Books Magazine

The City and the Road – August in America

By Isabel Costello @isabelcostello

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s good to be back on the Literary Sofa again after spending almost all of August in the States. If you know my blog or my fiction you already know that I have a thing about America which dates all the way back to my very first taste of it as a 22-year-old.  Somewhat bizarrely, this was in Hawaii (we were returning from Australia). I remember looking at a building labelled UNITED STATES POST OFFICE, thinking how surreal that was and being overcome with curiosity about this huge land.  It wasn’t long before my (now) husband and I returned, and over the years we’ve visited many times and many different parts.  It’s so incredibly diverse and complex that being from a small island I still can’t quite believe it’s all one country.  Of course there are things about the USA I don’t love, but I feel the same way about the UK.

Since I decided to set part of my first novel in Brooklyn, my fascination with New York in particular has intensified and I’ve come to know several neighbourhoods where I feel very at home and could happily live.  One of them is beautiful Brooklyn Heights, where my sons and I were very fortunate to begin our trip with a week staying with some friends made in the course of my research in their huge brownstone townhouse.  I could write a whole post about the fun we had in New York (considerably more than last time).

Given the chance, I would always choose to live like a local in a ‘real’ neighbourhood – I’m not a lover of hotels.  I also like wandering around exploring and observing life in places where I’ve already done the touristy stuff.  These days, New York is like that.  The weather was hot, but not noticeably hotter than at home after our July heatwave.  We spent almost all our time outdoors, returning several times to Central Park, a family favourite, laden with goodies from the giant new Whole Foods at Columbus Circle.  It was a very sociable week, catching up with friends old and new (once again, thanks to Twitter).  You can imagine what a treat it was for me to be invited to visit Benjamin Dreyer, Managing Editor at Random House Towers on Broadway!  I could have spent hours in the book-lined lobby and Benjamin made sure I didn’t leave empty-handed.

We fell easily into the rhythms of Brooklyn life.  Atlantic Bagels, we miss you! (We went so often the staff got to know us, my accent a constant source of confusion, especially when saying ‘tuna’).  One day we took the free ferry to Governor’s Island.  We returned again and again to the Brookyn Bridge Park just moments from where we were staying.  This waterfront has undergone major redevelopment in recent years and is a fantastic asset for New Yorkers – lots of people jogging and having barbecues – and visitors alike.  The kids were in heaven playing football on the astroturf pitches with a stunning view of Manhattan.

We also spent plenty of time in Brooklyn, discovering new places and returning to familiar ones.  It was great to see Coney Island in full swing, and when we took the 63 bus the entire length of Fifth Avenue I felt quite emotional when we passed Sunset Park, the street where my character grew up and other locations in my book, including Red Hook on our final day.  This place has really got under my skin.  It was a wrench to leave, but there were good times ahead.

One of the reasons this trip worked out so well was the variety:  a mix of cities, desert and above all, coast, and a combination of places we’d been before and new ones.  We flew to Seattle to join my husband and embark  on driving the West coast down to Hearst Castle – a distance of a thousand miles which takes in the entire Oregon coast and most of California’s.  We hadn’t seen it north of San Francisco before and it’s something we’ve wanted to do for years.  It certainly lived up to expectations.  You’ll see that I’m mostly letting the pictures do the talking (describing the natural world isn’t my forte).

As well as being wowed by the wild beauty of the Pacific coast there were a few surprises.  It’s renowned for its fog but we’d never seen so much of it.  It often didn’t burn off until the afternoon and when it was doing its thing, temperatures were on the chilly side.  I think we Brits sometimes idealise the weather elsewhere – my visions of splashing around in the ocean were somewhat misguided.  None of us managed to put more than a toe in the water – it was freezing!  We were also surprised at how deserted the less-travelled northern stretches were.  The US school holidays start early and were almost over.  I needn’t have spent ages planning the itinerary and pre-booking motels – there were vacancies everywhere.


A road trip of one-night stays in motels can feel like a schlep even with older kids so we rented a condo for two nights in the small town of Crescent City in northern California to see the giant redwood forests, which were spectacular.  We all really enjoyed this place, where the lovely hosts set up a fire pit for us both nights and even provided marshmallows for us to toast, listening to the surf pounding as we sank a few glasses of wine.  They also lent us bikes, and as we pedalled along the coast on a glorious afternoon I experienced one of those intense moments where you think It really doesn’t get much better than this.

It was back to city life then with five nights staying in a Victorian cottage in the trendy San Francisco district of Noe Valley, right near the famous Castro. (Great fun walking past on a Friday night and seeing all the gorgeous and outrageous people spilling out of the bars.)  San Francisco is a place of contradictions and this time made me realise how little I’d got to know it on two previous visits staying in downtown hotels.  I certainly had never realised how unbelievably steep it is, almost vertical in places – every excursion came with a free workout (no bad thing).  It’s also very spread out.  We covered huge tracts of the city in our four days and walked the entire waterfront from Golden Gate Bridge (so foggy we only bothered walking to the first tower – zero visibility!) to AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, where we lucked out walking in on a free family discovery day.  We didn’t enjoy battling with the public transport system though, one of the slowest and most overcrowded I’ve come across in a major developed city.

City Lights, San Francisco
Something I love about America is the Mexican and Chinese food - far, far better than in the UK,  and in San Francisco, which has one of the world’s biggest Chinatowns, you’re spoilt for choice.  That didn’t stop us going back to the same place – Capital Restaurant on Clay Street – where they serve the most delectable salt and pepper chicken wings for next to nothing. Another highlight was the City Lights Bookstore, an independent celebrating 60 years in business (thanks Pete Domican for the tip).  I spent ages in there.  I would have expected to find more of my writer friends’ books on sale, but it’s fitting that the one I did find was by Stephen May, whose next novel Wake Up Happy Every Day [March 2014] is set in San Francisco.

Sometimes when you’re on holiday, it starts to feel a bit flat as it comes to an end.  Not this trip.  Oh no.  We still had Big Sur to come.  I’m glad I’ve seen it before in better conditions, but our visit to the Nepenthe restaurant that everyone had told us we HAD to visit was still a success.  I keep fantasising about that Shrimp BLT.  Then there was Death Valley.

And then there was Vegas, and what a ending!  We stayed with friends and their four children in their jaw-droppingly fabulous new home with a panoramic view of the mountains and the Strip.  When dusk rolled around every day I stood on the patio transfixed, watching the city light up.  We chatted and ate and shopped and swam.  (We didn’t gamble because we don’t do that.)  We drank a lot of strong cocktails and watched silly movies.  It was A-MAZING.

Lairmont Place

Now we’re back, and once again I’m conscious of why we love travel so much and would rather do that than have a new car or move house – it’s as important to me as reading and writing, and that means very.  Every place I’ve ever been (and they’ve not all been so enjoyable) has stayed with me.  I’ve come back teeming with ideas and observations I would never have got sitting at my desk in London.  Every trip is a story which leads to many more.

Many, many thanks from all of us to Clyde and Irene, Donna, Benjamin, Bill and Linda, Adam and Jessica for your welcome and generosity.

Where have you been this summer?  I’d love to hear about your travel experiences.


Thanks to everyone who read the blog while I was off duty – it got 1500 hits, many of them still for Top Summer Reads  For those who saw my American Holiday TBR post, there will soon be a chance to win the novel I enjoyed the most, David Gilbert’s & Sons, which isn’t out in the UK, in my 2nd Blog Anniversary Comp.  Next week, Wendy Wallace will be the first guest author to make a second visit to the Literary Sofa with a beautiful guest post about her new novel The Sacred River.  Lots of great things lined up for the autumn!


Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog