In December 2018 Alejandro and I went to the United States of America to spent Christmas there with his family. We went to Miami Beach in the sunny state of Florida, spent a day in amusement parks in Orlando and enjoyed family time in Atlanta, Georgia. Amazing!
Facts about the city:
Istanbul is the only city in the world that’s half in Asia and half in Europe. The Bosporus strait which divides the two continents passes through Istanbul and is the link between Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea.
Istanbul is the city of mosques. You will find a mosque in every corner of Istanbul. It has a total of 3,113 mosques.
We flew to USA with Turkish Airlines. We don’t have direct flights from Malta to Miami, so we had to fly with Turkish Airlines to Istanbul, Turkey, and get a connection flight from there. We landed in Istanbul at 10.30pm, and our flight to Miami departed only the next day, at 1pm.
With Turkish Airlines, passengers having a connection time of 10 hours or longer can benefit from hotel service free of charge in case there’s no transit flight with a shorter connection time. This was our case, so we had free accommodation provided by Turkish Airlines. We stayed in a very nice hotel called Ramada Encore Istanbul Bayrampasa. The airline offered us transportation to/from the hotel and we also had breakfast included.
Istanbul is the largest and most populous city in Turkey. Spread across Bosporus Channel, Istanbul is one of the world’s greatest cities, known for its magnificent historical monuments and scenic beauty. I’ve never been in Istanbul until this trip, and it was on my bucket list for years, so I was very excited!
Despite the short time we had, we took a taxi to the city center and tried to explore the city the best we could. We managed to see some mosques – the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. These two mosques are connected by a nice park – Sultanahmet Square.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque is also known as the Blue Mosque because of blue tiles surrounding the walls of interior design. This mosque was built between 1609 and 1616 years, during the rule of Ahmed I.
Hagia Sophia, often referred to as the eighth wonder of the World, is easily one of Istanbul’s most impressive sights. It is the second most visited museum in Turkey and attracts over 3 million tourists every year. Another interesting fact about Hagia Sophia is that it was the largest church in the world for about 900 years until the Seville Cathedral of Spain was completed in 1520.
After seeing these two mosques, we went to visit the Basilica Cistern, which is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city. The cistern, located 150 meters southwest of the Hagia Sophia, was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.
Then we walked around the city for a bit and saw other small mosques and interesting buildings.
We finalized our mini-tour in the Grand Bazaar, before heading back to the hotel, to go back to the airport. In operation since 1461, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is one of the oldest and largest shielded markets in the world. It is a shopper’s paradise with over 5,000 shops and 60 streets, which attract over 300,000 visitors daily. The Grand Bazaar was the world’s most visited tourist attraction in 2014 with 91,250,000 visitors annually.
Facts about the city:
Miami is the cruise capital of the world. The large seaport city of Miami has the world’s busiest cruise port.
Miami Beach is known as America’s Riviera and the Latin Hollywood. More than 70% of the population comes from Cuba and other countries from Latin America and you can hear Spanish everywhere you go!
Miami was once a mangrove swamp and the land we now know was mostly man made. As a result, some of the beaches need to be replenished with sand regularly.
After 13 hours on a plane, we finally arrived in Miami, Florida (USA). It was my first time in the land of Uncle Sam and from the very beginning I felt like I was in a movie. At the airport, they easily let me in, as I am European. I just had to pay for the ESTA online, no need for Visa.
Alejandro’s parents and brother (Arturo) were there at the airport, waiting for us. I was super excited to finally meet them, as Alejandro and I have been together for almost two years and so far I could only see them through the phone. They seemed super nice and friendly from the very beginning and I really felt at home with them 🙂
We took a taxi to Arturo’s place. He’s living in a very nice neighborhood, with the typical american houses, with nice porches and front gardens. Since it was Christmas season, all the houses were very well decorated with lights and festive stuff. His house was very nice and even had a back terrace with a view to a lake.
On our first day in Miami we went to a place called Knaus Berry Farm. We thought that this was an Amish farm/shop, as many people do as well. The folks who run the farm look Amish, with bonnets, long beards and plain cotton clothes. However, they are members of the German-origin Church of the Brethren, often called Dunkers because they believe in full-immersion baptism. Even though they are not Amish, they do produce some of the finest fresh baked goods ever.
In the right season, Knaus Berry Farm is one of the few u-pick strawberry farms left in South Florida. It also offers u-pick tomatoes, and variety of other locally grown vegetables. This means you can go and pick your own vegetables and fruits from the ground.
The item that causes those long lines to form out front – from early morning until they close at sundown – is their world famous sticky cinnamon rolls. We had to wait in the queue for a while, but it was worth it. We bought there some cinnamon rolls, pecan rolls, cheesecake and bread. The milkshakes are amazing there as well. We bought a pumpkin milkshake and I really think it was the best milkshake I’ve ever tried in my life!
In that same day we went to the Everglades National Park. The Everglades is the largest tropical wilderness park in the United States. Unless you have a boat, you can only visit a fraction of the park, since the Everglades are a network of wetlands and forests fed by a river. The park is home to manatees, American crocodiles, a huge number of birds, and even panthers. This fragile ecosystem is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and it is an International Biosphere Reserve.
We did a mini tour inside the park, where a guide explained us everything about alligators, turtles and snakes. Then we went on an Airboat Tour across the swamps, where we could spot more alligators in the water. It was raining a lot, but it actually felt very nice to feel the clean water running down our faces. It was liberating!
Miami is one of the world’s greatest and most iconic tourist destinations – thanks to its sub tropical climate, pristine beaches and relaxed ambiance. I took only winter clothes with me, but the breeze was very warm and wet. So warm we even went to the beach – to the worldwide famous Miami Beach!
Many celebrities visit Miami Beach every day. This may be because it’s not only just a few miles from South Beach, but it is a little less than two hours from the luxurious city of Palm Beach. There are more than 800 buildings that feature Art Deco architecture in Miami Beach. This makes it the largest collection of this type of architecture in the entire world.
Miami Beach is one of the few man-made islands in the United States. It was once a desolate coconut grove plantation. It is also a very diverse place. It is estimated that there are at least 150 ethnicities as well as over 60 different languages spoken there. When visiting Miami Beach it doesn’t matter what race you are or what language you speak, you will probably find someone who speaks the same language as you.
The beach is exactly as I expected it to be, just like in the movies and TV series. You can expect to see fit people doing exercise and playing sports at the beach, good looking girls in bikinis, luxurious cars cruising down the Ocean Drive avenue and over the top bars right in front of the beach. The weather was good so we even had the chance to go for a quick swim at the beach.
Miami is a complex city and has this beachy-relaxed side, but also a cosmopolitan side. The Downtown has lots of skyscrapers. At night we went to see the famous Miami Port and went to a shopping center at open air called Bayside. There we saw Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., the company from the movie Forrest Gump. We even took pictures outside, in his famous bench.
On our last day in Miami, we also went to an artistic neighborhood called Wynwood and visited Wynwood Walls. This place is a unique outdoor destination featuring huge, colorful street murals by artists from around the globe.
Open to the public, free of charge, the Wynwood Walls was established in 2009 by the legendary placemaker and visionary Tony Goldman as an outdoor museum of international street art.
Facts about the city:
Tons of films are shot in Orlando. The Waterboy, Days of Thunder, Parenthood, Transformers, Apollo 13, Armageddon, 2 Fast 2 Furious, Magic Mike, Sydney White, My Girl and Ocean’s 11 all had scenes shot here.
Orlando is home to more than 100 lakes, many of which are the result of sinkholes.
Orlando is the ‘Theme Park Capital of the World’, with theme parks like Disney Magic Kingdom, Universal Studios, Universal’s Island of Adventure, Busch Gardens Tampa, Legoland Florida, and SeaWorld.
We took a Megabus bus to go from Miami to Orlando, and in Orlando we rented a car to make it easier to move around. The bus ticket costed us around $17 per person. The five of us stayed in a 4-bed room at Orlando Continental Plaza Hotel. Arturo paid for our stay – thanks Arturo 🙂
We went to two amusement parks in Orlando – Universal’s Island of Adventure and Universal Studios. We didn’t get the chance to go to Disney Magic Kingdom. I cannot complain at all, since Arturo also got us free tickets to go to these two parks, as he has a friend that works there.
Universal’s Island of Adventure opened on May 28, 1999. In 2013, this theme park hosted approximately 8.1 million guests, ranking it seventh among United States parks and eleventh worldwide.
We entered the park and went to Marvel Super Hero Island. There, we went for a ride on Hulk’s roller coaster. Then we visited the Spider Man attraction, a motion-based ride, combining 3-D film, ride movement, and special effects. The ride takes place in New York City and since it was the first ride I experienced of this kind on that day, so close to reality, it really blew my mind away!
After that, we went to the Jurassic Park attraction, where you get a bit wet at the end. This scenic water cruise starts out innocently enough. You’re gliding along in your raft, watching a baby stegosaurus and its mother share a moment. When out of nowhere, you’re bumped off course and thrust into the ominous “restricted area” of Jurassic Park. This is where they keep the dangerous creatures. Your only possible escape is going down a big waterfall.
After this wet adventure, we entered the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It opened at Universal’s Island of Adventures in 2010. Disney had the rights to Harry Potter first, but sources say J. K. Rowling went with Universal for better collaboration. Hogwarts and Hogsmeade are located in this park.
We went inside Hogwarts and made our way down the familiar passageways, visited iconic locations such as Dumbledore’s office, the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, the Gryffindor common room, etc. In this ride, we flew above the castle grounds as joined Harry Potter on an unforgettably thrilling adventure, coming face-to-face with an array of magical creatures and even playing Quiddich. This amazing attraction uses groundbreaking, state-of-the-art technology to create a one-of-a-kind ride. Amazing!
Then we visited Hogsmeade, with all its famous shops. We drank butter beer and went to Ollivanders, to see if I would be the chosen one for a free magic wand (they always choose one person from the crowd from each show). These wands can also be bought, but are quite expensive, since they are interactive wands and let you ‘spell’ casts at several things around Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade.
After Hogsmeade, there’s the famous King’s Cross station. There, we took the famous train – Hogwarts Express – that connects both parks (Island of Adventure and Universal Studios). The ‘Wizarding World of Harry Potter’ continues in this second amusement park.
At Universal Studios, we entered the wizard’s bank, Gringott’s, beneath the massive fire-breathing dragon at the far end of Diagon Alley. Inside, we walked through the bank’s grand marble lobby and saw the goblins at work. Then, we took a 5D journey through cavernous passageways that lead deep underground as you climb aboard this mind-blowing, multi-dimensional thrill ride. Along the way we encountered Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Then, we had to evade the wrath of malicious villains Voldemort and Bellatrix, as well as trolls and other creatures.
Gringott’s is one of the most recent attractions of the park and it was definitely one of my favorites. This enchanted world of Harry Potter on both Universal parks is reported to have cost more than half-a-billion dollars.
Inside Universal Studios, there’s Springfield, Home of Simpsons. It was pretty cool seeing all the characters and places from this animated TV show.
Another thing I really liked in this park was the huge roller coaster they have there, called Rockit! It has a height of 51 m, a length of 1,200 m, and a top speed of 105 km/h.
It was super scary but thrilling to go on this roller coaster! It was definitely the biggest one I’ve ever been on. I really liked the fact that you can choose songs like ‘Born to be Wild’, ‘Rollin’ or ‘Gimme all your Lovin’ to listen to while you’re on that crazy ride! You have 7 seconds to select the song and then you can hear it from the speakers they placed close to your head. It was so cool I even went twice!
We went inside many other rides, like Shrek, Jimmy Fallon, Men in Black, etc. After all the excitement, at the end of the day we rested a bit watching the parade, with all the famous characters.
It was an amazing day. Two amusement parks in one day! I still don’t know how we had the energy to do all that. I think it’s so cool that Alejandro’s parents came with us and did pretty much everything (apart from the roller coasters) with us! My mom wouldn’t last two hours 😉
On our second day in Orlando, we went to this very typical american all-you-can-eat restaurant called Golden Corral. It’s amazing how you pay around $10 and can stay there all day and eat everything. I would be super fat if I lived in the US for sure.
We also stopped by Hulk’s Hogan shop, the famous mustached-wrestler from WWE. We also saw two very unusual houses – Ripley (a leaned house) and Wonderworks (a house that is upside down). We didn’t go inside any of these houses, but just seeing them from outside is quite a show already.
Then we wanted to get close to NASA and Kennedy Space Center. It was a bit too expensive, so we decided not to go inside. However, since we were in the area, we decided to explore the Canaveral Cape and saw the SpaceX launch complex. They design, manufacture and launch advanced rockets and spacecraft there.
After trying to (unluckily) see any rockets, we headed out to Cocoa Beach, a very famous beach in the area. A historic landmark on Florida’s Space Coast, the world-famous Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier stretches 800 feet over the Atlantic Ocean and is home to restaurants, bars, gift shops and live musical entertainment. It is a nice place for surfers as well. “I Dream of Jeannie” was set in Cocoa Beach and the most famous surfer in the world — Kelly Slater — is from Cocoa Beach.
At night, since we didn’t manage to go to Disney, at least we went to Downtown Disney. Downtown Disney, now known as Disney Springs, is an open shopping, dining, and entertainment venue. You do not need any pass or ticket to go there and shop or eat and it is totally worth a visit.
Facts about the city:
Atlanta is one of only two cities in the world to be the home of two Nobel Peace Prize winners – both Jimmy Carter and Martin Luther King, Jr. called Atlanta home.
It has the busiest airport in the world. The terminal is as big as 45 football fields.
Gone with the Wind was written and set in Atlanta. In fact, Atlanta is becoming the new Hollywood: The Hunger Games, Zombieland, Driving Miss Daisy, The Walking Dead, Captain America: Civil War, The Vampire Diaries, Insurgent, Furious 7, etc.
We took another Megabus bus from Orlando to Atlanta. The bus ticket costed us around $31 per person. Alejandro and Arturo went to drop off the car that we had rented in Orlando, took too long to get back and missed the bus! I had stayed with Alejandro’s parents close to the bus stop, so the three of us managed to take it. We took a night bus, while Alejandro and Arturo only got to Atlanta the next day, in the afternoon.
I got to meet Alejandro’s sister – Adriana, her kids – Annette and Amy, and her husband – Charbel. They all welcomed me very well and showed me their house, where we spent most of the time.
We didn’t sleep there though, we rented an apartment for Alejandro, Arturo and I, and only slept at Adriana’s place on Christmas eve. We stayed at Suburban Extender Stay and shared the cost of the apartment between the three of us – I paid around $226.
In Atlanta we rented Charbel’s car, as he did a special price – we shared the cost and I paid $79. For approximately $70 we decided to buy the City Pass to visit several attractions in Atlanta. With this pass you can get access to Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca Cola, CNN Studio Tours, Zoo Atlanta OR National Center for Civil and Human Rights, and Fernbank Museum of Natural History OR College Football Hall of Fame.
The Georgia Aquarium houses more than a hundred thousand animals and represents several thousand species, all of which reside in 38 millions liters of marine and salt water. It was the largest aquarium in the world from its opening in 2005 until 2012, when it was surpassed by Marine Life Park in Singapore.
Originally intended as a patent medicine, Coca-Cola was invented in 1886 by Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton. The World of Coca-Cola is a museum, showcasing the history of The Coca-Cola Company. The 81,000-square-meter complex opened to the public on May 24, 2007.
Centennial Olympic Park is a public park located in downtown Atlanta. It was built by the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) as part of the infrastructure improvements for the 1996 Summer Olympics.
CNN’s global headquarter is in Atlanta. We did the CNN Studio Tour.
The Zoo Atlanta was founded in 1889, when businessman George V. Gress purchased a bankrupt traveling circus and donated the animals to the city of Atlanta. The Zoo offers memorable close encounters with more than 1,000 animals from around the world, like giant pandas, apes, flamingos, etc.
Arturo, Alejandro and I went for a quick visit to Kennesaw Mountain Park. Unfortunately, the visitors center was closed that day and we didn’t have much time, so we just took some pictures at the entrance. This national park preserves a Civil War battleground of the Atlanta Campaign, where over 67,000 soldiers died.
We also went with the whole family to Amicalola Falls State Park. The park is home to Amicalola Falls, a 222 meters waterfall, the highest in Georgia.
In that same day, later on, we also went to visit a very cute town called Dahlonega. Dahlonega is rich in culture and charm and has a beautifully preserved downtown historic district.
While we were in Atlanta, we decided to go with Charbel to watch some live sports, since it’s something we can’t do in Malta. First, we went to a Hockey game: Atlanta Gladiators vs Jacksonville IceMen, at Infinite Energy Center. They lost, but the game and the atmosphere was amazing, and I even got the chance to take a picture with the mascot.
We also went to a Basket game with Charbel: Atlanta Hawks vs Indiana Pacers, at the State Farm Arena. This stadium was amazing! When they introduce the players, in the beginning of the game, I really felt like I was in a different dimension. It is really quite a show! Loved it. Also, the entertainment shows they have during the breaks and a show on their own! From kiss cams, to people performing acrobatics, they really know how to keep viewers entertained.
We visited Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park. This park consists of several buildings in Atlanta, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s boyhood home and the original Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church where King was baptized and both him and his father were pastors.
In 1977, a memorial tomb was dedicated to Martin Luther King. His remains were moved to the tomb, on a plaza between the center and the church. King’s gravesite and a reflecting pool are located next to Freedom Hall. After her death, Mrs. King was interred with her husband on February 7, 2006. An eternal flame is located nearby.
Apart from all these cultural activities, we spent some quality time as a family at Adriana’s place as well. In one of the days we went bowling and it was super fun. Christmas was also very very nice, all together, preparing and eating Venezuelan food. I felt blessed to have the chance to know this family, that is now my family as well 🙂 I hope I get to see them again soon!