Atlantic City, Philadelphia and The Countryside of Philadelphia - The Birthplace of a Nation
If there is one aspect of visiting the USA that invariably sticks in my craw it resides around the misconception, held by some travel snobs, that the nation is a ‘new’ country that possesses very little history. Poppycock! On each occasion that I have flown to the US, whether east, west, or somewhere within its interior, I have fallen over the countless and highly conscious efforts expended by each State to highlight its colourful and important foundations.
What is more important is that it expounds that history to all of its residents and to anybody else willing to listen. What do we do in the UK? Well, we build municipal car parks over defeated kings, when we are not residing in our Victorian past and the days of the Empire. If anything, America’s history is just somewhat simpler to understand and less convoluted than our own. Yet, there are strong links with British history, especially on the east coast, not least because the next nation across the Atlantic is seafaring Great Britain.
However, the cradle of American civilisation lies in the Delaware Valley and the magical city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the extensive battle camp of Valley Forge further upstate and the wonders of Atlantic City, in neighbouring New Jersey, where quaffing a decent cup of coffee becomes ‘kwoffee’, so strong is its local twang. Yet, this is not a story of two states but rather one coastal venue that has historical connections with another one inland. As a three venue vacation, whether you are into the history of the Americas, or not, it makes a pleasant change to Florida, California, or ‘The Big Apple’.
Something for almost everyone
Having mentioned the self-awareness of most north American residents, it is worth highlighting that, far from being all things to all people, which might be an easy construct to slip into, whether your kick is social, religious, financial, historical, artistic, architectural, or whatever gets you out of bed in the morning, the wondrous City of Philadelphia is guaranteed to have something for you to sample every day of your break. Philly is about its people. They love their home town and who might not blame them?
First stop for many visitors is Independence Hall, which is packed with historical relevance and is where the original Declaration of Independence was signed. Yet, Philly was also home to the signing of the US Constitution and where the national flag, the ‘Stars and Stripes’, was created. Yet, within easy reach of Chinatown (spectacle, colour and food, glorious food), the magical square mile contains everything from the impressive art deco Drake Hotel Building to the Carpenters Hall, the National Constitution Center, the Liberty Bell, the Betsy Ross House and the oldest street in America, Elfreth’s Alley.
Yet, there is space; acres of it. Massive parks that are as immaculate as the first of America’s skyscrapers that reach for the billowy clouds above the city. Venture across the river to the amazing colonnaded 30th Street Station, or complete the Benjamin Franklin tour. Whether you join a small group and indulge in a three hours walking tour, with an expert local guide (prices start at around $65pp), or a Founding Fathers tour (from $19pp) that ends in a local pub, you will come away with answers to questions you might never have thought to pose. My advice would be to invest in a Philadelphia City Pass, a nine-days valid ‘book of tickets’, which cost me $59 (on a local deal that varies throughout the year) but provides access to many of the more important buildings and also includes the Zoo, the Eastern State Penitentiary, or the Please Touch Museum, which proved as fascinating to the children on our holiday, as the adults.
In 2012, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the city’s ‘cultural corridor’, unveiled a raft of exciting new attractions and exhibitions, including the long-awaited opening of the Barnes Foundation. Joining the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Rodin Museum, collectively, they hold the world’s finest collections of art, including the largest gathering of Renoir paintings outside of Paris and more of Cézanne’s canvases than all the Parisian museums. This development further cements Philadelphia’s cultural prominence in the international arts scene.
Fortunately, we have some ex-pat friends residing in Philly and we took up their invitation to join them aboard a very luxurious cruise vessel, The Spirit of Philadelphia, from Penns Landing, for our last night in the city. Our slightly over three hours cruise, which included a delicious meal, cabaret, dancing and sightseeing from the river would have cost around $88pp and was hugely enjoyable. The dress code was smart casual, although we gather that jeans are frowned upon…they do have some standards in Philadelphia.
The countryside of Philadelphia
This area invites you to see for yourself what it was then but to also discover what it is now. It offers broad opportunities for tax-free shopping, especially in the King of Prussia Mall, the largest retail complex on the eastern seaboard, Philadelphia Premium Outlets, in Limerick, and the world-renowned Longwood Gardens, which combine the best of Italian, French and English traditions, creating one of North America’s most memorable gardens and, of course, the resplendent beauty of rolling hills and countryside. If that is not enough, then do as we did and visit the many museums covering everything from the paintings of Andrew Wyeth to the comedy of The Three Stooges. The potential is never-ending, from Brandywine Battlefield to Washington’s famous encampment at Valley Forge and from haute cuisine to hot dogs, swanky hotels to homespun B&Bs.
Heading out of town on the Philadelphia turnpike, for around 45 minutes, it was easy to follow the signs to Exit 326 and Valley Forge. Although not the site of a battleground, as such, this place is still historically important, because it was where George Washington gathered his continental troops and formed an army that would drive the British forces away. We actually experienced it in early fall (autumn), which meant that we were able to thrill to the phenomenal changing colours of the foliage, from russets to vibrant blood-reds, golden yellows and near fluorescent greens. People have travelled here for decades to see the spectacle and both photograph and marvel in it. We rented bicycles and took the scenic and easy cycle route (the Joseph Plumb Martin Trail) around the park.
Staying in the area is a must and while you can reside at any one of a number of posh hotels and the centre of Philly is almost over-run with them, I would strongly recommend the full-on colonial treatment and there is a good number of old fashioned inns and hotels, within the Valley Forge locale, to service that requirement to perfection. The historic General Warren Inne, which is a cool 265 years old, boasts just eight suites, a mix of genuine and reproduction 18th Century antiques and a fine dining restaurant, costs from just $135 per night. Yet, if fancy hotels have no appeal, you can take your pick from the aforementioned inexpensive B&Bs, or plush lodges, and even consider camping, as there are plenty of opportunities to spend a few nights under the stars.
As a gentleman of a certain size, I have always taken particular joy in visiting any one of a number of gents clothing stores in the area and there are plenty to choose from in retail centres in nearby towns and settlements, like Ardmore, Sassamansville, Cheltenham and Chester Springs. My wife also enjoys the more traditional boutiques and Chestnut Hill is a regular focal point, with pampering spas and cozy cafeterias adding to the appeal of the cobbled streets and copious free (validated) parking.
Heading for the coast
However, our time with inland US had come to an end, as the lights and nightlife of Atlantic City, ‘Noo Joisey’, and its enigmatic boardwalk beckoned. I can recall my first ever trip here. I had been told to watch my pockets and to avoid the dens of iniquity populating the downtown zone. However, that was more than thirty years ago and I am delighted to inform you that Atlantic City has smartened up its act. It is an immaculately clean place and, while the nightclubs, gin joints and gambling dens still form a moderately entertaining backdrop, they are about as colourful and showy as Las Vegas but without the searing heat, for which you can be grateful, most of the time.
‘People-watching’ is a café culture pastime that is de rigueur on the streets of Monaco, Milan and even Manchester but it is a primary practice on the 143 years old boardwalk that runs along the Jersey shore-line of Atlantic City. Peppered with characterful shops, the inevitable casinos, restaurants and food stands, if you have some pennies in your pocket, you will find some purveyor willing to relieve you of them on this famous strand. It should be your first visiting point, because you can launch into any of this amazingly bustling city’s main arteries from almost anywhere along its length.
Of course, AC is known for its gaming and glitz but there is heaps of alternative pursuits to check out, ranging from the ridiculous to the historic, from entertaining to engaging and the appeal to the entire family cannot be overstated. However, venture to the historic Gardner’s Basin and you could easily spend a couple of days exploring its boat charters, visiting the aquarium and dining out at one of the several seafood restaurants, all of which vie for ‘best of’ status and could each be awarded it accordingly. The children will especially adore the touch tanks at the aquarium, which are bigger and more varied than any similar opportunities I have ever experienced. It costs $7 for adults and $4 for kids to gain access to the Ocean Life Center.
At nearby Margate, the former South Atlantic City, is Lucy the Elephant, an attraction that was built some five years earlier than the Statue of Liberty (1886). Despite the destructive effects of Hurricane Sandy, which inflicted immense damage on much of the eastern seaboard last year, Lucy, a national monument, still stands and this summer, you might be among the many visitors taking to her internal staircase to the howdah viewing platform.
As AC is a major conference centre for all of the Americas, do not be surprised to find yourself rubbing shoulders with be-suited conference delegates also taking advantage of the free beaches. There is no need for special permits on these shores and it is every person for themselves, when it comes to laying out the beach towels and claiming your family’s slot on the sand. The surfing is good here, when the wind is up, and body boarding, kayaking, windsurfing and beach volleyball are all immensely popular pursuits.
As it is for Las Vegas, the casino set also demands high-end entertainments and while Elton John has only recently finished a tour at Bally’s Stage, the rest of this year might allow you to catch Stevie Wonder, Shania Twain, Beyonce and even a Blues Brothers
tribute show, which will be sure to add even more value to your holiday. On the other hand, you might bump into the stars on the golf courses, of which there are several in the AC area that offer competitively priced visitors’ green fees, as well as appropriately high-end hotels on their doorsteps.
Taking a holiday on the north-east coast of America is a genuine delight packed with real-time memories and an all-pervading desire to return. It is one of my favourite parts of the world and the welcome you receive has to be experienced to be believed. This is where ‘Have a nice day!’ originated and it is a salutation that still has great depth and sincerity in the Penn State to AC area.
Atlantic City and Philadelphia facts
How to get there: fly, British Airways flies twice daily to Philadelphia, which acts as a gateway to Atlantic City. US Airways flies direct daily from Heathrow and Manchester, supplemented by Glasgow in the summer months. Alternatively fly Virgin Atlantic into Newark, or cruise into New York and drive to Pennsylvania, or New Jersey.
Getting around: while public transport systems are well-honed and efficient, there is a superb SEPTA rail service from Philadelphia to Atlantic City, car hire is moderately cost-effective and does provide a number of freedoms, notably access to outlying attractions, that you will appreciate. Fuel costs are less than half UK prices.
Important web-sites: www.discoverphl.com www.doatlanticcity.com www.brandywinevalley.com www.valleyforge.org www.longwoodgardens.org www.citypass.com www.septa.org www.taxfreephilly.co.uk www.aircanada.com