Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Montreal Station Centrale (May 17, 2009)

This bus is awesome…words fail me. The Orleans Express has a cup holder, power outlet, a tray for food – Feels like I am traveling in an aeroplane. I suppose that’s why it is so popular. Damn cool!

They run from Montreal to quite a few places, especially North-East like Quebec and if I am not mistaken to Nova Scotia also.

Continuing on from yesterday night I spent the early part of the night sleeping till 8.30 or so. Then it was time to get dressed and go partying. This was a big mistake.

I walked up St-Catherine and there were a lot of strip clubs, but I did not see any good dance club.

After that I walked up St-Laurent and there were a few of them, but most were asking for reservations or that I have a girl with me. This search took me from 9.30pm to close to midnight. By then I had walked St Catherine twice and St Laurent 4 times.

Out of frustration I entered a pretty empty looking bar, ordered my usual – Rum and coke and watched replays of the NBA game between the Lakers and the Rockets.

Not one of my best days if I have to say so myself.

Even one of the dudes in the hostel was snoring like crazy and it was tough to get any sleep. Someone woke him up – luckily, and told him he was snoring. I don’t know how that could have helped, but before he could start snoring again I was dead asleep.

Next morning I woke up and headed immediately to the Vieux-Port which I had been unable to do the previous day. It was freezing cold but at least it wasn’t raining. I walked up two of the Quays, and then from there walked to the Basilica. I had not yet taken a photo in front of it, and it had to be done.

There was mass going on in French, which I caught some 5 minutes of and then I left. There were a few shops selling F1 gear, but I did not find anything enticing. Also, the prices were on the higher side which they had to be as it was original Ferrari stuff. Anyway I will be in Italy next year and I will buy it from there!

There was a small café called St Paul Café (on Rue-Paul obviously, another very old street). Puneet has advised me to get a dish called Poutine and I ordered for it. This is a fast food, which has cheese, fries and a sauce on it. It is amazing, but if you are worried about your weight or heart, please stay away. I am actually enjoying the food out here; I almost lick the plate clean which does not happen in the US.

Fresh and full I decided to do the last remaining activity – A 2 kilometer hike from Peel Station to the top of Mount Royal where you have a beautiful view of Downtown Montreal (The city is supposed to be named on this mountain). Half ways through my legs were caving in. Somehow I managed the hike to the top, but for saner people there is a city bus which takes you there. The view was captivating, and I spent a few minutes enjoying the view and clicking photos. I wanted to stay for longer but I was tired, and more importantly it was getting colder and colder. I walked back and took the metro to Berri-UQAM where my bus was waiting. The Orleans Express runs every hour from Montreal to Quebec and vice versa, and takes a little more than 3 hours. The round trip rates are at 84 CAD, which is pretty good (considering the USD is stronger).

Today I decided not to take the pass for the metro, which was a good choice considering that I paid 5.50 for two trips. If you are making anything more than 3 trips buy the daily tourist or 3 day card, which saves you a lot!

I have to crib a bit here – at Peel station the ticket machine was not working, so I went up to the guy at the gate who also sells tickets. I dropped the 2.75 in front of him in the small partition between me and him, and he was like screaming something in French. After I removed then dropped then removed the cash, he says ‘Drop the cash’. I dropped it, and then removed my hand fully so that he could give me the ticket. I guess he was worried he may get the swine flu or something – I have no idea!

And now here I am – finally up to date with my posts. I will write soon when I get the opportunity. Also I have to write one more post about getting a Canadian visa. Till then – Au Revouir!

Montreal Starbucks (May 17, 2009)

I seem to visit Starbucks for coffee only when I am traveling. Every time it is the same order – Tall Chai Latte. I decided to try something different, saw the Earl Grey Latte and decided on that. By mistake I said Earl Grey Tea and here I am - with water and the tea bag in it. It costs 1.98CAD, so that’s fine :D

Montreal is a different place. It is like visiting a European country, and it is easier too as most of the people do understand English. I felt so French though, I was bon-jouring everyone although in a rather low voice – fearing that they might laugh at my bad pronunciation.

I landed up at 7 in the morning (yesterday), the greyhound bus having got delayed a bit. But it was a smooth passage. The immigration lady cancelled my visa as it was a single entry, and stamped it for 16th May. This means I can shuttle between US and Canada till 6 months from this stamping. I will explain this in a later post about how to obtain a Canadian Visa.

My first stop was the visitor center on Rue Peel (Peel St), but as this only opened at 9, I headed off to the one place I had to visit – The Gilles Villenueve Circuit. Getting around Montreal is easy – the subway is pretty good. I got the daily tourist pass for 9CAD, which lasts you till midnight.

The bus station is at the Berri-UQAM stop and the circuit is Jean-Drapeau. This is a park with the circuit as one of the attractions. There are others like the Biosphere, the Montreal Casino and a lot more. Lots of people were jogging and cycling, and a rowing competition was also going on. The circuit was not blocked by anything as this was not a race day. I sat at a corner and thought of how Michael Schumacher would have taken one of these corners.

After a while I left for the visitor center on Peel St, and this was very helpful. The lady gave me a map, pointing out all the locations to go, the nightlife to see, and if needed she also would have told me about shopping, but I decided against that! She even told me about Quebec City and a map of that too. Also, while she was talking she was pronouncing the words in French, like ‘Montmorency’ and ‘Jean’, and so on. It is so good to listen to a French lady speak :)

As suggested I walked to the Basilica Notre Dame passing Chinatown and St-Catherine St on the way, which is a nice street with shopping on both sides. The Basilica was huge with the Place d’Arms opposite it. A wedding was going on, so I could not enter, but I will do it today. The entry fee is 5 CAD. I walked a bit more after this to Place Jacques Cartier and sat at this square. Very nice buildings, and good photo ops all around. By then I was feeling hungry and so I headed to one of the restaurant recommendations in a tour book called Stash Café. This is a Polish café and it has very good food. I finished off the dumplings in no time, and so also the tea. Very well made, nice people and really cheap. It is also in old Montreal so you don’t have to go too far. Visit this when you are in Montreal.

After this plate emptying meal I saw that it was raining really heavily. I wanted to visit the Pointe-à-Callière, which has stuff about Montreal’s history, and it may be worthwhile if you like that sort of stuff. The entry fee is 13 CAD.

In the rain I caught the metro to Pie-IX. I was not able to do anything except take a photo somehow in the rain. This is a very kid friendly place with a Biodome, and lots of things to see inside. The station here is Pie-IX or VIAU.

I could not do anything more and had to return back to McGill station and stay underground. This is the beauty of Montreal – they have a huge underground shopping mall, which spans 6 metro stations. It is called La Ville Souterraine. Days could be spent here. I got free wireless and sat and browsed through my iPhone for a pretty long time.

Finally the rain slowed down and I set off to St-Denis, which is supposed to be Paris-like in appearance. This street has a few cafes and one such is Starbucks :D

If you read my previous post I wrote it there. The rain did not let off at all, and I decided to brave it and go to my hostel for the night – The Auberge Alternative. Again - a highly recommended hostel – quite staff, good people and a mixed dorm. You get a locker and I would suggest that you get a padlock, but else linen and towels are provided.

It is right smack in the middle of everything and Vieux Port is a minute walk from here. As it was raining, I could not walk out. So as I had time to kill, I thought I will catch some sleep as I had a lot of dancing to do that night. This did not happen as expected because I and a girl from France got talking. We spoke for 40 minutes of which the actual conversation was for 10 minutes. I tried some French, she tried some English – it was fun!

Montreal Starbucks (May 16, 2009)

I still haven’t completed my travel post for Philadelphia and I already am in Montreal.

The best part of the Philly trip actually came after I left Starbucks. I walked to the Museum of Arts and it was a wonderful walk.

Initially there was a fountain surrounded by a lot of museums, and the Art Museum straight ahead. The walk was around half a mile from here and it has flags of pretty much all the countries on both sides of the road. And as you come near the Museum you get some really good photo ops. To the left is a statue of Rocky, and then come the steps.

I was tired and pretty dead, so I did not make the run to the top, but a lot of enthusiastic folks – both young and old made the run.

On reaching the top you are greeted with a beautiful view of the Philadelphia downtown and I sat there for a good half an hour taking in the beauty. There is a spot where they have also marked Rocky’s footsteps – so I can say that I did step into Sly’s shoes :D

After that I decided to have my dinner before catching the bus, and headed back to Sansom Oyster house near Chinatown , where the MegaBus terminal and also greyhound terminal is.

My luck with food continued, as this place had shut down for renovations and I ended up eating at a Malaysian restaurant called ‘Banana Leaf’. Pretty much the same good old Malaysian fare.

On the way there was this rectangular hollow block near a fountain with ‘Love’ written on the top. This appealed to me as also to a few more people and we ended up clicking a few photos there.

I finally boarded the MegaBus back to New York. I had a chat with a New York based lady and she gave me the directions to the Port Authority from Chinatown where I landed.

Times Square was choc-block with people at midnight and I was astounded. But this is the original city which does not sleep, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. I just landed in the bus…slept and woke up in Boston.

Philadelphia is a good experience and a must do for people who love American history.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Philadelphia Starbucks (May 2, 2009)

Twitter is a new craze I have developed. The last few tweets have been - I am tired, I am dead tired and so on. You get my flow?

It has been a pretty good trip so far. I landed up in Philadelphia at around 9.15 am. The bus stop was near the Amtrak station on 30th and Market St. I had a bit of a walk to get to the area I had planned to visit which was Independence Park. The walk was quite nice as I passed through the towers of Philadelphia downtown which although were few in number, were quite commanding.

Also I passed through the Old City Hall which is an imposing building and a nice photo op.

Ultimately a 20 minute walk landed me at Independence Park. First I visited the Independence Visitor Center from where you can get free tickets for the Independence Hall, where the US Declaration of Independence was signed. You need to get this ticket else you cannot take the tour. Once this was done I went to the Hall and as I had some time to kill looked up the nearby buildings.

There was the Congress Hall which also had a short tour for free and a building called the Great Essential Exhibit. This contains one of the copies of the Declaration of Independence and it is a pretty cool thing. It feels like I was acting in a National Treasure movie.

I then took the Independence Hall tour which took us on a 15 minute walk through the hall. My final stop before lunch was the Liberty Bell exhibit. This is next to the Independence Hall and I really wanted to see this. Again a free entry and I was standing right next to the bell. It was quite impressive to look at and it was quite a reverent sight.

By then I was hungry and I was all set to eat the Philly special – either the Pork Roast or the Cheesesteak. I had looked up a place called John’s Pork Roast which was a 40 minute walk from Independence Park. I made the walk only to realize that the stupid place was closed on weekends. All that walking for nothing!!!

There was a subway opposite it, so I ate the cheesesteak there. Although you can’t call this an authentic Philadelphia experience, I was in no mood to walk somewhere else.

The walk back was another tiring one and I pretty much crashed on a bench at Independence Square which is right behind the Hall.

After a brief respite I walked to Franklin Court (Ben Franklin’s House), Betsy Ross House (The lady who made the first US flag) and Elfreth Alley (America’s oldest residential street). I did not spend too much time at these places as I already had my fill of history. Once all this was done I landed here and decided to recharge my laptop and my iPhone both of which seem to run out of batteries almost in no time at all, while sipping on a Chai latte.

I have one last walk to make and this is to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or more importantly to the steps in front of this also called as Rocky Steps. The movie Rocky was shot here and the famous scene of Sly Stallone running up the stairs and jumping in the air was filmed right here.

This should mark an end to a pretty uneventful and calming trip of Philadelphia. The rain has luckily not been too heavy and I have seen sufficient places to say that this trip was worth every penny I paid.

Bolt Bus to Philadelphia (May 2, 2009)

Early morning finds me in NYC sitting in the Bolt Bus to Philly. This trip has been long overdue and after delaying for what seems like an eternity, I finally decided to make this trip.

It is really cloudy and the weather forecast for Philly is not supposed to be any better. Luckily this is just a short splash and dash trip, so I am not bothered as much.

The main aim of this post was to also give my readers(!!!) an idea of the cheap ways of travel between Boston and New York City(NYC), and also points south.

Many people must be aware of the Chinatown buses which run between Boston and New York. Fung Wah and Lucky Star come to mind. These are cheap buses which load passengers and drive. They are the fastest way to travel (by bus) between these two cities as they have no stops in between and the drivers are single minded in their devotion to reach you there.

The buses are decent and they are a bit faster as the bus stop in NYC is in Manhattan just across the Manhattan Bridge and thus this bus reaches the city much faster than the other options. The rates are usually fixed at 15USD one way except for the early morning 2 am bus which costs 25USD.

Greyhound was the costlier option but they too have dropped their prices especially for the weekend (Friday, Saturday and Sunday). It is a flat web rate of 20USD which is quite good. Some of these buses have also started Wi-Fi and this should catch up in all of them pretty soon. The bus station in NYC is the Port Authority which is on 42nd and 8th.

The last two options: Bolt Bus and Mega Bus are the cheapest among these and also have a few more facilities. The major factor is the cost. If booked way in advance you could get tickets for a dollar. Even if you book a week or 2 before your actual journey the rates will be 10-12USD. There is free Wi-Fi too on these buses. (I am using it right now!)

The only slight problem is that these buses start off from outside Penn Station and the search to find the right stop is a bit of a hassle. Luckily there will usually be a crowd and more likely that is where the buses will stop.

From Boston all of them start at South Station – so there is no difference there.

If you really want to get into NYC in a hurry then Bolt and MegaBus may not be the right choice as to get to Penn Station in New York involves going through all the traffic. One of my MegaBus journeys took me close to 5 hours when if I had taken the Chinatown bus to Canal St and the subway to Penn would have taken me less than 4 hours. If you guys remember, this was the start of my UK trip.

Ultimately the train is more comfortable and faster, but the steep cost of the Acela express will deter lot of riders from plying on them.

Also, these buses have started to expand into other cities. Greyhound is the oldest so it does go to many cities, but the stops in many cities are not exactly in the best part of town.

Bolt goes to Boston, NYC, DC and Philadelphia. Mega Bus is expanding rapidly and includes the above cities along with a lot more cities. These two attract a lot more college crowd and the trip is quite pleasant but more crowded.

For more details:

Hope this helps as I thought a quick summary of these services could help in planning an inexpensive trip from Boston to NYC and back.