Tag Archives: USA

31 destinations in time #9: Austin, Texas, 2009 & 2010

Poster sisters

There’s something a little bit special (funky? cool?) about Austin that makes it stand out all the more because it is located in the heart of Texas. Austin is definitely the black sheep amid cattle country – the non-Texan Texas – and quite a few people told me it’s got more in common with the likes of Portland and Seattle than Texas.

But what it has only goes some of the way to explaining its charm. It has (deep breath)…

Piano bars, dive bars, yuppie bars, 24-hour diners, karaoke RVs and live music clubs. Vintage shops, cupcake caravans, cowboy boot and hat stores, and an emporium of unusual things. Art galleries, a museum housing the world’s oldest photograph, an independent cinema, even some vaguely healthy restaurants. It’s also the home of the roller derby revival. And I discovered the highly addictive game of shuffleboard here in Buffalo Billiards on Sixth Street. There’s a big university and the impressive state capital building. There’s even a bat phone which you can ring to check on the Austin Congress Bridge bat colony which numbers half a million or so.

Austin also has something like the eighth largest couch-surfing community in the world – I stayed with a very nice host for a couple of days on arrival who showed me the sight, put me up in his spare room and introduced me to Mexican margaritas (with an extra beaker of margarita because those tiny glasses always need a refill).

The city motto is ‘Keep Austin Weird’.

Best of all there are the big festivals: Austin City Limits every September and SXSW festival every March. Which is how I came to be in Austin in 2009 – and again in 2010.

My favourite spots are: the Star Seeds Diner, The Spider House Cafe, Ranch 616, Buffalo Billiards, Uncommon Objects, Allens Boot Store and The Cedar Door bar. I’d probably include the Broken Spoke, if I’d got to it.

Google ’em.

Or here’s the photo roundup of my favourite things in Austin (the pic at the top is of me and my sister, who came to SXSW with me in 2010).

Shuffleboard at Buffalo Billiards

Shuffleboard tables

Segway Tours

Austin segway transport

Allens Boots (and hats)


Uncommon Objects (just next door)


My Austin chum Brad King – here at The Cedar Door


Mexican Margarita at the Hula Hut (with my Couch Surfing host Davy)


Luscious Pearl – a nice bar for content strategists and hula hooping

Luscious Pearl

The Spider House Cafe – writers’ hangout


Ranch 616 (the loos)


Live music at the British Music Embassy

Unicorn Kid @ SXSW

And finally, another arrival by train (see also Venice #8 and Slovenia #6)

Amtrak and me


31 Destinations in Time #2: San Francisco, 1991

On The Road by Jack Kerouac

I was mildly obsessed with this book back in the 1990s.

In my early 20s, I fell in love with the beat poets and writers. That lifestyle represented everything I had been brought up NOT to do – and so I lived it vicariously in books and biographies, before eventually making three of my own road trips across the States and living the hippie dropout dream myself.

Etched in that memory is the end destination of San Francisco, another earthquake-prone, destination of dropouts that I fell for big-time (the other being Indonesia’s islands). Being brought up as a dogmatic Catholic and with annual holidays to Northern Ireland had obviously had its effect.

San Francisco was by far the prettiest, friendliest, easiest-going and most colourful city on our east-west coast trip. And after three days on the Greyhound buses, it seemed like we had reached Shangri-La. Even the cabbies in their suspension-challenged cars, though aggressive as drivers, were as welcoming as family. I put it down to the sea air and the fact that ‘the big one’ might hit at any moment.

We couldn’t afford much – just a cheap Days Inn Motel but one night we splashed out on a rather unusual place in Haight-Ashbury, the legendary home of the 1967 ‘Summer of Love’, which, overshare ahoy, was when I was conceived. I like to think my Irish Catholic parents somehow caught a vibe of California sunshine back in 1967 and that’s why the hippie thing is in my DNA.

We stayed in an eclectic B&B on Haight St called the Red Victorian, which consisted of a haphazard collection of differently themed rooms above a café, a bookshop playing swirly 60s music, and a meditation centre.

Red Victorian Inn, San Francisco
A spruced up Red Victorian Inn in Haight Ashbury

Our ‘Japanese Tea Garden Room’ had vivid blue silk bed spreads and a bonsai garden outside the window. I remember another room had a cat flap for the hotel cat to come stay with you and yet another had a cistern in the bathroom that doubled as an aquarium. There was also the Flower Child Room, the Redwood Forest Room, the Summer of Love Room, the Teddy Bear Room and the huge Peacock Suite.

The next day I bought my best ever pair of Levis in a vintage shop on Haight St, for £13. My behind never looked so good as in California in 1991.

27th September 1991, San Francisco, USA

There are new and old generation hippies wandering Haight St. The shops are mainly vintage secondhand clothes and vinyl record shops. I lost count of the number of times we were offered little green bags. Leigh took some pics of a crash-battered Kharmann Ghia before some old hippie came up and tried to sell the thing to him. In a trendy health food shop we armed ourselves with ginseng, Rolling Rock, apples, bananas and organic kettle chips, and went for a late afternoon picnic in Golden Gate Park. Tonight we hit Union St to catch the Muni no 41 to North Beach – the ‘happening scene’. We went straight to the old Beat generation bookshop, the City Lights Bookstore, still owned by the writer Ferlinghetti. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Cassidy had all been here. City Lights was the focal point. It was raided for stocking Allen Ginsberg’s Howl poem, which was said to be obscene. The media hyped the Beats to national notoriety after that and the Beat generation was born. That’s a lot of history for one shop. I bought Howl; Leigh bought a vampire novel.

Birmingham, meet Birmingham!

Birmingham welcome sign at the Amtak stationThe great thing about not having a traditional print commission is that:

  • you can publish the end article in a format of your choice.
  • you can don’t have to write for a set demographic.
  • you can have an altruistic motive because, let’s face it, payment for travel features is so 2008.

So, last month I spent a day in Birmingham, Alabama. Being from Birmingham, West Midlands, I thought it would be a funny stop-off point and that Brummie folks back home might like to read about their namesake.

But the traditional print idea of ’24 hours in Birmingham, Alabama’ for a regional Midlands audience didn’t do it justice. And, for the three reasons above, my travel feature has transmuted into more connective material.

To answer the three bulletpoints above:

  • Chosen format: a theme blog
    I picked this because there were so many overlaps and connections, and fun stuff – from the entertainment districts of Five Points vs Five Ways, to Malfunction Junction vs Spaghetti Junction, to discussions over their version of Benny from Crossroads – that a single blog post wouldn’t have done the content justice. Similarly, a series of posts here would have been diluted by general musings on travel journalism. The end result is that a tale of two Birminghams is now a blog unto itself. Well, a Tumblr, because it was easier. It is currently named Birmingham, meet Birmingham – and I have around 32 connections just for starters.
  • Potential readership: Brummies and Bhammies
    So the potential audience is 1,250,000 – that’s the sum of two Birmingham populations, although the figure would be more like 5,000,000 if counting the Birmingham metropolitan area and Greater Birmingham, rather than just the cities themselves. The readership is not tied to a demographic but to a subject of interest – our two hometowns and how we benchmark with each other.
  • Altruistic aim: foster connections
    Travel journalism is a happy field. We present aspirational destinations and stories about those places that people want to travel to. At best, travel advertisers hope that readers will book their product off the back of reading a published feature. However, as I connected with Bham natives via the internet and then IRL, it seemed to me that there were more interesting outcomes than tourism. What if, for example, like an aunt at a singles party, I could introduce Birmingham to Birmingham? What if Alabama’s coworking space could connect with my local coworking space in Moseley, or Birmingham Museum of Art (AL) could talk with BMAG (UK) – could they share connections, swap ideas, learn from each other, have fun? Could businesses even start to trade, offering pathways into international expansion?

Ok, so the idea took off in my head and will probably have nothing to do with how users actually consume the content.

But at the same time, why the hell not? At the tweetup they held to welcome me to Birmingham Alabama, I discovered they’d heard of Birmingham: It’s Not Shit – one of the more well-known (and irreverent) guides to Birmingham UK. They also knew that Birmingham City Council had used the ‘other Birmingham’s’ skyline to illustrate a recycling leaflet. An easy mistake in some ways – after all, we get each other’s search results all the time. We had also nearly organised a Skype linkup last year as their BarCamp was on at the same time as ours.

So perhaps we could do something with this. Like the British Airways-sponsored MetroTwin, which connects places, sights and entertainments in London and New York, and also now London and Mumbai.

But the connections don’t just have to be limited to the touristic.

Why not ‘metrotwin’ Birmingham with Birmingham on many levels?

The information is out there on the Birmingham Match Tumblr, or will be by degrees. What people do with it is another matter.