All posts by Stuart Aitken

Stuart Aitken is on a four year course studying American History and Modern History at UEA (University of East Anglia). Stuart is currently on an exchange year abroad at Goucher College, Baltimore, Maryland, US and as he is writing this, it is snowing! During his year abroad in America, Stuart has travelled to New York, Washington DC, Austin, Texas and Boston. In June, he will travel to Cambodia to volunteer with the UK charity Globalteer, on their indigenous people community project. In July, he will be travelling around Vietnam. Stuart loves to run, cook (baked potato and tuna mayonnaise is his favourite food) and take pictures on his travels. As for the future, Stuart is unsure of his career path.

Cruising West to Vegas

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Western USA in an RV

After we had driven away from the Grand Canyon on our family RV holiday, I felt a sense of sadness about leaving the landscape that has always been such an iconic part of the Western United States. Yet, due to the variety of natural beauty in the west, the Grand Canyon receded into my memory and was replaced with other less revered but still spectacular views and experiences. Along the many highways that we cruised, the landscape seamlessly changed and never failed to capture my attention.

With the Grand Canyon behind us, we headed north to Zion National Park in Utah. Zion was one of the highlights of the holiday for me, because it was unexpectedly fun and enthralling. I highly recommend hiking in the Narrows, where you can wade through a river surrounded by cliffs on either side, which I found a refreshing experience, though the rocks can be slippery. It is sensible to wear suitable clothing and shoes and not rush, as my mum found out, when she nearly slid head-first into the river. The peak time to go into the Narrows is the summer and autumn when the water is refreshingly cool. It is possible to go in the winter and spring, but wearing wet or dry suits is recommended if you go then.

In Zion National Park, there are a variety of non-guided or guided hikes that range from easy, one-day excursions in the Narrows and on the rocks above the river, to longer, more challenging overnight trips. Alongside hiking, Zion offers a range of adventure activities from rock climbing, golf, and cycling, as well as helicopter and off-road tours. The Rocks Odyssey Guiding Co. offer rock climbing trips in Zion for £96 per person and Zion helicopter tours range from $45 to $299, depending on the length of the trip. There are also off-road tours from Zion ATV & UTV tours from $125, where more of the landscape is accessible.

Continue reading


Heading West in an RV

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Western USA in an RV

San Francisco had been a fantastic city in which to start our family RV holiday, but now I was excited to start our road trip travelling in the Western United States. For most of the 20th and 21st centuries, the automobile has been the dominant form of transportation in the United States. Equally, travelling on a road to the West has for a long time been synonymous for many with the American Dream: freedom; adventure; and diverse, enticing and grand landscapes. Therefore, the road and the car both hold a revered place in the American consciousness. It was our first time in the Western United States, and we looked forward to travelling across a variety of Western cities and landscapes.

Our RV trip didn’t start that well. In the first minute of the trip, plates fell from a cupboard and shattered on the floor. But that was soon forgotten after we left San Francisco and ventured further south. Continue reading


Sunshine in San Francisco

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Western USA in an RV

I was eagerly anticipating a visit to San Francisco, which was the first stop on a three week, West Coast family RV trip. I was attracted by the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco’s cable cars, the city’s seemingly laid back vibe and by the West Coast sunshine. This was also my first experience of a trans-Atlantic flight, so I was excited by the prospect of watching multiple movies and TV shows on the twelve-hour journey.

Upon arrival, unsurprisingly, the United States Border Force at San Francisco took their job incredibly seriously, so our family had to collectively suppress our excitement about being on the West Coast. After we got through security, we took the subway downtown.

We emerged from the subway, and were greeted by sunshine in San Francisco. There were multiple street performers, a tram that had just gone past and an infectious excitement and atmosphere in the busy streets. After a fairly short walk, and having dropped our suitcases off at our hotel, we were famished. So we headed to the nearest restaurant, Lori’s Diner, which is a 1950s style diner and has multiple outlets throughout San Francisco. I really liked Lori’s as the service was quick, the red booths were comfortable, the burgers and chips were tasty and it was fairly cheap. After that we crashed in our hotel, exhausted from the jet lag, in very comfortable beds.

The cable cars epitomise San Fran for many. Photographer: Ali Leyland-Collins

The next morning we emerged from our slumbers into another hot and enticing day in San Francisco. Continue reading


Greyhound to Memphis

I was excited to travel to Memphis, Tennessee, whose renown as a musical city appealed to me — and as the city is situated just north of Mississippi and the Deep South, I also welcomed the chance to travel away from the East Coast and head southwest into the warmer climate.

On my travels, I took the four-hour greyhound bus from Nashville to Memphis — it was $14, which I thought was really good value and it was particularly scenic, especially when we crossed over a bridge on the Tennessee River on Interstate 40. The next day I took a bus to downtown Memphis over the Hernando do Soto Bridge, which crosses the Mississippi River, with fantastic views of the city. I hoped that Memphis would be an entertaining and lively city, which would be easy to navigate.

I was eager to visit the Rock N’ Soul Museum, and learn about Memphis’ musical heritage in the downtown and historic area of the city. I highly recommend a visit to the museum. The admission fee is $12, which includes a self-guided audio tour. The museum has many interactive exhibits where visitors can listen to Rock ‘n’ Roll and American soul music from the 1930s-1960s, and learn about the social and cultural transformations that took place in Memphis during this period. Beale Street, in the centre of downtown and historic Memphis — a two minute walk from the museum — is where performers like the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley; prominent blues performer, BB King; and jazz legend, Louis Armstrong, recorded their records and performed.

Memphis jukebox © Stuart Aitken

On Beale Street, I had a sumptuous BBQ pork spicy sandwich and chips (crisps) at the Rum Boogie café. The café has a nice atmosphere, with guitars lining the walls and hanging from the ceilings, and the Rum Boogie logo lit up by neon lights. Music reverberated around the fairly small, welcoming and reasonably-priced café. At night, the Rum Boogie café, like many restaurants on Beale Street, has live blues performers, creating a brilliant, packed atmosphere.

The next day, it was pouring with rain which made me miss the sunshine of the day before. Fortunately, however, there is the National Civil Rights Museum, another cultural exhibit I wanted to visit, and I was amazed by its size. Sadly, like many museums in the United States, there is a metal detector upon entry. The admission fee is $14 for students, though it’s only $1 more for adults. The museum begins with the history of the slave trade and continued the story right through to the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. It was not until right at the end that I realised that the museum has preserved the balcony where Martin Luther King had been shot, as well as the Lorraine Motel room he stayed in during April 1968.

Throughout my walk back to my hotel, artwork lined the streets, and I got a sense of how Memphis had been shaped by its musicians, artists and the social, cultural and political transformations during and after the civil rights movement. Despite Memphis’s relatively small size, the city, especially Beale Street, is very aesthetically appealing. Memphis was a very enjoyable experience in sunshine and rain, with a relaxed musical vibe, whose spicy foods, live musical performances and cultural exhibits make it well worth a trip.


Boston: Small, but Perfectly Formed

Upon landing in Boston airport on a cold and dark December night, I was struck by how small the city seemed from the air and Boston’s close proximity to the water. Apart from the historical and cultural context, I knew very little about Boston; I thought of it as the city where the American Revolution began, and further associated it with the vast influx of Irish immigrants to the United States in the 19th century, who had a profound socio-economic and cultural influence on the city. I also linked Boston with the 2005 song I’m Shipping up to Boston by the Dropkick Murphys, an American-Celtic punk band. This was all I knew of Boston, so I was eager to explore the city and find out more.

Upon arriving in Boston, I wanted to try the local seafood specialities, so I had a sumptuous dinner of oysters, salmon and jacket potato. I had never had oysters before and was a little uncertain as to how they would taste, yet I was pleasantly surprised.

The most unexpected aspect of my stay in Boston was an excursion around Harvard’s grounds in nearby Cambridge, Massachusetts. I found that Harvard’s prestigious, immaculate and iconic campus has an enticing aesthetic design and appeal, even on that dark, grim evening. I felt honoured to be able to walk through such a well-known and world-renowned college. I also enjoyed my visit to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which houses a wide range of art from the grandiose revolutionary paintings to pictures that depict the 1960s civil rights struggles.

Harvard University campus © Harvard University

Walking the Freedom Trail was the highlight of the trip for me, as I was able to see the sites where the American Revolution had been initiated and commemorated. These included the site of the Boston Massacre, where the British army fired on a Boston mob in 1770; the old Boston Statehouse where the Declaration of Independence was read in 1776; and the grave site where prominent American revolutionaries are buried. Despite the chilly winds near Boston Harbour, I was excited to be where the Boston Tea Party had chucked British tea into the water; where British colonial authority over the American colonies had been so visibly challenged.

Near Boston Harbour, the Faneuil Hall (Quincy shopping market) is an appealing and vibrant downtown tourist destination, which has plenty of high-quality clothes, restaurants and speciality coffees. There were even entertainers beat-boxing to Beyoncé’s 2008 song Single Ladies, doing conjuring tricks and singing. There are also plenty of alehouses nearby, many of which were proudly flying Irish and American flags, which showed a glimmer of the cultural influence of Irish-Americans in Boston.

My trip to Boston was very enjoyable despite the cold conditions. Boston appealed to me as a vibrant and inviting city, with interesting history, culture and food. While the Freedom Trail was the most enjoyable aspect of my trip, being in Harvard was an unexpected, surreal and yet incredible experience. Even though Boston is a relatively small city, it has a lot to offer as a tourist destination.