The Florida Road Trip

The Florida Road Trip

Oh Florida you stole my heart! Our final leg of the trip was preceded by a rather disastrous flight to Jacksonville from Washington DC, but we had a wonderful time in Florida.

We started in Northern Florida at the beaches of Jacksonville and St Augustine, enjoying relaxing on the white sand and swimming in the sea. We followed our day at the beach with seafood dinner at Red Lobster. I’m still dreaming about the dinner we had there.

Other the next couple of days we visited two natural springs. On my birthday we had a wonderful time at the Devil’s Den snorkelling in a fossil cave. The following day we swam, kayaked and ate delicious barbeque food at Manatee Springs. It was great to see the wildlife, but we were both pretty wary of the large snake on the steps to the water.

Following our adventures in Northern Florida we headed to Orlando. I’ll be honest, I wanted to love Orlando but I didn’t. We had a good time there, but it was so much busier and more commercial than Northern Florida. It didn’t really help that I got the worst cold and one of the days I was too ill to do what we had planned.

In terms of the Orlando parks we both loved Islands of Adventure. We somehow managed to go on a day where we didn’t have to queue for anything and we managed to walk straight onto all of the rides. The dream day at any theme park! Be aware though, we both got absolutely soaked on the water rides, down to wringing out our underwear! We also went to Typhoon Lagoon at Disneyland and had a relaxing day at the water park.

On our final day we visited Magic Kingdom. There were some elements to Disney’s Magic Kingdom that I loved – the Castle, the shows and attractions. However, it made me realise I am not really one for crowds and the queues were insane. If I were to go back to Disney I would probably pick one of the other parks to visit – I know its the big one to visit but it was a bit much in the heat for D who isn’t really a Disney fan.

All in all we loved Florida. For those interested we upgraded our hire car to a minivan for the extra space and for the ease of it. (Thank you D for driving!) We stayed in Jacksonville, Gainesville, Palatka, Ocala and Orlando. I wouldn’t recommend driving too much in Orlando; we actually returned our car in Orlando and used the hotel shuttles, the bus services and Ubers.

I know the main draw for a lot of visitors to Florida is the parks but we both really felt that if we had gone straight to Orlando we would have missed out on some really special experiences. Although theme parks are fun, swimming in springs in the sun and walking across beautiful beaches felt pretty once in a lifetime and was exactly what we needed at the time in life that we visited. It gave us the chance to just enjoy being engaged and let life happen for a while.

Also, a final thought for the last of my America posts. Buying premium economy tickets for our flight home was possibly the best £70 per ticket I’ve ever spent.

Shenandoah

After more than a week of city breaks we were so ready for some time outdoors and we couldn’t have picked a better location than Shenandoah National Park. Situated in Virginia, we were both blown away with the scale of it and its beauty.

We had picked up a hire car in Washington DC and headed for the park, only stopping for walking snacks at Walmart. We stayed in a cabin at Skylands, one of the resorts in the National Park. The whole park had a lovely relaxed feeling and we spent a lot of time recharging our batteries outdoors.

We climbed Stony Mountain and did several waterfall walks further up the Skyline drive. The best thing we did, however, was going horse riding on part of the Appalachian trail. No pictures exist of this event, but poor D was at the back with the slowest horse. If you’re new to horse riding rest assured we are pretty inexperienced riders and it was not a problem.  It was incredible cool to be experiencing something relatively new to us in such a scenic place and I’m glad we took the opportunity to do it.

We were both sad to leave such a tranquil place, in a way it was when we first started feeling like we were on holiday after such a busy few days. For any people from outside the USA looking to travel in the USA I would totally recommend taking time out to visit one of the spectacular National parks.

 

Washington DC

Washington DC

We had a completely different experience of Washington DC to a lot of visitors as we had a very knowledgeable guide. My friend lives and works in Washington DC and has really made the most of living in the capital city and all it has to offer.

We started our visit at a barbeque restaurant (where I was so excited to eat that I didn’t take any pictures). We continued the next day in this vein with a visit to Old Ebbitt Grill which serves delicious food to diplomats, government staff and locals. The brunch was divine and really set us up for the Monuments Walk.

The whole of Washington DC has been perfectly designed so that everything is aligned, making it straightforward to navigate. I particularly liked the reflecting pool and the Roosevelt monuments. The Monuments Walk is the thing to visit in Washington if you only have half a day to see the most famous sights, including the White House.  I only wish we had been there early enough in the year for the cherry blossom festival.

D and I rounded off our day with a visit to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Washington has so many amazing museums open to the public for free. If anybody is visiting Washington DC soon my friend particularly recommends the Arboretum.

Good Morning Baltimore

Good Morning Baltimore

Following our visit to Philadelphia we spent the day in Baltimore. We barely had time to drip our bags off before heading to the harbour and the National Aquarium. It was apparently unseasonably hot in Baltimore and we really felt it!

The harbour in Baltimore is pretty beautiful, especially on a clear day. As it was a Friday night everybody was relaxing in the bars and restaurants on the waterfront. If you love seafood, Maryland is the one of the best places to go (especially for the crab cakes).

The National Aquarium was obviously impressive, and we liked looking around all the different habitats and it was well curated. The staff were all absolutely passionate about marine biology and were open to questions from adults and children alike.

Although Baltimore is a friendly city, there are areas where it feels a bit unsafe, especially at night, however the area we stayed in was more studenty and felt very safe.

Embarrassingly I lost our Airbnb keys, making the trip a bit more eventful, but our Airbnb host was so kind about it and we ended the day eating pizza in our quirky apartment.

Before we left we had just enough time to visit the Poe house but not enough time to actually go inside! I would go back to Baltimore as with Philadelphia I felt that we only touched the surface on the city. It had a cool Bohemian vibe in the area we stayed and there was certainly more to explore as Baltimore has a big artists scene.

Beautiful Philadelphia

Beautiful Philadelphia

Following New York we had a day each in Philadelphia in the city; however due to having limited time we made the most of our trip by only having a day each in Philadelphia and Baltimore.

There is so much history in the older American cities. To us Philadelphia felt like a cross between New York and Amsterdam. There’s something very laid back about the city. We started our visit by eating cheese steaks in one of the parks before taking in some of the historical building and seeing the Liberty Bell. We learned something about the early days of American independence, went to an exhibit in the Peale house and toasted our engagement in City Tavern. I’m not 100% sure that everyone in the Tavern really understood our Northern English accents though but we both had some Olde Fashionde drinks which were welcome on such a hot day.

For a slice of foodie heaven we stepped into the Reading Terminal Market. Which made us extremely hungry and would make the biggest foodie excited. The range of food inside that market was exciting and mouthwatering. If you’re in the area is it well worth a visit and it was extremely tempting to fill our suitcases with salami, pasta sauces and cheesecake.

In a total change of scene, we were told of the NFL draft and we followed the hoards of football fans. Although neither of us have any idea about American football the excitement was infectious. We had fun perusing all of the stands and watching the commentary in the sunset. Although it was unplanned to be in Philadelphia for the event it really felt like we were getting a taste of the USA.

In Philadelphia we stayed in an Airbnb, it felt like such luxury to 1. spread out our possessions and properly repack our cases. 2. Have a bath instead of a shower. We barely spent any money once we were actually in Philadelphia as so many of the places to visit are free or very inexpensive. My one regret about the visit was that we couldn’t get a picture near the infamous Rocky steps due to the Football draft, but it was such an experience we couldn’t complain too much.

 

New York and an announcement

New York and an announcement

 

Hello! Its been so long! I must apologise for not filling you in sooner on life, our travels to America and what I’ve been up to lately. The two biggest bits of news:

  1. D and I went on an amazing trip to the USA covering New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC, Shenendoah, Northern Florida and Orlando.
  2. We got engaged in New York.

New York really lived up to the hype. Growing up the media and friends and family talk about how amazing New York was and truly we had a fantastic time. There’s so much to see and experience, I feel like I could go back and still not do everything I’d love to do.

We stayed in a tiny hotel room in a hotel off 8th Avenue. Apart from the fact that we could only open the cases on the bed, it didn’t really matter as with only 5 days and the whole of New York to explore it was really more of a base to sleep and for that we really only needed somewhere safe with a comfy bed!

 

We walked about 15 miles each day around the city (pack comfy shoes) and did a lot of the iconic things but I think my favourites were:

  1. Watching not one but two musicals on Broadway – we got to see Josh Grobin in Natasha and the Great Comet and we saw the opening night of Bandstand. We actually got engaged on the stage at the Imperial Theatre after watching the Great Comet.
  2. Going to Central Park and seeing iconic places from films and tv programmes.
  3. Seeing the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island (we love a bit of History).
  4. The shopping. Need I say more?
  5. Watching Twin Forks in Chinatown.
  6. Watching Wrestling in a Catholic School Gym in Brooklyn – although I was so jet lagged I fell asleep for a chunk of the match.
  7. Randomly happening upon Katz’s deli from “When Harry Met Sally”.
  8. The food! Although we didn’t really actively seek out trendy places to eat we certainly ate really well. We ate in a lovely diner, had some wonderful Chinese Food, ate a lot of pizza and had some delicious pizza in a local deli.

 

In summary, a trip to New York really doesn’t have to break the bank. We saved a lot before our trip but some of our top tips for keeping costs down were:

  1. Use the Subway. You can get weekly Subway tickets for about $37 which makes it so much easier to get across the city.
  2. Food needn’t break the bank. We ate in diners, pizza shops, delis and fast food restaurants. We ate hot dogs from a hot dog stand and we ate a lot of fast food. We found that if you eat in the more residential areas of Manhattan or Brooklyn there is a lot of great food. Notably when we went to the Railroad Diner in the East Village the food was fantastic, the staff were so lovely and the portions were so ridiculous we ate at 10am and didn’t need to eat until the evening.
  3. If you want to watch something on Broadway – Google Rush Tickets. We got amazing seats to see Natasha and the Great Comet for under $40 (I forget the actual amounts). I actually cried during the final song, something I had wanted to do since I got into theatre was to see a musical on Broadway. You can usually get Rush Tickets for certain musicals if you buy tickets when theatres open at 10am.
  4. You don’t have to pay the full admission price for the Natural History Museum – it is a suggested donation only.
  5. Plan ahead, we looked a lot of ticket prices before we went and D put together a vague itinerary so we knew what we were likely to be spending that day and took advice from friends and online reviews to determine what we wanted to do.
  6. Don’t feel like you have to have a whole new fashionable wardrobe to fit in with the locals! This won’t apply to a lot of readers but it will apply to some. It is really worth noting that although there are some truly stylish people in New York; Sex and the City is a myth. Being on the Subway a lot we noticed we didn’t really stand out as tourists for dressing how we usually do and like everywhere there is a huge variety in how people dress.

 

If we had just done New York as a short break we would still have had one of the most memorable trips of our lives. I feel like New York was kind to us and we left in a happy bubble, engaged and excited for the rest of our trip.

 

Perfect vegan chocolate cake

Perfect vegan chocolate cake

Whether you’re vegan, vegetarian or have to follow dairy and egg free diets I have you covered. I think at a push you could even make this nut free if you substituted the coconut oil for soya based spread.

If you are none of those things never fear D and I both loved this cake, the cake tends to crack on the surface but the rise is really good and it is really rich. D and I are not vegetarian or vegan but we are cake lovers and also probably what is now classed as flexitarian.

This is a very much simplified Nigella Lawson recipe based on what I already had in. However it turned out really well considering I forgot to buy sugar and had to use an old pack of demerara sugar I had in the back of my cupboard.

To make a rather large cake you will need:

225 g plain flour

1½ teaspoons bicarbonate of soda

½ tsp salt

1½ teaspoons instant espresso powder

75 g cocoa powder

300 g demerara sugar

375 mL hot water

75 g coconut oil ( about 90ml)

1½ teaspoons cider vinegar

To decorate

Dairy free chocolate spread

2 squares dark chocolate

 

Preheat the oven to 180°C and line a 20cm cake tin (one with a catch to release or a moveable base) with baking parchment. In a large bowl mix together the flour, espresso powder, cocoa powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt.

In a second bowl (or large jug) melt your coconut oil into your water along with the sugar and cider vinegar. Pour this into the bowl with the dry ingredients and beat together using a hand whisk. Pour the cake mix into the cake tin and bake for 35-45 minutes or until a skewer comes out pretty clean and the cake mix has come away from side. Set aside to cool.

DSC_0079

While the cake is still warm melt the chocolate spread. Prick the cake with a few holes and use a knife to make a thin layer. Grate over the dark chocolate.

Serve warm or cold. This cake will stay fresh when kept in an air tight container if it lasts that long.