The USA is home to several of the world’s most exciting cities, some truly mind-blowing landscapes, a strong sense of regionalism, a trenchant mythology, more history than the country gives itself credit for and, arguably, some of the most approachable natives in the world.
The US was fashioned from an incredibly disparate population who, with little in common apart from a desire to choose their own paths to wealth or heaven, rallied around the ennobling ideals of the Declaration of Independence to forge the richest, most inventive and most powerful country on earth.
So much of the country has been filmed, photographed, painted and written about that you need to peel back layers of representation to stop it from looking like a stage setting. This can make the country seem strangely familiar when you first encounter novelties like 24-hour shopping, bottomless cups of coffee, ‘Have a nice day’, drive-thru banks, TV evangelists, cheap gasoline and newspapers tossed onto lawns. But you’d be foolish to read too much into this surface familiarity, since you only have to watch Oprah for half an hour to realize that the rituals and currents of American life are as complex, seductive and bewildering as the most alien of cultures.
Language: English, with significant Spanish-speaking minorities.
Religion: Protestant with Roman Catholic, Jewish and many ethnic minorities. In large cities, people of the same ethnic background often live within defined communities.
Currency: US Dollar (US$) = 100 cents. Notes are in denominations of US$100, 50, 20, 10, 5, 2 and 1. Coins are in denominations of US$1, and 50, 25, 10, 5 and 1 cents.
FOOD & DRINK
In large cities, restaurants are mostly modern and very clean, offering a vast range of cuisines, prices and facilities. US breakfasts are especially notable for such specialities as pancakes or waffles with maple syrup, home fries and grits (a Southern dish). Foreigners are often perplexed by the common question of how they would like their eggs fried, ie ‘over easy’ (flipped over briefly) or ‘sunny side up’ (fried on one side only). Fast food chains serving hot dogs, hamburgers and pizzas are everywhere. Regional specialities range from Spanish flavours in the southwest to Creole or French in the Deep South . Restaurants come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from fast-food, self-service and counter service to drive-in and table service. The ‘diner’ is an integral part of the US way of life; consisting of a driveway, neon lights and simple food served from the counter; it is generally located in or just outside smaller towns. Discounts on eating out include Early Bird Dinners , where discounts are offered for meals served prior to 1800; Children’s Platters , selections from a low-cost children’s menu; and Restaurant Specials , when a different specific meal is offered each day at a discount price or there is an all-you-can-eat menu.
There are also many types of bars, ranging from the smart cocktail lounge, cafe-style, high ‘saloon’ style bars and imitations of English pubs to the ‘regular’ bar. In cities many have ‘happy hours’ with cheaper drinks and free snacks on the counter. Generally speaking, waiter/waitress service costs more. Drinking laws are set by States, counties, municipalities and towns, although traditionally closing time in bars is between 0000 and 0300. The legal age for drinking also varies from 18 to 21 from State to State and the laws on the availability of alcohol run from Nevada’s policy of anytime, anywhere and to anyone, to localities where drinking is strictly prohibited. Where the laws are severe, there are often private clubs or a town only a few kilometres away from the ‘dry town’ where alcohol sales are legal. It is important to be aware of these laws when visiting an area and it is worth remembering that where alcohol is available, visitors may be asked to produce some form of identity that will prove their age. It should also be noted that it is illegal to have an open container of alcohol in a vehicle or on the street. Beer is the most popular and widespread drink and is served ice cold. Californian wines are very popular. See also Food & Drink in the individual State sections for further detail.
Variety, late opening hours, competitive prices and an abundance of modern goods typify US shopping. Many small stores, specialist food shops and hypermarkets are open 24 hours a day. Clothes and electronic goods can be bought direct from factories. Retail outlets range from flea markets and bargain stores to large chain department stores. Malls are a popular way of shopping in the USA and consist of a cluster of different kinds of shops in one building, often a few storeys high, connected by an indoor plaza. Note that a sales tax is levied on most or all items in most States and the addition is not included on the price label; sales tax can be anywhere from three to 15 per cent, depending on the State.
Shopping hours: Mon-Sat 0900/0930-1730/1800. There may be late-night shopping one or two evenings a week. Some States permit Sunday trading.
If civic politics is the American religion, then Washington DC is the nation’s holy city. White houses, capital and pentagonal buildings, supreme courts – these monumental Lego shrines are rarefied with real power. A patriotic combination of history and histrionics: BYO wiretap.
Sightseeing in DC is a steady diet of museums and monuments. History, ethnography, flora, fauna, antiques and ancestral bones – anything you can display in a glass case, commemorate on a plaque, or stick in a cage – is available free of charge to the visitor.There’s also a thriving fine arts scene, anchored by the landmark Kennedy Center.
Calling this quaint and charming city the ‘Athens of America’ might seem a bit braggadocio, but the city’s 19th-century glory radiates through its grand architecture, its population of literati, artists and educators and its world-renowned academic and cultural institutions.
The image of brownstone Boston bounces off the shiny mirrored skyscrapers around it but, at street level, it’s still a history buff’s favourite American city. The past is everywhere, from colonial buildings downtown to grand 19th-century mansions in South End to cosy musuems.
Los Angeles has littered the world with its paraphernalia. Disneyland , movie stars, TV, fastfood and hype – it’s all here in overdrive. LA may be a figment of its own imagination, but if you long to stand in the footsteps of stars and breathe their hallowed air, you’ve come to the right place.
Things to do in LA tend to gravitate around a common theme – stars. There are so many tours and shows to attend you could forget to do anything else. However, there is culture: it is housed at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. A night at the Hollywood Bowl is also a treat.
It used to be called ‘God’s Waiting Room’ because of the many octogenarians eking out their last moments by the pool, but today the old folks mingle with fashion designers, bikini models and Cuban emigres, and a city that once had the highest murder rate in the US attracts millions of tourists.
Miami ‘s steamy hedonism, stay-forever beaches and propensity for neon tack can blind the casual visitor to its more subtle charms. If you dig a little, you’ll turn up some truly impressive art, and architecture aficionados and amateurs alike will be knocked out by some of its streetscapes.
New Orleans seduces with Caribbean colour and waves of sultry Southern heat. Enshrouding us in dreams and ancient melodies, its sweet-tasting cocktails are laced with voodoo potions. The unofficial state motto, laissez les bons temps rouler (‘let the good times roll’), pretty much says it all.
The heart and soul of the city is undoubtedly the French Quarter, all of which is a National Historic District. Most of the city’s museums, historic houses and markets are found here. The Treme district was first home to the city’s black population, and the cemetery here is a grisly highlight.
New York City
They don’t come any bigger than the Big Apple – king of the hill, top of the heap, New York , New York . It’s got its fair share of the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses, but it also has world-class museums, big statues, even bigger buildings, outrageous excess, and a whole lot of whooo-wheee!
From the top of the Empire State Building to the bottom of a glass in a Manhattan nightclub, New York has it all. For a closer look at the city, wander through Times Square , and the streets of Greenwich Village and Soho , check out the Wall Street super traders, or hop a ferry to Statten Island .
Although it’s dear to the hearts of America ‘s flag-wavers, there’s a lot more to Philly than the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. Yet, despite the support of patriots and the cappuccino set, the ‘City of Brotherly Love ‘ has long been the butt of jokes by WC Fields and other laugh-a-minute types.
When the insults finally soaked in – just in time for America ‘s bicentennial in 1976 – the city began renovating. The soon-to-follow Rocky films sentimentalised Philly’s tough-guy reputation, born in the Ben Franklin fraternity of rebellious Constitutionaries.
One of the USA ‘s most attractive cities, San Francisco ‘s hilly streets provide some gorgeous glimpses of the Bay and its famous bridges. San Fran has an atmosphere of genteel chic mixed with offbeat innovation and a self-effacing quality so blatantly missing from brassy New York and plastic LA.
The city’s hills makes for some wonderfully panoramic viewpoints. Spread out below you is an appetising mix of colourful neighbourhoods, bohemian history, mind-teasing art, innovative architecture and restorative parks. Go explore – by foot if you’re particularly sprightly, by cable car if not.
The best time to visit Orlando is in the fall and spring. October is mild, comfortable and perhaps the most pleasant time of the year. It is also the time of year when the parks are quietest because kids are back in school. Early May is another option, because the weather’s great and most kids are still in school.
Most people, however, end up visiting during the summer, and the tourist density increases noticeably — most people spend a good portion of their days waiting in lines. Summer highs reach into the low 90s F/30s C, but temperatures drop down to the low 70s F/20s C at night. The June-September rainy season brings almost daily — but brief — afternoon thundershowers (keep a small umbrella handy), but the rains help by cooling things down a bit.
Orlando is surrounded by lakes, which keep the humidity high year-round. If you’re not used to it, you may find the combination of heat and 60%-75% humidity uncomfortable. Be sure to drink plenty of water.
Winter temperatures tend to be a little cooler in Central Florida than in the southern part of the state, but it’s not a bad time to visit. Expect infrequent rain during the winter months, when temperatures average around 50 F/10 C (sunny daytime highs will be in the low 70s F/20s C).
Animal Kingdom is filled with wildlife as well as the usual cast of Disney characters.
Busch Gardens is owned by Anheuser Busch. It’s a brewery, a theme park and a zoological garden.
Get up-close and personal with dolphins, tropical fish and exotic birds. Hug a dolphin or just relax on the beach.
This is a high-tech, futuristic, educational showcase of countries, cultures, tradition and tomorrow’s technology.
Holy Land Experience
The main entrance into the Holy Land Experience is through the City Gates of Jerusalem.
Islands of Adventure
This theme park features five islands of thrill rides, roller coasters, stage shows, shops and restaurants.
Kennedy Space Center
A place for childhood fantasies, pixie dust and unlimited imagination. It’s a storybook where dreams do come true!
This is a real animation and television studio with stage shows, actors, rides and shops throughout the park.
Get up-close and personal with a stingray, a sea lion, a penguin, or a shark. Hug a whale or kiss a dolphin
Universal Studios is a movie themed park complete with roller coasters, production studio and film sets.
Walt Disney World
More than 28,000 acres of Orange and Osceola counties are home to Walt Disney World’s resorts, theme parks, water parks, golf courses and shopping/entertainment complexes.
Find out where you can ride the flumes and cool off on a hot Florida day.
Just an two hours outside Orlando, this is 25 acres of water slides, wave pools and man-made beaches
Mt. Gushmore is center to Summit Plummett, a 500-foot-long slide that drops down at up to 50 mph.
Typhoon Lagoon resembles a island jungle with a motif of palm trees, tropical vegetation, tidal pools and water falls.
This 36-acres in Kissimmee , Fla. has self-imposed entertainment waiting for water lovers and sun worshipers.
Wet ‘n Wild
Wet ‘n Wild was the world’s first amusement park solely dedicated to water flumes, pools and slides.
If you arrive by plane, the first landmark you may see is the Luxor Hotel and Casino, sitting almost at the end of the airport runways. It’s a fitting introduction — a huge pyramid in the midst of a modern city — impressive, almost incredible. But crouched outside the hotel is a Sphinx that looks so phony, it would be more at home on a miniature golf course. Welcome to Las Vegas , where fantastic things are real and where some things are not very real at all. Authentic or not, the Las Vegas Strip is completely fascinating. A miniature New York City stands across the street from a giant castle; a naval battle takes place beside a busy city street; Venetian-style gondolas sail along indoor canals. The resorts are full of lavish stage shows and big-name performers and restaurants owned by every celebrity chef to pick up a spoon. Of course, the gaming tables and slot machines accompany (and underwrite) the spectacles. For many, the thrill of winning and losing makes the casinos the most exciting show in town.
Climate Las Vegas is in the desert, and that can mean hot temperatures. In June, July and August, expect temperatures above 100 F/38 C. May can produce highs of 90+ F/32+ C, as can September. The desert also means great changes in temperature. The mercury can drop nearly 30 degrees F/16 degrees C from daytime highs to nighttime lows, especially in winter. And, of course, the desert creates low humidity, bright sun and hardly any rain (annual rainfall averages 4 in/10 cm). For about two weeks in July or August, there can be slightly higher humidity and thunderstorms. Winters are mild (January temperatures are 33-56 F/1-12 C). If snow falls at all, it usually melts soon after it touches the ground.
Hawaii is the easiest place on earth for a vacation. We literally invented the concept of “laid back.” Bring the wrong clothes, and a few dollars at the nearest beach shop will set you right. Don’t speak much English? A smile and a friendly manner will get you anything you need. (Hint: This also works if you speak perfect English!) Still, a few simple tips can help you prepare for paradise:
Year round in the Hawaiian Islands , the weather is wonderful. Because we’re located at the edge of the tropical zone we really have only two seasons. In “summer,” our average daytime high temperature is 85? F; in “winter,” it’s 78? F. Ocean temperatures are always warm; trade winds keep the islands cool and the humidity comfortable. If you favor a dry and sunny destination, check out the leeward side of each island.
A word of caution about the sunshine: Use sunscreen and re-apply liberally all day long. Protect children with sunblock containing zinc oxide or the latest in “sun suits” that protect from harmful rays. Hats and sunglasses are also a must.
Hawaii – The Big Island
The island of Hawaii , commonly called the Big Island , is nearly twice the size of all the other Hawaiian islands combined. Geographically it’s the most diverse island of the archipelago, with deserts, rainforests, volcanoes and, surprisingly, snow-capped mountains. The mountains create a huge barrier that blocks the north-easterly trade winds and makes the leeward, western side of the island the driest region in the archipelago. This coast has the best beaches and water conditions. The windward, eastern coast is predominantly rugged, with pounding surf, plenty of rain, tropical rainforests, deep ravines and majestic waterfalls. Kona, Waikoloa and Hilo are the main centres for accommodation and restaurants.
The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is hands down the most unique park in the US National Parks system. It covers a huge area and encompasses two active volcanoes, a still-steaming sunken crater and geologically awesome landscapes of cinder cones, pumice pillars and hardened rivers of lava. Its terrain ranges from tropical beaches to the subarctic summit of Mauna Loa , and includes lovely rainforests and fern groves. This is one of the best areas in Hawaii for camping and hiking.
The lush, coastal Waipio Valley is the largest and most spectacular of the series of amphitheatrer valleys on the windward side of the Kohala Mountains . It is enclosed by near-vertical high cliffs and is accessible only by a narrow, excessively-steep 4WD track, making hiking in the best option. The valley is a fecund tangle of jungle, flowering plants, taro patches and waterfalls, and a magical place to experience the spirit of the ‘old’ Hawaii . The valley has one rustic hotel, some 50 residents, a number of wild horses and a few aggressively territorial farm dogs.
Sure, it’s got wide beaches, waving palms and balmy weather, but Honolulu (‘ Sheltered Bay ‘) isn’t just a stage-set for beachcombing. It boasts a 150-year history as the state capital and a beguiling multi-ethnicity that emerges most toothsomely in a feast of different cuisines.
Honolulu ‘s downtown is hostile to cars, friendly to pedestrians – so consider walking rather than driving your way around its attractions, which include the grandeur of Hawaii ‘s royal past and a clutch of worthwhile musuems with a maritime emphasis.
If you’re looking for lush scenery, Kauai is a great choice. Kauai ‘s central volcanic peak, Mt Waialeale, is allegedly the wettest place on earth, and the island is so richly green that it’s nicknamed ‘The Garden Island’. Movie makers looking for lush scenery bordering on the fantastic came to Kauai to film parts of South Pacific , Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park . The small island is shaped like a slightly compressed ball. Most of the island’s interior is mountainous forest reserve, which offers great hiking; the southern and western coasts are dry, sunny and fringed with beautiful beaches. Accommodation and eateries can be found in the small towns of Lihue, Kapaa, Princeville and Poipu.
Places of interest include the stretch of sharply fluted coastal cliffs along Na Pali Coast. This is the locale of Hawaii ‘s most spectacular hiking trail, with sheer, green cliffs dropping into brilliant turquoise waters. Waimea Canyon – predictably dubbed the ‘ Grand Canyon of the Pacific’ – is smaller and a mere 200 million years younger than its Arizona cousin, but otherwise not at all dissimilar. The canyon’s colourful river-cut gorge is 835m (2785ft) deep and it seems incredible that such an immense canyon could be tucked away in such a small island.
There’s a beautiful, endless sandy beach at Polihale on the western coast, not far from the brilliantly named US naval base, Barking Sands Pacific Missile Range . The area is almost a desert, so when it’s raining everywhere else, beachgoers head this way. Lumahai Beach , in the north, is the gorgeous stretch of beach where Mitzi Gaynor promised to wash that man right out of her hair in the 1958 musical South Pacific . It’s a broad beach sandwiched between lush jungle on one side and tempestuous ocean on the other. A trip up the Wailua River to the Fern Grotto in a tourist cattle barge is a must for anthropologists, absurdists and those who love to holiday to the sounds of Elvis’ Hawaiian Wedding Song .
Maui ‘s scenery is superb and its landscapes diverse. The island’s sunny western coast is lined with gorgeous white-sand beaches, and the warm ocean waters are teeming with humpback whales. You can explore jungle and waterfalls, windsurf with the pros or enjoy a drink at Lahaina’s historic taverns. Maui is known as ‘The Valley Island’ because of its two large extinct volcanoes divided by a central valley. It’s the second-largest of the Hawaiian islands and the most developed of the Neighbor Islands . It’s renowned for its fine beaches and some of the world’s best windsurfing and surf spots.
Oahu is home to Honolulu , the biggest city in Hawaii ; Waikiki , the Pacific’s leisure-and-pleasure capital; some of the world’s biggest surf; evocative WWII memorials at Pearl Harbor , and a relaxed multicultural mix that gives a memorable flavour to its streetscapes and restaurants.
Away from the main urban areas, there’s little to distract you on the island’s makai (ocean side) except for long tracts of white sand, exhilarating surf, the sweet smell of the ubiquitous hibiscus and the endless greetings from islanders shaking their shakas.