Saturday, January 11, 2014

DC - Boston - NYC: Christmas 2013 - New Year 2014

This trip was a great success thanks to all the friends and family who hosted us. It was a cold Christmas eve morning when we left Ann Arbor and headed to Washington DC. This was our first stop during the 10 day trip. The plan was to spend Christmas in DC and New Year in New York and a few days in between at Boston.

Day-1:

After reaching DC, we decided to spend the evening at the Museum of Natural History. It closes at 5:30 PM, so we had about 2-3 hrs. Having been there multiple times, I knew fully well that this was not enough. So, we decided to tour the dinosaurs and precious stones (geology, minerals etc) exhibits.

I was surprised to see that long before the UM undergrads and grads, dinosaurs roamed the area where now Univ. of Michigan stands, Go Blue!

Go Pre-historic Blue!
With the T-Rex and the gems
We don't know how the 3hrs went! We left the museum around 5:30 and decided to explore the monuments in the National mall. The sunset behind the Washington monument was spectacular. Unfortunately we couldn't go near the monument due to construction.

Sunset behind the Washington monument
So, we headed towards the Capitol building first. The special attraction this time of the year is the Capitol Christmas tree. The lawn wasn't too crowded. The weather was especially cold and there was a breeze, making it very hard to keep hands steady for night time photography. Nevertheless, the sights were spectacular.

Capitol Christmas tree
We took the subway train to get some respite from the cold, but finally had to walk to get to the World War II memorial. There was not a soul in sight at this memorial. It was eerie, almost as if it stood to warn us of the terrible costs humanity would have to pay if another war of such proportions is fought.

World War II memorial
Lincoln Memorial
We got out of there as quickly as we could and walked towards the Lincoln memorial. It was quite crowded. The view of the national mall from the steps of the lincoln memorial was impressive. After soaking in the sights for a while we decided to call it a night.

Day-2:

On Christmas almost every attraction in DC is closed. So, we decided to take a tour of George Washington's Mt. Vernon estate in Virginia. Open 365 days a year, it has a few special attractions during Christmas. One of them is the Washington's Christmas Camel. It is among the first things you see as you enter the estate.

George Washington's Christmas Camel
Sprawling land in front of the mansion, green house and servant quarters on one side, stables and farm on the other and the potomac river in the back all makes the tour of the estate a very memorable one. There are some trees surrounding the mansion which were apparently planted by George Washington himself! This was a sunny day and it was moderately cold, so walking outside around the estate wasn't so bad.

George Washington's Mansion
Potomac river flowing behind the estate
One of trees on the estate from George Washington's time
A tour of the mansion gave a glimpse of the life style of the Washington's. It was particularly impressive to hear that the Washington's hosted a lot of people (I forget the exact number, but I vaguely remember it to be over a 100/year). Mt. Vernon estate is also the final resting place of the George and Martha Washington and home to the pardoned Thanksgiving turkey.
Tomb of George and Martha Washington
2013 Thanksgiving Turkey
There is a lot to see in Mt. Vernon and by the time we were finished it was dusk. We headed back to DC and went straight towards the White House. One of the biggest attractions this time around the year is the National Christmas tree. There was a lot of crowd and we took our time as we were exhausted from walking around Mt. Vernon. After spending an hour around the White House, we had dinner and crashed for the night.
Front and back side of the White House
National Christmas Tree (at Center) surrounded by Christmas trees for each state

Day-3:

This day began very early because we had scheduled a tour of the US Capitol building. This was an amazing tour. People from a lot of different countries were in our group. Our tour guide was extremely enthusiastic and made it a point to greet and have a conversation with people in their native tongue. It was impressive that he could speak so many languages quite fluently.
US Capitol building
After the tour of the US Capitol, we went to the Library of Congress through the underground tunnel. The motivation behind the creation of Library of Congress was an inspiring tale. The tour of the library took almost 2 hours. The history of the murals, decorations, sculptures and some of the book collections was fascinating to say the least.
Library of Congress, as seen from the US Capitol building
One of the reading halls in the Library of Congress
After this, we decided to go to the zoo. This was very disappointing. I guess we chose the wrong time to go to the zoo. There were very few animals on display outside. We walked around the zoo till evening and had a sumptuous dinner on the way back and decided to call it an early night.
It looks like these guys @ DC zoo were also worried about the snow and the cold
On day-4 we left Washington DC early in the morning and took a Bolt Bus to Boston. We had a stop in New York City to change buses. Unfortunately we didn't have time at this point to look around Manhattan. We reached Boston in the evening and spent the rest of the day relaxing.

Day-5:

We started early and reached the New England Aquarium. Since we only had a couple of days in Boston, we got the CityPass and started our tour. This was our first time visiting an aquarium so we didn't know what to expect. The place was crowded, you could hear muffled announcements, the smell of sea water filled the air. We were given the floor map of the aquarium along with our tickets. After entering, we decided to head towards the touch tank.
V patting the back of a sting ray
Sting rays, baby sharks and few others swam the shallow waters of the touch tank. All we had to do was gently put our palm in water, the sting rays and sharks came up and rubbed their backs on our palm as they swam. Once in a while, they would get agitated and swim really fast and then calm down after a couple of minutes. It was a very popular exhibit and we spent close to half hour playing with the sting ray and sharks.

Our next stop was the penguin exhibit. We arrived just in time for the penguin presentations. We walked around the exhibit learning about different kinds of penguins, their habitat, routine, food habits, mating habits etc. All the while we could see the giant ocean tank in the backdrop. It was almost time for the ocean tank divers program, so we headed towards that.

This ocean tank was humungous. Schools of fish of various types and turtles swam the waters amidst corals and sea weed. Divers in scuba gear were feeding and cleaning the tank. This was a sight to behold. We climbed (about 4 floors) and reached the top of the ocean tank, where they were feeding the giant turtles (~ 100 years old). This was really impressive. We spent a lot of time near the ocean tank.
V bidding adieu to turtle
Next, we went to the seal training sessions. This was standing room only and the session was about 45 mins. It was an impressive display and a must watch to all who visit this aquarium.
Fur seal training session
For the next few hours we looked around the various exhibits and by the time we were done, we had spent more than half a day at the aquarium. It was late noon and we decided to hike the freedom trail. after a hearty lunch at Wagamama in the Quincy market (the food was delicious nothing less than a 5 star!). First, we went to the Fennel Hall and then to the Old State House. Lot of history lessons. We had studied about American Revolution and Boston Tea party in high school, so it was quite interesting to see these places.
Fennel Hall (left) and Old State House (right)
By this time, it was getting dark. Prudential center was our last trip for this day. Views of Boston from the top of the center were amazing. We spent a few of minutes trying to identify various landmarks and also saw a movie about the tower. With this, our first day in Boston came to an end and we returned back to rest for the night.

Day-6:

We spent most of this day with family since it was raining outside (rain in december is very very cold!). In between, for a couple of hours we went to the Boston Museum of Arts and toured the MIT campus. There is a lot to see at both locations and we unfortunately didn't have enough time.

On day-7 we left early from Boston and took a bus to NYC and then a train to New Brunswick, NJ and spent the rest of the day relaxing and preparing. Next day, the last day of 2013, would be a very long day for us since we planned to witness the ball drop.

Day-8:

We started off early from NJ and reached Manhattan. Our first stop was the World Trade Center (WTC) memorial. We had not been to NYC when the twin towers were there. So, the magnitude of void did not strike us at first. It happened when we witnessed the light shimmering up on the names of thousands who perished at that site and the somber atmosphere all around, completely contrasting the energy and enthusiasm of the city.
WTC Memorial
WTC Memorial
We spent some time around the memorial, there were a lot of people, some tourists, some who lost friends and family. Finally, we came out of this site still shocked at the extent of damage this had done to the city.

Focussing on our next plans, we found a good restaurant nearby and had a heavy lunch. We were carrying some snacks in the backpack and dressed for the chill. We started walking towards Times Square. It was about 2:00 PM. The streets on 7th Ave were already being closed as people gathered to witness the ball drop. By the time we made it in, it was around 3:30 PM. We found a good spot between 49th and 50th St. We had a very clear view of the ball. And the long wait began. We made acquaintance with the people surrounding us. We talked, ate, sang talked some more and waited patiently in the cold. It was about 28 degrees Fahrenheit and there was some light snow fall.
Time Square Dec 31st 2013 3:40 PM (check the time in the clock tower in the pic) 
Our spot, between 50th and 49th St. The ball drop happens at 42nd St. (right most pic)
After about eight and half hours of wait, it finally happened ...
Dawn of the Year 2014
There were celebrations all around.
Times Square, Jan 1st 2014, 00:01 AM
It took us more than an hour to get to the NY Penn Station and finally we made it back to New Brunswick around 3 AM. We slept through the rest of the night and woke up around 9 AM.

Day-9:

We started the day slowly relaxing for a while and then set out after a brunch. After reaching Manhattan, we went straight to Madame Tussaud's museum, where we spent the rest of the day. This was very crowded and was lot of fun. Not to mention an escape from the cold weather outside.
Running from Hulk at Madame Tussaud's
We decided to take it easy and came back early (around 8PM) to New Brunswick and relaxed for the night.

Day-10:

There was a heavy snowfall prediction for the whole of lower Manhattan and the Edison and New Brunswick area of NJ after 5PM. So we planned to get back by that time and left early in the morning. Our first stop was Battery Park, where we took a ferry to Liberty Island. This was a very cold and windy day. We sat in the upper deck of the boat to get good views of Manhattan and Statue of Liberty.
View of Manhattan from Liberty Island ferry
After reaching the Liberty Island, we picked up some maps and started walking around the Island. At times the wind was so strong and cold that it was very hard to breathe. Despite the intense cold, there were a lot of people on the Island that day. The NY City pass we bought didn't allow us the pedestal access. To go up the statue, it seems we had to reserve months in advance. So, we just spent time walking around the island taking in the sights.
Statue of Liberty as seen from Liberty Island Ferry
The cold got worse as the day went by and we were relieved when we finally reached the gift shop at the end of our walk around the island. We shopped for a while as we waited for the ferry. After embarking, our next stop was Ellis Island. This was the first stop for immigrants who came to NYC via the sea. The once customs and immigration building is now a multi storied museum. After couple of hours of touring, we wanted to grab a bite to eat. Unfortunately, the restaurant on the island was still closed due to damage from hurricane Sandy.

We had lunch as soon as we got back to Manhattan. We only had a couple of hours left, so we decided to go see the Brooklyn Bridge since it was closest. The views of the Brooklyn bridge and Manhattan East side from the Brooklyn bridge park were spectacular. The Manhattan bridge was an impressive sight as well. We walked around the park and went up on the Brooklyn bridge. By this time, we had enough of the cold and it was quite dark even though it was around 4. So we left to reach New Brunswick before the weather got bad. Unfortunately, it had started snowing in Edison, NJ and we were delayed by about an hour. Nevertheless we reached before it got very bad. We spent rest of the day relaxing and staying warm.

Our return flight was from Washington DC the next day. Due to inclement weather, we rescheduled and flew out of Newark and finally reached Ann Arbor. Thanks to the trip, we also missed the polar vortex that froze the hell out of Michigan! All in all this trip was a great success. Cheers!