A time I return to over and over, reminiscing and remembering different things. What am I talking about? The best holiday I have ever had, and one I would NEVER do again! I know you’re puzzled by this oxymoron, and I will explain… I promise.
It’s hard to believe it is twenty-five years since I embarked on the best holiday—and the best experience—of my life. Don’t get me wrong, I have had many memorable holidays since, but maybe it’s because it is not an experience I would have touched with a barge pole had I known the full details; I am so very glad I didn’t know.
1996 was a momentous year for me in many ways. It was the year I lost my beloved grandma (the first of my grandparents); it was the year I earned a First Class Honours degree in Business Studies and Accounting (completed mainly at night school whilst working full time); it was the year I broke off my engagement to a psychological abuser and finally walked away; it was the year I embarked on a new career with a top five accountancy firm; and it was the year I turned twenty-six.
The previous year myself, Pam and Anna had sat in the university canteen and discussed marking the end of our degree courses with a trip to the USA. We wanted to do a Trek America style holiday, so we could see as much of the country as possible. There were so many options to choose from, but Pam and I outvoted Anna on a tour which encompassed a visit to Graceland, a place I had wanted to visit since I was a child. The trip was for three weeks, but we added a further week to go up to Canada, taking in Toronto, Niagara, and Montreal, all via Greyhound bus. Pam said she would sort everything out, and I thought nothing of it; she was my best friend after all, and I trusted her implicitly.
It wasn’t until we were setting off from the New Yorker hotel in NYC that I found out why she had taken full responsibility for booking the trip. As the tour guide informed us we were heading to our first campsite in Washington DC and wouldn’t arrive until after dark, I said, ‘What do you mean, campsite? I’m not sleeping in a tent.’ To which he replied, ‘Well, I don’t know where you’re gonna sleep then, as this is a camping holiday.’ ‘PAM!’ I screamed. ‘You told me we’d be staying in youth hostels.’ ‘What? You wouldn’t have come otherwise,’ she mildly replied.
And she was right, I wouldn’t. So traumatised was I by Guide camp many moons before, I swore I would never camp again. Aside from the best holiday ever, I have stood firm on my rule and have no intention of ever breaking it again. I know you don’t get this, but think about it. If you’re thrust into a situation you wouldn’t choose, you have to deal with it. Given the choice, a hotel and a comfy bed with en-suite bathroom (a must) win every time.
During those three weeks, I showered with every insect known to man, slept in the open under the stars, woke up with the tent floating in the middle of a flooded field, and tip-toed back over tent ropes in the early hours in high heels and a short dress. I thank Pam for the deception she pulled off—magnificent. The only time we had a hotel booked—because there were no campsites—was in New Orleans, but I never used it, except to change clothes in, as New Orleans was a city most alive at night.
The trip took us from NYC to Washington, out into the Smokey Mountains, down through Nashville and Memphis to New Orleans, then to Panama City Beach and Florida, before working our way back up the east coast through Savannah and Charleston, with our big night out being in Atlantic City, before arriving back in NYC.
We did so much on the trip, and I kept a journal of most, if not all, which I called The Diary of an Inexperienced Traveller. It’s handwritten and filled with postcards, pamphlets, ticket stubs, and the most important thing of all—memories. I’ve decided to type it up, although I haven’t started yet! It will be minus the keepsakes, of course, but it might make you chuckle at the things we did and said. You will have to join my Reader Club though if you want to have a read, as it will form part of a future newsletter.
The memories the trip evokes are myriad and far too many for one blog, but some stand out even after two-and-a-half decades.
This was my first trip to NYC (I returned for my 40th birthday in 2010) and it was fleeting, but I got to see the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre, although we had no time to go inside. Their sheer size took my breath away and I remember lying on the ground so I could get a full photograph of them—I couldn’t. I also remember there being a fountain between the two towers, with a beautiful sculpture in the centre. We, of course, snapped the obligatory photo.
After the sheer height of NYC, Washington DC seemed very flat and very white—all the buildings appeared to be made from marble! We wasted much of the day queuing to get into the National Archives to view the Declaration of Independence, meaning it was a rush to get to the other sights. I wanted to see the Lincoln Memorial and the eternal flame at JFK’s grave. Whilst in Arlington Cemetery, we were lucky enough to see the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Another memorable part of Washington was our tour of the J. Edgar Hoover Building (FBI HQ for those not in the know). When we got to see the arsenal of weapons recovered from some of the biggest names in US criminal history, the guide held up a rifle and said, ‘And here is the weapon Lee Harvey Oswald used to assassinate JFK.’ I piped up, ‘Allegedly’, drawing a sharp intake of breath from everyone and a ‘Not here!’ from Pam.
Believe it or not, Washington had the filthiest campsite of them all, requiring shoes in the showers and a no touch policy on as many surfaces as possible. It still makes me shudder thinking about it!
My favourite place was Graceland. I’ve been an Elvis fan ever since Mum and Dad bought me a three LP set called American Trilogy for my thirteenth birthday (I still have it in the loft somewhere), and so visiting Graceland was a dream come true. As a mansion it is pretty small, hidden behind the famous gates on the hugely busy thoroughfare that is Elvis Presley Boulevard. It was horribly commercialised then, so I dread to think what it is like now. But all that disappeared once I set foot inside those gates, put on the headset and stepped inside the house. I was transported to another time and place, listening to friends and family bring the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll to life before my eyes as I roamed from room to room. So moved was I by the tour, I was in tears by the end. That day was 19th July 1996, my dad’s fifty-ninth birthday, and I remember calling him from Memphis to wish him Happy Birthday!
As I said, New Orleans was a city most alive at night, the streets teeming with people and vibrating with music. We were warned not to stray from Bourbon Street, as New Orleans was dangerous at night. The city introduced me to bourbon via a drink called a Thunderbird which they served in slurpy cups, like you get soft drinks in at the cinema. It was also the city where I met Lawrence, a New York guy with a thunderbolt tattoo on his thigh. We strayed from Bourbon Street to enjoy iced coffee and a little privacy to chat.
Panama City beach in Florida is a place I’ll never forget, as it is where I got Taz—my first tattoo. It was a dare, a choice between a reverse bungee and a tattoo. So, there I was, midnight in a tattoo parlour, straddling a bench, a pillow between my teeth, as my alter ego was tattooed onto the only non-sunburnt part of my body (another blog, another story). I remember having to stay up all night, as I had to clean it every few hours. The first time I did was about three in the morning in the campsite washroom. Suffice it to say, I remember little after peeling off the blood-soaked dressing. One of the girls from the tour group found me passed out on the washroom floor an hour later!
The last night of our trip was the only time we got dressed up, as we went to Atlantic City for a night of drinking and cavorting. A group of us settled in a bar, which I remember had sharks in tanks around the room. We were thinking we’d found the most boring bar ever when the clock struck nine, the lights went down, and the bar staff stripped off. What a night! Soon a semi-naked server was feeding me—mouth to mouth—a drink called an orgasm, which was served in a test tube. The night was then turned over to a parade of male strippers (think Chippendales), and Pam decided it would be hilarious to tell the DJ I’d just got engaged… All I can say is I have never been so mortified in my life. The stripper, however, was a gentleman, told me he wouldn’t do anything to humiliate me, and told me to relax and enjoy myself, which I did!
To finish the night, we ended up with a police escort back to the campsite as we’d missed our lift and none of us knew which campsite we were in!
I could go on, as the more I reminisce, the more I remember, but you’ll have to wait until I release my diary 😉.
So, over to you, dear reader. Do you have a holiday you would class as your best ever, or is it just me? I’d love to hear your tales, so please get in touch.
I had hoped my fiftieth birthday trip would eclipse this one, but that is yet to happen, thanks to Covid. But, then again, it isn’t about replacing memories and experiences, it’s about building on them.
’Til next time,