until relatively recently Bethesda was a quiet Maryland town, but it has grown to become one of the largest, most influential and most affluent suburban communities in the nation. Despite its sophisticated modern trappings, some of Bethesda’s most appealing spots remain its old-time attractions, such as the old movie theater, classic diner and renowned crab shacks. The movie theater is a real treat: it presents second-run films and family matinees in its huge old movie house outfitted with cafe tables and swivel chairs.
For outdoor recreation, residents head primarily to Rock Creek Park and the C&O Canal, both in northwestern Washington. There are well-marked hiking and jogging tracks ranging from easy to strenuous in both parks. There’s canoeing on the C&O Canal and other boating activities on the Potomac River. A 16 km paved cycle path runs from below the Kennedy Center to Pierce Mill, largely along the wooded creek in Rock Creek Park. The C&O Canal towpath makes a great bike route, particularly for mountain bikes.
The US Congress met in a variety of cities – Philadelphia, New York, and Princeton (New Jersey) among them – before the fledgling republic was ready to commit to a permanent seat of government. Congress chose the Potomac as a natural midpoint that would satisfy both northern and southern states (whose cultural and political differences were apparent well before the Civil War of 1861-1865). This spot had the added benefit of being across the river from George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon.
Folks started referring to it as ‘the city of Washington’ around 1791 and the name stuck. Maryland and Virginia agreed to cede land to create the District of Columbia (named for Christopher Columbus). Work started on the ornate Capitol in 1793, but it was barely complete when British troops torched it in the War of 1812. Though the Capitol was eventually rebuilt, the city entered a slump from which it wouldn’t recover for decades. A dispirited vote to abandon the capital lost by only nine votes.
The town’s ailing infrastructure was overhauled in the 1870s by territorial governor Alexander ‘Boss’ Shepherd, whose extravagant use of federal funds and penchant for steamrolling anything in his way led to a crackdown by Congress that robbed DC of self-government for another 100 years.
A beautification plan at the turn of the century added most of the landscaping, parks, and monuments for which Washington is now well known. Nevertheless, until recently Washington suffered from its image as a Southern backwater. It was John F Kennedy who so succinctly slammed it as ‘a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.’ The Kennedy Center, established as a ‘living memorial’ to JFK, did much to bring cosmopolitan culture to the place.
On September 11, 2001, terrorists attacked Washington, flying a hijacked United Airlines aircraft into the Pentagon, causing significant damage and killing all aboard the plane. On the same day two hijacked planes destroyed New York’s twin towers, killing thousands of people. The terrorist attacks were the worst-ever on US soil.
In 2003, despite security remaining high around Washington’s key monuments, it is clear that the city has gone a long way towards repairing both the Pentagon and its damaged psyche, with visitors returning and hotels refilling.
There are three major airports in the Capital Region; all three are within 35 miles of Washington, DC. They are Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI), Washington Dulles International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA).
Amtrak provides frequent rail service along the busy Eastern Seaboard corridor from Boston, Massachusetts, to Washington. Union Station in Washington is Amtrak’s ‘flagship’ station, and offers a variety of convenient travel resources to visitors.
Greyhound bus service connects Washington with Baltimore (Maryland), Richmond (Virginia), New York and other destinations along the Eastern Seaboard and the South.
Washington’s modern, efficient Metrorail subway system is excellent. It provides services throughout the city and outlying communities. The municipal bus service fills in the gaps, but it can be slow-going in Washington’s traffic. Commuter trains service downtown DC from the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Taxis are a viable option for short trips (especially if you share cabs), and they’re a good way to avoid city parking hassles.
No other city is arrogant enough to dub itself Capital of the World and no other city other than New York could carry it off. New York is a densely packed mass of humanity and all this living on top of one another makes the New Yorker a special kind of person. In a city that is so much a part of the global subconscious, it’s pretty hard to pick a few highlights – wherever you go you’ll feel like you’ve been there before. For iconic value, you can’t surpass the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Central Park and Times Square. The Museum of Modern Art has to be one of the world’s top museums, and the Guggenheim Museum and American Museum of Natural History aren’t far behind.
Population: 18 million
Area: 303 sq mi (784 sq km)
Elevation: 87ft (27m)
State: New York
Time Zone: Eastern Time (GMT/UTC -5)
Telephone area code: Manhattan 212, 646 & 917, outer boroughs 718, 347 or 917
Hardly a week goes by without a special event taking place in New York. In fact, there are some 50 officially recognized parades each year, along with more than 400 street fairs. Most of these fairs offer a rather unremarkable selection of fast-food stands, house plants, athletic socks and cheap belts, however, so don’t go out of your way. Times Square’s New Year’s Eve festivities are probably the most famous in the world; less popular is the 5 mile (8km) midnight run in Central Park.
Most of Manhattan is extremely easy to navigate, thanks to a grid system of named or numbered avenues running the north-south length of the island, cut across by numbered streets that run from east to west. Above Washington Square, Fifth Ave and Central Park serve as the dividing line between the East Side and the West Side. Cross-street numbers begin at Fifth Ave and grow higher toward each river, generally (but not exclusively) in 100-digit increments per block.
Craning your neck amongst the skyscrapers of Manhattan, it’s easy to forget that islands make up most of New York City’s land mass. Manhattan and Staten Island stand alone; Queens and Brooklyn comprise the western end of Long Island. Only the Bronx is connected to the continental mainland.
There are three major airports in the New York area: John F Kennedy (JFK), 15 miles (24km) southeast of midtown Manhattan; La Guardia, 8 miles (13km) east of Manhattan; and Newark 10 miles (16km) west of Manhattan in New Jersey.
When to go:
New York is a year-round destination, so there isn’t really an ‘off-season’ when local prices drop substantially. Winter bargains are sometimes available for airfares to the city and some major hotels offer packages during the slower months from January to mid-March.
If you want to base your decision solely on the weather, generally the nicest and most temperate time to visit is from mid-September to mid-October along with all of May and early June.
From the working-class, urban clutter of Brooklyn to the sophisticated wineries of North Fork, Long Island is a study in geographic and economic contrasts. For most visitors, crossing the East River from Manhattan means a trip to the beach, whether the destination is crowded Jones Beach or Fire Island in Nassau, quiet Shelter Island or the showy Hamptons. You can get to Long Island on the Long Island Expressway from Manhattan or catch one of the many buses running from the East Side.
Somewhat more exclusive, the Hamptons, in the island’s far east, are the hot summer spot for the West Coast movie crowd. Although soaking up the glitzy atmosphere is half the fun of a visit here, you can also have a look at the Whaling Museum in Sag Harbor, the impressive Parrish Art Museum in Southampton or play a round on the fine Montauk Downs golf course. East Hampton is the heart of the Hampton scene, and worth a visit if you enjoy envying the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
Just north of New York City, the Hudson Valley is littered with charming towns. The area is particularly beautiful in fall, and many New Yorkers head up this way just to see the leaves change color. For a scenic drive, take Route 9 along the eastern side of the river, or take the Taconic State Parkway if you’re in a hurry. Trains run here from Grand Central Station, or you can take a boat tour of the Hudson River. There is very little reliable public transport around the valley, but it’s a lovely spot for cycling.
On the river’s western bank, Harriman State Park is a good place for a hike or a swim in one of the park’s three lakes. Adjacent Bear Mountain State Park, popular with New York’s nature lovers, with hiking, wildflowers, swimming, fishing, cross-country skiing, sledding and ice skating. The park’s Trailside Museum & Zoo has exhibits on the area and acts as a refuge for rescued animals.
The Jersey Shore
This is where the good folk of New York City head when summer heats up and the big apple gets a bit squishy. It’s the most visited area of the state, and thanks to its beaches and the casinos of Atlantic City, it accounts for most of the 178 million total trips taken by tourists. Beaches from Long Branch to Bay Head are served by the New Jersey Transit North Jersey Coast train service. From May to Labor Day, frequent trains run from Penn Station (NYC), Hoboken and Newark to the Shore.
Since casino gambling came to Atlantic City in 1977, the town has become one of the most popular tourist destination in the US. If you’re not into gambling, there’s no reason to come here: little of the US$4 billion spent here every year has reached the town itself, and it can be a pretty depressing place. Atlantic City’s casinos aren’t like the historic gambling houses of Europe, and there’s little to see apart from blank-eyed people sitting in front of poker machines.
If outdoor activity is your thing, there are a few options. The Chelsea Piers Complex on the Hudson River has interpretations of most sports, with a driving range, an indoor skating rink, a running track, swimming pool, workout center, beach volleyball (minus the ocean) and rock climbing. If you prefer to actually go somewhere when you’re running, Central Park’s six-mile roadway loops around the park and is closed to cars between 10am and 3pm weekdays and all weekend.
You can rent bikes all over the city, but Central Park is the only traffic-free place to ride them. In-line skating is extremely popular, with Central Park (again) being the most popular place to show off your prowess. It’s also possible to fish in the Hudson.
The area now known as New York City had been occupied by Native Americans for more than 11,000 years before Giovanni da Verrazano, a Florentine hired by the French to explore the northeastern coast, arrived at New York Bay in 1524. The area lay unmolested until English explorer Henry Hudson stumbled on it while searching for the Northwest Passage in 1609.
By 1625, Dutch settlers had established a fur trade with the natives and were augmented by a group that established a post they eventually called New Amsterdam, the seat of a much larger colony called New Netherland. Advertisements in Europe lured settlers to New Amsterdam with promises of a temperate climate and bountiful land, but the harsh winters claimed many lives.
After some to-ing and fro-ing between Britain and the Netherlands, New Amsterdam became the British colony of New York in the 1670s. Though colonists began cultivating farms in New Jersey and on Long Island, the port town remained geographically tiny – the area that today runs from Wall St south to the tip of Manhattan. Anti-British zeal caught on as early as the 1730s. Thirty years later, New York’s Commons – where City Hall stands today – was the center of many anti-British protests. Despite the intensity of New Yorkers’ sentiments, King George III’s troops controlled New York for most of the war, finally withdrawing in 1783, a full two years after the fighting stopped.
By the time George Washington was sworn in as president of the new republic on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall St in 1789, New York was a bustling seaport of 33,000 people, but it lagged behind Philadelphia as a cultural capital. The new Congress abandoned the city for the District of Columbia the following year.
Much of the 19th century in New York was a boom time for the city’s population, which grew thanks to European immigration, and for businessmen, who took advantage of lax oversight of industry and stock trading during the so-called ‘Gilded Age.’ These men built grand mansions along ‘millionaires row’ on lower Fifth Ave. Along Broadway from City Hall to Union Square, multi-story buildings – the first ‘skyscrapers’ – were built to house corporate headquarters.
As the city’s population more than doubled from 500,000 in 1850 to over 1.1 million in 1880, a tenement culture developed. The burgeoning of New York’s population beyond the city limits led to the consolidation movement, as the city and its neighboring districts struggled to service the growing numbers. Residents of the independent districts of Queens, Staten Island, the Bronx and financially strapped Brooklyn voted to become ‘boroughs’ of New York City in 1898.
This new metropolis absorbed a second huge wave of European immigrants who arrived at New York’s Ellis Island, and its population exploded once again, from just over 3 million in 1900 to 7 million in 1930. During this period, horse-drawn trolleys disappeared as a major network of underground subways and elevated trains (‘Els’) expanded into the city’s outer reaches.
New York emerged from WW II proud and ready for business. As one of the few world-class cities untouched by war, New York seemed the place to be. But prosperity wasn’t limited to the city. In the 1950s, highways made access to the suburbs easy and hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers took advantage of them to move away permanently. It wasn’t just an understandable desire for upward mobility that drew them away: many white residents left neighborhoods they felt had ‘gone bad,’ which was a barely polite way of saying that blacks and Puerto Ricans had taken their rightful place there too.
While the politicos dithered and played to various entrenched constituencies, the city began to slide. TV production, manufacturing jobs and even the fabled Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team moved to the West Coast, along with the Dodgers’ cross-town rivals the New York Giants. Like most of the US, New York looked to the West for cultural direction, and eventually corporations began abandoning the city as innovation in communications technology made it possible to do business anywhere. The city’s economic slide led to the threat of bankruptcy in the 1970s, which was staved off only by massive infusions of federal cash.
During the anything-goes Reagan years, the city regained much of its swagger as billions were made on Wall St. Ed Koch, the colorful three-term mayor, seemed to embody the New Yorker’s ability to charm and irritate at the same time. But in 1989, Koch was defeated in a Democratic primary election by David Dinkins, who became the city’s first African American mayor. Dinkins, a career Democratic-machine politician, was rightly criticized for merely presiding over a city government in need of reform, though his moves to put more police on the streets helped curb crime. He was narrowly defeated for a second term in 1993 by moderate Republican Rudolph Giuliani. Thanks to the big drop in crime and the weakness of his Democratic opponents, Giuliani triumphed in the 1997 mayoral election.
New York’s growing self-confidence was abruptly halted in tragic circumstances in September 2001 when two hijacked aircraft were deliberately flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, causing the buildings to collapse and killing thousands of office workers.
Served by three major airports, two train terminals and a massive bus depot, New York City is the most important transportation hub in the northeastern USA. John F Kennedy Airport (JFK), 24km from Midtown Manhattan in southeastern Queens, is where most international flights land. La Guardia Airport in northern Queens services mostly domestic flights.
All suburban and long-haul buses leave and depart from the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 41st St and Eighth Ave in midtown Manhattan. Bus lines available there include Greyhound, Peter Pan Trailways, Short Line and New Jersey Transit buses.
Pennsylvania Station, on 33rd St between Seventh and Eighth Aves, is the departure point for all Amtrak trains, including the daily Metroliner service to Princeton, NJ, Philadelphia, PA, and Washington, DC. The Long Island Rail Road serves several hundred thousand commuters each day from a newly renovated platform area to points in Brooklyn, Queens and the suburbs of Long Island.
It’s a nightmare to have a car in Manhattan, but getting there is easy. Approaches from the east include the Connecticut Turnpike (I-95); the Long Island Expressway, which enters Manhattan through the Queens Midtown Tunnel (often choked by traffic); and the Grand Central Parkway (right off the Triborough Bridge), which cuts through Queens on its way from Long Island.
Buses run every 30 minutes between the city and JFK International Airport; the trip takes at least an hour. New York has more than enough public transport options. Driving your own car is tantamount to insanity in a city where traffic is horrendous, parking costs astronomical and petty thievery commonplace. New York car rentals are also notoriously expensive.
New York is infamous for its allegedly incomprehensible, dangerous subway. Although it’s noisy, confusing and sometimes hot as hell, the subway is really not that difficult and is statistically safer than walking the streets in daylight. It’s the fastest, most reliable way around town and most of Manhattan’s sights are on its lines. City buses run 24 hours a day. Bus maps are available at subway and train stations.
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There wasn’t much to Orlando until a famous little man living in California started buying up property at the city’s southwestern edge in the 1960s. That famous man was Walt Disney, and the property he bought became Disney World in 1971. Since then, waterslides, roller coasters, fairy tale palaces and costumed characters have made Disney World one of the world’s most visited tourist attractions.
Before Orlando became an extension of Disney Corp’s expansionist dreams, it was known as the orange city. The citrus boom straddled railroad and real estate booms, but none of these compare to the well-honed tourist boom in full swing today.
Orlando is the fifth-ranking US destination of overseas travelers – after San Francisco, Miami, Los Angeles and New York City – and it claims the second highest number of hotel rooms in the US, lagging just behind Las Vegas in the bedroom stakes.
Area: 67 sq mi (174 sq km)
Elevation: 120ft (36m)
Time: Atlantic Time (GMT/UTC minus 5 hours)
Telephone area code: 407
Orlando’s festivals are not exactly major league, though it must be hard to organize a brouhaha in the shadow of a theme park that wants you to believe that every day’s a holiday. The Silver Spurs Rodeo has been putting on a fine show since 1944, drawing 50,000 spectators and some of the top rodeo athletes to Orlando in mid-February and again in July. It’s the largest rodeo in the eastern US.
The biggest city in central Florida, Orlando is dominated by Lake Eola in its northeastern downtown quadrant. The most famous downtown icon is Church Street Station, a collection of restaurants, bars and shops located between I-4 and the railroad tracks. Orlando International Airport is in the far southeastern corner of the city, 14 km from downtown. The Greyhound bus station is in the middle of downtown Orlando, off Central Ave; the Amtrak station is 1 mile (1.6km) south of Central.
When to go:
Orlando is popular year round. January is the coldest month, if you consider a low of 50°F (10°C) and a high around 70°F (22°C) cold. July and August are very hot and humid, with highs around 90°F (33°C), 95% humidity and frequent downpours.
Kennedy Space Center
There’s no better place to stand in awe of the ‘right stuff’ than the Kennedy Space Center, off the coast of central Florida. The center draws 2 million people a year to its Gallery of Space flight, packed with real spacecraft and scale models. It was established in 1958, when the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) started Project Mercury to compete with the Soviets’ successful launch of Sputnik.
The US started launching its spaceships from Cape Canaveral, a stone’s throw from the Kennedy Space Center, because of its weather, its proximity to the ocean (for splash landings) and the huge, unpopulated tracts of land available to the government for testing. Mercury was succeeded by Project Gemini, then Project Apollo, which landed a man on the moon. The Space Coast still maintains facilities for unmanned and space shuttle launches.
Titusville, the main gateway to the Kennedy Space Center and the wildlife refuge, hosts the Astronaut Hall of Fame, dedicated to exhibiting every detail of the astronauts’ lives and boasting a shuttle-landing simulator ride and G-force trainer. Titusville also has excellent vantage points from which to watch shuttle launches.
The Kennedy Space Center is on Merritt Island, on the eastern side of the Intercostals Waterway (called Indian River here). The NASA Causeway is the main east-west thoroughfare and begins at the junction of Highway 405 and Highway 1.
Blue Spring State Park
For hundreds of years the Blue Spring area was home to the Timucuan Indians, until settlers killed them off in the mid-1800s. Today, Blue Spring State Park is practicing karmic retribution by doing everything it can to protect a beleaguered resident of a different kind – the endangered manatee.
This park is the best place in the state to see manatees in their natural habitat, especially between November and March, when the St John’s River to the north gets cold enough to drive the manatees to Blue Spring’s warmer waters. There are campsites and cabins within the park, but book ahead as things get crowded and you can’t see a manatee through somebody else’s tent.
Ocala National Forest
This is a gigantic, old established Florida park with several natural springs and lakes, and fantastic hiking, canoeing, fishing and swimming. You can camp anywhere in the park. Three major spring areas make up the park: Juniper Springs (at the park’s center), Salt Springs (at the northern end) and Alexander Springs (to the southeast).
Juniper Springs are incredibly clear and beautiful and offer great canoeing. Salt Springs and Alexander Springs have trails through cypress forests. The Lake Eaton Sinkhole is 80ft (24m) deep and 450ft (135m) in diameter, and a staircase leads down into the hole. Nearby Lake Eaton is a good spot for swimming and sunning.
If Disney rides don’t fall within your idea of a workout, try hiking in Wekiwa Springs State Park, a 7000 acre piece of land a few miles north of Orlando with 21km of hiking trails. In Ocala National Forest, the Salt Springs area has a splendid 3 km loop trail through a cypress forest. A 106 km section of the Florida National Scenic Trail runs right through the Juniper Springs area. The 8 km Cruickshank Trail surrounds a shallow marsh within the Space Coast’s Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. It begins along Black Point Wildlife Drive. Places to canoe include the Wekiwa Springs State Park, the Ocala National Forest and Mosquito Lagoon in the Canaveral National Seashore. There’s good swimming in the Ocala National Forest at Juniper Springs, Alexander Springs, Clearwater Lake and Lake Dorr.
At the end of the Second Seminole War, settlers and traders followed soldiers into the Orlando area. Originally named Jernigan, the settlement grew up around Fort Gatlin. In 1857, the city was named Orlando, for Orlando Reeves, a soldier killed by Indians at Lake Eola. The city boomed several times; a railroad boom (which fueled a population boom), a real estate boom and a citrus boom. The late 1950s brought a boom that was to last: the beginnings of the Space Age. The Glenn Martin Company (now Martin Marietta Defense Systems) began missile production, and the creation of Cape Canaveral and later Cape Kennedy Space Centers on Florida’s east coast brought infusions of cash and jobs to the area.
With the establishment of Walt Disney World in 1971, the area became worldwide theme park central. But it’s not just the theme parks doing all the attracting: while nobody was looking, Orlando established itself as the high tech corridor – the Silicon Valley, if you will, of Florida.
Orlando International Airport (MCO), in the far southeastern corner of the city, is the largest in central Florida. It’s served by almost all major airlines, as well as charters and discount airlines. There are more packages available to Orlando than to any other Florida city.
Orlando International Airport is 14 km southeast of downtown Orlando and 35 km northeast of Walt Disney World. A decent bus service exists between the airport and downtown Orlando’s Lynx Bus Center.
There are a handful of car rental companies at the airport and many more downtown. Although driving within the city of Orlando can be complicated – most streets are one-way and ticket-happy meter maids lie in wait – the area requires a car since it can be difficult to travel outside of Orlando relying on public transport.
Orlando runs a highly efficient and inexpensive city bus system, including a free downtown circuit. Pick up schedules and route maps at the Lynx Bus Center. Taxis cannot be hailed on the street; you’ll have to phone to secure one.
Once known only as a retirement paradise, today in Miami the old folks mingle with fashion designers, bikini models and Cuban emigres. A city that once had the highest murder rate in the US attracts more than 11 million tourists a year. The Greater Miami Area, which includes Miami and Miami Beach as well as distinctive neighborhoods like Little Havana and Little Haiti, is a melting pot that America’s founding fathers would be proud of. Half of Miami’s population is Hispanic. For the casual visitor this means a city peppered with the flavors of Latin American food, language, music, politics and spirit.
Most visitors head for Miami Beach, a city built on a sandbar across Biscayne Bay from Miami. Many of the beach’s locals are imports from New York, people tired of sitting through five hours of snarled traffic on their way to the Hamptons, who decided that Miami Beach made a lot more sense. They brought with them a fledgling art and culture crowd whose numbers included many younger artists.
Fat old people in Bermuda shorts, street stabbings, Cuban plots, drug dealers, sneakers without socks and an excess of pink – Miami is none of these things. Desperately redefining itself, Miami (and in particular, South Beach) has declared itself the Most Fabulous Spot in the US. As evidence, it cites the recently restored pastel-riot of the Deco District, a friendly neighborhood feel and a fledgling art and culture scene looking for a sunny alternative to New York. And of course there’s Miami Beach itself, a glorious stretch of white sand lapped by clear blue water. The heart of all this newfound fashionableness is Ocean Drive, flanked on the east by the city’s hippest beach and the west by a string of sidewalk cafes. This is where the late Gianni Versace lived, and his acolytes still throng here to pose waifishly over rocket salad. Miami also has the world’s most beautiful swimming hole, the Venetian Pool, one of the world’s best zoos and a bunch of expat Cuban elder statesmen playing dominoes in MÃ¡ximo GÃ³mez Park. In stark contrast with the hedonistic lightheartedness of the rest of Miami, the Holocaust Memorial is one of the most exquisite and moving monuments you’ll ever visit.Population: 600,000 in City of Miami; 95,000 in Miami Beach; Greater Miami 2.1 million
Area: 45 sq mi (117 sq km)
Time Zone: Eastern Standard Time (GMT/UTC minus 5 hours)
Telephone area code: Metropolitan Miami: 305; Miami and Miami Beach: 786
March: The Carnival Miami, a nine-day festival includes a Miss Carnival contest, Carnival Night concerts and an in-line skating contest.
May: The International Hispanic Theater Festival is one of the largest Hispanic theater events in the US.
August: The Annual Miami Reggae Festival is a huge celebration of music and is held at Bayfront Park.
November: Literary types might want to make it to the Miami Book Fair, held during the second week.
Miami is the most populated city in Florida. It sits at the southeastern tip of the Florida, the most southeastern state of the United States, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Gulf of Mexico to the west and the neighboring states of Alabama and Georgia to the north.
Most visitors aren’t here for Miami itself, but rather to visit Miami Beach, an entirely separate municipality. Miami is on the mainland, while the city of Miami Beach is on a thin barrier island about 4 miles (6km) east, across Biscayne Bay – locals call it the Billion Dollar Sandbar.
The Miami International Airport is about 19 km west of downtown, sandwiched between the Airport Expressway and Dolphin Expressway. The Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport is 48 km north of Miami. If you’re arriving by Greyhound, the station is just north of downtown Miami, on the waterfront. The Port of Miami is on Dodge Island, diagonally opposite the now-abandoned downtown landmark, the Freedom Tower.
When to go:
The most popular time to come here is between December and May, when temperatures average between 60-85°F (16-30°C), and average rainfall is a scant couple of inches. Miami’s Carnival, which takes place in early March, is the biggest and best reason to come, and hundreds do, so book early and prepare for the parading masses. Summer can be summed up as very hot and humid, with thunderstorms every day at 3pm. August is the hottest month, with average temperatures between 78-89°F (26-31°C).
Folrida Keys & Key West
The string of islands to the south of Miami were once underwater coral reefs, and they’re still recognized for their great diving and marine life today. Linked to Miami by a precarious island-hopping 216 km highway, the string of islands ends at Key West, the legendary land of Hemingway, sunset celebrations and Key Lime Pie.
Key West’s reputation as a tropical paradise with gorgeous sunsets and sultry nightlife is well-earned. It’s been overrun by tourists, but if you look carefully you’ll find fleeting images of the Key West of the past: walking through the narrow side streets away from the action, you’ll see lovely Keys architecture and get a sense of how the locals who aren’t there to sell you a T-shirt or book you on a glass-bottomed boat ride live. However, if you’re looking for Hemingway’s Key West, you’re several decades too late.
If you’re just looking for evidence of the big guy, the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum is one of Key West’s biggest attractions. Hemingway lived in this lovely Spanish-Colonial house between 1931 and 1940, but kept ownership until his death in 1961. While he’s not buried here, the Key West Cemetery is one of the more enjoyable cemeteries in the country: tombstone epitaphs include ‘I told you I was sick’ and ‘At least I know where he is sleeping tonight’.
As recently as the late 1980s, the sand in Fort Lauderdale was sticky with beer and the streets ran wild with pimpled youths storming about in celebration of that American university rite of passage, Spring Break. Locals would look on in horror as their city was overtaken by yahoos, and they finally decided to do something about it. They renovated, groomed and trimmed the whole place, turning Fort Lauderdale into more of an international yachting center than an intercollegiate multi-kegger.
That’s not to say that it’s not a party town – it decidedly is. These days, you can carouse at dozens of clubs, pubs and beach nightspots, as long as you dress respectably (meaning in clothes of some sort) and behave yourself. And for those visitors who insist on getting out in the daylight, Fort Lauderdale has a number of cultural and historical sites.
There’s great diving 8 km east of Key Biscayne, where the Biscayne Wreck lies beneath the Atlantic. Southeast of Key Biscayne is the John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park, a protected 202 sq km section of the Florida Reef (the third largest in the world). The best diving and snorkeling within the park is around Elkhorn Reef, Schooner Wreck Reef and Dome Reef. Key Largo makes a good base for exploring the park. The southern shore of Key West is another prime diving spot, especially around Key West Harbor.
There is something magical about kayaking through the mangroves, and the best thing about it is that you don’t need any lessons and you can rent equipment easily and cheaply. Ultra light aircraft have become so popular that Dade County has built a field specifically for the tiny planes at Homestead General Aviation Airport (HGAA).
The city of Miami was incorporated in 1896 and development kicked off. After WW I, the first full-fledged Miami boom (1923-25) was fueled not just by the area’s idyllic beachfront location and perfect weather, but also by gambling and the fact that it never really took to the idea of prohibition – though it was illegal, liquor flowed freely throughout the entire Prohibition era.
But the boom was cut short by a devastating hurricane, which was immediately followed by statewide recession and national depression. In the mid-1930s, a mini-boom saw the construction of Miami Beach’s famous Art Deco buildings, and this reasonably prosperous period continued until 1942, when a German U-Boat sank an American tanker off Florida’s coast. The ensuing freak-out created a full-scale conversion of South Florida into a massive military base, training facility and staging area.
After WW II, many of Miami’s trainee soldiers returned and settled, and the city maintained its pre-war prosperity. In the 1950s, Miami Beach had another boom, as the area began to be known as the ‘Cuba of America': gamblers and gangsters, enticed by Miami’s gambling, as well as its proximity to the fun, sun and fast times of Batista-run Cuba, moved in en masse. After the Castro coup in Cuba in 1959 Miami’s Cuban population swelled.
In 1965, the two ‘freedom flights’ that ran every day between Miami and Havana disgorged over 100,000 Cuban refugees. Tension built up between Cubans and the town’s African Americans, who were relegated to an area north of downtown known as Colored Town. Riots broke out, skirmishes and acts of gang-style violence occurred. In the late 1970s, Fidel Castro opened the floodgates, allowing anyone who wanted to leave Cuba access to the docks at Mariel. The largest flotilla ever launched for non-military purposes set sail in practically anything that would float to cover the 145 km between Cuba and Florida.
The Mariel Boatlift, as it was called, brought 150,000 Cubans to Florida (including 25,000 prisoners and mental patients), and the resulting economic, logistical and infrastructure strain on South Florida only added to still-simmering racial tensions, which would explode on 17 May 1980, when four white police officers, being tried on charges that they beat a black suspect to death while he was in custody, were acquitted by an all-white jury. When the verdict was announced, fierce race riots broke out all over Miami, and lasted for three days.
In the roaring 1980s, the Miami area gained prominence as the major East Coast entry port for drug dealers, their product and the unbelievable sums of money that went along with them. A plethora of businesses and buildings sprung up all over Miami, and the downtown was completely remodeled. But it was still a city being reborn while in the grip of drug smugglers: shootouts and gangland slayings by cocaine cowboys were common. The police, Coast Guard, Drug Enforcement Agency, Border Patrol and FBI were in a tizzy trying to keep track of it all. And then it happened: Miami Vice.
The show, about two outrageously expensively (yet pastel) clad narcotics detectives driving around in a Ferrari and million-dollar cigarette boats, was responsible for Miami Beach rising to international attention in the mid-1980s. The show’s slick look, soundtrack and music video montages glamorized the rich life in South Florida, and before long people were coming down to see it. By the late 1980s, Miami Beach had risen to international Fabulousness. Celebrities were moving in, photo shoots from all over the world were being shot here, and the Art Deco District was going through a renovation that turned the city into a showpiece of fashion and trendiness.
Miami is served by two main airports: Miami International Airport (MIA) and the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport (FLL), about 48 km north of the city. Most major European airlines have service to Miami, though there’s no direct service from Australia or New Zealand. Greyhound Bus has three main terminals in Miami, which send off and welcome buses to and from Orlando, New Orleans, Atlanta, Washington DC, and New York City. Amtrak trains connect Miami with cities all over the continental US and Canada. Miami is at or near the terminus of several major roads, making it easy to arrive or depart by car.
Miami International Airport is served by public bus, but private shuttle vans, taxis and limos are a far more convenient (if more expensive) alternative. You’ll need a car to see Miami. All the big car rental operators can be found here, and many have branches at the airports. Metro-Dade Transit’s buses cover a healthy amount of the city: the Omni Metromover and Government Center Terminals in downtown Miami are the main bus depots. Metrorail is a heavy rail system with one line, running through downtown Miami and then south, connecting with Tri-Rail, Metromover and Metrobus at Government Center. Tri-Rail is a commuter rail system that runs between three counties: Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. The double-decker trains are a marvel of cleanliness and, at least for the time being, they’re very cheap.
This is the place where the American Dream is manufactured. And if you’re not prepared to embrace the dream, you’ll doubtless find it filthy, irritating, frightening or just plain dumb. But if you long to stand in the footsteps of stars and breathe their hallowed air, you’ve come to the right place.
Population: 3.8 million in the City of Los Angeles; 9.9 million in LA county
Area: 465 sq mi (1200 sq km) in the City of Los Angeles, 4081 sq mi (10,600 sq km) in LA County
People: 45.6% Latino, 32.2% Caucasian, 9.4% black, 12.6% Asian and Pacific Islander
Elevation: 297ft (89m)
Time Zone: Pacific Time (GMT/UTC -8)
Telephone Area Codes: Downtown & Hollywood 213; Beverly Hills & Santa Monica 310; Long Beach 562; Pasadena & San Marino 626; San Fernando Valley 818; Anaheim & Newport Beach 714
January: The Tournament of Roses Parade – marching bands, celebrities and flower-coated floats – makes its way down Pasadena’s Colorado Blvd.
February: African American History Month, with films, lectures, exhibits and performances across the county.
March: LA’s night of nights, the Academy Awards.
June: The Gay & Lesbian Pride Celebration is marked with a flamboyant parade down Santa Monica Blvd.
September: The Summer Pops Festival at the Hollywood Bowl.
October: AFI-LA International Film Festival is one of the country’s biggest, with more than 75 features from around the world.
Unlike other metropolises, LA is a decentralized hodgepodge with no clearly defined center. What is commonly referred to as ‘LA’ is really ‘LA County’, a conglomeration of 88 cities of which LA is just one. The heart of the city of Los Angeles is Downtown, about 19 km east of the ocean. East LA, a Latino-dominated area, edges against Downtown, as do the historically African-American neighborhoods of South Central. Most areas of interest to visitors are west of Downtown LA, including Hollywood and the epicenter of gay and lesbian culture, West Hollywood. Farther west is lifestyles of the rich and famous territory: Bel Air, Brentwood and Beverly Hills. Hugging the northern country coast are the posh beachside areas of Malibu, Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica. Farther south along the coast is Venice, with the international airport farther again. This quintessential suburbia is characterized by unsightly strip malls and major TV and movie studios.
When to go:
Most of Los Angeles is protected from extremes of temperature and humidity by the mountain ranges to its north and east. August and September are the hottest months, January and February the coolest and wettest. Offshore breezes keep the beach communities cooler in summer and warmer in winter than those further inland, particularly the San Fernando Valley, which is the hottest area in summer and the coldest in winter.
Knott’s Berry Farm
If lining up to have your photo taken with an acneed teen in a mouse suit isn’t your idea of fun, you might prefer Knott’s Berry Farm, a more bucolic theme park 6 km northwest of Disneyland. Originally a fried chicken dinner and berry eatery, the Knotts set up a little Old West display to keep the diners entertained. The place has grown a bit since then, but gunfightin’ and gold pannin’ are still all the rage. Rollercoaster purists will bypass both Disneyland and Knott’s for the greater glories of Six Flags Magic Mountain. It has more rides than Greyhound, with all the joys of spiral hairpin drops, boomerang turns, zero-gravity spins and waterfall plummets.
There are few areas of Los Angeles more redolent of LA’s ‘golden years’ than Pasadena. Its oak-lined avenues wind past superbly maintained turn of the century homes, from Mission-style stucco squats to column-clad mansions of every persuasion – even ‘stately Wayne Manor’ from the original Batman TV series. Among the treasures is local architects Charles and Henry Greene’s sprawling Gamble House, considered the consummate Craftsman bungalow, and even the persnickety genius of Frank Lloyd Wright has been locally preserved in the Millard House, La Miniatura.
The heart of the city, known as Old Town Pasadena, centers on Colorado Blvd at Fair Oaks Ave. This 14-block historic district underwent a major facelift around 1990, ushering in a bustling renaissance of upscale boutiques, restaurants, coffeehouses and the odd antique and rare-book dealer. On the south side of the district, the Moorish/Spanish Colonial Hotel Green rises up like an elaborate Errol Flynn movie set, while at the western end of Colorado, the Norton Simon Museum houses a different brand of eye candy: one of the finest collections of European art in the country. Look for Rodin’s The Thinker out front.
Once famous as a winter retreat for Hollywood stars and increasingly as a well-scrubbed retirement home for the moderately wealthy, Palm Springs is the original desert resort city in the Coachella Valley east of LA. To put things in perspective, the valley has about 250,000 people, 10,000 swimming pools and 85 golf courses. There’s a growing gay scene in Palm Springs, and college kids in the thousands flock here for a riotous spring break.
The real interest is in visiting the nearby canyons, mountains and desert. Highlights include hiking trails in the Andreas, Murray, Palm and Tahquitz canyons, which are shaded by fan palms and surrounded by towering cliffs, and taking the aerial tramway which climbs 1800 m from the desert floor up into the San Jacinto mountains.
It is often called the California Riviera because of its affluent population, outstanding Mediterranean architecture and gorgeous seaside location. Highlights include the delightful Spanish-Moorish revival style Santa Barbara County Courthouse, the stately Mission Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. The city boasts half a dozen decent beaches, the oldest continuously operating wharf on the west coast (once owned by James Cagney), botanical gardens, zoological gardens and arguably one of the most pleasant downtown areas in Southern California.
If skimpy bikinis and fast-food picnics aren’t to your taste, the northern end of Santa Monica Bay is a welcome sanctuary from LA’s babe-watch scene. Beach-lovers can indulge in coastal hikes, tide-pool gazing, swimming, surfing, diving, fishing and sunbathing. Rock climbers test themselves on the cliffs at Point Dume, while Escondido Beach has the best diving in the bay. There’s a whale-watching platform at nearby Westward Beach and a nature trail that leads to Zuma Beach County Park, a couple of miles to the north. LA’s southern beaches include Manhattan Beach, jam-packed on summer days with surfers and volleyball players.
If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: LA is a city where you can surf at the beach in the morning and ski in the snowfields in the afternoon – as long as you get up early and have a warm wetsuit. The main area for downhill skiing is Big Bear in the San Bernardino Mountains, 161km northeast of LA. The season lasts from mid-December until March or April and, contrary to the cliche, the skiing is generally only good in the morning.
Although smoggy LA is not particularly inviting to cyclists, the county has more than 320 km of bike trails. Best of the bunch is the South Bay Bicycle Trail, stretching 35 km from Santa Monica to Torrance Beach.
The earliest residents of the Los Angeles area were GabrieleÃ±o and Chumash Indians, who arrived in the desert region between 5000 and 6000 BC. The first European known to have visited the LA basin was Portuguese sailor Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who cruised the coast in 1542, but it wasn’t until the late 18th century that the real influx began. In 1769, the Spanish governor of California, Don Gaspar de Portola, and Franciscan father Junipero Serra led an expedition north from San Diego, looking for places to build missions and Christianize California’s ‘heathen’ natives. Eventually, 21 California missions were established along El Camino Real (The King’s Highway), two of them in what was to become Greater Los Angeles: the Mission San Gabriel Archangel (1771) and the Mission San Fernando Rey de EspaÃ±a (1797).
In 1781, the missionaries chose 44 settlers from San Gabriel to establish a new town on the banks of a stream about 9mi (15km) southwest of the mission. They named the settlement El Pueblo de Nuestro SeÃ±ora la Reina de los Angeles del RÃo PorciÃºncula (The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of the Porciuncula River) after a saint whose feast day had just been celebrated. Los Angeles, as the pueblo became known, developed into a thriving farming community.
Upon Mexican independence in 1821, many of that new nation’s citizens looked to California to quench their thirst for private land. By the mid-1830s, the missions had been secularized and a series of governors began doling out hundreds of free land grants, thus giving birth to the rancho system. The prosperous rancheros quickly became California’s bigwigs, while immigrants from the United States became the merchant class. By the mid-1830s, there were still only 29 US citizens residing in Los Angeles.
As part of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States paid $15 million for all Mexican territories west of the Rio Grande and north of Arizona’s Gila River, including Alta California. Two years later California was admitted as the 31st state of the union. The big push behind this rapid-fire recognition was gold; first unearthed near the San Fernando mission in 1842, that find was soon eclipsed by James Marshall’s famous 1848 discovery on the American River, which ignited one of the greatest gold rushes in history. The sudden stampede of tens of thousands of Argonauts (80,000 in 1849 alone – thus the nickname ’49ers) had an undeniable impact on LA as well. Southern California’s rancheros were called upon to feed the miners, and they quickly discovered that the new wealth of the mining camps could earn them 10 times the profits they were earning from their cattle.
With statehood, Los Angeles was incorporated (on April 4, 1850) and made the seat of broad Los Angeles County. It was an unruly city of dirt streets and adobe homes, plus many saloons, brothels and gambling houses. By 1854, northern California’s gold rush had peaked and the state fell into a depression. As unemployed miners flocked to LA, businesses that had harnessed their futures to miners’ fortunes closed their doors.
When the first transcontinental railroad, the Central Pacific (later renamed the Southern Pacific), was completed in 1869, San Francisco was California’s metropolitan center. Los Angeles’ isolation made it unattractive to San Francisco’s robber barons, but a spur line finally reached LA in 1876, just in time to service the upstart southern Californian orange-growing industry. The first commercial grove proved so successful that a second crop was established in what is now Orange County. By 1889, more than 13,000 acres (5200 hectares) were planted in citrus.
After a hard-sell campaign, more Easterners heeded the advice of crusading magazine and newspaper editor Horace Greeley to ‘Go West, young man.’ LA’s population jumped from 2300 in 1860 to more than 100,000 in 1900, despite the fact that there was no natural harbor and the fresh water supply was woefully inadequate. Construction of a harbor at San Pedro, 40 km south of city hall, began in 1899; the first wharf opened in 1914, the year the Panama Canal was completed, and – suddenly 12,875 km closer to the Atlantic seaboard – San Pedro became the busiest harbor on the West Coast.
LA’s population soared to one million by 1920, two by 1930, which had a lot to do with the discovery of oil. During WW I, the Lockheed brothers and Donald Douglas established aerospace plants in the area, and by WW II the aviation industry employed enough people to lift LA out of the Depression. A real estate boom, capitalizing on the influx of aviation employees, brought capital to the region as well as new suburbs south of Los Angeles. And then there was the movies.
Ever since the studios first landed in Los Angeles, the city has raced to live up to the hype created by ‘the industry.’ That image helped lure two new breeds of immigrant: the eccentric artisan and the fashionable hedonist, drawn by the broad sandy beaches and the temptation of living the Hollywood lifestyle.
A major travel hub for the Pacific Rim region, Los Angeles International Airport – usually called by its three-letter code, LAX – is the third busiest airport in the world. It’s about 30km southwest of downtown LA. The region’s domestic airports include Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport (BUR), John Wayne Airport/Orange County (SNA) and Ontario International Airport (ONT).
Greyhound bus lines serve Los Angeles from cities all over North America. The main LA depot is in a seedy district east of downtown, south of Little Tokyo. The area is rough, but the station itself is safe inside. Other LA-area stations are found in Hollywood, Santa Monica and Anaheim. An alternative to Greyhound for West Coast travelers is Green Tortoise Adventure Travel, which harks back to the ‘Magic Bus’ of the 1960s. Weekly Tortoise trips cruise up and down the West Coast as well as other routes. Buses stop at several LA-area destinations.
Amtrak, the national rail system, operates up and down the California coast. In Los Angeles, trains arrive and depart from Union Station, an impressive Art Deco depot one block from El Pueblo in downtown LA. The LA area is a web of highways and byways, so if you have your own wheels, there are always several routes to choose from. From San Francisco and Northern California the fastest route is six hours via the always boring and in summer miserably hot I-5.
Although LA is definitely built for cars, it is possible to get around on public transport. The city has four public bus operators. The city sprawls over such a huge area that, unless time is no factor or money is extremely tight, you’re going to want to spend some time behind the wheel of your own car. Despite the sheer volume of traffic, the city isn’t hard to navigate if you stick as much as possible to the major arterials and avoid rush hours. If you want to get down to the nitty-gritty LA streets, grab a copy of the Thomas Guides map books. Taxis need to be telephoned or caught at hotels, train and bus stations and airports rather than hailed on the street
Santa Barbara is located on the Pacific coast and north of Los Angeles. It is a celebrity hideaway, soap opera location, beach party zone and elegant Spanish-style resort town. Affluent and picturesque, with lots of red tile roofs and white stucco, the city has the easygoing seaside attitude and looks of a Mediterranean town.
Five colleges in the area, including the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), give the town a youthful zest and provide a little contrast to the town’s white-ducks yachting crowd and wealthy retirees. The city is surrounded by good beaches. The nearby Santa Ynez Mountains and Los Padres National Park offer great opportunities for hiking and camping.
Area: 21 square miles (55 sq km)
Telephone Area code: 805
Time Zone: GMT/UTC minus 8 hours
Aside from participating in America-wide favorites such as Independence Day (4 July), and Thanksgiving (last Thursday in November) Santa Barbara holds many special events of its own. Favorites include the Paragliding and Hang-Gliding Festival in January; the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in March and the Lomboc Flower Festival in June.
Downtown Santa Barbara is laid out in a square grid. The main thoroughfare is State St, which runs north-south. Lower State St (south of Ortega St) has a large concentration of bars, while upper State St (north of Ortega St) has most of the pretty shops and museums. Santa Barbara is surrounded by small, equally affluent sub-communities: Hope Ranch to the west, Montecito and Summerland to the east.
When to go:
Weather-wise, any time is a good time to visit Santa Barbara depending on what you want to do. Swimming and surfing are more popular in the summer, spring and fall. Winter still holds out the prospect of hiking, although some mountain areas, national forests and parks will be inaccessible from time to time due to heavy snow.
Most people visit Santa Barbara in summer (from about mid-May to mid-September) for the beaches and the pleasures of the sea, but be warned: budget accommodations become practically nonexistent in summer and even cheap motel room prices can double or triple.
Santa Barbara Wine Country
For a pleasant day of sightseeing and drinking, take Hwy 154 out of town and head into the Santa Ynez Valley: the heart of Santa Barbara’s wine country. Fortuitous fog and ocean breezes waft into the valley creating little pockets of weather well suited for growing grapes. About three dozen wineries, mostly family-run, produce Chardonnays as well as Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon varieties. Most are open for touring and tasting, and some have lovely picnic grounds.
Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park
This small state park, open from dawn till dusk, is mostly visited for its cave, which bears vivid pictographs painted by the Chumash about 200 years ago. The cave is protected by a metal screen, so a flashlight is helpful for a good view. Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park is about 19.3km northwest of downtown Santa Barbara.
Solvang is a small town built in the Danish fashion, complete with windmills, gas-lit street lamps and ‘gingerbread’ houses. The town started in 1911 when three Danish farmers founded the Atterdag College folk school in an attempt to pass on Danish history and tradition to children. The small town that grew up around the school was named Solvang (meaning ‘sunny field’).
The ElverhÃ¸j Museum, housed in a reproduction 18th-century Jutland farmhouse, is the town’s local history museum. It has a collection of papierklip (paper cut-out) art, period clothes and furniture, farm tools and old photographs. The Hans Christian Andersen Museum keeps a selection of Andersen’s books, manuscripts, letters and photographs, and more papierklip, created by the author himself.
Santa Barbara offers swimming, surfing, kayaking, sailing, jet skiing and jet boating. You can also go whale-watching on a state-of-the-art high-speed catamaran. Of Santa Barbara’s several beaches, the biggest and most popular is East Beach, the long sandy stretch between Stearns Wharf and Montecito. Leadbetter Beach is a good spot for surfing and windsurfing.
There are some excellent hiking trails around the Santa Ynez foothills, most of which cut through rugged chaparral and steep canyons and offer spectacular coastal views. There are also hiking trails all over the Los Padres National Forest, as well as camping, horseback riding and mountain biking. You can hire bikes in Santa Barbara for cycling along the Cabrillo Bikeway.
For more than 12,000 years before European settlement the Santa Barbara area was inhabited by the Chumash tribe of native American Indians. The Chumash were particularly skilled at weaving and basketry. They fished, hunted and traded baskets for food with other tribes, setting out to sea in large redwood plank canoes, or tomol.
In 1602, the Spanish cartographer Sebastian VizcaÃno, in command of several frigates, mapped parts of the lower Californian coast, searching for a way through to the Atlantic and new trading routes for the Spanish Empire. Landing in a harbor after a severe storm, VizcaÃno named it after the saint he and his men had prayed to, the saint who had interceded to save their lives. They were saved on December 4; the Feast Day of St Barbara.
The Spanish did not settle the area until 1782, when a group of soldiers led by Governor Felipe de Neve crossed overland from Mexico and built a military fort or presidio, which still stands in downtown Santa Barbara. The Mission Santa Barbara was founded four years later. What followed, during the so-called ‘Golden Years’ of the California missions, was the forced conversion of the Chumash people, who were housed around the Mission and taught to wear European clothes and adopt European customs.
In 1822, Spain lost its Californian possessions to Mexico, who in turn lost them to the United States in 1848. Gold was found in California the next year, and silver in 1860. Through all this, Santa Barbara stayed a tiny frontier station – until the 1880s, when wealthy Americans from the East Coast began to holiday on the sunny Santa Barbara beaches. Rapidly the town began to turn into what it is today: a resort city favored by business people and celebrities.
The small Santa Barbara Municipal Airport in Goleta, some 13 km west of downtown off Hwy 101, has scheduled flights to and from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Phoenix and other US cities. The Santa Barbara Airbus shuttles between Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and Santa Barbara 14 times daily. The Amtrak depot is on lower State St, and has direct train and coach service to Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo. Greyhound has up to nine daily buses to Los Angeles and up to seven to San Francisco.
Buses operated by Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District travel all over Santa Barbara and its satellites, including Goleta and Montecito. The Downtown-Waterfront Shuttle bus runs every 10 to 15 minutes along State St to Stearns Wharf. A second route travels from the zoo to the yacht harbor at 30-minute intervals. Avis, Budget and Hertz rent-a-car services all have outlets in the Santa Barbara Airport main terminal as well as downtown.
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No matter what you’re into, you’ll find a spot to do it and folks to do it with in America. And it will be bigger, faster, harder and better than anywhere else in the world. Oahu is surfing’s spiritual home, and the legendary winter swells at Waimea, Sunset Beach and the Banzai Pipeline are the most beautiful and awesome waves. Other popular water sports include sailing, windsurfing and sea kayaking.
Back on land, the Rocky Mountain states (and Colorado in particular) are home to the country’s most popular downhill skiing and snowboarding destinations. Lake Tahoe is the major ski destination in the Sierra Nevada, doubling as a summertime water-sports playground. Elsewhere in the US, you’ll also find great cross-country skiing.
The US may be the most industrialized nation on earth, but it’s also the land of opportunity when it comes to hiking – from the alpine meadows of the High Sierra to the forested byways of the Appalachian Trail. Walking trails are generally well kept, well marked and well patronized.
Many cities are relatively cycle-friendly, and hardy souls cycle across and around the country on picturesque back roads, while those stuck in tin cans fume on the freeways. It’s easy to hire machines and gear throughout the country. Mountain biking is a huge pastime, particularly in California (where it was invented).
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Time: On the East Coast American time is 9 1/2 hrs behind in Summer and in Winter10 1/2 hrs behind India.
On the Wast Coast American time is12 1/2 hrs behind in Summer and in Winter13 1/2 hrs behind India.
Electricity: 110V, 60Hz