The reason for the title of this post will become apparent in the second half of this post but in the meantime let’s start at the beginning.
A few days ago we flew to America to celebrate a rather special occasion. This year is the year of our Golden Wedding Anniversary. Yes that’s fifty years. We’re a bit stunned ourselves.
There are a number of couples in our circle of friends who have also recently reached their Golden Weddings. The forms of celebration have varied. One couple spent a whole year going from one event to another around the world. Another had a very big bash in a country club in Scotland. Another did nothing at all. And there have been other variations. We decided on the first option but with one main event, a holiday with our family. Our son and his family live in the United States and our daughter with her family live near us in London.
We decided that to make it a holiday for all, we would meet in the US but in somewhere that was new or newish to everyone. The place that seemed to fit the bill was the NE United States as it was, in relative terms, a short and direct flight from London to New York and, by American standards, a manageable drive from Little Rock, Arkansas. After a bit of research the Catskill Mountain region of New York State seemed to tick all the boxes.
Having made that choice, the next task was to find a suitable place to stay. We needed a large house. The internet is a wonderful place where you can search for what you want using fairly specific criteria and the options will be presented. In theory this makes finding somewhere easy but, in practice, life is never simple. You just need to make one search and the worker bees from every hive (the holiday rental companies) start buzzing around. Your inbox is filled with emails and pop-up ads appear all over your screen. Some of course, like Trip Advisor, purport to be on your side until you realise that they now own one of the largest holiday rental organisations in the world. Why was I getting all these approaches from “Flip Key”? Surprise, surprise, they are owned by Trip Advisor.
Gradually a shortlist was compiled and circulated to everyone for comments and decisions. The choice was a large town house in the town of Hudson about 2 ½ hours north of New York City, on the River Hudson and on the edge of the Catskills. Making the decision was helped by a professional owner who responded in a very timely manner, answered every question and added more information in anticipation of other questions, as yet unasked.
So the day to start our holiday arrived and The Pond beckoned. Although our flight did not take off until 10.30 in the morning, by the time you allow for showers, last minute packing, locking up the house, travelling in the taxi to the airport, the check-in and security procedures it was a 5.30 start. The taxi arrived on time. We’d ordered a large people carrier, suitable for four adults and one toddler with car seat. Our regular driver was at the wheel which was good because we knew, from past experience, that he knew all the alternative routes if we were to meet any holdups along the way. (On one occasion the access to the M4 motorway that leads out of London to Heathrow was closed. Roads for miles around were severely congested. Nothing daunted, our driver started off on a route that we thought would be a disaster, but after passing through a couple of housing estates and along a rural road, we were driving into the back entrance to a service station and straight out onto an empty motorway.)
We were at Heathrow about 8.20 which was excellent. Checking in and security should take about ½ hour then there would be time for breakfast before boarding. No such luck. We had checked-in on the airline’s website so already had boarding cards. We were flying with Virgin Atlantic on a plane operated by Delta Airlines (Delta own 49% of Virgin and so the relationship is more than a simple code-share). As sometimes happens when flying out of the UK on American airlines, there is a pre-immigration check. This takes the form of an inquisition to determine if you are bona fide tourists, have tickets to return to the UK and have registered with the US Government’s ESTA visa waiver scheme. A few years ago we had just returned from Turkey and were travelling to the US. The inquisitors seriously grilled us about what we had been up to in Turkey. Today our son-in-law was questioned about his job in some detail. The whole process took about 15 minutes. Then we joined a bag drop queue and things got worse. Two men in front of us had not filled in the right paperwork for some aspect of their journey. They were given long forms to fill in at the desk. The queue understandably got more and more restless. By the time the bags were labelled the idea of breakfast was already a thing of the past – it would not happen today.
In contrast, the security checks were efficient and speedy. In my own case a bit too efficient. The tray with my carry-on bag, laptop, phone, watch and belt was diverted down the “suspicious baggage” chute. What could be wrong? Then the security officer showed me an x-ray photograph of my carry-on complete with a very recognisable pair of pliers. So that’s where they went!! I bade them farewell as they were dropped in to the “contraband” bin.
Immediately through security you enter the duty free area where perfume, booze, etc, can be bought at heavily reduced prices. I thought I would buy some more dollars but soon abandoned that idea. The reductions at the currency desks are in the form of seriously lower exchange rates, not what I was looking for.
By the time we got to the plane we were about the last to board. It actually worked well as everyone was seated so the aisles were empty and the overhead bins at our seats still had space. The plane was a Boeing 767 which is relatively small for a long-haul aircraft these days. It only carries just over 200 passengers and the seats are configured two at each side and three in the middle. We had a two and a three seat block across the aisle from each other. Whilst not the widest of seats they are perfectly comfortable and the leg room good with a pitch of 31-32 inches.
On board, the cabin crew were excellent, the food and drinks service was pretty good for slum-class travel. Actually, the use of the slightly pejorative term “slum class” was not justified. This was good quality “economy”. The big disappointment, which was outside of the airline’s control, was the weather. To the west of Ireland we had complete cloud cover the whole way. Now no one wants to spend hours looking at ocean but on the North Atlantic flights you sometimes get a view of Greenland in the distance and fly directly over Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. We really did want to see the latter today as our travels would be taking us there in 10 days’ time. But not to be.
A glance at the on-board flight tracker display should that the plane was taking a northern route over eastern Labrador, the Gulf of St Lawrence and southwards over the states of New England. Then miraculously the clouds started to clear and we were over the snowy tundra of Labrador. Then it was the wide, blue St Lawrence River followed by the woods of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. From the air these states all merge into each other, the main difference being the increasing density of housing as you move south. And, in the way we had passed frustratingly Northwest of Nova Scotia, we flew too far to the East of our final destination in Hudson.
Just after take-off we were told that as well as a full meal served early in the flight, a light snack would be served an hour before landing. And “light” was the operative word. First there were two fingers of 3-cheese and red onion sandwich. Then there was a “Mini Tiff Toff in the Tuffen” which was described on the wrapper as a handmade Belgian chocolate biscuit cake made by Broderick’s the cake crusaders – quite a mouthful, if you’ll pardon the expression, for a one inch square of chocolate with embedded bits of hard biscuit. Finally there was an individually wrapped mint of the Mint Imperial variety. It all tasted fine but was not exactly filling. It’s worth mentioning that for an American airline, the coffee was good. A big improvement on the coffee on another Delta flight some years ago from Atlanta to Paris when the airline was clearly trying to show what dishwater really tasted like.
Over Boston the plane took a turn out over the Atlantic then headed southwest again over Rhode Island, the smallest state in the US at about 40 by 50 miles and with a population of about one million. Then it was into the descent, our flight was nearly over and nearly ½ hour early.
I wrote this post up to this point on the plane. The rest would be written when we go to our house. Coming in to land I thought there would be nothing much more to write about. How wrong I was.
JFK airport is on Long Island. As you get close to the ground you can see that the island is basically a massive sand bar so landing at JFK is almost like landing on a beach. We landed, taxied to the stand and disembarked very quickly. On arrival in the States you have to be prepared for a queue at immigration.
From the plane to the immigration zone was a long, long walk – probably about 15 minutes down a never-ending corridor. Then we joined a long queue of fellow aliens, as we are called. A disembodied voice announced that there was a 1 ½ – 3 hour wait. Unbelievable. It was time to play our only trump card, our three year old granddaughter. One officer was asked if there was a separate line for families with small children. As she started to explain “no”, another officer overheard and said to follow him. He took us to a line reserved for people who were making connecting flights and ushered us through. Success. Soon we were all cleared for entry, picked up our bags and through customs.
A shuttle train then took us out to Federal Circle, a hub used by many of the car rental companies. Our pre-booked and checked out car was waiting for us, a Ford Explorer mid-sized SUV, with plenty of room for five people, a car seat and a heap of luggage. Everything was all going swimmingly. As we left the parking lot, we turned left but our satnavs – built into three of our smartphones preloaded with New York State roadmaps – told us we had taken a wrong turn. No problem, a quick U-turn and we were heading in the right direction, or so we thought.
There was a lot of traffic and a lot of roadworks but we did as we were told and soon were on a freeway heading rapidly away from the airport conurbation. Gradually it started to dawn that we were heading southwest towards the Manhattan skyline when we thought our route would take us north. The satnav was insisting this was the right direction and we were torn between carrying on regardless or trying to turn around and find another route. We chose the former as the satnav seemed so confident. Before long we were crossing the Manhattan Bridge across the East River and onto Canal Street which crosses the lower half of Manhattan Island. This took us through Chinatown which was all very interesting but not exactly what we had been hoping for after a transatlantic flight.
The route then turned northwards along the west side of the island. At last we were heading in the right direction now. The road was a dual carriageway but for a long stretch was very busy and progress was painfully slow. At one point we passed a heliport and wished we could drive in and be transported to Hudson. The road eventually came to the Washington Heights Bridge across the River Hudson and we were directed to turn off and join the Interstate I87 N. Could this really be true? We knew that the I87 went right up the Hudson Valley and would pass very close to our intended destination in the City of Hudson.
So now it would be plain sailing and the memory of all the time we had wasted would gradually fade into the past. How naïve could we be?
At first the satnav seemed to settle down but it was not long before it was imploring us, even commanding us, to turn off and join another route. Why? We couldn’t work it out but a spirit of anarchy had taken over in the car and we ignored the pleas. At first, things went a little slowly with yet more roadworks and traffic heading out of New York. Then we crossed the Hudson on a very long bridge. It must have been about a mile. The Hudson, although called a river, is actually a cross between a river and an estuary. It is tidal all the way up to Albany, the capital of New York State, a distance of about 150 miles.
It was about this point that I tried to recalibrate my satnav to see if anything was wrong. And there was. At one point in the setup it asked the question “do you want to use all road types?”. And then the penny, ever so slowly, dawned. In the UK we have very few toll roads. In fact there is only one stretch of toll motorway, around the north side of Birmingham, and a few toll bridges. Our satnavs had been set to avoid tolls and in the US many roads are free but many also charge tolls. Around New York all the fast roads seemed to have toll sections. It was taking us away from these tolls that led to our scenic journey through Manhattan. Back to good old paper maps for me in future.
And so at 7.30 pm we arrived in Hudson. Our little diversion had added about 2 hours to the journey. We were somewhat shattered. But the reason for making this journey became happily apparent. There was our son and his daughter standing in front of the house watching out for us. All was well with the world. A happy evening was in store.