Day One, and the intrepid team of Westholme History and Drama students gather early at Manchester airport to embark on a 16-hour journey to Washington DC.
With our varsity tops in tow, we checked in our luggage with Iceland Air, assisted by a very humorous Iceland Air employee who took quite a shine to Mrs Lewis, as well as making some of our nervous flyers feel a little more relaxed; he told some students that they weren’t allowed to travel because they had to be in school the next day!
Or that they had the wrong colour suitcase! We were also surprised to find another large school group travelling on the same flight to explore Iceland for the week. Once through security, we delighted in a little breakfast and shopping before boarding the two-hour flight to Reykjavic airport.
On arrival in Reykjavik, 9 of us were selected for extra screening, which involved us emptying our hand luggage and having swabs taken from our hands and feet. Just part of the extra security for flying to the USA!! After passing with flying colours we joined the others to explore and shop before boarding the six-hour flight to Washington Dulles. Once again, Iceland Air offered us free beverages and a highlight of the airline was the interactive media screens that allowed us to watch movies, play games and listen to music.
Washington Dulles airport is without doubt the most efficient airport when it comes to going through immigration with 47 children. What took us nearly three hours at JFK in 2019, took five minutes and we were taken aback with how friendly and welcoming the staff were. We boarded the coach, dragging our now weary bodies and suitcases to the Residence Inn Capitol Hill at around 10pm (East Coast time). Squeals of excitement could be heard as students discovered their luxury accommodation and after raiding the Hotel Reception shop they went happily to sleep in readiness for a fun-packed agenda the next day.
We woke up to a glorious morning of sunshine, and after devouring a lovely breakfast, we walked through the capital’s scenic streets to the US Capitol building. A guided tour gave us all the highlights of this most recognised symbol of democratic government in the world; it is where Congress meets to write the laws of the nation and where presidents are inaugurated. The photos do not do it justice and we were overwhelmed with its sense of history and importance.
For the rest of the sunny afternoon, our wonderful Mrs Lewis had planned a bespoke 4-hour tour of Washington monuments on our own private coach, driven by the charismatic and fashionable Leroy, with his snakeskin shoes and captivating stories. I have to say that this tour was a major highlight for us all! From the majesty of the Lincoln and Washington Memorials to the reflective beauty of the Arlington National Cemetery and the National World War II Memorial, finishing with the outdoor Franklin Roosevelt Memorial at dusk, we were both humbled and educated!
After a very comfortable stay at our sumptuous accommodation, we arose to yet another gorgeous Washington day with temperatures reaching into the mid-twenties. With sunglasses and smiles we boarded the coach and Leroy meandered us outside of the city to George Washington’s Mount Vernon. We made the most of the sunshine in the stunning surroundings and thoroughly explored this unique and interactive living museum. The views from the house were spectacular and many photo opportunities were taken advantage of during our stay. A piper strolled around the farm playing songs of the Revolutionary War, fully immersing us in a bygone era.
And then, we quickly made our way to the White House, with the cunning help of Leroy who helpfully knew every shortcut in Washington. Surrounded by security, secret police and security dogs we walked past this iconic building, even managing to gather for an impressive group photo outside the gates….and yes, the president was in residence.
We continued the afternoon with a visit to see the original Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights at the National Archives Museum. Located in a darkened room, to preserve these precious materials, we peered back through time and gained an appreciation of just how important these signed documents were to the future and development of the USA.
After passing by the Smithsonian Museum, the place famously known for the movie Night at the Museum, we visited the National Museum of American History where we explored the interactive Entertainment Nation, which holds an extraordinary collection of sport, theatre and film memorabilia, including Judy Garland’s red slippers from the Wizard of Oz and Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves! We completed the day with a visit to the popular Pentagon City Mall, where we splurged on shopping and dinner, later collapsing into our beds to recharge for the next day.
On Wednesday we checked out of our hotel and travelled by coach to New York, visiting the sleepy little town of New Castle in Delaware en route. We stepped back in time on the cobbled streets. Thanks to preservation efforts, this community remains one of the oldest and most important colonial villages in America.
Our first experience of New York was the skyline popping into view from the coach windows. Excitedly, we checked into our Manhatten hotel which was a stone’s throw away from Times Square. We had free time for dinner and souvenir shopping, which proved very popular.
Next morning, we visited the Art Nouveau inspired Empire State Building which involved a fascinating historical museum at its base, which we had chance to explore before taking the lift 86 floors to the outdoor viewing area. The views of New York were spectacular, again helped by the glorious weather. In the afternoon we had time to explore and shop the celebrated 5th Avenue, Macy’s, the Rockefeller Centre, Bloomingdales and Central Park whilst some students travelled to see the iconic Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. We finished the evening with a visit to the famously themed Ellen’s Stardust Diner. The world-famous singing waitstaff, The Star Dusters, delivered our food and sang pop songs and showtunes. We all joined in with the singing and continued to sing and dance all the way back to the hotel!
We started our last full day in America by crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, with its impressive views of the East River and of the Statue of Liberty in the distance. We then visited the National September 11 Memorial, which was remarkably both moving and uplifting in its effects. We then walked the short distance to the Statton Island ferry whilst the History students explored Wall Street and then Trinity Church, where Alexander Hamilton is buried. They then went on the exciting Statue of Liberty Cruise.
After our 30-minute cruise we travelled back swiftly by subway to the Broadway workshop at Pearl Studios. Led by a Broadway director and an Aladdin actor, Zack Bencal, who plays Babkak, the workshop was a question-and-answer session with our Performing Arts students making the most of the professionals’ experience and expertise. The Broadway director regaled us with stories of not wanting to be cast in Cats (which he hated) by a very celebrated director at the time, which then unfortunately led to said director not casting him in the very first staging of Les Misérables! His advice to our students was to never say never to an acting job! We were fortunate to watch Aladdin on Broadway later that evening which drew a wonderful close to our New York experience!
On our final day, we returned for some shopping around 5th Avenue and enjoyed some free time to explore and have lunch before being collected by our coach to take us all to Newark Airport. With slightly heavier suitcases, we said goodbye to the Big Apple and boarded our return flight. On arrival in Reykjavik, we discovered the sad news of the tragic passing of Matthew Perry/ Chandler from the TV show Friends, which held greater resonance because of our time just spent exploring his area of Manhatten shown in the show.
We returned to Manchester with our hearts full and our pockets empty, ready to entertain our families with tales of adventure and unforgettable experiences. Our final thanks go to our wonderful students who behaved with grace and good manners throughout our epic escapades, making the very best of all the opportunities the trip had to offer. So many members of the public and staff commented on their excellent and respectful behaviour, far too many to record here; what a fabulous trip and here’s to an amazing group of students!
Mr & Mrs Lewis, Miss Roberts, Mr Lyle, Mrs Hodgson, Mrs Moore