Let me set the scene – you’re on a bicycle and on your left the cool waters of the Pacific Ocean glitter in the afternoon sun as you make yet another photo stop. Your most recent snapshot moment is just behind you, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge that has become inseparable from the image of the city itself. You’re in San Francisco and the 16-mile bike ride along the coast was definitely worth it – it was certainly the highlight of my month long trip around America and Canada.
My trip started in May, which was the right time to be in San Francisco to avoid its notorious fog. The city was everything I wanted it to be: beautiful, vibrant and sunny. There was a lot to see in the Bay, and a climb up the iconic hills took me on a weaving path through Little Italy and Little Russia to Coit Tower with its panoramic views of the city.
Although I was initially disinterested, a visit to San Francisco didn’t seem complete without a trip to Alcatraz. I was pleasantly surprised by how interesting I found the audio tour around The Rock, narrated by ex-inmates and ex-guards.
After a week basking in the sun like the sea lions in Pier 39, I flew up to Portland – a place I hadn’t heard of before planning my trip, but Time magazine promised ‘Beervana’. The city is tucked in the ‘tree hugger’ state of Oregon and if nature is your thing then Portland is definitely for you. As well as being coated in a luscious green, Portland is foodie paradise. Food carts of all varieties line the streets, so if you’re on a student budget you can pick up some amazing food on the cheap and enjoy your spoils in the company of the trees. But if trees, yummy food and a lack of sales tax aren’t enough to tempt you to visit, then Portland also offers Powell’s City of Books which is so big it literally covers a block. One massive building full of books has this English Literature student asking: “what’s not to love?”
From Portland, I took a bus to Seattle and a train to my hostel. This was situated right next to Pike Market which offers a seemingly endless supply of free food samples and is across from the site of the original Starbucks. Although the city’s Experience Music Project was overrated, Seattle’s public library is beautiful.
A meal in the Sky Needle with my friend drained a lot of my money, but we seriously overindulged. We ate to a backdrop of 360 degrees views of the city and were given a free pass to the observation deck with our meal. My favourite place in Seattle was actually just outside of the city in the town of Freemont, which has its own troll under the bridge (made of cement, but even so…)
Chicago was a relatively quick stop and on my only full day the city’s skyline was draped in thick fog, ensuring that the Willis Tower’s glass floor views were out of the question. Instead my feet remained firmly on the ground; the sprawling floors of the Chicago Institute of Art called. I was told a trip to America wasn’t complete without a visit to the Cheesecake Factory and nowhere will impress upon you the sense of American portions than a meal there. If you don’t want to die from a food overload, go for an early dinner and order off their lunch time menu – it’s cheaper, smaller and I promise you’ll still need to take your cheesecake away or die in the attempt to finish it.
I left Chicago and flew east to Boston. Many people think that New York is the coolest place on the East Coast but I am telling you Boston is where it’s at. The best way to get to see the city is by walking the Freedom Trail, which introduced me to Boston Common, the Quincy Market and Little Italy.
From Boston I had a connection in New York before taking an overnight bus to Toronto. I can’t say at what point I knew the ten and a half hour journey across the Canadian border was a bad idea, but as the space surrounding my legs decreased uncomfortably due to the seat in front of me being almost horizontal and my sleeping neighbour’s feet being curled well onto on my side, I knew that the $35 price should have told me something.
When I finally arrived in Toronto, I was offered a walking tour of the city. It took me all over, starting at award winning St Lawrence’s Market (which does some amazing Skor brownies), onto the CN Tower and Kensington Market. Our guide, whose walk resembled a sprint, had told us that the Art Gallery of Ontario is free on Wednesday evenings and a trek to the top floor provides not just a culture fix, but some amazing views of the city’s skyline.
A train took me north-east to Montreal, a great city to get lost in – but my arrival coincided with the Grand Prix, so day and night I found myself in the rain, jostled along by masses of people who would suddenly stop to gaze longingly at the very expensive cars littering the streets. Nights out were interesting; everyone was slightly damp from the never ending drizzle, the bars were packed with overdressed F1 crowds and getting served seemed to be impossible. I decided to visit the museums on the Monday after the Grand Prix crowds had dissipated, only to discover that all of Montreal’s museums are closed on Mondays. Instead I hiked up Mount Royal and saw the city from on high before walking around the Châteaux and the Lac (which oddly had a digger in the middle of its cracked concrete bed).
On my last night I took refuge from the rain in a little cafe where I happily exerted my dusty French skills for moules frites and tart citron. I’d like to say that as I sat at the window staring out into the cobbled street I was thinking about my time away and all of the things that travelling had given me: people, places, better French, more confidence and wonderfully vivid memories. But in the words of Lin Yutang: ‘No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.’ So very true.