North America

Singing my way through the U.S.A.: getting better acquainted with my country in 2016

14124516_10153968017432198_5873781346852298892_oAs reflected on this website, my karaoke travels — and my wanderings generally — have traditionally focused on international destinations. After all, this blog celebrates my World Karaoke Tour. However, in mid-2016, I began to place a greater priority on getting to know — and singing in — more of the vast, diverse United States in which I live. This new emphasis was foreshadowed on the penultimate night of 2015, when I made my South Carolina singing debut in the lovely city of Charleston. Then, shortly after the calendar flipped to a new year, I made a fulfilling jaunt to Baltimore, a city where I once lived and to which I often return. About halfway through the year, as the summer was heating up, I embarked on a campaign to expand the number of states in which I’ve stepped foot, while sometimes making repeat journeys to old favourites. I began flying (and occasionally railroading) all over the continental U.S. on weekends — in some cases, taking advantage of longer holiday weekends. Here are highlights of my American travels of 2016, and my “road” singing appearances in the U.S. during the year that was. Note: This post contains numerous karaoke videos. I get it; you have a busy life. So if you can watch just one of the videos, I suggest that you make it the one from Alabama. But you should watch more than just one. 🙂

Baltimore, Maryland (January 2016)

In mid-January, I strode down to Baltimore to catch up with some friends from my university days. (I studied at Johns Hopkins University in that city.) Baltimore, which is nicknamed “Charm City,” boasts a handsome skyline when viewed from across the harbour:

The downtown Baltimore skyline on a cold day in January.

The downtown Baltimore skyline on a cold day in January.

Naturally, my Baltimorean excursion featured some karaoke. (If it hadn’t, I wouldn’t have included that particular trip in this post. 🙂 ) Continue reading

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Performing in the Palmetto State: my World Karaoke Tour hits Charleston

Me on the grounds of the Magnolia Plantation & Gardens, about ten miles outside of CharlestonCharleston, South Carolina has witnessed nearly 350 years of history since it was first settled by the English as “Charles Town,” named in honour of King Charles II, in 1670. Colourful and centuries-old homes line the streets of this harbourside town — a city that was already over 100 years old when a collection of 13 colonies to which South Carolina belonged declared their independence from Great Britain. Later in its storied past, as the United States of America was developing into a powerhouse on the world scene, Charleston would play a key role in the Civil War that threatened to disunite those states; indeed, that bloody conflict was ignited when the rebels who called themselves the Confederacy seized Fort Sumter in Charleston’s harbour in 1861. A quarter-century later, subsequent to its state’s reabsorption into the Union, Charleston was rocked by one of the most powerful earthquakes ever to strike the eastern U.S.

Today, despite some unfortunate events in its past, Charleston is a physically stunning city that’s increasingly emerging as a sought-after tourist destination. During the long New Year’s weekend that straddled December 2015 and January 2016, I became one of those tourists. 🙂 Charleston made an ideal focus for my first-ever journey to the State of South Carolina — partly because its walkable historic district was perfect for a New Yorker like me who doesn’t drive. 🙂 More importantly, by virtue of my singing within South Carolina’s borders on that trip, the Palmetto State became the latest U.S. state in which I’ve made a karaoke appearance! Continue reading

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Viva Las Vegas: stunning views, a quest for a motorcycle, and karaoke during my eighth visit to Sin City

Las Vegas selfieEarlier this month, I made my eighth annual visit to Las Vegas. For the fifth year in a row, my trip to Sin City was in conjunction with the annual Trivia Championships of North America (TCONA). At TCONA, I had my usual awesome time convening with some of the smartest and most knowledgeable people in the United States (and even a few from other countries like Canada and Norway). It was enjoyable to reconnect with some really cool and interesting people who share my passion for learning as much as I can about every subject in the world, and whom I’m honoured to call my friends. Moreover, it was equally rewarding to make new friends who meet that description. As well, competing against a self-selected group of elite trivia players, in the diverse array of individual and team contests that TCONA offers, pushes me to improve myself and perform as well as I can.

As I do every year, I also managed to slip away from TCONA to experience an attraction in Las Vegas outside of the Tropicana Hotel where the event is traditionally held. Of course, it also goes without saying that my latest long weekend in Vegas included karaoke. 🙂 Finally, being that I was in a town where gambling has been known to take place, I also managed to squeeze in a little bit of that pastime — and came across a new twist on the blackjack tables that I tend to hit.

The view from Paris: très jolie

The Strip is renowned for its themed hotels, including several with sections that mimic world landmarks.  For example, if you roam the grounds of the New York, New York hotel, you’ll find replicas of iconic Big Apple structures ranging from the Statue of Liberty to the Brooklyn Bridge to the Chrysler Building. At the Venetian, you can take a gondola ride among doppelgängers of some of Venice’s most legendary sights, such as the campanile (bell tower), the Rialto Bridge, and Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square). And then there’s the destination that was the subject of my August 2015 non-TCONA excursion in Las Vegas: the Paris Hotel, and one portion of it in particular.

While the Paris boasts reproductions of the venerable Arc de Triomphe and of several other Parisian edifices of note, the hotel’s centerpiece — and a key component of the skyline of the Las Vegas Strip — is a one-half scale duplicate of the most celebrated symbol of the City of Lights: the Eiffel Tower.

The view from the top: it’s not the Champs-Élysées, but it’s pretty darned nice

The Eiffel looms over the Paris Hotel, as seen from behind the fountains of the Bellagio across the street. This photo was taken during my very first visit to Las Vegas, in November 2008.

The replica of the Eiffel Tower looms over the Paris Hotel, as seen from behind the fountains of the Bellagio across the street. This photo was taken during my very first visit to Las Vegas, in November 2008.

Las Vegas’s version of la tour Eiffel features an observation deck 460 feet above ground level. (By way of comparison, the highest observation level in the actual Eiffel Tower in the city of Paris is 906 feet above the ground.) Continue reading

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Fast times in Rapid City, South Dakota

Prez ReaganI’ve previously recounted my highly rewarding visit to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial in the U.S. state of South Dakota. This post is about the town where I stayed during my long weekend in South Dakota: Rapid City. The second largest city in the state, Rapid City has a population of about 73,000. (Sioux Falls, with some 165,000 inhabitants as of 2013, ranks as the most populous South Dakotan city.) Rapid City made an ideal base of operations for my visit to the monuments, as Rushmore is only about a half hour’s drive from its downtown. In addition Rapid City proved an enjoyable place to spend time in its own right.

Hanging with the Prezzes in Rapid City’s downtown

City of Presidents: the basic concept

Part of the reason that Rapid City appealed to me is that it boasts a compact, walkable downtown. The centerpiece of that downtown is a series of life-sized bronze statues of all 42 former Presidents of the United States, in various poses, placed on street corners over a 10 square block area. (They were installed between 2000 and 2010.) The project is called the “City of Presidents.” At an information center on Main Street, you can pick up a free map that shows where each Presidential statue can be found, enabling you to take a self-guided walking tour of the City of Presidents. (This is helpful because the Presidents aren’t arranged in the order in which they served.)

Here are a couple of examples of the statues of the POTUSes:

The statue of Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States, in downtown Rapid City.

The statue of Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States, in downtown Rapid City.

The statue of William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States, in downtown Rapid City.

The statue of William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States, in downtown Rapid City.

You may have noticed that I mentioned that only former occupants of the Presidency have been depicted in the City of Presidents. There’s not yet a statue of current President Barack Obama. Under the long-standing policy of the nonprofit foundation that oversees the City of Presidents, a Presidential statue cannot be erected while the subject is still in office, but must await his return to civilian life. (As explained to me by a co-founder of the foundation, the rationale behind this policy is twofold: First, this waiting period allows for the design of the statue to be informed by a fuller picture of who the President was. Second, it’s hoped that once the subject has left the White House, public passions regarding his presidency will have subsided, thus reducing the risk of vandalism against the sculpture.) The same policy was applied to Bill Clinton (who was the sitting President when the project began in 2000) and George W. Bush. So Obama will get his statue eventually — just not while his address is still 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 🙂

My selfie project: a plan gone slightly awry

As mentioned, the City of Presidents covers a modest portion of Rapid City’s downtown. Thus, you can make your way through all of the statues within a relatively short timespan. Combined with the fact that I was travelling for the first time with my new selfie stick, this gave me an idea. I conceived a goal to take selfies with each of the 42 Presidential statues! It was an inspired plan. And it worked very well. Except for one thing. Continue reading

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Rushmore and Crazy Horse: the majestic monuments of South Dakota’s Black Hills

hbomb at RushmoreFor many people, bucket list destinations are, almost by definition, found in exotic and distant locales. Typically appearing on travellers’ dream itineraries are such splendours as the Taj Mahal; the Egyptian pyramids; the ruins at Machu Picchu; the moai of Easter Island; and the Great Wall of China. However, while many world travellers dream of voyaging to the likes of India or China, comparatively fewer explorers — particularly among those based outside the U.S. — aspire to descend upon the American state of South Dakota. But earlier this month, I visited a genuine wonder that’s located in that great state of South Dakota: Mount Rushmore. My conclusion is that Rushmore merits mention among the most impressive man-made landmarks that the world has to offer.

During the same excursion that brought me to Rushmore, I also swung by the Crazy Horse Memorial, which is nearby to Rushmore in South Dakota’s Black Hills. Although Crazy Horse is still under construction and is quite a long way from completion, it will one day rank alongside Rushmore for majesty and grandeur.

Rushmoring: paying homage to four Presidents on a mountain

Historical background

From 1927 to 1941, under the supervision of Danish-American sculptor Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941), the faces of four U.S. Presidents were carved into the sheer granite face of the mountain. But let’s take a step back to reflect upon how the idea for such a stupendous creation arose. The notion of carving replicas of legendary personages in the Black Hills was first conceived of by Jonah Leroy “Doane” Robinson (1856-1946), who served for a time as South Dakota’s state historian, and who sought to create a tourist attraction. As envisioned by Robinson, the folks depicted would have been pioneers and other legendary figures of the Western United States, such as the explorers Merriwether Lewis and William Clark; showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody; and Native American leader Red Cloud. But when Borglum was commissioned to bring the project to realization, he had a better idea. Continue reading

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In George Washington’s footsteps: visiting the oldest house in Manhattan

George WashingtonTo travel to a house in Manhattan that was built when New York was still a colony of Great Britain, you don’t need a DeLorean. You only need to head a few miles north of the city’s usual tourist sites.

250 years ago, a British military officer named Colonel Roger Morris constructed a summer villa for him and his wife, in what’s now the Washington Heights neighbourhood of New York City. (In those colonial times, only the southern tip of Manhattan contained residential settlements. The area that Morris chose for the location of his second home was relatively secluded.) That home, an exemplar of the Palladian style of architecture, still stands today; it’s now known as the Morris-Jumel Mansion, and it’s the oldest house in Manhattan. (A handful of even older homes survive in New York City’s boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Staten Island.) And it’s open to the public as a museum.

What began life as Colonel Morris’s summer dwelling is renowned less for its original owners than for some of the illustrious personages who later stood within its walls. Perhaps most notably, this residence can legitimately claim that “George Washington slept here” — and on multiple occasions, no less. First, during the Revolutionary War in 1776, then-General Washington appropriated the house as his headquarters for about five weeks. (The Morrises, who were Loyalists, had fled the house at the start of the war.)

The façade of the Morris-Jumel Mansion, built in 1765.

The façade of the Morris-Jumel Mansion, built in 1765.

This room served as Washington's bedchamber and study when he temporarily occupied the house in 1776.

This room served as Washington’s bedchamber and study when he temporarily occupied the house in 1776.

In July 1790, during his first term as President of the fledgling United States, Washington returned to the house, as part of an area sightseeing expedition that he led for family members and his Cabinet. Continue reading

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H-Bomb’s Sunday photo, week 62: an art museum in Mexico City

Happy Sunday, people. On this day in history in 1867, the British Parliament passed the British North America Act, which created the Dominion of Canada as part of the British Commonwealth. Pursuant to that act, Canada became a country effective July 1, 1867 (although it didn’t become fully independent of the British Parliament until 1982).

This week’s featured image comes to you from a different part of North America: Mexico City, where a new art museum opened in 2011. Called El Museo Soumaya, it was built to house the collection of Mexican telecom magnate Carlos Slim Helú, who according to Forbes is the second wealthiest man in the world with an estimated net worth of $77.1 billion. (Bill Gates, of course, ranks no. 1 on the Forbes list.) Designed by Fernando Romero with assistance from the firm of the legendary Frank Gehry, the aluminum-clad exterior certainly has a distinctive appearance:

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The interior is kind of a knock-off of New York City’s Guggenheim Museum, with ascension between levels accomplished via a gently sloping ramp that curves around the outermost portion of the floor plan. (There’s also an elevator.) Continue reading

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Riding in a karaoke-equipped car is Uber-cool

shutterstock_35330281This past weekend, I Amtrakked to Washington, DC to audition for “Jeopardy!” (The show periodically holds auditions in various cities around the U.S.) That tryout, held on a Saturday afternoon, was thoroughly fun and stimulating. Now I wait to see if the producers choose me to become a contestant on America’s favourite quiz show; if they do, I could receive “The Call” at any time within the next 18 months. That’s the duration for which I’ll remain in what the producers call the “contestant pool.” I’ve qualified for the “Jeopardy!” contestant pool several times previously; I’m hoping that this time I’ll finally break through!

During the next year and a half, while I’ll continue to read voraciously to maintain my knowledge base (in the event that I do get summoned to compete on the quiz show where you have to answer in the form of a question), I’ll also keep on pursuing my other passions — including, of course, karaoke. Along those lines, auditioning for a game show wasn’t the only amazing and fulfilling activity that my visit to D.C. featured. I also went for a ride with the “karaoke cabbie,” Joel Laguidao, and sang in his vehicle. Continue reading

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H-Bomb’s Sunday photo, week 55: the house that Thomas Jefferson built

Cheers on a Sunday afternoon. Just 3 days now until I leave for Rome, the latest stop on my World Karaoke Tour! But first things first; I have this week’s featured photo to share with you.

Today’s image comes from Charlottesville, Virginia, a town about 116 miles southwest of Washington, DC. Charlottesville is best known for being the home of the University of Virginia (UVA), which was founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson — the third President of the United States, and a great polymath. Also in Charlottesville, Jefferson built a remarkable house, which he called Monticello. (Technically, the Monticello name, which means “little hill” in Italian,” refers to the entire 5,000 acre plantation on which the house originally stood. Today, the property includes 2,500 or so of the original acres)

Typical of Jefferson’s genius, he was self-taught in architecture, and he modeled the design of his home after drawings by the great Renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio. (In turn, Palladio had been heavily influenced by the architecture of ancient Rome, and the design of Monticello is considered a superb example of the Classical Revival style.) Monticello was completed in 1809, after 40 years of planning and construction. Here’s what the end result looks like:

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This photo was taken during my visit to Charlottesville in June 2008. As you can see, the property has been exceptionally well maintained and preserved by the private foundation that runs it. Monticello, together with the nearby UVA campus, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. By the way, you can also take a tour of the house’s interior.

Do you like visiting historic homes?

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L.A. story, part 2: cities of the dead in the City of Angels

P1040854A common pastime for tourists in Los Angeles is to drive past the homes of celebrities. One of my cherished activities during my own trips to L.A.. has involved a twist on that concept: visiting the current residences of people who are rich, famous — and dead. As you might expect given the association of the city with show business, several area cemeteries include large concentrations of former stars from the entertainment field. I’ve been to two of those cemeteries so far: Forest Lawn, which is located in the town of Glendale; and Hollywood Forever, which as its name implies is situated in the Hollywood district of Los Angeles.

This post is a sequel of sorts to my article from December 2012 about offbeat attractions that I found in Los Angeles. Below, in part 2 of the series, I recount my excursions to a pair of the L.A. area’s “cemeteries to the stars.” As those visits took place in 2012 and 2013, it has obviously taken me a while to get around to writing about them. However, be warned: death waits for no man. Continue reading

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H-Bomb’s Sunday photo, week 49: an elegant arch on the Mississippi

Happy Sunday! Last night I applied online for a Cambodian entry visa. I’m now just three months away from visiting Angkor Wat!

Today’s featured image, which comes from St. Louis, Missouri, is of a landmark that’s much more modern than a 12th-century temple complex. St. Louis’s iconic structure is the Gateway Arch, the centerpiece of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Completed in 1965 and rising from the west bank of the Mississippi River, this stainless steel-clad arch was conceived by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen. Although it was controversial when chosen as the winning entry in a design competition, in my opinion the shape of this monument (mathematically described as a catenary curve) has proven to be graceful and timeless. Here’s a view of the Gateway Arch, together with the downtown St. Louis skyline, as seen from across the mighty Mississippi.

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This photo was taken during my visit to St. Louis in July 2014. By the way, you can go to an observation desk at the top of the 630-foot-high arch. That’s an experience in itself, as it involves riding a special elevator system that was ingeniously engineered to ascend in a curve.

Do you like the appearance of the Gateway Arch?

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H-Bomb’s Sunday photo, week 48: French colonial architecture in Panama City

Hello everyone! Less than three weeks from today, I will be auditioning for the television quiz show “Jeopardy!” That audition will take place in central Pennsylvania. However, today’s featured image comes from a place that’s much more distant from my home base of New York; it takes us to Panama City, Panama.

In that capital city’s historic district known as the casco viejo (old city), you’ll find some French colonial architecture. Yes, I said French, not Spanish. 🙂 It’s a legacy of the era in the 19th century when France had undertaken to build what eventually became the Panama Canal. (The French ultimately pulled out of the project, and construction of the canal was taken over by the United States under the energetic leadership of President Theodore Roosevelt.)

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With details such as wrought-iron balconies, these buildings are more than a little reminiscent of New Orleans’s French Quarter. This photo was taken during my visit to Peru and Panama in November and December, 2013. By the way, Panama City was also the location where I had my all-time greatest karaoke experience!

Do you like European colonial architecture?

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You can go home again: Revisiting my early childhood in Cleveland

10356504_mThe distance between New York City and Cleveland, Ohio is a mere 405 miles, as the crow flies. But when I journeyed between those two cities last month, I traversed more than the space between them on the map. I also went back in time.

In July 1973, when I was three years old, my family moved from Champaign, Illinois to University Heights, a suburb of Cleveland. There we remained for approximately two and one-half years. In January 1976, about two months shy of my sixth birthday, we relocated to New Jersey. I would grow up in the New Jersey town of West Orange (graduating from West Orange High School), and would attend university and law school in Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, DC, respectively. Then I would settle in New York City, where I’ve resided ever since. For over 38 and one-half years after my family left Cleveland, I didn’t return there.

On a weekend in August 2014, I finally made it back to “the Cleve.” Before that weekend was out, not only would I have a fun time exploring the city; but I would make it to my childhood home in University Heights! Needless to say, karaoke would be involved in the festivities as well. 🙂 Continue reading

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H-Bomb’s Sunday photo, week 46: a space shuttle in Los Angeles

As I write this, I’m on a plane from Cancun to Chicago, on my way back to New York. I just spent the weekend at TBEX (Travel Blog Exchange), an amazing conference where travel bloggers connect with the travel industry and with each other. But that long weekend in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula was only one of several fun journeys I’ve been on in recent months. For example, a couple of weekends earlier, I made my seventh visit to Los Angeles.

A highlight of this particular trip to Southern California was seeing the Space Shuttle Endeavour. One of three surviving space shuttles that have flown into space, it is now on display at the California Science Center:

endeavour

The other space shuttles (Discovery and Atlantis) are on display in Chantilly, Virginia and Cape Canaveral, Florida, respectively. In addition, the Space Shuttle Enterprise, a prototype that did not actually slip the surly bonds of Earth’s atmosphere, can be visited in New York City. I previously checked out the Enterprise in August 2012.

Would you like to go into outer space?

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Touring the Panama Canal

This year marks the centennial of the Panama Canal. With its opening in 1914, seagoing transit between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was radically transformed. Before “the trench” was dug, ships seeking to cross the Americas needed to circumnavigate South America — a time-consuming journey of 8,000 or so miles that included the rounding of that continent at the treacherous Cape Horn. The canal, however, is just 48.2 miles long and can be traversed in complete safety in 10 hours or less. It was a stupendous achievement, and in 1994 the American Society of Civil Engineers recognized it as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. (The other works named to that list include the Channel Tunnel; the CN Tower; the Empire State Building; the Golden Gate Bridge; the Itaipu Dam; and the Netherlands North Sea Protection Work.) In November 2013, I experienced this modern wonder firsthand. Continue reading

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