Plenty to sing about in home of country
From Nashville to New York City, Mary O'Sullivan takes in all that two very different cities have to offer
IF I weren't such a well-balanced person I could get paranoid about Barack Obama and his role in my travel plans. It started with my trip to India last November -- President Obama was due to arrive a day after me, and so several of Delhi's top sights were shut for security reasons. Then in May, on my return from the US, my Continental flight was diverted briefly to Shannon, as our landing time in Dublin was the very moment Barack had also chosen to touch down.
Still, I'd forgive gorgeous Barack Obama anything, and especially because, only days before, I had occasion to tour the home of an earlier American president -- and it brought home just how right it is that there is finally an African-American in the White House.
The home -- The Hermitage just outside Nashville -- was that of President Andrew Jackson.
The Hermitage tour provides the opportunity to see an American plantation home and hear the story of Jackson, whose parents were Irish. He had 150 slaves and many of their stories are also told, like that of Alfred.
Alfred was born on the estate and continued living there after slavery was abolished. When the house was opened to the public, the canny Alfred, who had bought some small furnishings from the estate, sold them back on condition that he be buried in the same garden as Andrew Jackson, thus guaranteeing himself a place in history.
While the Hermitage is a must on a trip to Nashville, most tourists opt first to visit the Ryman theatre and the Country Music Hall of Fame because, of course, country music is what Nashville is really all about. Its main street, Broadway, is full of honky tonks -- and no matter what time you decide to drop in, you will find drink, fried chicken, a lively crowd and a live band or singer just waiting to be discovered. Tootsies, where Patsy Cline was discovered, exuded a great atmosphere. And if you want to get kitted out for the line dancing lessons at the Wild Horse Saloon, the shops are full of cowboy hats, boots and guitars.
Then there are the more formal venues such as the Grand Ole Opry. These days, it's based in a modern theatre, but its home for many years was the Ryman -- now run as a museum, it was named by Life magazine in 2007 as one of America's 21 wonders.
Even more essential to see is the Country Music Hall of Fame, with whole floors devoted to favourites such as Hank Williams and Tammy Wynette.
Extravagant costumes, garish jewellery, wigs, guitars, newspaper clippings and extraordinary artefacts from their homes -- in Hank's case there's an arrangement of stuffed squirrels kitted out like a band -- are displayed in glass cases. Extensive footage of interviews and audios of their music run on loops. Tammy's exhibit included clips from an interview she did with Shay Healy.
Just outside is the Walk of Fame. As luck would have it, two legends of country, Bill Anderson and Australian Keith Urban, were honoured during my visit, and I blagged myself a seat at the outdoor ceremony, just behind Urban's wife, Nicole Kidman. He and Nicole, and many other stars, live in the area.
On a guided tour, I saw not only Dolly Parton's house but the chapel on her grounds where she renews her marriage vows every year. Then there was the million dollar house Oprah Winfrey bought for her father, who still works at his barber shop.
The houses were all spectacular; not at all the meringuey affairs you might expect if you were to assume country stars' homes would be like their costumes.
My home in Nashville -- albeit temporary -- was itself no slouch in the size, taste and hospitality stakes. The name -- Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Centre -- has a certain lazy southern belle ring about it, echoed in the lovely southern accents of the excellent staff.
A hotel with more than 1,000 rooms, it's truly worthy of the name 'resort' with its own golf course, extensive grounds complete with waterfalls, fountains, bridges and streams, numerous restaurants, shopping malls as well as swimming pools and fitness areas. Disneyland without the rides is what comes to mind. But it does have a ride of sorts -- its own Mississippi steamship, appropriately named The General Jackson.
After four days in Nashville, it was time for New York. If you haven't been before the thing to do is get the New York CityPass, a bargain at $79 for entry to five top sights, and it means you skip most of the queues.
On this visit, I went to the evocative immigration museum at Ellis Island. An Irish woman, Annie Moore, was actually the first immigrant to be accepted there. Be sure to get to the embarkation point early in the morning -- the queue-skipping doesn't apply here. The Met is also excellent. Full of amazing art and quirky collections, it provides hours of interest.
I also loved the Guggenheim. It has great art exhibitions and, designed by the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright, it is, in itself, a work of art.
But even shops can be works of art in New York, like the Apple store in Lincoln Place and the totally cool Armani shop in Fifth Avenue -- all black with an enormous curved white staircase. Lunch in the restaurant there is to be recommended, designer food but not with matching prices.
Other good eateries include the restaurant at MOMA and, for Thai food, I enjoyed Peep in Soho.
We tend to think of New York life as high octane, but the pace in areas such as Soho, Nolita or the Meat Packing district is easy going.
There's a bohemian, almost Parisian, feel to the many pavement cafes, the vintage stores and the bakeries -- the ginormous cupcakes being the only giveaway that you're in America.
Also, a bit like Paris, there are lots of little parks . To create even more green space they've begun to develop and plant the disused railway lines -- what they call the highlines -- into little oases of pastoral calm. However, unlike Paris, you won't find any smokers -- while I was there it became verboten to light up in the parks.
Who needs the weed when the city around you is pulsating with stimuli?
Mary O'Sullivan travelled with Sunway Holidays. She flew with United, operated by Continental Airlines, which offers daily flights from Dublin and Shannon to New York, with connections to more than 200 destinations.
Sunway offers five-night packages to the Gaylord Opryland, Nashville, in October with prices from €1,249 per person based on two sharing, includes flights and accommodation.
For a two-centre trip Sunway has four nights in Nashville in the three-star Comfort Inn Downtown and three nights in the three-star Americana New York from €1,345 per person based on two sharing. Includes flights, seven nights' accommodation and taxes. Visit www.sunway.ie or call (01) 231 1800.
For more information, see www.nycgo.com
Sunday Indo Living