USA breaks: City slickers
It’s been a busy summer for Fionn Davenport, as he criss-crossed the United States. Here are three of his favourite cities to visit
The fountains of the Bellagio light up in the middle of the Las Vegas strip
The Washington, DC skyline at night, including the Washington Monument, Capitol building and Lincoln Memorial
San Diego skyline from the harbour
For much of the summer, I flitted in and out of the United States. I revisited some favourite cities and discovered some new ones. I love America more than ever but I’ll never quite understand it – which I guess is a good reason to keep going back. Here are my guides to three cities that stayed with me: San Diego, Las Vegas and Washington DC.
I step off the kerb to avoid a skateboarder, but coming toward me is a wet-suited surfer on a bike, her board tucked under one arm. “Watch out, dude . . .” she says languidly. A guy at an outdoor cafe puts down his beer to laugh. “You gotta be careful in rush hour!” he yells.
It’s easy to fall for a city that prides itself on its surfing and home-brewing. San Diego might look like a mini-LA – a loose collection of neighbourhoods strung together by sinews of highway – but it feels like its happier slacker cousin, the urban version of SoCal casualness. “When people think of southern California, they think of Los Angeles,” wrote longtime San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Tom Blair, “but when they dream of it they’re dreaming of San Diego.” Getting there: British Airways (britishairways.com) flies direct from London Heathrow from £575 (€792) return.
To do Explore the neighbourhoods San Diego’s multiple personalities are revealed in its neighbourhoods. SoCal casual is at its most laid back in the three oceanside suburbs: Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach and Mission Beach – the first of these still has vestiges of the 1960s hippie culture that made it such a big surf destination.
Just across the bay is Coronado Island, home to the largest naval base on the west coast. It’s crew-cut neat, with gorgeous houses and pristine white beaches – as well as the 1888 landmark Hotel del Coronado, background star of the film Some Like it Hot and allegedly L Frank Baum’s Emerald City in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. At the bay’s entrance is Point Loma, with superb, sweeping views of the city and the ocean from the Cabrillo National Monument, right above the point where, in 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to set foot in California and set in motion a chain of events that would eventually lead to Hollywood Insider and the worship of kale. Downtown, aka the Gaslamp, was once a lawless hotbed of vice patrolled by Wyatt Earp; it’s not nearly as crazy these days, but San Diego’s version of Temple Bar is still packed with decent bars and restaurants and is a great spot for a night out. And, if you want to explore the city’s strong ties with Mexico (just a few miles away across the border), Barrio Logan’s Chicano Park is full of colourful murals that tell the story of the city’s biggest immigrant population in all its trials and triumphs.
Balboa Park Most of San Diego’s cultural offerings – museums, landscaped gardens and the world-famous zoo - are collected within the confines of Balboa Park (balboapark.org), 1,200 acres of civic pride in the middle of the city. From antique cars to contemporary photography, from the earliest settlers to the sports stars of today, there’s an exhibit to suit every taste.
Drink a Local Brew With well over 100 (and counting) varieties, the “Napa Valley of craft breweries” could well be the best place in America to try a little home brew. The speciality of the area are West Coast-style India Pale Ales (IPA) and the meatier Double IPAs – these are so good that they more or less cleaned up the medals at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival. Beer is so important here that there’s a designated app (sandiegobeerapp.com) to help you find your way. San Diego Beer Week (sdbw.org) is in November, while Brew Hop (brewhop.com) and Brewery Tours of San Diego (brewerytoursofsandiego.com) run year-round guided tours of breweries. I took a tour of Mike Hess Brewing (mikehessbrewing.com) in North Park, whose IPAs were gold-medal winners at Beer Fest 2014.
Think Beverly Hills on the beach. Designers stores and high-end restaurants serving the freshest, most local organic food (kale and acai were big when I visited; I especially enjoyed the tagline
for acai: “it’s not just a berry, it’s a lifestyle!”) dominate the village proper. Just outside it, spaced strategically along the cliffs at Torrey Pines that is some of the most majestic coastline in all of California, are the houses – nay, architectural wonders - of the moneyed elite who call La Jolla home. I observe it all from 200 feet above the air attached to a hang-glider. For $175 at Torrey Pines Gliderport (flytorrey.com) I had one of the most thrilling experiences of my life, 25 minutes of feeling like Icarus . . . well, at least for the first bit of his flight. As soon as I was finished, and still in the middle of an adrenaline rush, I texted a friend at home that southern California might be the greatest place on earth. “I know,” he replied, half tongue-in-cheek, “I don’t know why everyone doesn’t live there.”
You can’t go all the way to San Diego without at least standing on a surfboard, even if it’s safely plonked on the sand a safe distance from the water. But if you fancy it, a surf lesson is well worth the effort, and Surf Diva (2160 Avenida de la Playa, LaJolla; surfdiva.com) is the kind of place that treats beginners with enthusiastic care. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s the only all-female surf school in California.
Mexican food. I’ve never been much of a fan, but that’s because I never ate San Diego’s version of it, as close to the real thing as you can get without paying for it in pesos. Cafe Coyote (2461 San Diego Ave; cafecoyoteoldtown.com), in Old Town, is a cantina-style restaurant that does sensational, hand-made tortillas and even better margaritas. At Taco Surf Shop (4657 Mission Blvd; tacosurftacoshop.com) in Pacific Beach I ate the best fish taco in the world, or at least I couldn’t imagine anything tasting any better: fresh mahi mahi, served in a corn tortilla with cabbage, white sauce and mild salsa . . . I’ve had dreams about it.
And if you’ve had your fill of tacos and tortillas, the Sunday brunch at the Hotel del Coronado (1500 Orange Ave, Coronado; hoteldel.com) is $60-worth of buffet heaven; plus you have the thrill of dining in one of America’s most famous hotels.
Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel, The Age of Miracles, is set in southern California but isn’t about it, telling the story of how the world moved slower for one day as a result of the 2004 tsunami.
The Hard Rock Hotel (hardrockhotelsd.com), in the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter in Downtown, has rooms from $140 – and proper rock memorabilia on the walls.
More Info: visitcalifornia.com and sandiego.org
I’ve always enjoyed Las Vegas. Mostly because I never spend any more than three or four days there and because I’m not a gambler, which means I never quite experience the despair – or the delirium – that 24 hours in front of green felt can bring. Instead, I like to wander about this made-up city that has rendered time irrelevant, knowing that, if I want, I can party in Paris, sleep it off in New York and eat a giant stack of pancakes in Ancient Egypt. and still have change for a slot machine. Of the many overheated phrases used to describe Vegas, my favourite is “the last honest city in America”, because it celebrates ersatz and makes no effort to disguise exactly what it is. Getting there: I flew Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) to San Francisco and onward to Vegas with its partner airline, JetBlue. Fares start at €269 each way including taxes and charges.
To do Take in a show There are star-studded residencies by Britney, Boys II Men, Rod Stewart and Olivia Newton John. A dozen mentalists, illusionists and magicians from Penn & Teller to David Copperfield. And eight kinds of Cirque du Soleil, from the esoteric (Zarkana, Ka) to the wonderfully nostalgic, such as The Beatles’ Love. I plumped for nostalgia and took my seat in the middle of the auditorium for Michael Jackson ‘One’ at the Mandalay Bay – 90 terrific minutes of light show, moon-walking and Thriller-style choreography.
Before the Strip and its 4,000-room hotels and dancing fountains there was only Downtown, aka Glitter Gulch, which sank into greater seediness every time a new hotel opened on the southern end of Las Vegas Boulevard. And while you can still play dollar-minimum blackjack in cowboy-themed casinos that serve watered-down whisky, the district is now the hot spot in town thanks to a lot of new investment. I can’t decide whether the Mob Museum (300 Stewart Ave; themobmuseum.org) is a sign of Vegas’s brazen attitude to its own history or that times have changed since Bugsy Siegel and organised crime ran the town as their own money-making factory. One of my favourite places is the Neon Museum (770 Las Vegas Boulevard North; neonmuseum.org), an outdoor graveyard for those vintage signs that were once synonymous with Sin City: El Cortez, the city’s oldest casino (built in 1941), the original Stardust (1958) and the sign for the Flamingo, the hotel that Bugsy built in 1946 only for Lucky Luciano to call a fatal hit on him a year later because he suspected Bugsy was skimming from the top.
In the summer heat? You bet. I headed southwest and played Bear’s Best (11111 West Flamingo Rd; nicklaus.com; green fee from $75), made up of 18 of Nicklaus’ favourite holes from 270 courses worldwide and set against the stunning backdrop of Red Rock Canyon National Park. Very beautiful, very Las Vegas.
The Grand Canyon There’s no better way to view one of nature’s greatest trophies than through the window of a helicopter which lands on the canyon floor, where you’re served up a champagne breakfast. Papillon (papillon.com) has flight packages (including hotel pick up) from $250 – the champagne breakfast package costs almost twice that, but it’s worth every penny.
Las Vegas is now one of America’s best gourmet destinations. Sure, you can still indulge in an all-you-can-eat buffet of red-lamp cuisine at 4am but even that has gotten a gourmet makeover: the Cosmopolitan’s Wicked Spoon (3708 Las Vegas Blvd South; cosmopolitanlasvegas.com) has one of the fanciest spreads I’ve ever seen and it left me full for a day. For French-inspired cuisine, Bardot Brasserie in Aria (3730 Las Vegas Blvd; aria.com) is an elegant recreation of a turn-of-the-century Parisian bistro, while you can go all out at Guy Fieri’s Vegas Kitchen in The Linq (3535 Las Vegas Blvd; caesars.com) or Hubert Keller’s Fleur at the Mandalay Bay (3950 Las Vegas Blvd; mandalaybay.com), which advertises itself as a “safari for the senses” and is a terrific version of his original Fleur de Lys in San Francisco. I over-indulged in Crush at the MGM Grand (3799 Las Vegas Blvd; crushmgm.com), which emphasises the spirit of communal dining by serving plates of sensational food to share – I dined alone.
Las Vegas thrives on unfettered hope, so I thought I’d get the scoop on how to beat the casinos in Bringing Down the House, Ben Mezrich’s brilliant account of how six, card-counting students won (stole?) millions playing blackjack in the 1990s. I also dipped into Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris’s The Green Felt Jungle, about the bad old days of Vegas’ gangster era.
One of the newer hotels on the Strip is the Delano Las Vegas (3940 Las Vegas Blvd; delanolasvegas.com), where every room is a suite is decorated with muted elegance and has high-tech wizardry. I’m convinced that if you have time for a bath in Vegas you’re missing out on something, but just in case you do, there’s a flat-screen LCD TV in there to keep you company. If you want full Vegas immersion, the MGM Grand (mgmgrand.com) has a lobby the size of a giant shopping mall (they need somewhere to put the gigantic casino and the 17,000 capacity arena that recently hosted Conor McGregor’s latest triumph) and rooms to match. The newer StayWell rooms are big and designed for those in need of a little post-party TLC: there’s vitamin C in the shower water, energised lighting and aromatherapy fragrances in the air conditioning to aid recovery.
Check out lasvegas.com
The monumental architecture and broad swathes of parkland and space – grandeur needs plenty of room – proclaims Washington, DC as Ancient Rome reimagined for the modern age, a capital where America’s narrative is expressed in all its awesome might. Yet people live and work here, so beyond the gargantuan buildings and monuments is a city full of culture and delight. Getting there: Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies four times a week direct from Dublin to Washington-Dulles between March and January. Fares start at €299 each way.
The Smithsonian & The National Mall The heart of the city is the National Mall, a 3km walkable strip of landscaped greenery between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial. Most of the city’s big hitters are here, including 11 of the 19 museums that make up the Smithsonian (si.edu), America’s foremost cultural institution. You can examine the Apollo 11 command module (National Air & Space Museum), feast your eyes on the huge, cursed Hope diamond (Natural History Museum) and check out the original Star-Spangled Banner (National Museum of American History). Also on the Mall – and free – is the National Archives (archives.gov) where the three most important documents in America are kept under air-locked, diamond-tough security: the Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence.
Bike & Roll Tour DC’s centre is flat and has more green space than almost any city I’ve ever visited, so it is perfect cycling territory. Bike & Roll (bikeandrolldc.com; adults/children $40/ €30 (€35/€26) has a fabulous, three-hour tour that takes in all the major monuments and memorials, including those to Lincoln (standing on the spot where Martin Luther King told the world of his dream is an almost metaphysical experience), Jefferson, Washington, FDR and King himself (a huge bust of the civil rights leader protrudes from the granite). Visit the Vietnam War Memorial where relatives of the dead come to pay tribute. The night version of the tour costs an extra $5 (€4.39) and reveals a truly beautiful city under lights.
Tour of U Street DC’s African-American heartland is the U Street corridor of NW, in a neighbourhood called Shaw. Between 17th Street and 9th Street is an unbroken strip of bars, boutiques and restaurants, including Oohhs and Aahhs (1005 U St; oohhsnaahhs.com), a shack of a place that serves divine soul food (southern cuisine such as blackened catfish, collard greens and mac’n’cheese). Just down the street is the famous Ben’s Chilli Bowl (1213 U Street; benschilibowl.com), which has served “down-home” cuisine such as chilli dogs and milk shakes since 1958. Also harking back to another age is the Gibson (2009 14th Street NW; thegibsondc.com), an unmarked speakeasy-style bar where expert mixologist Brendan Murphy concocts Prohibition-era cocktails such as the Aviation (Plymouth Gin, Maraschino Liqueur, lemon and crème de violette). You can wander the area under your own steam, or do it as part of a guided food tour with DC Metro Food Tours (dcmetrofoodtours.com).
Washington, DC offers three real choices for nightlife: Georgetown, full of college students in button-down shirts; Adams Morgan, where those same students hang out once they’ve left college and found jobs in the political machine; and Shaw, whose bars and clubs turn the U Street corridor into a late-night party zone. Before the 1960s and the end of segregation, Shaw was the epicentre of African American culture and Jazz in the city: Duke Ellington was born here and Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong were regular performers in clubs such as the recently reopened Bohemian Caverns (2001 11th St NW; bohemiancaverns.com). If you like your music a little more contemporary, then venues such as the Black Cat (1811 14th St NW; blackcatdc.com) and the 9.30 Club (815 V St NW; 930. com) are the places to hear homegrown rock, blues and hip hop.
Gore Vidal was a native of the city and his six-volume series of historical novels about the US includes Washington, DC (1967), a political potboiler set between FDR’s New Deal and the McCarthy era.
Not surprisingly there is no shortage of hotels, including some luxurious ones such as the Mandarin Oriental ((1330 Maryland Ave SW; mandarinoriental.com), less than 10 minutes’ walk from the Jefferson Memorial. An option more within my budget is the Dupont Circle Hotel (1500 New Hampshire Ave NW; doylecollection.com) which is right in the heart of Embassy Row and has the added bonus of having close ties to Ireland as it’s part of the Doyle Collection.
More Info: Check out destinationdc.com