The ultimate American road trip with Daniella Moyles
She lives to travel, but this adventure would be her greatest yet. Irish Model Daniella Moyles did the ultimate American Road Trip. And she took her homebird boyfriend, Dara – and us – along for the ride.
Published 16/06/2014 | 02:30
I love to travel. There are between 189 and 196 countries on the Earth, depending on which source you read and, as it stands, I have explored only 30 of those. I have a world map on my bedroom wall with a pin in every location, and each small pin represents some very big memories...
That map excites me every morning, imagining all the places I have yet to see, and all the people I have yet to meet. Sometimes, I'll wake up daydreaming about Tokyo, creating what the city feels like or smells like at that exact moment. Other times, it will be the monks in Nepal or the African plains or the Eskimos from eastern Siberia to Alaska. I think it is this awareness of the world that keeps me locked in a perpetual state of wanderlust.
The travels I've embarked on since I was old enough to explore the world on my own have been off the beaten track. It all started with a summer spent living in Sagres, a small surfing village so far to the south-west of Portugal it felt like you might fall off the continent. Since then, I've seen and learnt some unforgettable things. I've sat in a volcanic spring in the middle of an Icelandic lava field, covered head to toe in silica mud; talked to Israelis and Palestinians on either side of the wall that divides them; whale-watched at sunset from the easternmost point of Australia; helped local fishermen catch my dinner in Santorini, Greece; contracted dengue fever at an elephant sanctuary in Chaing Mai, northern Thailand; felt the haunting air that still hangs over Auschwitz in Poland; powered a Mustang on the 101 all the way from San Diego to San Francisco along the Pacific coast, and I can tell you, without any doubt, that Ethiopian Air has the most comfortable pillows in all of aviation.
My boyfriend Dara and I have been together for over two years. I fell for his many charming, kind, funny qualities. It happened easily. We were well suited in so many ways, excluding our aspirations for travel – the only topic on which we were polar opposites. Not something that made it onto his priority list, his tales of roaming extended to a post-Leaving Cert J-1 three years previously, while, outrageous as this sounds, I climbed Kilimanjaro and visited the Good Hope orphanage in Tanzania between our first and second dates. We were a peculiar pairing in that respect. It took two years of weekend city breaks and a couple of short sun holidays, each time moving a little further away with a little less planning, to finally pop the big question: can we go on an adventure?
To ease him into the idea, I decided against proposing a camping trip in a South American rainforest or a backpacking holiday through India. I thought a bucket-list regular might tweak his interest and revive fond J-1 memories to aid my efforts. This was a trip I had always wanted to take. A road trip across America, west coast to east coast, with everything the dirty south could offer in between. I had a list of inspirational travel quotes ready to fire were I to encounter any resistance on his part, but there was none. He loved the idea. He loved it, despite the fact that I presented it to him only a couple of weeks before the suggested departure date. Spontaneity never looked so good. On April 17, we left for California, with one-way tickets and a vague route plan.
We arrived into Los Angeles late and spent our first night at a Travelodge near LAX. It was an Eighties time capsule, mahogany everything with a side of neon. Both of us had spent time in Los Angeles before, so we were keen to move on to unseen pastures. I woke way too early the next morning with butterflies in my belly and thoughts of breakfast.
Aside from the travelling, I'm an avid cafe-hunter, breakfast being the only meal I really care about. After a catch-up with some friends from LA over an omelette in Foodlab on Santa Monica Boulevard, we stocked the rental car high with luggage and junk food, and set out for Palm Springs. First stop, the Coachella festival.
It's difficult to describe the three awesome, magical, glittering days that followed, but I'll do my best. An arid, dusty patch of desert fringed with willowy palm trees is the setting for one of the greatest festivals in the world. There's a blistering heat and cloudless blue skies. It runs like clockwork, no traffic jams, no mud, no nonsense. From the minute you pull into your handy parking space or hop off the complimentary shuttle, it's a five-minute walk along a flowered pathway, until you step into what can only be described as real-life Avatar. The festival is overflowing with colours, and smells, and sounds. There is beautiful, clever commissioned artwork everywhere, all kinds of food, and music for every taste. The entire place is immaculate, and stays spotless for the whole weekend. During the day, there are pool parties back at the hotels, because the weather is just too hot to camp, although the option is there. From about 3pm onward, our main problem was trying to decide which incredible act to see next. My favourite memory is of lying on the sandy ground, looking at the stars, listening to Bonobo play, with a belly full of dumplings. Oh, and there's never a queue for the toilets.
The Monday morning following the festival, we were euphoric and a little sunburnt. We packed up, stocked up, and hit the road again, with Howard Stern on the radio for company. Four hours spent driving through desert hills and past abandoned gas stations in Death Valley en route to Las Vegas. We checked into The Venetian hotel and went straight into full Vegas-cheese mode with a dinner at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant. It's worth the extremely overpriced glass of wine, because it overlooks the Bellagio fountains, which erupt every 30 minutes, much to everyone's delight. One of the few things we had planned prior to leaving for the trip was a night at the infamous Penn and Teller magic show. They didn't disappoint. Their show is smart and captivating, and they greet every audience member in the lobby after it.
We won't talk about the roulette saga that ensued. I'll just say Las Vegas 1:Dara 0. The next day was mostly spent people-watching at Gabi Mon Ami, the best spot for it on the Strip, before a quick flight to Houston, Texas, skipping a desolate day-long drive through New Mexico.
Everything really is bigger in Texas. Houston is enormous, sprawling and impossible to navigate without a car. The food portions are huge but heavenly, and every dish is accompanied with biscuit or grits. I was dying to try a bowl of gumbo with a beer, so that was the first port of call, at The Hay Merchant on Westheimer Road. We followed this with a casual trip to Nasa!
The Johnson Space Centre is located in Houston and open to the public. The space programme was pulled by the Obama administration in 2010, but they are currently working on the Orion spacecraft, which will send astronauts to Mars around the year 2020. We got to see the work-in-progress Orion craft and a real, colossal space shuttle, as well as visiting the disused mission control centre that manned the 1969 moon landing – too much excitement for both of us.
The following days were more relaxed. We drove to Galveston beach on the Gulf of Mexico to eat tacos and frozen custard, which we very quickly regretted after riding The Bullet on the Kemah Boardwalk, honestly the scariest roller coaster of all time. I discovered that the best vintage shopping in Houston is on West 19th Street, the most delicious, mouth-watering steak is a Japanese marbled fillet found at Pappas Bros Steakhouse, and the number one spot for breakfast is a hidden gem called Down House on Yale Street.
Back on the road, it's just over five hours' drive from Houston to New Orleans, Louisiana. Without a doubt, my favourite stop on the trip, an infectious place, I could live here. Mardi Gras or not, the city is strewn with beads of every colour, and live jazz spills out onto the streets from coffee shops, bars and restaurants, the loudest of all being Bourbon Street, of course.
Oysters or alligator seem to be the dishes of choice for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and everybody cycles everywhere. In keeping with custom, we nabbed the last two bikes from the Arts District Bike Rental and explored the vibrant French Quarter, stopping to haggle for junk from the market, and to try the infamous coffee and beignets at Cafe Du Monde. That evening, we ventured outside the city to Slidell, a small town on the Pearl River just upstream from Louisiana's Honey Island Swamp.
There we took a tour of the swamplands, tranquil but eerie, with only the sound of crickets, and Spanish moss hanging from all the trees. We saw snakes, hogs, pelican, woodpecker and alligators, who, by the way, enjoy eating hotdogs and marshmallows.
At night, the best spot in New Orleans is Frenchmen Street, famous for its live music and street merchants selling hand-made art. We browsed the stalls, while listening to an acoustic jazz version of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit play from across the road. What a city!
It was particularly energetic the weekend we were in town because the New Orleans jazz festival was in full swing. Every person we met told us it was a must, so we bought two last-minute day tickets and spent a Saturday listening to gospel music – and Phish – before leaving for our next stop.
Driving north through Louisiana towards Jackson, Mississippi, I made Dara take a detour into Kentwood. As a Nineties' child, there was no way I was passing anywhere close to Britney Spears's hometown without making a visit. After a self-guided tour and an overexcited stop at Nyla's Burger Basket, one of Britney's favourite restaurants, we began heading north again.
Now, if you've ever fancied visiting a ghost town, make sure to stop by Jackson on a Sunday. This being the Bible Belt, there were no shops or restaurants open, no people, no cars, nothing! Just a breeze and a big, empty city. The only thing to do in all of Jackson on a Sunday is go to Mass, so we attended a service at the First Baptist Church. It was elaborate. A large choir, a live orchestra, five man-operated cameras, two sound engineers, two floor-to-ceiling screens either side of the altar and a congregation capacity of well over a thousand, each seat home to a leather-bound Bible. The pastor spoke for almost two hours, and then we were treated to a Bible drill, which is where children find Bible verses called at random in under eight seconds – impressive and scary at the same time. A rare, quiet day on a jam-packed trip meant that we left Jackson ready for some Tennessee nightlife.
The birthplace of blues and barbecue, Memphis was a whirlwind from start to finish, with Graceland at the top of our to-do list. Walking around Elvis Presley's fully maintained home was strangely inspiring. The decor was eccentric, yet every room felt personal, with lots of homely touches, such as family photos. We saw the piano that Elvis played the morning of his passing, and the meditation garden, where he is buried alongside his parents.
Endless plaques and awards line the walls marking his achievements in music, entertainment and humanitarian work. We both left much bigger fans than we arrived.
Interested to find out more about Elvis, we drove to Sun Studio on Union Avenue to catch their last tour. This place is responsible for the records of countless music legends, like Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison. The studio was opened by a man named Sam Phillips, and it was here that Elvis recorded his first record for $3.
Less than a year later, Elvis had his first radio play when Sam sent his debut single, That's All Right, to an unconventional rock 'n' roll DJ named Dewey Phillips, who played it 14 times in a row. You can still record there to this day. The live room sits as it was in the Fifties, and they currently use Larry Mullen's old drum kit for sessions. By the way, I only remember all this information because our tour guide was hilarious and brilliant! He also recommended we try Central BBQ in downtown Memphis if we wanted the real deal, and he wasn't wrong.
The queue was around the corner, but it was so worth it. We were almost too full to manage a night of blues on Beale Street, but, as soon as we saw the neon lights, it was like moths to a flame. The following day, we went to the Lorraine Motel, which is the site of Martin Luther King's assassination.
The room he stayed in, and the motel itself, are now a part of the National Civil Rights Museum and are both kept exactly how they were during his last visit.
From Memphis it was on to Nashville, the Brooklyn of the south. We stayed in Hillsboro Village, a little nugget of culture in the middle of the city. There is a place there called the Pancake Pantry that serves 23 different pancake varieties. It's truly mind-blowing. On our first day in Nashville, we spent about five hours in a little vintage store called the Hip Zipper on Forrest Avenue. I left with two bags of the most beautiful bargains and a tortured boyfriend.
To make up for it, I suggested we visit Printer's Alley, Nashville's red-light district, a tiny street flooded with fairy lights and showgirl signs. It was an experience, but the rain was starting and we were looking for some proper Nashville country music. The city is famous for its honky-tonk bars, which line a street called Broadway.
They look miniature, old and out of place in the shadow of the city's high-rise buildings. The outside is not misleading because, inside, they are cramped, packed with people swinging from the rafters, everywhere smells like chips and beer, and live country plays loudly. To wind down after the madness, we found a quirky cocktail and tapas bar called The Patterson House that took the ringing out of our ears.
The next day started perfectly. We came across a highly recommended restaurant called Monell's, which is the best family-style authentic southern dining experience you could ever ask for. Strictly no mobile phones here and you are seated at a big dinner table for 10. There's no ordering either. The best selection of southern foods just arrives and is passed around. This was my favourite restaurant on the entire trip, and that's saying something because we did a lot of eating.
Our Nashville explorations finished up with a visit to Franklin. Just 20 minutes outside the city, it's a quaint, sleepy Southern town filled with antique shops, little boutiques, eclectic cafes, book shops and art galleries. Then it was one more flight to our last stop, New York City.
We stayed in Queens, three subway stops from Manhattan, in the newly opened Paper Factory Hotel. In terms of location and value, it's the best place I've ever stayed in New York – where hotels are notoriously expensive for little return. It was Dara's first time in the city, so the usual tourist attractions had to be ticked. We visited Times Square and the NBC Studios, took in the views from the top of the Rockefeller Centre and paid respects at the 9/11 memorial. That night we went to see a musical, The Book of Mormon, on Broadway, Dara somehow secured tickets a few weeks before, a miracle because the show has been sold out for years! I'm not a big fan of musicals, but this was beyond brilliant, created by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who are also responsible for South Park, it is hilarious. They've won nine Tony Awards, but I think they deserve 90.
Waking up in New York has to be the best feeling in the world. Breakfast in SoHo, followed by a day of fighting with guys on Canal Street to give you $20 off fake designer crap, followed by dinner in the Meatpacking District, the dream. Dara and I are big comedy fans, so we spent two nights in a row at the Comedy Cellar, which has a three-drinks-per-person minimum, generally resulting in a great night.
All Dara wanted to do in New York was eat pizza slices, while all I wanted to do was eat sushi, but I couldn't get a table anywhere. Sushi Yasuda is the best in the city and always booked out. I harassed them until they allowed us in. It's super, and so authentic that they won't accept tips because it's not in keeping with Japanese culture.
The last day of the trip arrived. Filled with impending-reality anxiety, we jam-packed it, visiting Dominique Ansel's Bakery –home of the cronut – and crossing the bridge to Brooklyn.
We discovered the best coffee in the Swallow Cafe on Bogart Street, and some very reasonably priced thrift stores. New York's vintage shops are generally more expensive than regular shops, so this was a nice find. So nice, in fact, that we almost missed our flight home. One fast and furious cab ride to JFK later and, by the skin of our teeth, we were suddenly reading the Cara magazine with a Clodagh McKenna scone and a cup of tea, like we'd never left.
Every adventure makes the soul a little richer and the mind a little deeper, but, of all the trips I've been on to date, this one was by far my outstanding favourite. Here's to the next one.
Photography by Kip Carroll
Hair by Paul Davey, DaveyDavey, 23 Drury St, D2, tel: (01) 611-1400
Make-up by Vivien Pomeroy, Brown Sugar, 50 Sth William St, D2, tel: (01) 616-9967
Cover, contents page and page 13: 1964 Cadillac Coupe de Ville from David Golding, tel: (087) 785-3264, or see www.classicandvintage.ie The car is going to auction on July 25 with South Western Vehicle Auctions, See www.swva.co.uk
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