A Travellerspoint blog

Washington D.C.

The District of American History, Museums and Art

sunny 28 °C

After another successful Greyhound ride, we arrived in Washington D.C. Coming from NYC, it was refreshing to step into (what felt like) cleaner air and streets, open spaces, and a less hectic energy. It seemed we arrived during a heatwave that had hit the city, with the "feel like" temperatures in the 30s (high 80s Fahrenheit) the whole time we were there.

We stayed at Hostelling International, which offered a lot of interesting free tours. Having arrived in the early afternoon, we were able to join the Night Monument tour. In two hours, we walked to see some of the key sights:

The White House, which is smaller than you would expect:
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The Washington Monument, which was closed for construction after damage after an earthquake from August 2011:
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World War II Memorial, which I found very impactful and one of my favourites:
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The infamous Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King made the "I Have a Dream" speech:
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And the Eisenhower Executive Office Building:
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One of the girls I'd met on the walking tour recommended the hop-on-hop-off bus tour. I usually avoid doing these, but the next day was so humid, and the heat was so unbearable, sitting in the shade didn't seem like a bad idea. This was fine to get a feel for D.C., but it didn't give me a chance to really get out and see much, given the buses run every half an hour. In hindsight, I would have been better off saving the $40 and spending my time in the air conditioned, free museums. After doing the bus tour, I only had enough time to visit the Holocaust Museum. The way the museum is laid out, it takes you through a journey and tells a powerful story of the history. I was there for 1.5 hours and felt rushed toward the end as it was closing. A very thought-provoking museum that I would recommend to those who don't mind a bit of dark tourism.

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The Holocaust Musuem

Having felt I 'wasted' some time on the bus tour, I wasn't sure I'd be able to visit all the placed I wanted to all in my final day in D.C. So, I got up super early to make the most of the day, and even in the wee hours of the morning it was stinking hot and I felt like I was walking around in a sauna. But, a benefit of the early hours (and possibly the hot weather), was the quietness at the memorials. I felt that wandering the Korean War, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorials at 8am in the morning with no-one else around, and on the memorial of September 11, added to the impact of the memorials.

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The Thomas Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument

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The Roosevelt Memorial

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Martin Luther King, Jr.

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WWII Memorial - flags flown at half staff in remembrance of 9/11[

I'm not a huge museum-goer, but I felt I could spend days and weeks in the museums in D.C. I visited the Museum of Natural History, Art and Space Museum, and the National Gallery of Art. I LOVED the Museum of Natural History, spending most of my time there in the Butterfly Pavilion and being in awe of the Dinosaurs and Ice Age exhibits.

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Butterflies in the Butterfly Pavilion, Museum of Natural History

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T-Rex skeleton, Museum of Natural History

Another cool thing was seeing the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, The Bill Of Rights and Magna Carta at the National Archives. I felt that going to D.C. after just visiting Boston gave a really good history of the US. I wish I had of gone to Boston and DC when I first moved over to the US, as the two cities helped me understand why Americans are so patriotic and have such a sense of independence. More photos from Washington, D.C. are here.

After D.C., we were leaving the east coast, and heading to Glacier National Park in Montana. I was super excited to have a break from cities and getting closer to nature!

Click here for more D.C. photos.

Posted by always_explore 16:00 Archived in USA Tagged washington d.c. Comments (0)

New York City

The Big Apple

sunny 24 °C

We had originally planned on taking the Amtrak train from Boston to NYC, but like many other things, we'd left it to the last minute and by the time we went to book, the cost almost doubled. When researching other transport options US, Greyhound sounded like the worst option with pretty horrific reviews. My friends would cringe and make faces just at the mention of "Greyhound buses". Also, being susceptible to motion sickness, me on a Greyhound bus just didn't seem like a good idea. But, at a quarter of the price of Amtrak, we decided to give it shot. I can survive anything for a few hours, right? It may have been the extremely low expectations, or maybe we lucked out, but the entire Greyhound experience was quite pleasant. The bus was really clean and new (apparently we had the "new 2014 buses"), and the time went by really fast with the free WiFi. And I didn't get sick! :) We got to NYC in about 4 hours with no issues. Maybe Greyhound just has a bad rep?

I'd gone to NYC a couple times before, and if it hadn't been a must-see on Vinnie's list, it wouldn't have made it on the itinerary. I don't know what it is, but the city's energy just doesn't really appeal to me. I think it's one of those places you need to know someone who lives there to show you around. Having said that, there is so much to explore in NY, and heaps of pretty places to wander around, I didn't mind being back to explore some new areas. After our first day wandering Central Park and Times Square. Vinnie and I decided to split up once we got NY. Not only because a lot of the things he wanted to do I'd already done, but also because I was starting to need some alone time. I'm sure Vinnie was glad to be rid of me for a bit too!

Vinnie with Spidey in Times Square

Vinnie with Spidey in Times Square

It was kind of nice to not have a list of sights to try to fit in each day. I didn't have any plan on what I wanted to do, so mostly just wandered. I am a huge coffee lover so found a hidden little cafe called Grumpy Cat near our hostel and parked myself there for a few hours.

The last time I went to NY I really enjoyed the Guggenheim and MOMA, so thought I'd check out the MET this time. I'm not an art buff, but I did love seeing the Monet pieces there - it reminded me of my Uncle and how much he would love it. The MET building itself is really pretty so it was nice to just wander around.

Claude Monet - Bouquet of Sunflowers - The Met

Claude Monet - Bouquet of Sunflowers - The Met

The Met

The Met

View from the Met rooftop

View from the Met rooftop

On the Saturday night, I felt a little obliged to head out, being in NYC and a Saturday night and all, so thought I'd see what cheap Broadway tickets I could get at TKTS Booth. I've always wanted to see "Chicago", and it was showing for less than half price, so It was an easy decision. I love the movie and the musical lived up to my high expectations.

Chicago Broadway show in NYC

Chicago Broadway show in NYC

Coincidentally, whilst we were in NY, one of my girlfriends from Melbourne, Lucy, was also in town with some other friends. I only realized via Facebook - good old FB. We arranged to meet up for brunch at Penelope's. The wait was over and hour, but the food was great, it was well worth the wait. It was so nice to see the girls and catch up. I felt it was a bit of a taste on what it will be like to catch up with all my friends once I move home.

On our last night, we went to check out the stand up show at the Comedy Cellar. We left it till the last minute to make a reservation so could only get in for the 8:45pm show (which is super late for an old lady like me ;) ). I was hoping to be home before midnight, but we ended up staying out to see two shows because it was so fricking hilarious. We were sat near the front so were picked on quite a bit, but it made for a really fun experience. It was a great way to end our time in NY before heading to D.C.!

Posted by always_explore 18:00 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Boston

Beantown

sunny 26 °C

There were a couple of reasons that made me a bit nervous leaving Montreal to go to Boston. Firstly, the whole Visa issue from earlier in August created a teeny little doubt whether I'd be let back into the US. Secondly, the drive. I'd driven in Chicago and had my US drivers' license, but this would be the first time that I was renting a car and doing a long trip on highways that I was unfamiliar with. Not to mention the navigation - I have no sense of direction and get lost easily. "Why can't your cousin help?", I hear you ask. Although I am travelling with my cousin, I need to remind you that he is 21 and this is his first time travelling overseas without his parents. I don't think he'd be offended if I said that I have to take the lead a lot. So the drive from Montreal to Boston was pretty much up to me. I'd decided to rent a GPS because maps + driving + me does not call for a good outcome. All I can say is thank goodness for GPS and Garmin. I put all my faith in that little GPS and it served me well. We drove a "highway" which was one lane through some really small towns, which I was really bummed about because I was hoping for a highway rest stop that offered Tim Hortons but there were none in sight (we didn't get a chance to pick up Timbits whilst in Montreal). For what felt like forever we were on a one-lane "highway" going through farmland - Are Canadian highways are different to US highways?

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After about an hour or so of uneventful driving since leaving Montreal, we made it to the US border. US Customs at the border took longer (about 30-45 minutes after we made it to the first customs officer) because I told them I was on a tourist visa. My E3 Visa in my passport appeared to be still valid, and even though I explained I had quit my job, this confused them and they pulled us over to ask us more questions. I knew it was going to be hassle. After the same questions from the second customs officer and paying a $14 admin fee, I got an i-94, my passport was stamped and we were allowed back into the US. It was a strange feeling to feel like I was back on "home ground", given this milestone meant I really had no ties with the US any more except as a tourist.

Scenery driving through Vermont from Montreal to Boston

Scenery driving through Vermont from Montreal to Boston

The drive once we entered the US was so pretty. There were lush green trees everywhere. It made me want to see more of the North East of the US. We'd originally had Portland, Maine, on our list, but had to cut it out as we wanted to do more of South America. Next time. After about another 4 hours of driving, we made it to Boston in one piece.

Driving on the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge

Driving on the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge

Going through the Central Artery/Tunnel ("Big Dig" )

Going through the Central Artery/Tunnel ("Big Dig" )

We had booked 40Berkerley Hostel in the South End neighbourhood of Boston. The hostel was more a really low budget hotel - it didn't have the personality that hostels usually have. In hindsight, it wasn't the best location (after walking past the Hostelling International hostel, I think that would have been a better choice had it not have been booked up when we tried to book it).

We were given a map and upon first glance I felt that the 3 nights we had planned was not enough. It seemed that there was so much to see in Boston. But, in the end, we actually felt like the 2 full days was enough. One of my friends from Boston had recommended we do the Boston Duck Tour - so we did that on the first day to get our bearings. It's a fun little tour, with a really eccentric tour guide. It covered most of the main sights in Boston, so gave us a good idea on what we wanted to go back to. The must-do as recommended by most people was the Freedom Trail, which you can walk it yourself easily. We wanted to do a tour to get a bit of the history explained (Vinnie loves history). I had originally wanted to do it as part of a running tour, but that only runs Friday-Sunday, which didn't work with our schedule. So we opted for the one run by the visitor centre which was pretty cheap (~$10). There is so much history in Boston! I'm not usually interested in history, but it was really fascinating to hear about how the US started. The Freedom Trail covers all the main sights, stopping at the historical sights - Boston Common, State House, Granery Burial Ground, Old State House, Faneuil Hall, Paul Revere House, Bunker Hill Monument, USS Constitution, and more. The Boston Public Garden is right next to Boston Common (it's the first public garden in the US). and it was really nice to wander around there.

Faneuil Hall

Faneuil Hall

Granary Burial Ground

Granary Burial Ground

Bunker Hill Monument

Bunker Hill Monument

One part of our sightseeing that really touched me was seeing the Boston Marathon Finish Line and the Boston Marathon prayer ribbons outside the Arlington Street Church. Walking down the street sent chills up my spine. I would love to spectate the Boston Marathon one day.

Boston Marathon Prayer Ribbons

Boston Marathon Prayer Ribbons

After doing the Wrigley Field Tour in Chicago (I highly recommend it!), we wanted to do the Fenway Park tour - the oldest ball park in the States (Wrigley being the second oldest). The weather on our first day in Boston was warm and sunny, but it was cold and rainy the day we did the Fenway Park tour. Nonetheless, it was really interesting and well worth the $16. Our guide was a hardcore Red Sox fan and painted a great picture of the park's history.

Fenway Park

Fenway Park

Aside from the history, friends had recommended a lot of food options in Boston. "Wicked pizza", lobster rolls, pastries, beer - the list went on. Once we arrived in Boston, we were starving and really wanted to try some seafood. On my friend's recommendation, we went to Legal Seafoods and had some clam chowder. The food coma was well worth it - the seafood was full of flavour and so fresh! On our second night we went to Pizzeria Regina in the Italian neighbourhood, based on my friend's instruction to find some "wicked pizza". Pizzeria Regina was recommended by Tripadvisor, and we went for one of their classic pizzas that had pretty much all the toppings - probably one of the best pizzas I've had! Our server was a true Bostonian, and we had to concentrate pretty hard to understand his accent. We completed the touristy meal with a cannoli from Mike's Pastry.

Vinnie with Mike's Pastry cannoli

Vinnie with Mike's Pastry cannoli

On our second day, Vinnie had gone to see the Harvard and MIT campuses, but unfortunately I couldn't join him because my lack of organization before the trip caught up to me. I realized I'd packed pretty poorly, and it felt like all my things were falling apart on me - the main thing being my phone. Even though I work in the technology industry, I am probably the least technological person there is. My phone was over 3 years old and it wasn't the most reliable at the best of times. I was hoping it would last me through the trip and I'd just get a new one when I got back to Melbs. Unfortunately, it chose to completely die on me in Boston. After some debate on what to do, I decided to buy a new one. On top of that, I hadn't gotten all my vaccinations in Chicago. I had to have a follow up Hep B shot in Boston. All these boring errands were a huge inconvenience, when I really just wanted to be sightseeing, but it had to be done.

When Vinnie went to the colleges, I ventured out to try the lobster roll from James Hook & Co. We'd walked there the day before, but we just missed it as it closes at 5pm. Having to head there a second time, I was really hoping the lobster roll would be worth it. And it was - the roll is huge - they put so much lobster in there, I could have shared it with someone - but it was so fresh and delicious I ate it all. Yum!

Lobster Roll from James Hook and Co.

Lobster Roll from James Hook and Co.

By the end of our time in Boston, I felt like I'd walked all of Boston and Cambridge. We'd really made a good effort to see everything in our short time in Boston. On our last night, we were craving some Chinese food so we went to the Boston Chinatown. It's pretty small, as expected. We went to the restaurant that had the most Asians (the only way to pick the best Chinese restaurant), and it seemed Gourmet Dumpling House was the place to go. After a satisfying meal that felt like home, we went back to get ready for our next stop - New York!

Posted by always_explore 17:00 Archived in USA Tagged boston Comments (0)

Montreal

Bonjour, hi!

sunny 21 °C

Upon arriving in Toronto customs to catch the connecting flight to Montreal, I immediately felt I was no longer in the US. The fashion was different and people seemed less...rushed. Approaching the customs officer, I braced myself for the stern, serious, no-nonsense personalities normally found at US customs, but instead, I was greeted with a friendly and chatty guy who asked about my trip. Totally living up to the Friendly-Canadian stereotype :)

I had originally planned 7 days in Montreal, with the intention of spending a couple of days for Quebec City. I hadn't researched the logistics of it prior to leaving, so when I found out it was $120 round trip and 3.5 hours each way, I decided to skip it. I probably could have done with less time in Montreal, but in a way I appreciated the slower pace and not having to rush to cram all the sights in. I was exhausted from the entire month of August and welcomed the time to slow down and shift into travel mode.

It's been a while since I've stayed in a hostel, and after a few years of being an "adult" and used to having my own space, I must admit it was a bit of an adjustment. Sharing personal space with a bunch of random strangers is probably not something I thought I'd be doing at this stage in my life. But after a few days, and many grunts of "I'm too old for this", I quickly assimilated and slipped right back into it - living out of a backpack; wearing thongs (I.e flip-flops) in the bathroom that looks so dirty you want to avoid touching anything in it; getting reacquainted with my eye mask, ear plugs, sleeping sheet and microfiber towel; carrying a map and my wallet with me everywhere; being open to talking to strangers and making new friends, etc. I also received my very last paycheck in Montreal - this is the first time since 15 I've been completely unemployed - eep!

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Me and my backpacks

Montreal is a very spread out city, but easily accessible with the public transport. We stayed in the Gay Village, near the orange line, which was pretty central to the key areas we wanted to visit. One thing I noticed straight away were the bikes and bike paths EVERYWHERE. Montreal's network of bike paths total 600km / 960 miles!!! Woah. It seemed fitting to do start off doing a bike tour of the city with Fitz and Follwell (highly recommended, even if just for the cute guy who does the bookings :p). We did the 4.5 hour Montreal Highlights tour which covers pretty much all the key sights. It starts and ends in Plateau Mont Royal which is a really busy neighborhood at the bottom of the Mont Royal "mountain". The mountain is hughmongous and contains a lot of park areas and hiking trails, right in the middle of the city. The bike tour didn't go up the top, so we walked it. It's a bit of a walk to get up to the top, which was kind of a shock to the system seeing normally my body was used to sitting at a desk all day. All the sunshine and exercise was tiring! The views from the top were pretty cool, though coming from seeing the Chicago skyline the day before, a wee bit underwhelming. But still worth checking out. There's a crucifix up the top too which we didn't know the significance of, but kind of cool to see. If you're in Montreal on a Sunday, a must-see at Mont Royal is "Les Tam-Tams du Mont Royal". Simply put, its where locals form a drum circle, drink a lot of alcohol (picture a guy drinking Merlot out of the bottle in the middle of the afternoon) and dance as if no-one's watching. There is a sort of positive energy floating around the park which is quite infectious, even if just watching.

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Mr. Merlot at the Tam Tams

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View of Montreal from the top of Mont Royal

The week in Montreal really flew by. I spent a lot of time walking, which my poor old knees weren't used to. There's a lot of funky little neighborhoods to explore, and there are a lot of more touristy sights to see. Old Montreal is tourist central, with souvenir shops galore. The architecture in the area is beautiful and lined with cobble stone roads, street vendors and buskers. The Notre Dame Basilica is close by, in Place d'Armes, the square of the exact spot where the city was founded. The $5 entry fee to the Basilica includes a free tour. It's a good one that covers the history of the Basilica which is interesting because its closely tied to the history of the city. Also in the area is the Old Port, which is touristy but a nice walk along the pier. Again, I couldn't help and compare the water-front with Chicago's lakefront... and was a bit underwhelmed, but I had to remind myself that Montreal is a much smaller city and to not compare the two.

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Old Montreal

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Notre Dame Basilica

Our time in Montreal coincided with the Montreal Film Festival. We went to check out an independent film, "La Fille Du Martin (The Martin Girl)", that was made by a Montreal local and filmed locally in the city. There were also free film in an outdoor plaza, where we went to watch "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "Gladiator". Also happening while we were in town was the "Mosaicultures Internationales" in the Botanical Garden. There are many huge displays of plant sculpture artwork. I can't describe in words how unbelievable these sculptures are, so some photos are below.

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Aside from the sights, Montreal has an interesting culture to experience, and great food to sample. With both French and English roots, most locals are bilingual. Walking into restaurants and stores, you are greeted with "Bonjour! Hi!" How you respond back will determine which language is used in the conversation. (I learnt quickly to stop responding with "Bonjour" in order to be polite!). The French influence means amazing pastries. A bakery called "Boulangerie Patisserie Au Kouign-Amann" is a must for their delicious kouign amann. It's basically butter and sugar caramelized and melted in between layers of pastry. Other foods you will be told to try are poutine and bagels. Yep, apparently Montreal is known for bagels (?). They're made differently and some claim are better than NY bagels. Big call. After some research, we decided on St. Viateur bagels and had an awesome meal. Despite the great meal, I personally prefer US style bagels. For poutine, the general recommendation was Le banquies poutine. It's a funky restaurant with a casual atmosphere, kind of a like a diner. The poutine was really good, though I'm not the best judge as I'm not a huge fan of cheese or gravy. Another spot we went to sample Montreal food was the Jean Talon Market. Heaps of fresh produce and yummy crepes!

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Poutine

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Montreal Bagel

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Kouign amann

By our last couple of days in Montreal, I felt we covered a lot and I was ready for our next stop, Boston!

Posted by always_explore 17:00 Archived in Canada Tagged montreal Comments (0)

The Adventure Begins

Bittersweet excitement

sunny 35 °C

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It's hard to believe the time has come for our trip to begin. I know I'm supposed to feel excited about the start of this great adventure, and I am, just a little bit. But I'm feeling mostly sad that my love affair with Chicago has to come to an end. I've been running around like a headless chook trying to get everything organized, and I just want some time to sit, do nothing and recover. I've been in a blur of packing, selling/donating almost all of my belongings, wrapping up work, and frantically searching for a shipping company; all whilst trying to make the most of the Chicago summer with my friends. After constantly having a thousand things on my to-do list, it's weird to now switch to traveling mode.

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My little cousin, Vincent, whom I'm doing the trip with, came for my last week as a Chicagoan. Amongst the packing frenzy, I was able to do some sight-seeing around the city with him. This made me to look through rose-tinted glasses and appreciate Chicago for the wonderful city it is. It has the perks of a big city, but the down-to-earth vibe of a small one. The gorgeous lakefront with the stunning skyline as a backdrop constantly reminds me what a beautiful place it is to live. I love that I haven't needed a car since living here, with the public transport well set up and running so frequently. I love all the triathlon, marathon and all the other fantastic training groups and events to choose from. But most of all, I love all the amazing friends I've made.

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Before I came to the US, I had a few stereotypes in my head of Americans - the Hollywood valley girl, the redneck, and the uptight New York big-shot. But what isn't portrayed in American TV shows/movies, and less well-known is the warm, welcoming and friendly nature of the Mid-West. It may be easier for me being a foreigner, but I was quickly befriended by a lot of great people. Without realizing, I now have a strong support network of friends who are there to help me through the transition, and be sad with me about my departure. It's sad to being saying bye to my Chicago family, but as cliche as it sounds, I know it's just a "see ya later". After moving from Melbourne, I've learnt that the friendships that matter will stay strong despite the distance. With Skype, Whatsapp and other cool technology, I know that keeping in touch will be easy.

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So here I am, finally embarking on The Trip of a Lifetime. I have fleeting moments of panic. I feel flickers of regret for turning down my company's offer to transfer back to Melbourne in order to embark on this journey. And I'm feeling way too old to be backpacking and "slumming" it in hostels. But, it's too late to back-out now, and I know, deep down, this is what I need. It'll be character-building, right?

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Our first stop was supposed to be DC, but a few weeks ago we had to change it to Montreal because of my Visa. I was super unorganized and left to the last minute validating the grace period for staying in the States after my last day at work. I'd vaguely remembered someone telling me it was 28 days, so i wasn't too phased. To my surprise, my employer's lawyers informed me that when "legal aliens" on the E3 Visa terminate employment with their sponsor, it is advised to leave the US immediately. I couldn't quite trust the information, so I contacted a few other immigration lawyers for some second and third opinions. They all said the same thing. So three weeks out from our trip, we had to reroute the east-coast portion of our route so that I don't outstay my welcome. Knock on wood that I'll be allowed back in with no issues.

As a result of my schedule-obsession (I'm a Project Manager, afterall!), we have a pretty firm itinerary. But aside from flights and accommodation, we haven't planned anything else. That counts as spontaneity, right? Our itinerary will be:

1. Montreal
2. Boston
3. NYC
4. Washington DC
5. Glacier National Park
6. Yellowstone National Park
7. Grand Tetons
8. Seattle
9. Vancouver
10. San Fran
11. Yosemite
12. Austin
13. Orlando
14. Chile
15. Argentina
- Back to Chicago
16. Auckland
17. Melbourne

First stop, Montreal!

Posted by always_explore 17:00 Archived in USA Tagged chicago Comments (0)

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