Key West – my last American adventure

Now that the trip was officially over, I still had one more full day in Miami. I decided to go on an adventure to Key West. Thankfully, it was easily organised through the hostel I was staying in. They had a big book full of companies organising days out at the front desk, and they simply phoned them and booked me a place on the trip!

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The day started at 7am since it was around a three hour drive down to Key West. The driver was lovely, welcoming all of us and giving us information over the loudspeaker about the area we were driving through. On the bus he told us about the different activities which were available once we arrived, and we were able to sign up to anything which took our fancy.

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I decided to go on a three hour snorkelling trip. The boat ride took about an hour as we heading out to a coral reef, which turned out to actually be the third largest in the world. I have to admit, I didn’t realise that America even had a coral reef! We then had about an hour during which we were able to swim around if we wanted to. Whilst waiting at the harbour I had bought a waterproof case for my iPhone to try and take some photos in case there were some really cool fish etc. Unfortunately, I had some difficultly with it – such as the phone not responding all the time to my touch, and the photos weren’t as good as I would have liked (although this is probably due to the fact that i’m a perfectionist) but it’s still a purchase I’m very happy I made.

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As we sailed to and roof the reef the views were absolutely breathtaking, and it was amazingly peaceful just floating about for an hour. I only snorkelled for about half the time available, although I found this plenty. The rest of the time I spent just looking out at the view of the ocean and the other boats which were nearby. This is definitely a trip I would recommend to others. The staff were incredibly friendly and answered all of our questions as best they could. There were drinks included in the price which was a big relief since it was so unbelievably hot! And of course I inevitably got chatting to some of the other people on the trip, which is always nice.

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Once back on shore I decided to walk down to Point 0. This is literally the southernmost point in the United States of America. There’s a concrete marker which was established in 1983 marking the spot, which in all honestly is the only thing that really marks the spot out. The views of the ocean were stunning though, and it’s something that I think is just a bit different to be able to say that you’ve done. Also, it’s now something else that I can tick off my wanderlust bucket list, which is always a plus for me! Unsurprisingly this is one of the most visited and photographed parts of Key West.

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Key West was truly gorgeous. Just walking down the street to Point 0 there were so many different things to look at. There were art displays, beautiful gnarly trees which looked like something an artist would dream up, random tricks with sea shells stuck all over it! In many ways it was exactly how I imagined an American sea-side town to be. The houses had the old fashioned, brightly coloured shutters, there were knackered looking trucks driving around everywhere and even chickens running wild across the streets!

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Key West was, in a word, incredible. It was perhaps one of my favourite days of the my entire time in America and is certainly one that I seem to talk about the most. I’m so happy that I decided to go on this day out instead of simply sitting on the Miami beaches (although, that would also have been a lovely way to spend the day). It was a fantastic way to spend my last day in America, and is something I would 100% recommend to anyone who asks me.

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We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls” – Anais Nin

Miami

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Our last stop on our tour was Miami. I spent the first day wandering down the beach and having exploring the local area. I made the decision not to sunbathe as it was simply so hot that I knew I would inevitably get sunburnt. And to be honest, the concept of traveling home whilst sunburnt was not particularly appealing!

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The beaches in Miami were absolutely gorgeous. So much so that I would absolutely rank them in the top three beaches I have ever been to in my life. There were numerous shops just a street away from the beach and so I was able to spend a few hours happily pottering around and seeing what they had to offer.

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Sadly it was our last evening together as a group. After traveling together for two weeks and spending almost all of our time together it was a strange thought that soon we would all be apart and spread all over the UK. It was an amazing trip and the people truly did make it the experience that it was. I count myself very lucky that I was able to be part of a group where everybody not only got on, but were friends and were able to have a great laugh together. It’s a company that I would look at again if I planned to re-visit the US. If you’re looking to explore America on your own, I would absolutely recommend this company. It made travelling on my own seem a far less daunting prospect and it was an amazing experience.

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“The gladdest moment in human life, me thinks, is a departure into unknown lands.” – Sir Richard Burton

Universal Studios Part 4 (A.K.A. Men In Black, Simpsons, ET and the Minions)

With only a few hours left until we were due to be picked up, we had to quickly try and fit in everything else we wanted to do! After agreeing which rides we wanted to give priority to the group made our way to the Men In Black ride (which, would you guess, is another favourite of mine!) This was a fantastic ride and actually a little bit different to others in the park. The story line is that you are a trainee agent attempting to become a Man In Black. The ride goes in groups of four and each individual has a laser gun. As the ride progresses you have to try and shoot as many aliens as you can. It was fantastic fun even for us adults -and I must admit we did get quite competitive. It was also nice to have a ride where you’re actually doing something yourself. I would definitely recommend making this ride a priority.

IMG_6578We then walked through the Simpson area of the park. I have to admit I don’t really watch the Simpsons that much, but it was still pretty cool to see all of the characters and the buildings from the show. Since we didn’t have much time left we made the decision not to go on the ride in this area, although it did look very good fun.

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Instead, we made our way to the E.T. ride which, up to this point, we had believed was out of order. Now I have to admit I’m also not a massive fan of E.T. I watched it when I was quite young and I didn’t really like it, although that may be more due to the fact that I was too young to appreciate it. Perhaps it had something to do with my lack of enthusiasm for the movie but I wasn’t particularly impressed by this ride. But who knows, maybe a massive fan of the film would tell me that I’m totally wrong and that it’s the best ride at the park! I suppose it’s all a matter of personal preferences.

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Our last ride was the Minions! This was possibly one of my favourite parts of the entire park. Yes, I do happen to love the Minions – what’s not to love about them! But the animation on this ride was truly incredible. The storyline was very entertaining and you genuinely couldn’t help but loose yourself in the moment. This is something I would recommend to anyone, no matter what their age!

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Sadly we never had the chance to go on the parks largest roller coaster. It had been raining on and off throughout the day and thus the ride had been closed for most of our time there. About an hour before we were due to leave we saw that the ride was finally working again and made our way over. After waiting in line for almost an hour (the longest we had had to wait for the entire day) we were due to be the next ones on the ride. Tragically however, this is when it started to absolutely bucket it down and the ride was forced to stop once again. In any other situation I would have stubbornly stood there until they told us that the ride was 100% not going to re-open. Sadly we weren’t able to wait around as we were due to be picked up. It was really annoying, but at least this means I have another thing to look forward to when I go back to Universal!

So what on earth can I say to sum up this day? Incredible, amazing, hilarious, fantastic, dream come true. Nothing seems to quite capture the experience. Corny, but true. The day was amazing fun and I think especially so for me because I am such a film enthusiast. This is honestly somewhere that everyone can find something that they like, no matter what their age or preferences. It’s somewhere I believe everyone should go if they had the chance and I will continue raving about it to anyone who will listen to me!

“Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.” Dalai Lama

Universal Studios – Part 3 (A.K.A. Suss Landing, Atlantis, Shrek, Transformers and The Mummy)

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As we walked around the park we next came to the Dr Seuss area. I really enjoyed the Dr Seuss books growing up, and I still love some of his work even today. Looking around I couldn’t quite comprehend that everything was truly real. It genuinely all looks as though it has suddenly sprung out from the book, and in many ways it looks as though a cartoon has genuinely come to life. In two words – very impressive. I would absolutely recommend this as a place to go if you have children – especially because the rides in this part of the theme park were aimed for the slightly younger ages. Despite this, it was still amazing to go there simply to have a look around.

IMG_6508_2IMG_6509_2From there we travelled on to a strange looking part of the park that in all honesty, I didn’t really understand. I think it was meant to be a sort of Atlantis, mystical styled world. It did look really cool though I have to admit – I couldn’t believe how large some of the decorative structures were! On the map it said that there was a ride or show called ‘Poseidon’s Fury.’ I don’t really know what this is as the group decided that they weren’t particularly bothered about this part of the park so we didn’t explore it. Plus, we were all beginning to get really hungry so we decided to go get some lunch! If I get the chance to go back to the park I would like to have another opportunity to explore this area properly and to finally find out what Poseidon’s Fury is!

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For lunch we went to a really nice Mexican restaurant. Sadly I can’t remember the name, but it was pretty distinctive due to the fact that the exterior of the building was literally multi-coloured. The food there was incredible and the waiter was so lovely that I had absolutely no problem tipping him extra. Also, to my surprise it wasn’t too expensive, so this is definitely somewhere I would recommend eating!

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After lunch we decided to go and see a couple of the 4D shows to allow our bodies some time to digest the absurd amount of food that we had all just consumed! First we went to go see the Shrek show which was absolutely INCREDIBLE. I was a little worried that this may be really childish but honestly I thought it was hilarious and I am so pleased that I went to go see it. (And this definitely has nothing to do with the fact that Shrek is one of my favourite films)

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Next up was the transformers ride which was also brilliant fun. Again, nothing to do with the fact that it’s also one of my top favourite movies!

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IMG_6566Then it was the turn of the Mummy! Ok so there definitely seems to be a trend here of me admitting that these films are all my favourite. But seriously, I never realised how many of my favourite films were actually made by Universal. The Mummy truly does have a special place in my heart though. Watching it as a child was the first time I had ever really seen anything about Ancient Egypt and it’s what first made me interested in it. Now at the age of 20 i’m at University studying Ancient History and today had a lecture about inscriptions found in Ancient Egypt – guess it really did have an impact on me!

Universal Studios – Part 2 (A.K.A. Jurassic Park, Toon Lagoon and Marvel Island)

IMG_6417_2Our next stop was Jurassic Park! For such a massive movie geek like me, the excitement began from the amazing moment that you walk through the gates seen in the movie. I can’t remember the last time I was able to enjoy being a movie geek to this extent! As a side note, we had the most amazing cookies in this part of the park. They were absolutely massive, unbelievably delicious and only a couple of dollars so I would definitely recommend them!

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IMG_6420_2Walking over to the ride you could see the Jurassic Park cars from the original movies, with dinosaurs looming out of the bushes behind them. There also seemed to be some sort of show that i’m guessing was connected to the recent Jurassic World. It looked like the story line was a dinosaur attempting to escape its cage and the keeper trying to prevent this from happening. There was an amazing robotic dinosaur which kept popping up and moving around (which looked almost scarily realistic). Unfortunately we didn’t stop to watch it as we were all far too busy sprinting over to the Jurassic Park ride!

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When I heard that it was a water ride, I was a little worried that it might be childish. I was quickly proved wrong however (much to my delight). The boat takes you along different sections of the ‘park’ with a voiceover introducing the dinosaurs that you see – as though you were actually in Jurassic World. You then come to a section where the dinosaur has escaped from its cage! You travel into a building and encounter a number of dinosaurs which have gained their freedom, before facing the famous T-Rex!!! Hand on heart, it truly was a fantastic ride. The dinosaurs looked pretty realistic, the tour element really made you feel like you had stepped into the world of the film, and of course the ride ended (as is expected from a water ride) with one final, massive splash!

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After Jurassic world we then made our way over to Toon Lagoon. I have to admit I have no idea what this actually is, but there was a water ride there which looked INCREDIBLE. It created an absolutely enormous splash and the people coming off it genuinely looked drench to the skin – admittedly we avoided this ride because of that fact. Definitely one I want to try on another day though!

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The next stop? Marvel! I am a self-confessed Marvel geek – particularly the Avengers and the X-men. So, coming to the Marvel Super Hero Island was truly a dream come true! The only ride in the area was connected to Spiderman, which I must confess I actually found a little bit disappointing. I like Spiderman, but I’m not a massive fan. I found it a bit surprising actually that after all of the success of the Avengers franchise in recent years that there was no ride dedicated to them! Maybe this should be something that Marvel need to start looking in to….

IMG_6487_2Spiderman was still of course a very fun ride and is something I would recommend to anyone visiting the park. I think perhaps all the rides are just that little bit more enjoyable if you’re a fan of the movie or book etc. The whole area looked really interesting, and I would have loved to have had a browse through the comic store just out of sheer curiosity. (I don’t actually own any comic books and I don’t particularly have any desire to start collecting them, but it would still be interesting to have a look around!) What can I say, Universal Studios proved once more to be an incredibly entertaining, magical place!

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“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” Neale Donald Walsch

Universal Studios – Part 1 (A.K.A The Wizarding World of Harry Potter)

As I have probably mentioned before, I am essentially a child in an adults body. Therefore it should come as no surprise to learn that whilst in Orlando I was determined to visit Universal studios. Much to my delight I wasn’t the only member of the trek who felt this way, and so a group of us went together.

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We bought the ticket which would allow us to go between the two parks – Universal’s Island of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida. I think this was the best option as in one day we were able to get around most of the rides in both parks, and therefore I can’t help but think that we would have got a bit bored if we had only had the options available in one park.

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We began the day by going to Harry Potter World. We had been advised to do this first as apparently it can get insanely busy later on in the day. Somewhat surprisingly, we didn’t actually have any problems with queues at all during the day. I think the longest that we had to wait for something was 35 minutes, and actually even that wasn’t boring. Something I really like about Universal is that they try and make your wait for a ride interesting entertaining. So it isn’t just a queue with some music playing repeatedly overhead like at some parks. Instead, you almost go through a journey as you wait for your ride. For example, as you waited for the Harry Potter ride you walked around Hogwarts, saw the paintings move and talk to each other, you visited Dumbledores office etc. So although technically you were waiting in line, it felt more like you were exploring the world of the ride – something that I loved.

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Anyway, as we reached Harry Potter World it really did feel like we had stepped back in London – which was quite a strange sensation. They had paid a lot of attention to small details such as the road signs in England, and the lights you find along the Thames. I thought this attention to detail was very impressive and it’s nice to see that they put so much time and effort into all their rides. We walked past the house used by the Order of the Phoenix, and the overnight bus. There was a red phone box for people to take photos in (which I think is more exciting if you’re not from England, and then we explored Diagon Alley! Sadly we didn’t really have much time to explore the shops properly. We wanted to try and do as many of the rides as possible, and we wouldn’t have been able to do that if we had been continuously distracted. When I next come back to Universal (which I am 100% doing) I’d like to be able to spend a day looking around all of the little shops and stalls the park has, as well as the rides. IMG_6375

Anyway, we went on a ride that takes you through the vaults of Gringotts bank. It’s not really a roller coaster, I think I would describe it more as a roller coaster stimulator. Essentially, as you’re going along the tracks, you see a story playing out along the screen. In this case, Voldemort attacking the bank, a dragon escaping and Harry and his friends trying to get you to safety. There are some moments were you’re diving down the track and being thrown around, but not loop-the-loops etc that I would associate with a ‘real’ roller-coaster. The visuals were fantastic and they were made even better by the fact that you’re wearing 3D glasses – it really does feel like you’re really there!

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From Gringotts we then went through Kings Cross Station, and to Platform 9 and 3/4. From here you’re able to take the Hogwarts express to the Harry Potter World in the other park!  (Again, I think walking through Kings Cross would be a little bit more exciting for those who don’t come from England)

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Another thing I really liked was that on the train ride, the window was actually a screen which played a little video. You heard Harry, Ron and Hermione talking in the train corridor, you saw the shadow of a dement or drifting by, you watched as London turned into typical English fields and saw Hagrid riding his flying motorbike. I love how the park have made the effort to make everything fun and entertaining, and it really does make the experience that little bit more magical!

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Getting off the train we suddenly found ourselves in Hogsmeade! Once again, we sadly weren’t able to have as much of a look around as I would have liked. We did however, get to visit Hogwarts, which definitely made up for it! The rides here were fantastic and once again, they really did make you feel like you were part of an adventure, and not just waiting for a ride in a theme park!

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Harry Potter World is a definite must. I was a really big fan of the books when I was younger, although not so much now that i’m older and i’ve found other things to obsess over. Our group ranged from an obsessed Potterhead to someone who had never having read the books or watched the movies, and yet all of us thoroughly enjoyed it. I would recommend it to anyone, even if they’re not a massive fan. If nothing else, the rides are brilliant fun and Harry Potter World does include one of the ‘real’ roller-coasters of the Theme Parks. A fantastic way to start the day!

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“We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.” – Anonymous

Bring on the beach!

IMG_6306After over a week of near non-stop travelling and site seeing, we were all ready for some down time. Thankfully, the next stop was at Panama City beach, Florida. The sand there is gorgeously white, and the water truly is crystal clear. I was surprised actually, as walking out into the sea I must have got a good 20-30 meters from shore and I was still only waist deep! It should probably come as no surprise that our day here was mostly spent on the beach or around the pool. Sadly, I burn incredibly easily so I had to spend most of the day in the shade. However, it still gave me the opportunity to read my book with an exquisitely beautiful view, so I was very satisfied.

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“Take only memories, leave only footprints.” Chief Seattle 

See you later, Alligator!

As we left New Orleans, we were able to stop off to do a swamp tour. In all honesty i’m not actually sure where we did it, just that it was in a swamp! The tour lasted for about an hour and a half, and it was incredible. I’ve never been in a swamp before, but I personally thought that it was absolutely beautiful. It was incredibly green and luscious – although this is because it’s summer. Perhaps my opinion would have been slightly different if we had visited during the winter months! The guide was so friendly and was able to make everything seem truly interesting – which can’t have been particularly easy at times. Much to our delight we were able to see some wildlife, including turtles, a racoon (the first I’ve ever seen) and alligators. Something I found very surprising was that the guide threw marshmallows over the side of the boat in an attempt to entice the crocodiles closer. I thought this was quite a strange choice for a meat eating animal, although someone later suggested that it might simply be because the sweets float! It was a great way to spend the morning and I had a fantastic time. Here are the photos from the trip – enjoy!11260884_10207513324456315_2241983500659246440_n11014835_10207513327376388_232876259801518120_n 11217159_10207513327216384_1665501026079725768_n 11218958_10207513324696321_9041135858294931664_n  11659363_10207513325056330_7682148481028375233_n 11938055_10207513325696346_7064286388421936701_n 11951778_10207513326576368_6684691493544811459_n 11951809_10207513325896351_4644108846131914808_n 11952993_10207513325496341_243755733754205077_n 11953208_10207513326136357_8947246691253292089_n 11988327_10207513326896376_7229404317032180735_n

“It is not down in any map; true places never are.”  Herman Melville

Voodoo and Hoodoo

We were then able to enjoy a full day in New Orleans. We began our morning by getting brunch in one of the small restaraunts in the French Quarter. Named The Grill Nola it was recommended to us both by my travel book, and by a friendly doctor we had got chatting to in the reception of our hotel the night before. It turned out that his ravings were incredibly justified!

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The place was gorgeously decorated, and looking around it did feel like you had suddenly been transported back in time. We sat on small stools around the counter which gave it a homey feel, and the fact that there was a queue of people waiting outside the door was testament to just how popular this place was! The food was absolutely incredible – I can hand on heart say that it was the best pancake I have eaten in my entire life! It has probably also got to be the best service I have ever had in my life. The waiters were so friendly and happy, that you just couldn’t help but laugh and chat with them. They called orders across to the chef so quickly and in such rapid succession that we were convinced that half of our orders would be wrong or missing. But no, they all arrived perfectly. One of the guys was so unbelievably cheerful that I couldn’t help but compare him to Olaf the snowman from Frozen. I wish that we could have gone back to this place repeatedly, but sadly we didn’t have the time. For anyone who is visiting New Orleans GO TO THIS PLACE ASAP!!!

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For the remainder of the day we split up and pottered around the city. There wasn’t really anything that I particularly wanted to see in New Orleans, so it was nice to have some time just to wander around the city and take in the sights. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to go on a steam boat ride, which would have been great fun. You can do an evening Jazz cruise along the river with dinner which I think sounds incredible, although perhaps that’s something to do with a significant other at some point!

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We did however, get to do a Voodoo tour in the evening. This was something that I was absolutely determined to do (even if no one else in the group had wanted to do it) but thankfully everyone participated – even if it did take a little bit of persuasion!

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The tour we went on was a factual, historical tour (not a ‘scare the pants off you’ type of tour) which suited me perfectly. There’s another tour which apparently takes you around the graveyards and essentially tells you ghost stories. Whilst that does sound very cool, since we only had one evening, I wanted to make the most of my one opportunity to actually learn about Voodoo from someone who knows about it personally.

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The tour was, in my opinion, fantastic. We were led around the city and shown places of significance to the Voodoo faith. We learnt about is history, its traditions, its practices, and about the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. I apologise if what I say isn’t 100% correct, but this is what I understood from the tour…Voodoo originally came from Africa, and was brought over to America as a result of the slave trade. The religion was adapted by the slaves, meaning that the Voodoo practiced in New Orleans is different from Voodoo in say, Haiti. Voodoo refers to a spiritual religion, and is not simply a form of black magic as many people believe. This misconception occurred when people mixed up Voodoo, and other religions from Europe which practiced black magic.

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A Voodoo shrine

We learnt that while practicers of Voodoo do believe in magic, this is actually known as ‘Hoodoo’. Amongst other things, Hoodoo can be used to heal, to influence decisions and to help gain wealth. They do also use Hoodoo dolls, although they are not the type portrayed in movies and on the tv. Instead, they are usually used as a way to bless people, or to influence their spirits.

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Another important aspect of Voodoo in New Orleans was the Voodoo Queens of the 19th century. These women had a huge amount of power, and often had the lead role in ceremonial meetings and ritual dances. They could be paid to create amulets, charms, spells, or magical powders and thus their influence was incredibly widespread.

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In particular, the guide talked to us about Marie Laveau, known as the ‘Voodoo Queen of New Orleans’. It was said that men of wealth and influence – such as lawyers, business men and politicians, all came to her for advice before making any important decisions. However, at the same time, she put a lot of her time and effort into helping the poor and enslaved of the city, something which I think makes her even more admirable. What I really appreciated about our guide is that she didn’t try and convince us to start worshipping Voodoo, or give us a very one sided perspective about events. She told us that often when people were unable to pay for her service in cash, Marie Laveau would get them to tell her information instead. She also worked as a hairdresser, another place where idle gossip can be overheard. Thus, over time, The Voodoo Queen of New Orleans was able to build up an incredibly complex network of spies and information, which she may also have used to her advantage as well as her skills at Voodoo and Hoodoo.

The tour was incredibly interesting, and I thought the guide did an amazing job. Perhaps I’m a little biased as I found Voodoo fascinating even before this tour, but I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is in the city. It’s a brilliant way to learn about New Orleans’ history, and about something so different from what many of us believe.

“I am not the same, having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.” Mary Anne Radmacher

New Orleans!

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Our next stop? New Orleans! For anyone who doesn’t know, New Orleans is a city in the state of Louisiana. It is the states largest city, and is a major American port. The city was originally founded by the French, and got its name from the Duke of Orleans (who reigned as Regent for King Louis XV for eight years). The city is famous for numerous reasons including being the birthplace of Jazz, its annual Mardi Gras festival (which I am determined to see at some point in my life), and, of course, Voodoo.IMG_0731

We arrived in New Orleans after a long, hot, tiring car ride. However, we were still determined to get out and explore the city! We made our way over to the French Quarter, also known as the ‘Vieux Carré’ (Old Square), the oldest neighbourhood in New Orleans. The city developed around this area after its founding in 1718, and the whole area has now been designated as a National Historic Landmark.

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It was quite bizarre walking around this area, as it truly did feel as though you had suddenly been transported to the small side streets of Paris. The architecture was gorgeous, and I was able to have a long look at some of the buildings when we were forced to take shelter when the daily rain storm occurred! As we made our way to the main square we passed numerous cafes, clothes shops, art galleries and numerous other interesting looking shops that we wanted to explore.

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Eventually we managed to drag ourselves away from these numerous distractions to reach the square! I was surprised when we reached it that there were at least a dozen small stalls with men and women offering psychic readings, tarot cards, palm readings etc. I suppose I shouldn’t have found it such a surprise considering the culture of the city, but I just hadn’t been expecting to see them in the square like that.

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I did however, get distracted watching a street performer swallowing swords – a slightly worrying act to watch! It was fantastic entertainment though (even if it does baffle me as to how it’s done) and it was definitely worth the couple of dollars to watch!IMG_0750

Walking around the streets, I was curious as to why there were so many rainbow flags and other Pride decorations. Asking around, we found out that that weekend was the ‘Southern Decadence’ festival (also referred to as ‘Gay Mardi Gras’). We were soon to see how crazy this would be!

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I must confess, before going to New Orleans I didn’t really know much about the city. I knew that it was the home of Voodoo and of Jazz, but in all honesty I think that this was probably mainly due to my love of the movie ‘The Princess and the Frog.’ However, even within a couple of hours of being in this city I was beginning to see how incredible it was, and beginning to fall in love with it. It is definitely being put high on my list of places to travel to again!

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 “To awaken alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” Freya Stark