Friday, August 19, 2011

New York and New Jersey!

To celebrate a good friend's 21st birthday she decided she would do it in style and head down to the States to party in New York City and mostly to party in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, aka the Jersey Shore. We were all at least 21 so we would all be legal in the USA. The four of us (the birthday girl Dahlia, her boyfriend Khizer, her sister and myself) drove down from Ottawa making the trek from Ottawa to New York City and from there to Hoboken and Seaside Heights. We also drove through Pennsylvania on parts of the trip, and by we I mean my friend and her boyfriend did the driving).

Day 1 : Ottawa - NYC
New York City was, as per usual, insanely crazy to drive into. I don't understand how there are not more car crashes but oh well, Dahlia handled it like a champ, even when she got flicked off by some New Yorker.

We finally arrived at the hotel which was located in FiDi aka the Finacial District part of the island. The hotel was the W Hotel New York Downtown and it is a VERY posh and modern hotel. The room came equipped with an iPod dock, a flat screen tv, Bliss bathroom products and a see-thru shower which we all found hilarious. The view from our window was amazing as it overlooked the construction of the new One World Trade Center and the Memorial Reflecting Pool. You literally could not get any closer.

After getting refreshed and changing into different clothes we decided to head to times square. We decided to take the Subway from the Rector stop and we all paid the minimum 4.50 purchase so that we had a return trip after. The subway was a relatively quick ride and extremely easy to navigate.

Once we got to Times Square the camera whoring began. Not only did we do some shopping and sight-seeing but we got to see the famous naked cowboy! While Dahlia and her sister had a caricature of themselves made me and Khizer decided to head back to the famous red stairs for our own mini photoshoot (see left) which was awesome! Even met some "sexy, single, French" boys (see right). As we were heading back to see the girls and their caricature it started to rain so we quickly speed-walked back to the subway station to head back to the hotel to get ready for dinner.

Our dinner did not go quite as well as we had planned and put a slight damper on the night. We had originally made a reservation at Ninja restaurant for a private room to celebrate Dahlia's birthday but of course they had no such record of that so we ate in the dining room. The food was still amazing but the service was sub-par, our waitor tried to make the situation better but his efforts only made some things worse.

I had a Sapporo beer which was actually really tasty even though I'm not much of a beer fan. For the meal I ordered the Yukimura special course menu. The first course I had a garden salad with ginger which was served in a bamboo bowl with a roasted parmesan chip on top that we all had to "karate chop" when the server gave them to us! Really tasty and now a fan of ginger salad dressing! Next I had the terijaki beef sushi rolls and this was the first time I ever had sushi but it was really good but extremely filling. So filling in that the third (and final course) which was 3 kinds of terijaki chicken (breast, thigh and wing) that I could only eat one! Wish they had told us this as Dahlia, Khizer and myself now had 2 extra pieces of chicken each that we did not even touch.

After leaving the restaurant all unimpressed we decided not to go out clubbing as previously planned. Instead we decided to get a good nights rest so that we could go back to Times Square the next morning and then head out early to Hoboken!

Day 2 : NYC - Hoboken - Seaside Heights
We all woke up relatively early and packed up so that we could head to Times Square. We first went to the 9/11 memorial as we were extremely close to it. It was kind of emotional to be beside the towers where so many people lost their lives but at the same time it was very touching. There were tour groups there but it is a free site to visit and easily accessible by metro or walking (like in our case).

From the memorial we decided to cab to the Nintendo Store as it was just as cheap to to cab there as it would be for 4 people to buy individual metro passes. The store was located off of 5th Avenue near the Rockefeller Plaza. The store was 2 stories full of Nintendo products, both old school(donkey kong and mario-kart) and modern (pokemon and wii). It was really fun to see all the products and Khizer even bought Nintendo monopoly (which we definitely played when we were all not feeling well in New Jersey).

After the Nintendo store we did some minor browsing along 5th Avenue
but Dahlia's sister wasn't feeling well so we cabbed back to the hotel in order to get ready to leave. The drive to Hoboken was really quick as it is just across the bridge past Jersey City. We saw Carlo's Bakery (Cake Boss, Ace of Cakes) and even though there was a line we decided we would wait it out in order to go in. The line up was about an hour and a half, and the wait inside the store was even longer, but apparently it was "short" according to some of the employees who said the initial wait outside the store is usually 4 hours. Since it was a Sunday Buddy was not working but we did see Lisa (his mom) and lots of their employees.  I also saw this amazing cake that I definitely would want to have someday (see above right)! I bought a red velvet cupcake, a white chocolate dipped strawberry and some cookies for my parents. The cupcake and the strawberry were delicious!

After having tried our baked good we decided to move on to Seaside Heights which would be another 2ish hour drive away but it was not as crazy as driving into New York. When we first got there we checked into our motel Seaside Sands Inn which was a block away from the infamous Boardwalk. We did a quick tour of the Boardwalk stopping in at the Shore Store and snapping some pictures as well. Unfortunately I had some chicken fingers which we all determined must have been deep-fried or made with some weird batter because both me and Dahlia's sister got sick, and eventually so did Dahlia and Khizer which we all blame on the fried foods.

Day 3: Seaside Heights
Today I decided not to go with the group on a shopping excursion as I wanted to stay on the beach and not waste time or money. The outlets they went to were all high-end and let's face it, my student budget barely affords my inexpensive stores let alone high-fashion ones!

I originally had wanted to spend the entire time at the beach to tan and swim but then I noticed that you had to pay $5 to even enter the beach! I decided I was going to wait till the next day so the entire group could go together.

I first decided to get henna done on my foot which looked amazing (now I know I like the look of a tattoo on my foot for when I eventually get one). There are lots of places along the boardwalk advertising Henna and they all basically have the same designs. The one I went to was on the right side of the Boardwalk from the Sumner Avenue entrance. It was one advertising a "$5 HENNA, WHY PAY MORE?" sign. It cost me $10 as mine was on my foot and a medium size but compared to the prices I asked the night before $10 was better than $15-20. The girl who did my henna also recommended to me some places to eat in order to avoid the fried foods as every restaurant boasts fried something.

I walked along the boardwalk from end-to-end looking for the best deals on their main souvenir items...custom shirts as made famous by the Jersey Shore television show. I eventually found a store where I got an amazing deal. First off, all the stores will say the price of the shirt(or other article of clothing) without any printing. Most stores told me $20 for a top and $30 including the printing, but then they will all offer discounts. If you find a store that is empty they are most likely going to hawk you for business and offer you discounts which is what I did. More than one employee will try to get to you to offer their deal so that they get your business and not a co-worker. My original deal was 2 shirts, with printing, a gloss over top and an additional "jersey shore" decal at the bottom of one for $35(no tax). In the end I got 4 shirts for $40 as they screwed up on the images for the 2 different size tops I had so the owner sold me the 2 mistakes for $5. So even though I now have 4 shirts, 2 of each design but in different sizes there is NO BETTER DEAL to be found. The best deal you are likely to score is 2 for $30 which is a deal I scored the 2nd time I came around, with my friends, so he was happy I brought him business. (see above left for tshirt and design, although I did not buy it at the Shore Store in the background). It is also extremely hard to find the typical souvenir gifts such as postcards, shotglasses (my collector item) or pens/pencils. I was able to find 2 places that had very limited postcards and the shotglasses I did find were overprices and not very impressive.

Us girls relaxing on a bench on the Boardwalk
After my retail splurge I bought a Polish Ice which turned out to be the cheapest, most refreshing and delicious treat that we all eventually bought (more than once) at the shore. I headed back to the motel to meet up with the others and head to the Boardwalk as a group. We ended up walking to the Casino Pier and me and Dahlia's sister even stopped at Aztec for a mid-afternoon beer (who can complain when they're $2!). We continued along the boardwalk and Dahlia even played some games and won!
After the beach "closing" time I took some pictures on the beach as it was
still gorgeous out and the sand was not as hot as one may think.
All of us at the Spicy Cantina
For dinner we all decided to eat at the Spicy Cantina, which is on of the restaurants that was shown on the Jersey Shore show. I did not want to have any fried food so I only ordered a side salad which ended up being the best decision yet as it was very filling and delicious! The others all had typical Mexican dishes which they enjoyed and our waitress Stephanie was amazing, the best service we had especially when compared to Ninja.

Afterwards we headed back to the hotel to get ready as we were going out dancing at Aztec (a famous bar the Jersey Shore cast frequents on the show). The club was EXTREMELY busy and there were TONS of guidos with blowouts.. I had to hold back from laughing. On the upside, I got one of them to buy me a drink which is always fun. The night ended early as it was a Monday and the club closed early.

Day 4: Seaside Heights
Today we all slept in which was not what we had wanted to do. Me and Dahlia's sister decided to quickly get ready and head to the beach as outside the weather did not look so great. We paid the $5 fee to get our wristbands and headed towards the waves. The waves were pretty strong but I expected as such due to the current of the Atlantic Ocean. The rip current was extremely strong as well in that we could not go out very far as the lifeguards only allowed certain depths. We fought the waves and had fun trying to balance ourselves as well as watch others do the same. At some points the waves were too strong, knocked you off your feet and as you were first swept up to shore it would then drag you back out(which was kinda scary) as it was very hard to try and get a grip to get back on your feet!
Dahlia's sister, myself and Khizer battling the waves

Eventually Dahlia and Khizer made it to the beach and they joined in on some of the fun. The tides came in very fast and we had to move our towels several times before we left. The worst part of swimming in the ocean is definitely having to wash everything as soon as you get back. Sand gets everywhere (especially in your hair), you clothes smell of salt water and the towels get super dirty.

Eventually the day brightened up and we went back to the boardwalk so the others could pick up their souvenirs. I took them to the places that I thought had the best deals. I also redid my henna as the 4-6 week recommended time they originally gave me had barely lasted a day so another girl redid it for free. We also saw the house where the Jersey Shore cast live when they film and it is literally attached to their work, so when they complain about having to get up to go to work, they literally just walk through the backyard to a back entrance into the house.

For dinner we decided to go back to the Spicy Cantina and we thankfully had the same waitress. I had the salad again which was delicious. Afterwards we decided to visit the other pier which was the Funtown Pier. We all decided to go on the ferris wheel which we were told was a typical Jersey Shore amusement ride. It was great and even though it was at night we had a great view of the boardwalk and the ocean.

Day 5: Seaside Heights - Ottawa
Today we had to pack up early and leave for home. Our first stop was in Newark as Dahlia's sister was flying back home to Toronto instead of joining us for the road trip. Our trip consisted of several pit stops for shopping including the Carousel Center in Syracuse and eating at an Indian restaurant which was made up of an old train car in Pennsylvania.

At one point on the way back home through Pennsylvania we also hit a really bad rain storm which caused us to pull over to the side of the highway as there was absolutely no vision. It was kinda scary but we all made it  home safe!

New York City

On a spontaneous offer from my previous roommate, I graciously accepted an offer to visit New York City with her for a weekend. Out of all the places in the United States I had visited, I had never been to this worldly capital, the city that never sleeps.

In order to avoid any hassle on my roommate's part, I decided to train to Montreal (where she now lives) so that we could leave the next day without any additional confusion and setbacks (on top of the Montreal bridges and lane closures that have made Montreal transportation a nightmare). Also, in order to save on costs and skip lines we decided to purchase the NYCpass (and would pick it up the first night in Times Square). At the time that we bought this we were able to get 3 days for the price of 2!

Day 1: Montreal - New York City

The drive was quite pretty as it was through the Adirondacks. We didn't have to cross into any other States so it was a pleasant drive (even though I did none of the driving). We had a picnic along the way as we had made sandwiches and brought snacks and the scenary was gorgeous as we were in an area with a lake as well as many forests. As we were approaching New York City the driving got a lot worse as the other drivers on the road seemed more crazy (even more crazy than Montreal driving and I did not think this was possible).

We stayed at the Club Quarters Midtown location which was centrally located on 45th street between 5th and 6th avenue. The room was decently sized and me and my roommate slept on the pull out couch which actually was not that bad. Our hotel faced the Rockefeller building and just up the street was the famous 5th avenue. After we all got refreshed we decided to walk down 5th avenue to see some of the shops. We saw the Sephora and Saks. We stopped at the NY public library (which was in the film The Day After Tomorrow) to head to Bryant Park for a quick bite.

From Bryant Park me and my roommate walked to Times Square. It was so bright I had never seen anything like it. I thought Paris was bright but nothing compares to the huge tv screens and advertisements that are flashing before your eyes. We stopped at several souvenir stops as well as the famous red stair case... which to be honest I had no idea existed until she told me they showed it on Glee (too bad I don't watch the show).

On our way back we inquired at the Rockefeller building about going up to the top for their "top of the rock view" but they were all sold out for the night so we would have to return in the morning.

Day 2: New York City
Me and my roommate woke up bright and early in order to head to the Top of the Rock. It was practically across the street from our hotel so it was very easy to get to. It had rained a bit the night before so there was some low cloud cover when we got to the top but it still had an amazing view. There were several levels you got to go to but you could even see most (if not all) of Central Park!

After viewing the city from the Rockefeller Observatory we decided to walk along 5th avenue to see some of the sights. We first saw some shopping sights such as Saks 5th avenue and Sephora but when Catherina needed a caffeine boost we decided to go to the Starbucks in Trump Tower!

From Trump Tower we walked North on 5th avenue to head towards Central Park. Our destination was the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) but we decided to take a stroll through Central Park on our way there. On our way into the park I found a hot dog stand and decided I should try one so I can compare which city had better street meat, as Toronto and New York are compared to each other. In my honest opinion, I found Toronto's street meat to be much better (and I'm not just saying that to rep Toronto). We passed by the zoo and even though we didn't pay to go in, we saw several animals such as a tortoise, an emu and a polar bear (from afar). We also passed a pond where people were playing with motorized boats. It was a neat little sight to see in this huge park

The MET was a really cool museum that had tons of artifacts! Since we had the NYCpass we got in for free and, most importantly, got to skip the huge line! There were Greek and Roman statues, paintings and even tribal outfits! It was really cool but definitely nothing like the Louvre (even if I was only in the Louvre for 30 minutes). Not saying it was bad but I definitely had different tastes when it comes to museums. On the upside, once we were in the museum it was not as busy as the line had made it seem so we were actually able to see the displays instead of fighting out way through (ex. at the Louvre). Once we were done we were able to sit on the steps outside the MET and take in a bit of NYC culture. There was a musical group of soul singers who were performing at the foot of the steps as well as taxis honking in the background and of course vendors for hotdogs, pretzels, wraps and... cupcakes even!

From the MET we walked back into Central Park as we had to cross it in order to reach our next destination which was the American Museum of Natural History. Now this DEFINITELY has to be one of my favourite museums of all time since having visited it. We again go to skip an even larger line (as moments after we entered a downpour happened) and not pay for the ticket. This museum had everything! From dioramas of animals around the world to prehistoric hunters, to aztec ruins, to various rocks, to life-size dinosaurs replicas, etc. Obviously for me the most interesting parts were the meteorites & gems exhibit, the dinosaur exhibit and the skeletal remains of the anthropological find "Lucy". I even found a dinosaur that was found in Alberta!

After we were done at the museum, we thankfully missed any rain and decided to walk down towards the famous Dakota Apartments. It was here that John Lennon was shot outside his apartment. His wife Yoko Ono still lives here and outside the entrance there are guards as this is one of the most prized residential apartments to live in New York. Right across the street is Central Park. At first it doesn't seem to be a great place for a memorial . . .you can hear the buzz of NYC life outside with the taxis and pedestrians, the vendors and people who are trying to offer to take you around the park in their carriage . . . but once you step a foot inside Strawberry Fields you understand why. It is a very green, peaceful and serene area. There is the Imagine memorial that gets decorated each day with different flowers and petals. When we went in there was a crowd of people taking turns getting their photo taken. There was also a man there who was "enforcing" everyone to take a photo showing the peace sign as that is was John would have wanted, so as you can see in the photo, I am following orders.

Times Square area to the right of the photo
After we had explore Central Park we took a cab back to the hotel where we would have a quick nap. After our nap we decided we were going to head to the Empire State Building to meet her parents. On the way there we also stopped at a famous bakery Magnolia Bakery and I bought a delicious red velvet cupcake. Once we got to the Empire State Building we went on a "ride" for free which was hilarious and also got a headphone set to hear information from different view points at the top. Again, this was all included in our NYCpass. The view was spectacular and offered an amazing view of all of New York City! You could even see the bright lights of Times Square (see both photos... The picture on the right is a clearer image of the buildings which I am posing in front of.) I would HIGHLY recommend going up the tower for any visitor to the city!

Day 3: New York City
Today we all decided (Catherine, her parents and myself) to go to the United Nations Visitor Centre together. Now I have already  visited the one in Geneva, Switzerland before so I already had an idea of what to expect and to be honest, I preferred the Swiss one better. This UN was not nearly as ornate and elaborate as the one in Switzerland although it did have an entire section dedicated to the UN's Millenium Goals which I really liked. It even had display kits of their "school in a box". It also had some cool artifacts such as the statue of Saint Agnes which was still standing in 1945 in Nagasaki, Japan.

From the UN we walked over to Grand Central Station. It is huge. Massive in fact. We stopped here to have lunch as the food court had a lot of selection, the only downside was that it was horribly wasteful in that there were NO recycling options. Even the trays you were served your food on were styrofoam so not only were you bound to throw out the pop bottle, plastic plate, plastic cutlery, napkins and excess food, but your tray was non-reusable either! None the less, the indian food I had was delicious. I was also hoping to be there during a flash mob but unfortunately I didn't get to see one :(

From Grand Central me and Catherine decided to take a subway down to Canal Street, aka NY's main Chinatown street. It is in no way a comparison to the Chinatown of Toronto but it was WAY better than that of Ottawa or Montreal. There was also more of a focus on this street for purchasing items such as clothing, jewelry, handbags, perfume and luggage rather than food (such as on Spadina in Toronto). I picked up a couple of good deals including some I (heart) NY shirts. From Canal street we continued down toward the financial district. Here we saw the World Trade Centre Site and the famous St. Paul's Chapel that was still standing even though it's proximity to the original World Trade Centre towers.

We stopped at a small Italian eatery and had some soup and pizza before we headed toward the Pier to board out sunset cruise.We decided to go on this as it was a) included in our pass, b) we got to see a lot of highlights by boat, c) dusk was gorgeous!
We first left the pier seeing the NYC skyline from a downtown / financial district perspective but you could still see the empire state building (see picture at right). We also got to see the place where the Titanic was supposed to dock had it not unfortunately sunk in the Atlantic (also in picture at right in the top left corner).

We continued a long until we came near the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. We were told the history of both these places and circled here a bit as it was an obvious tourist photo for everyone to take. Someday I hope to return and I want to actually visit the Statue of Liberty and go up it.

On this boat cruise we also got to see some of the many bridges of New York such as the Brooklyn Bridge. Although I definitely think I should return here one day and walk over it.

The cruise was about an hour and a half and afterwards we decided to taxi back to our hotel as we were far downtown. Once we were back at the hotel we took a nap as we were exhausted. I eventually woke up close to midnight and decided to go see Times Square again one last time to pick up some last-minute souvenirs for my family. It was a quick walk to Times Square and it was buzzing as it was the other night. I also got the pleasure of seeing a barely clothed and not quite talented "naked cowgirl". After I had grabbed all my souvenirs I headed back to the hotel for a good night's rest.

Day 4: New York City - Montreal
Today was our last day here and we decided to quickly do one last museum in order to make our NYCpass worth it. We decided on the MoMa as it was the closest museum to us. We were there before it opened and we actually got a free gift from the giftshop as well just for showing our ticket for that day!

Even though I am not much of a visual art person there were some really beautiful pieces inside the gallery. I was really happy that there were some Warhol pieces including the famous Elvis one. We only had a limited amount of time but we were able to do the entire museum!

After the museum we waited until Catherine's parents came to get us in the car and from here we would start on our trek home. For most of the drive I slept as I wanted to avoid any car headaches. I didn't seem to notice how long it took but then again I did not partake in any of the driving responsibilities.

It was an awesome trip that has made me want to return to NYC again!

Friday, July 15, 2011

End to Scandinavia, tips for travelling with friends

No one likes to end their travels, or at least I don't. As much as I love my family and friends my heart is abroad, in the adventures to come, sights to see, and culture to live. My brief taste of what is Scandinavia has definitely left me wanting more. I know more trips will be in my future but for the present moment, I am waiting for the next opportunity!
Me & Lauriane in St. Tropez, France
Me &Julie at an Oxygen Bar in Las Vegas
Me & Andrei at the Calgary Stampede
This trip has also taught me far more about myself and relationships than anything else I have ever encountered in life. I have performed 2 exchanges to France over the years and I either travelled on my own, with my host family, or with friends I made while I was studying there.With the exception of my 2 exchanges/trips to France, I have always travelled with family (short distances like from Toronto -Quebec City or long distances such as Toronto - Las Vegas) or with friends (short distances such as Fort McMurray to Calgary). This trip would be the first trip I ever did with my bestfriend, Amanda, not including minor trips for us to visit each other during school from our university towns to the other. Travelling with friends is a real test of friendship and this is still uncertain at the present moment.

Me & Amanda at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland

As much as we thought we had planned things out, there are always going to be bumps in the road and people have to be willing to sway their plans a bit to accommodate everyone but at the same time each person should be capable of fulfilling their own wishes. Me and Amanda had researched places to visit, things to see, restaurants to visit, and expenses we may incur. We had all our accommodations booked that worked into our budget. I am willing to admit there were museums I had an interest in originally but when the money situation came fully into view, I could not afford to fit everything in to my budget. My wishes were my priorities when it came to my budget.

Tips for traveling with friends
After experiencing this I have some tips to offer regarding travelling with friends (not all of them were problems for me on this trip but I figured they would be good general advice to give):
  • Discuss each person's budget
    • This can be a very hot topic and a MAJOR issue for friends traveling. Not everyone comes from the same background and financial situations can put a major strain on travelling ideas. Both parties need to discuss what they can afford in terms of accommodation and transportation. Food is generally only bought for yourself so you will never have to share food. Also, it is probably not the best idea in the world to flaunt around how much money one party has if the other is flat broke to the point of walking far distances to avoid taxi and bus fees. When it comes to activities, you should only pay for things you really want to do and that will fit in your budget. For this matter you need to discuss the event in which you will split off from each other (see below).
  • Be comfortable being on your own
    • There are going to be activities that you may not both want to see or cannot afford to put into your budget and for this reason it is inevitable that there are going to be times when you are going to separate. For this reason you need to make sure you are aware of your surroundings, bring a watch (or cell/iPod, something that has the time), and that you know how to use a map... which all seem simple but making sure of these things makes a world of a difference. Set a meeting point and time and rejoin once you have accomplished your own must-see things.
  • Discuss trip ideas
    • Do some pre-research on ideas both parties have so that places can be chosen to best accommodate every one's interests. If both are into museums and history buffs then both activities will probably gel well together but if some people are a mixture of history, culture, adventure, then certain activities probably will need to be cut or chosen to do on their own. In either case it is probably a good idea to get a sense of what is out there so that you know you are making the most out of your trip.
  • Be assertive
    • Deal with problems when they arise and not after they've kept boiling up. This only leads to huge arguments over seemingly small things. It's best to confront each other or talk with one another if something upset you or hurt you. Things will only get worse and you will not enjoy your trip if you continue to allow yourself to get upset. You have no reason to be upset for the rest of your trip if you never took the initiative to resolve it yourself.
  • Be yourself
    • Your friend decided to go on a trip with you because they like you for who you are, not a different person they've never met before. It is understandable to be shy around new people but personalities should not change when away. Don't feel like you need to act a certain way because you are on your own and in new situations. At the same time be considerate of how traveling is a different situation and that being comfortable all the time is not a luxury everyone feels when on the road.