Some of my Favorite Stops in the United States.

After I posted the previous article regarding my favorite stops around the globe, my friend Jayne hit me up on Facebook and ask me what my top spots in the United States were. This led to a great deal of thinking. I slowly came to realize that I couldn’t answer the question in the same fashion as I had addressed the previous one. Every time that I sat down and tried to come up with a short list, it turned out to be a long list. When I attempted to delete places from the list I only ended up adding more places to the list.

I’m not attempting to say that America somehow has a great many more spectacular places than the remainder of the planet. I think we would all come to see that as ridiculous. I’m saying that it’s harder to narrow down that field because I’ve spent more time at so many more places in America. The more time you spend in a place, the more it gets rooted into you (Like the Louvre in Paris or the British Museum in London have for me internationally.) Because I’m American, I have spent more time travelling around America. In this case, decades more time. So, simply saying to someone that may not know as much about America has to visit this place and that, I think would be disingenuous.

Alright, with that out, what did I end up deciding to do with this? Within this article is a list of places that I think anyone would enjoy immensely. They are not the top items, nor are they in any particular order. They are simply ones that have floated to the top of a very long list.

#1 Chicago, Illinois


The fossil of Sue, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, at the Field Museum, Chicago, Illinois.

Where I’m not a natural fan of U.S. cities, I do have a great affinity for the city of Chicago. Though I hail from New York (not the city), I have spent nearly a decade of my life wandering in and out of Chicago. This city, pressed tightly against the side of Lake Michigan, has everything one could want from a city. World class museums, great theater, all the major sports teams, and excellent concerts. It has a major airport system at it center, so getting in and getting out are not a problem. (I have flown from Chicago directly to both Hong Kong and Rome, so they have adequate air service.) Also, where I think that there is a case to be made for Chicago living up it its reputation for horrendous winters, they also have excellent summer. Catching concerts at night on the lake front is one of the joys of summer in Chi-Town.

#2 The Adirondacks and ST. Lawrence River Valley of Upstate New York

The author, canoeing on the Raquette River, in and around Potsdam, New York.

Second disclaimer, I grew up in the ST. Lawrence River Valley. It was, and will probably always continue to be, my home. The rivers and woodland, dotted with dairy farms and rolling field are beautiful in their splendor, year round, only giving way to the majesty of the Adirondack Mountains to the south. There is a peacefulness in the Adirondacks that I have experienced in few other settings.

There are some regional airports, but the most realistic way to get there is to fly into Syracuse, New York, and then rent a car. Though the Adirondacks occupy a state park big enough to be an actual state, they are surprisingly accessible. Where most tourists venture no farther than Lake Placid, I would suggest taking the time to explore.

3# Las Vegas, Nevada

The entrance to the Flamingo Casino. The Strip, Las Vegas, Nevada.

Okay, I admit it. It may be cliché, but I love Las Vegas. It’s the quintessential American Weekend City! And, if you’ve ever watched the traffic coming into town from the interstate out of Las Angeles on Friday, you know that statement is true. Admittedly, three days in Sin City can feel like a week, but that’s also part of its charm.

I have been to Vegas many times over the years. These days gambling and all-night drinking as been (mostly) replaced by golfing with my good friends Vicky and Frank. I suck at golf, but we still have a great time.

Over the years I have been to the city for many reasons. I have rented motorcycles from the Harley Dealer and road around the southwest with my friends (Billy, Leonard, and The Puma). I have spent nights in the trance of the Electric Daisy Carnival. I have been in the arena with the screaming masses for the UFC fights. And yes, I wandered The Strip semi-intoxicated, looking for a slot machine that liked me. I day tripped to Hoover dam, and used it as a convenient airport for canyoneering in Utah. If you can think of it, Vegas can accommodate you.

There’s no real reason to explain how to get there. Every airline knows how to find it. And, if you’re driving in, you can’t miss the signs!

#4 The Four-Corners Region, Southwestern United States

Monument Valley, Utah.

Okay, sorry about the picture quality above. I took the picture with a disposable camera, and then forgot to get it developed for like five years. It happens with travel pictures sometimes. I could tell you stories!

Nevertheless, The four corners area of the southwest is my favorite area of the United States, after the Adirondacks. The sandstone formations of monument valley and the surrounding area have to be seen to be truly appreciated. The majority of my explorations in the area have been on motorcycle. I would submit that this is the best way to see the landscapes of the region. An iron horse is as close to the old west of the movies that any of us are like to get these days. And, the area is also purpose built for riding. It has a lot of wide-open and magnificent. It also has fairly good infrastructure scattered around for the wayward motorcycling enthusiast. A car works equally well, though it is one of the places on earth where I would recommend a convertible.

I used Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Las Vegas, Nevada as good entry points to the area. I have also utilized Reno, Nevada and a Phoenix, Arizona, though they aren’t necessarily as convenient. You can fly into Salt lake City as well (Which I have also done), if you choose. However you get there, you enjoy it.

#5 Yosemite Valley, California

The entrance to Yosemite Valley, taken from the entry road.

The first time I went to Yosemite, I was just looking for somewhere new to go. I was looking to climb something about the height of Half Dome, and it seemed like a good a place as any. I didn’t end up summiting the monolithic piece of granite, as you have to scale exposed rock at the top and I am scared of heights. (Sad, but true.) I did however, fall in love with the place. It was entitled as America’s third National Park for a reason. (I haven’t been to Yellowstone NP yet. When I do, I’m sure that you’ll hear about it.)

Even today, with paved roads and Park’s Services Buildings occupying the valley floor, the natural beauty of the place is in no way diminished. Looking skyward in amidst the giant sequoia and towering granite, you get a sense for why John Muir lobbied congress relentlessly. It is awe-inspiring.

I tend to fly into San Francisco, California, when I go out. It a big airport, with good rental car options, and isn’t terribly far away. The drive out of the bay area, and up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains is also quite enjoyable. there aren’t a lot of hotel options around Yosemite, so plan ahead. The park books up all but completely during the good summer months.

Okay, so that’s my say on the Good Ol’ USA. It is mostly an overview of great places. There were some others I wanted to add, but it seemed fair to keep this list the same length as the international list.

I hope that you found something interesting in this. I certainly enjoyed going back through travel pictures to find the photos for it.

Now get out there. Go explore someplace new!

A Story about O’Neill’s Pub, King’s Cross, London.

All week long I’ve been walking around with little smile on my face thanks to last week’s post about drinking beer with the locals of the world. In the search for pictures to go with that post, I came across a picture of O’Neill’s, King’s Cross, London. I love that place!

Now, right now, you’re thinking that this is going to be a blog post about drinking beer, and people and an original place that I somehow embraced in a foreign country? No. Well, not exactly. All of those are true, to a point. Whenever I’m in London, I attempt to make a trip across town to O’Neill’s. I also admit that I have a beer (or two) while I’m there. To be honest, I don’t usually talk much while there. And, to be honest, it’s kinda like most of the corner joints in the city. So, why bother? Well, let me tell you a story.

A photo of O’Neill’s Pub in King’s cross, London. Taken as I wandered back to my hotel from the reception for the London Book Festival, January 2015.

Back in the day, summer of 2004, I was scouting around the internet and looking for things to do that might be considered cool, when I stumbled across a backpacking company out of London that put together trips for the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. (www.backpacker.co.uk Honestly, I don’t know if their still in business or not, but they were an outstanding group to travel with.) A quick shuffle around their website and an international phone later, and I was in, headed for London so I could go do crazy things in Pamplona.

Back in the day, there wasn’t a plethora of website and internet outlets for finding cheap hotels. Today I tend toward booking.com. They work well and give me what I’m looking for. (I’m too old to hostel, and too poor to Five-Star it like everyone you see on the travel shows.) In 2004, I used my handy-dandy Lonely Planet Guide. I used the London City guide, specifically. I still have it. It came with good maps and lots of extra what-not. It was also the best place, most important at the time, to find reasonable hotel options. The guide broke the hotels of the city down by high priced, medium priced, and cheap. (The newest copy of a Lonely Planet Guide that I bought lately didn’t even have a hotel listing section. Another concession to the world of the internet, I guess.) The guide actually only gave you contact information. You had to contact them individually to see if they had rooms, and if the prices quoted were correct. It was a more interesting time to travel.

But, I’m sliding off-topic. After looking around, I ended up finding a nice little hotel up in the King’s Cross section of London, for the week before the bus for the bull runs left. It was my first time to London and I want to see one of the four World-Class cities in Europe. (Incase you’re curious, the four cities are London, Paris, Rome, and Istanbul. That’s not my opinion, it other people’s. Though after seeing three of the four, I think their right.) Like everyone else going to London for the first time, I was shocked by how expensive a city it can be. Take your Visa card, you’re gonna need it. So, in an effort to be as sensible as possible, I ended up in Kings Cross. This area was ( and I believe still is) know internationally as the backpacker’s go-to spot. It was the section hosting most of the hostels and cheap hotels.

I love Kings Cross. It’s what you expect to find, after you’re done looking for museums and galleries. I wandered all over, ending most of my scouting trips at a pub around the corner and down the street from my hotel. Yup, it was O’Neill’s.

At the time of this journey, I was just solidly formulating the characters and landscape for my first novel. I knew it was going to be about vampires, and I knew the vampire the story centered around was going to be female and slightly tomboy-ish. (Who doesn’t like a female protagonist???) As I sat at the outside tables of O’Neill’s drinking my pints of whatever looked pleasing that day, I watched London pass me by and listened to its rhythms. It was there, at O’Neill’s that I decided Sara Anne Grey would be an English girl, and hail from London. It was an excellent choice, as it gave her a further depth of spirit imbued upon her by the city.

I took a lot of notes and pictures sitting outside that pub, drinking and watching the city go by. A picture of the new London Library sitting across the street from old ST Pancras Train Station stayed with my writing materials and kept reminding me that the city, like my character, was both old and new. (I’m pretty sure that the photo is now in a file folder with other stuff from the writing of those books.)

Flash forward to 2015. I had been to London a couple time since 2004, and always enjoyed being back in the city. In January of 2015, I went to London to accept the Grand Prize at the 2014 London Book Festival, for the third Sara Grey novel, Progression. The novel that actually had all the O’Neill’s pub scenes in it. As I walked out the London Library, where that gala was hosted, I walked over and took the above picture of O’Neill’s. The place where it all started.

I didn’t cross the street and go in. It seemed wrong somehow, like it would break the crazy spell I was caught up in. I did, however, go over the next day and have a couple, still being quite full of myself.

This story is told to illustrate the context of the statement forwarding the last post. Travel is about making experiences that you take away with you when you leave. It’s the collection of memories that allow you to have the depth of knowledge necessary to accurately interpret the world around you. Or, that’s my opinion on the matter.

A. I hope you enjoyed me shamelessly wandering down memory lane.

B. I hope that it also gave you some push to want to get out and make your own memories.

C. if you’re in London, head up to Kings Cross and have a pint at O’Neill’s.

I plan on being back in London, in May. I’m just passing through on my way to the continent. (It was the cheapest point to fly to from Texas.) I don’t know if I’m going to have time to get up to King’s Cross, but if I do, I’m headed to O’Neill’s for a pint.

Now, get out there and make your own memories.

Beer? I have time for a beer.

Before I get into this one, I want to make a statement. Travel isn’t about places or things. Travel isn’t about crap you read in guide books and magazines. or, on blogs on the internet, for that matter. travel is about experiences that stay with you, after you leave a place. It’s about understanding the way people in other places understand things. Okay, that being said, go … 

I was sitting on the couch the other day, thinking about stuff that should end up on Pinterest. Somewhere in looking through external hard drives, USB drives, and random flash cards at pictures from the various travels, I noticed that I have taken a pile of pictures of beer. Most of the beer seemed to be Guinness. I think this is because the brand is so widely dispersed. In countries that have regional beers, I will go out of my way to drink those beers. For example, in Thailand I drank a lot of Chang. But, it seemed to keep coming up Guinness, so I decided to build a Pinterest board of the different Guinness pints I’ve ingested around the world.

Let face it, if you’re from the United States or Western Europe, you like a glass of beer. (For the purposes of this blog post we will forgo the wine and whiskey categories.) I certainly like several glasses of beer at any one sitting, but that might be one of the things that explain my current western-sized BMI. So I decided to put up a blog post a couple of my favorite pints from here-and-there. These are all Guinness stops, because I was collecting photos for the Pinterest board. I think they are accurate representations of one of the small pieces of travel that adult travelers enjoy so much. I hope this at least makes you chuckle.

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Number One, Drinking in Dublin, Ireland, 2009.

Part One, The Sky Bar.

The free beer you get after the Guinness Brewery tour. The views from the Sky Bar while drinking the free beer are outstanding.

When you make it to Dublin, Ireland, one of the things you are going to want to do is take the tour of the Guinness Brewery, at ST. James’ Gate. The brewery tour is quite enjoyable, and the gift shop on the third floor is HUGE! (I even came out with golf tees.)After your tour of the brewery and its beer-making process, but before your attack on the gift shop, you are ushered up to The Sky Bar, Located above the brewery, for a free pint of beer. The Sky Bar only gives out Guinness Draught, but that’s quite alright.

The barmen and women at The Sky Bar pour soo-many pints a day, that it’s all but guaranteed you will get a quality draft. The draft tastes excellent and the views from the high elevation above the city are outstanding. take the time to take the tour. It really is worth your time.

Part Two, the Brazen Head.

The Brazen Head, Dublin, Ireland, is Ireland’s oldest pub.

The Brazen Head is a nice little bar, in Central Dublin, just south side of the river. Dating back to somewhere around 1198, it is officially recognized as the oldest pub in the country of Ireland.

Now, because the pub is a landmark, and because the pub is totally stamped on the tourist map, and because the pub is easy to get to with a quiet walk through the city, it can be a disappointment if you go at it the wrong way. It is a major tourist draw. Most tourists looking to get a picture and a story will make it no farther than the hostess person standing at the little front door stand. The tourists are shown to a seat, normally outside because the place isn’t very big, and provided with a perfectly adequate time. If you require a more-genuine experience, smile and push past the hostess and grab a seat at the bar with the locals. They are quite welcoming, and you can have great conversations while you enjoy a pint.

If you’re looking at adding a stop at the Brazen Head while you’re in Dublin, do yourself a favor and make it to a barstool where the locals hangout. You will remember the conversation long after you leave.

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Number Two.

The Irish Village, Dubai, UAE, 2018.

Having a beer at the Irish Village, Dubai, UAE, 2018.

If you work in the Middle East for any amount of time, you WILL end up in Dubai. It’s almost a Guarantee. If you work in a dry country, like I did in Kuwait, A stop in Dubai will probably be one of your first forays out of the country. Why? Simple, they have beer. Not only do they have beer, but they require you to walk through the duty free shop when exiting customs at the airport. They know why you’re there.

Just south of the airport, between the airport and the river that separates the north older part of Dubai from the south newer sections of the city, sits the Dubai Tennis Stadium. All along one side of the stadium is The Irish Village. trust me when I say, these people know why they’re there. It’s a wonderful place to sit, listen to a little music, and drink several pints. I stopped there everyday that I was in Dubai.

The Irish Village is easy to find on Google maps while you are there, and easy to get to. There is a metro stop several blocks to the north and a following easy walk from the metro to the village. The people are friendly, and the food-drink is quite good. I was really there for the beer. Dubai has a fairly large British ex-pat community, and the locals are quite comfortable with the consumption of alcohol. That being said, you can’t drink while in public (unless you are at a restaurant or other business that serves alcohol), and they DO NOT appreciate westerners being drunk in public.

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Number Three, U2 360 Tour, Chicago, Illinois, 2009.

The inflatable Irish Pub that travelled with U2 and served Guinness 250 Anniversary beer.
The Guinness 250th Anniversary beer. It was FANTASTIC!

Back in 2009, when U2 brought the 360 Tour through Chicago, Illinois, for the first time (The tour went on for so long that they came two years in a row. I went both years.), they brought an inflatable Irish Pub with them. I believe the tour was at least partially underwritten by Guinness, though I don’t know this to be fact.

Out on the lawn section of Soldier Field, A full-sized inflatable Irish Pub was installed to serve Guinness 250th Anniversary beer to the concert goers. This stop is being added specifically because of the beer. The 250th Anniversary special was one of the best pints of beer that I’ve had. It was creamy and smooth, yet thick and filling. They produced it for a short time and then stopped. I was somewhat upset when I couldn’t get it anymore. Oh, the concert was outstanding as well.

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One Honorable Mention. Mainly, because I don’t have or couldn’t find a picture of it.

The Green Dragon, Boston, Massachusetts.

In the middle of Boston, directly across the street from the oldest bar known in the United States, The Bell in Hand Tavern, is an absolute Historical Landmark, The Green Dragon. The Green Dragon is the place where the revolution was said to have been planned. And, if you’ve been there, you believe it. It has been kept as accurate as time will allow, and you can literally picture Ben Franklin passing out at the bar.

I stop at The Green Dragon every time I’m in Boston, and time will allow. The beer is always good, the food is very good, and the company is excellent. If you can make a trip in the summer, when the doors are open and the streets are full of people, you’ll enjoy it that much more. And yes, when at The Green Dragon, I drink Guinness.

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I really wrote this post because It made me happy to do it. It’s the interactions with people and places that stick in your mind the longest. It’s why we travel. So, next time you’re out exploring, stop at a good looking establishment and have a beer with the locals. It will be worth your time, and produce memories that will last. Now that I’ve just written that last statement, I have an odd sensation there will be an upcoming post specifically about time spend at O’Neill’s in Kings cross, London.

Now get out there. Enjoy your travels.

A Quick Bit About the Fortress of Tomar, Portugal.

After thinking about last week’s list and searching through numerous photo collections for the pictures, I realized that I had another spot on the globe which could/should be included. Going to Tomar, Portugal, and seeing the Fortress, is really worth the trip.

I found the small Portuguese town by accident. I was doing Templar research for a novel, and the fortress at Tomar kept appearing, so I figured it would be a likely place as any for a story stop. I it added to the places I needed to research when I went to Europe, and have been happy that I did. The fortress ended up featuring prominently in my novel The Long Path.

Tomar is located about an hour north of Lisbon, literally at the end of a train line. Don’t be shocked if you get off the train and the place is empty, maybe a little overgrown. The train station sits on the edge of the old town section and is an easy walk to wherever you want to go in the city. It seems that most tourists are wandering into the old town section, and the way is well marked. The city of Tomar is basically split in two by the river that bisects it. The old town is on one side and modern Tomar is on the other side. The old town section is well maintained and worth exploring. For the sake of his post, I went to see the fortress, so this will be about the fortress.

The fortress of Tomar, as seen from the old town.

The Fortress of Tomar has a commanding presence over the town and is visible from most everywhere you look. It sits high up on a stone outcrop above the city. There is a well maintained walking path that will take you, at a casual incline, up to the entry gate.

the entry into the fortress of Tomar.

The pathways leading around and into the main fortress are wide and still well maintained. The cobble stone is quite easy to navigate when it is dry. I was there in the early fall, so the weather was accommodating. The walking path out of old town leads you to an exterior car park. You enter from the car park, through the main gate house and under the portcullis, to the wide entry seen above. A further gate secures the interior fortress wall. The whole structure is surprising well maintained.

Where the original Keep of the castle fortress has been destroyed, the monastery and the chapels, as well as the defensive fortifications are all still in good repair. Once a stronghold of the Portuguese Knight Templar order dating back to the 12th century, it was given over to the Knights of the Order of Christ when the Templar’s fell from grace. It became a catholic convent and still holds the proper name of the Convent of Christ.

The charola rotunda of the church at the Convent of Christ.

The stronghold’s centerpiece is the Romanesque round church that occupies a central space in the main fortress area. The round church is said to be modelled after similar churches in Jerusalem, and has wide interior aisles so that the Templar knights could enter the church on horseback and receive their blessings before being off about whatever business commanded the day. Not to overstate the church, it is absolutely stunning.

The tilework in the cemetery cloister.
Tilework inside the Cemetery Cloister’s chapel.

The main church is surrounded by many structures that are remarkable. The grounds hold seven or eight cloisters, and blocks of cells for the monks, along with necessary administrative outbuildings. The open and welcoming nature of the Cemetery Cloister is a recommended stop. The blue ceramic tile that decorates the walls of the cloister and the associated chapel is still of fine quality. If you stay in the cloister for any amount of time, you can feel the Moorish influences that still permeate the region, independent of their current use in a Catholic structure.

the author standing in the doorway of a sentry tower inside the Fortress of Tomar.

The interior of the multi-story structure has many sentry towers and exterior walkways that give excellent views of the surrounding countryside. The rooftop areas of numerous structures are also open, so as to be utilized as outdoor areas. There are only a few sections of the fortress that are sectioned off for no entry. The vast majority of the complex is openly accessible and worth lingering in.

The city view from the ramparts of the Fortress of Tomar.

As seen above, the fortress commands an excellent position over the town and offers great views. I had assumed that this stop would turn out to be a day trip for some good information and photos of the structure. I ended up spending two days at the fortress, just taking in everything it had to offer. These pictures are the smallest of samples. The place is fantastic.

If you find yourself in Portugal, and somehow becoming bored by the Lisbon cityscape, a daytrip to Tomar may be a perfect alternative. It is easy to get to, it has several accommodation options to chose from, and there are many good restaurants in the old town. I stayed in a small boutique hotel by the river. It sat on it’s own little island, and was very charming.

I confess that I didn’t spend any time wandering around the modern sections of Tomar. I walked across the bridge and took pictures of the fire trucks, sitting outside the local fire department, but that was really about it. The old town has much to see. There is also a local tourist office located in the old town, just down the street from the train station, if you need maps or advice.

I found the town to be an excellent stop. Even though I was there was “Work”, I would still say that it’s definitely worth visiting. And as this is a blog for travelers that are not necessarily 20 anymore, the old town is small and easily walkable. The train station is on the opposite end of town from most of the hotels, but in reality it only takes about ten minutes to walk there. the walk up the hill to get to the fortress is relatively gentle on grade and not very strenuous. The restaurants on offer in the old town run the gambit, but it’s easy to find local fair that is above the backpacker pallet. I certainly didn’t have any trouble.

All in all, it’s easy to get to and has a wealth of history. The fortress has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983. It is well worth your time. or, that’s my opinion on the matter.

Now, get out there. Go see stuff.