The day finally arrived and it was time to set off on our journey to London Gatwick airport for our Month long trip to the US. We had booked to stay overnight at an Airport hotel so that we could be fresh for our trip the next day. I should point out that this trip was pre 9-11.
Our flights consisted of a flight to Newark NJ with Virgin Atlantic and a return flight from Orlando also with Virgin. We booked car hire in two parts, both with Alamo. Because car hire is more expensive in New York, the first leg would be for 7 days and then we would return the car at Orlando and take out another rental for the remainder of the trip.
Our planned itinerary was to stay overnight on landing at Newark in a Holiday Inn close to the airport. Then head off the next day to Niagara where we would spend 2 nights, then journey down to Florida, staying 2 nights on the way.
We took off on time from Gatwick for the almost 7 hour flight. Although we were regular travelers to Florida, we had never been to New York before and as our time would be a bit limited we had not planned on visiting the city across the water on this trip. We arrived mid afternoon after flying quite low along the Hudson River giving us a magnificent view of the New York skyline, to a very busy Newark airport. The airport itself was undergoing some major alterations and it was a bit chaotic to be honest. We eventually, cleared immigration and collected our luggage and at that time the Alamo car rental desk was off the airport so we had to wait for a bus to take us there. In fact from where we were waiting, we could see the rental depot outside the airport across the road. The bus arrived and took us to the depot. We had booked a one way rental and we knew we would have to pay a drop off fee of $300. The clerk tried to talk us into upgrading even though we had booked a seven seat minivan for the 4 of us and had prepaid all our fees and insurances. We paid the drop off fee and the airport collection fee (which she managed to get us to pay) she gave us the keys and told us where the vehicle was located. Imagine our surprise when we found the vehicle was in fact an 8 seat GMC minivan, obviously the one she wanted us to pay the upgrade for and better yet it had Florida plates!! At that time we were keen to get going so it didn’t much bother us about that. We set off to find our hotel and after a short drive we came to the Holiday Inn. We got checked in and headed to our rooms to freshen up a little before having our dinner. We opted to stay in the hotel to eat and had a few drinks before retiring for the night.
The next morning with our body clocks still being on UK time enabled us to be up at 5am, fresh and ready for our drive to Niagara. We set off around 5:30am and decided we would get breakfast on the way. After a bit of a nightmare trying to get to the interstate we eventually left the Newark area. Daylight had come and we found a Perkins to have some breakfast en route. The rest of the drive was fairly uneventful and we remarked how similar the scenery was to where we lived in the UK. When were nearing Niagara Falls, probably about 30 minutes away, I could see what I thought was steam rising from a cooling tower in the distance. It turned out to be the falls.
We had decided to stay on the Canadian side of the falls and had booked 2 nights at the Sheraton. Once we got to the border we had to go through customs and immigration, we had no problems and were through in about 15 minutes. It was then that we got the first view of the falls, from the bridge, what a magnificent sight it was too. I can say that photos don’t do it justice. We went to our hotel and checked in then set off to discover Niagara. We decided to walk to down to the falls and it only took around 5-10 minutes. The first striking thing that occurred to me was that the spray rises so high, in fact the following morning when we left the hotel I thought it was raining, you know the fine drizzle type but it was in fact the spray from the falls. The wind direction was blowing towards our hotel. We did all the usual tourist things, went to where the whirlpools are along the river. I was surprised to see so many Armish people there, I don’t know if it was a holiday time for them or what but there certainly was a lot. We would see some more of them too later in the journey through Pennsylvania. We did the “Maid of the Mist”, well the men did and it was spectacular. We set off on the boat towards Horseshoe Falls, once the boat get close you hear the engine rev up as the skipper increases the power to get you in close, the only thing I can describe it as, is something like the Arctic, it was just white everywhere and you are being covered in a white spray. Even with the waterproof poncho’s you still find the water getting in somewhere. The trip over, you head back to the dock and take the elevator back up to the top, back on the main road. We also did a tour that takes you behind the falls. We found the Canadian people were fantastic and we felt we had good value for money. We never had to change our currency as you could pay for everything in US dollars. One thing to remember is that you can claim back the GST a sales tax for purchases in Canada. It is restricted to certain things though, so check to see what you can claim for. On our second day we went to Niagara on the Lake, a beautiful place with some lovely scenery. There is a jet boat that you can go for a ride on here which looked like fun. On a clear day you can see the CN tower of Toronto in the distance too. That night we crossed back over to the US side to visit the outlet mall where we got some great bargains.
The next day we checked out of our hotel and began the journey to Florida. We had a little bet to see who the first person was to spot a wild Palm tree but that would be a day or two away yet. We crossed back into the US and headed towards Buffalo where we took the interstate. After New York, the next state we entered was Pennsylvania and we passed through Harrisburg and onto the next State Maryland where spent our first night. We stayed in a motel and were surprised at the difference between, here and other places we stayed at. It was a Sunday and the hotel bar closed at 10:30pm. It just seemed that they were more religious than some of the other places we stayed.
Anyway next day we were off and I must say that the scenery in Pennsylvania and Maryland was starting to get so much better and passing by the towns of PA with their quaint churches and steeples was very picturesque along with the fall colours of the leaves. It is our intention to drive down the Blue Ridge parkway and travel through the Shenandoah national park for some of the journey so we head for Front Royal and in no time we enter the Park. As we enter and pay the small fee, we see a deer crossing the road ahead of us. We thought this was a taste of things to come but believe it or not that was the only one we saw! The speed limit on the twisty roads is only around 20mph so the journey can take some time. Every so often there are overlooks where you can stop and take some photos. This area is steeped in Civil War history and there were many plaques that commemorate the lives lost between soldiers of the North and South. Much of the scenery you are looking at won’t have changed that much over the years and you can just imagine what it was like when you look at the battlegrounds below. You can see how the name Blue Ridge came about as there is a blue tinge to the hills in the distance and this is caused by the trees putting the “blue” in Blue Ridge, from the isoprene released into the atmosphere,thereby contributing to the characteristic haze on the mountains and their distinctive colour. There are information stations along the route and places to buy refreshments. We traveled along the route for about 3 hours and then left to rejoin the interstate and on to our next stop passing by Roanoke, Charlotte and into South Carolina where we stayed overnight at a Howard Johnson. The girl on the reception desk had that southern drawl which we found so nice. Princess Diana had not long been killed and when she noticed we were from the UK she went to great pains to express her sorrow, which we thought was very nice.
The next day we wanted to get to Jacksonville in Florida for our last overnight stop and to visit some friends. We set off early and travelled south on the interstate towards Charleston where we joined the I-95. This interstate runs from the North of Maine all the way down to Miami Florida. We passed by Savannah and it was around here that I won the $10 for the spotting of a wild palm tree! Before long we were entering Florida and Jacksonville was in sight. When we got there we chose a beach hotel and checked in. It was early afternoon and we set off to meet our friends. We met up and we went back to their home for a while and arranged to meet later at the Mandarin ale house for a meal later. After a great night out we went back to our hotel, we had arranged to go to St Augustine the next day. This was a great day St. Augustine is reportedly the oldest US city and is steeped in history with a definite Spanish flavor. We had a look around the Fort and did some shopping. Later that afternoon we were going to go to Orlando. We said our goodbyes and headed off to the land of the mouse.
The temperature now was getting much warmer and we had changed into shorts in SC but as we neared Orlando it was getting very warm. When we got there, we decided to get the car sorted out and during the trip it had been needling away at us that we had paid $300 for the privilege of returning a Florida rental car to Florida! So when we went to the rental office in Orlando we complained to the clerk, she went to speak to a supervisor and came back to tell us that they will refund the $300 and gave us a brand new 7 seat Dodge Grand Caravan. So that was a good result.
We had pre booked our Orlando accommodation and during our stay we did the theme parks and all the other things that tourists do. We also set of for a few days down to Fort Myers, this has always been a favourite of ours. We stayed at Pointe Estero a condominium right on the beach. I can heartily recommend a road trip such as this and look forward to doing it again sometime. You can see so much more of the country this way.