Four US holidays we’re desperate to enjoy again…
By Kevin EG Perry
The first thing I notice as I step off the plane is the desert heat. On average, Phoenix has 299 days of sunshine every year, while nearby Yuma is not just the sunniest place in the United States, but actually holds the world record for average annual sunshine: an incredible 4,300 hours of sun each year. The heat and light make up not only the city’s climate, but its character.
It was the temperature that drew the celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright to Phoenix. He first arrived in 1928 to work as a consultant on the Arizona Biltmore hotel and returned a decade later, after his doctor told him that the weather would benefit his health, to build Taliesin West, his winter home, school and studio. Taliesin West remains open to visitors, even though it still operates as one of the best architecture schools in the United States. Taking the guided tour of the school is an excellent route to understanding how Wright built his reputation as one of America’s great architects, and in particular to appreciating his ability to bring the outdoors inside. Sunlight streams into the drafting room where Wright drew up plans for his most famous work, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and where students continue to work and learn from his example.
Of course, no visit to Arizona would be complete without paying a visit to the Grand Canyon. Entry to the National Park – a three-and-a-half hour drive north of Phoenix – costs £24 per vehicle, a tiny price to pay for the majesty that awaits.
It is hard to describe the experience of standing on the cusp of The Abyss, the name given to one of the many look-out points. What is remarkable is not just the size and scale of the canyon, but also the swathe of history it illuminates. It has been six million years since the Colorado River first found its way to the Gulf of California and began working its way down through the dirt and rock. The river now runs more than 1,500 metres below the Grand Canyon’s rim.
There are two very different ways of experiencing the Grand Canyon. One is to hike down into it. The most popular route, the Bright Angel Trail, descends 1,370 metres to the Colorado River, which means you have got to climb all the way back up. The other, rather more leisurely way to get inside the canyon is by helicopter. Maverick Helicopters depart from the airport near the small town of Tusayan, on the south side of the park, and 40-minute flights start from £140.
By Florence Rider
Florida is bursting at the seams with theme parks. The godfather of these is the Disney Magic Kingdom in Orlando, which welcomed a staggering 21 million visitors in 2019, making it the most visited theme park in the world for the 14th consecutive year. The iconic Cinderella Castle remains the park’s centrepiece, lit up every night by the famous fireworks display.
Also in Orlando, Universal’s Islands of Adventure features eight islands, the seventh being The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Here you will find Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a motion-based ride that utilises clever technology described by Theme Park Insider as “the most advanced and engaging attraction in theme park industry history”. The eighth island, Skull Island, opened in 2016, featuring the excellent Reign of Kong ride.
Universal Studios, another of Orlando’s blockbusters, is the ninth most attended theme park worldwide. The most recent additions are the Fast & Furious: Supercharged and Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, but the highlights remain Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts, Revenge of the Mummy and Transformers: The Ride 3D, each innovative and thrilling in their own way.
Universal Orlando spent nearly $600 million building Volcano Bay, making it America’s most expensive water park. It’s money well spent. The 60m Krakatau volcano, which features waterfalls during the day and “lava flows” at night, is the park’s centrepiece. Its epic aqua coaster takes riders inside the heart of the volcano, before plunging through a waterfall.
Legoland in Winter Haven, Florida is aimed specifically at families with children aged two to 12. The thrills aren’t as wild as at the above parks, but kids will love the Star Wars area and The Great Lego Race roller coaster, which is bolstered by VR headsets. The architects preserved parts of the site’s original botanical gardens, making for a surprisingly verdant theme park.
By Sam Ballard
America’s Deep South is a region like no other. Historically one of the poorest areas in the United States, it also boasts one of its richest cultures. This is the birthplace of rock’n’roll, the blues and jazz. When walking the streets of New Orleans, Nashville or Memphis, the music just sounds better.
Musicians and singers spill out of the bars onto the streets where they carry on playing, for pleasure and tips, lining the streets and jostling for attention. We start our Southern adventure in New Orleans, the self-declared capital of the Deep South and one of America’s biggest party towns. After two days in the Big Easy we will begin our Mississippi cruise with the American Queen Steamboat Company on through to Memphis, the final resting place of The King, Elvis Presley.
Music, cocktails and good times: New Orleans has been this way ever since the French and Spanish set up camp here centuries ago, before Napoleon sold it to the US in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase. From Bourbon Street, the epicentre of the city’s nightlife, to the beautiful colonial mansions that line Charles Avenue and lead up to Audubon Park, there is a reason why New Orleans attracts both groups of Americans, out to enjoy boozy weekends, and foreigners coming from much further afield.
The French Quarter is relatively small, but is bursting with bars, restaurants, hotels and a number of other less than salubrious joints. We eat beignets at Café du Monde, which has been serving the sugar-stacked pastries since 1862; enjoy a night in August, one of the best fine-dining restaurants in town; and watch jazz in Palm Court, one of those neighbourhood cafés that manages to make both families and couples feel comfortable. When it’s time to board the American Queen, any sadness we have at leaving New Orleans disappears at the first sight of our ship.
The Queen is the biggest paddle steamer on the Mississippi and, as someone used to sailing on European river boats, it’s quite something to behold a river ship capable of holding 436 passengers. The public areas are incredible – from the Mark Twain gallery to the Ladies Parlour – and appear to be influenced by the antebellum homes and steamboats of the Civil War period. The Grand Saloon theatre has been modelled on Ford’s Theatre (where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated), while the dining room boasts double-height ceilings with huge chandeliers that lead up to vast mirrors. The whole ship has an old world charm that suits our journey through Southern plantations, Civil War sites and on up to Memphis.
Graceland, the King of Rock’n’Roll Elvis Presley’s royal residence, is brilliantly absurd and just as over the top as you hope it would be. From his TV room, where he would have three sets blaring at once, to his jungle room that was furnished with carpet on the ceiling and a huge indoor water feature. His planes, the Lisa Marie and Hound Dog II, are both outside, although are arguably the most dated part of the whole tour, while his vast collection of cars, from his famous pink Cadillacs to stately Rolls-Royces, have pride of place in a garage literally fit for a king.
By Anthony Pearce
Washington DC is celebrated for its museums, and with good reason. Not only does the US capital house some of the world’s greatest collections, but the majority of them are free to visit. But with the average stay in the city being around three nights, the choice can be overwhelming.
“One museum will take you three hours or more to get through. You might think you can do three in a day, but you’re not talking about a series of art galleries or sculpture galleries, you’re talking true global and American history, tied to the Native American experience,” says Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination DC, which promotes the city.
The Smithsonian alone comprises 19 institutes, each with a theme – covering African American history and culture, natural history, Asian art, craft and decorative art, the earliest of which (the Smithsonian Institution Building) was built in 1855. But to believe that Washington DC is museums and Capitol Hill alone would do the city a huge disservice. As Elliott points out, DC is becoming one of the culinary hotspots in the US: it’s only the fourth city in North America to be given a dedicated Michelin guide. “The fact that the food scene has been validated by Michelin is a huge thing for us,” he says.
But it’s not just haute cuisine – DC has a buzzing food scene, particularly in once overlooked areas such as Adams Morgan, Bloomingdale, Dupont Circle and Georgetown. “You tend to find a lot of chefs globally and in the US look towards DC to start their first restaurant,” says Elliott, who puts this down to affordability and the fact that business and leisure tourism create huge demand for new restaurants. The city also offers great culinary diversity, taking influences from other states and cultures, resulting in a landscape that includes Korean fried chicken at Bul Korean Bar & Restaurant, greasy burgers at the Tune Inn, sausages at DCity Smokehouse and Chesapeake Bay oysters and blue crabs.
Elliott advises visiting the city based on its busy cultural calendar. There’s the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade, the H Street Festival and any number of sporting events, such as Citi Open, which showcases both established and emerging tennis stars from all over the world. Plus, there’s the chance to see the Washington Capitals, Washington Football Team (formerly the Washington Redskins), Wizards, Nationals or DC United play, depending on your sport of choice. It’s a constantly evolving landscape.
“There’s so much development happening in DC – the Wharf [where shops, restaurants and hotels are being built on the waterfront] that didn’t exist until recently. Now you’ve got an area of the city that visitors are going to that wasn’t on their radar before,” says Elliot.