2011

2011 was a truly epic year, here are my top 20 most memorable and favourite personal moments from my adventures in the USA.

20. Hiking in Glen Onoko, PA

9th April – One of the more last minute plans, I made my way to Philadelphia to meet up with Peter and his friends to go hiking at Glen Onoko near Jim Thorpe, PA. The day was notable for a number of reasons; we found a man painting with an easel half-way up who was very talented, another man entertained us as he drove at high speed on a moped over speed bumps and there was further entertainment on the way home whilst the ‘up-hill’ breath holding competition was held. Two people also fell in love, but sadly I was neither, nor both.

Glen Onoko Warning Sign
Glen Onoko Falls

19. Hands On Jackie Robinson Park, Harlem, New York, NY

16th April – Despite an early start on a Saturday morning I was glad I got out of bed to volunteer with colleagues at work to help with Hands On New York. Our task was to rake leaves, plant flower and freshen up Jackie Robinson Park in Harlem. It was a cold, hard days work but rewarding when we got to the end of the day!

Volunteering in Jackie Robinson Park, Harlem, NY

18. Ice Skating in Bryant Park, New York, NY

17th December – this was the first time I had ever gone ice skating and for me it was a truly terrifying experience, but I was encouraged by my friends Emma, Peter and Jessi (professionals) and Katie (a fellow novice!). The caramel popcorn from the Christmas market was also amazing!

Ice Skating in Byrant Park

17. A day in Providence, RI

13th September – In September I had a couple of University friends staying with me and on one of these days my friend Adam and I decided to take a day trip to Providence, the state capitol of Rhode Island. The bus journey took over 4 hours and I left my NYPL copy of ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ onboard (which I never got back and later had to pay for). Both the weather and the city were beautiful. The day finished with my first ever visit to ‘The Cheesecake Factory’ yum!

Providence, Rhode Island
Benefit Street, Providence

16. Liberty Enlightening the World, New York, NY

12th February & 14th September – Having spent considerable effort researching my family tree and knowing that some of my own ancestors made the journey to New York in generations past I was particularly interested in seeing the Statue and Ellis Island.

The Statue of Liberty, Liberty Island, NY

15. The Royal Wedding in Times Square, New York, NY

29th April – Ok I’ll admit it, I did get up a little earlier to watch the Royal Wedding ceremony on the TV. Then on my way to work I got off a stop earlier, walked through Times Square and watched Baron and Baroness Carrickfergus kiss on the balcony!

Watching Baron and Baroness Carrickfergus in Times Square

14. 9/11, New York, NY

11th September – This was the 10th Anniversary of 9/11 and my university friend, Adam, happened to be staying with me at the time. We walked along Broadway in Lower Manhattan, taking in the sights and sounds, many came to remember whilst others came to make a point. Later we took a tour of the United Nations which was very impressive and I probably spent too much in the gift shop! That night we took the Staten Island Ferry to look at the two giant beams of lights and 1 WTC which was lit up with red, white and blue lights, a truly remarkable sight.

A True Patriot
9/11 Protests
The New York Stock Exchange
Lower Manhattan on 9/11 from Staten Island Ferry

13. US-NI Mentorship Program Ceremony, New York, NY

30th November – I was the fourth participant to be placed on the US-NI Mentorship Program in it’s inaugural year. The ‘graduation’ ceremony was a special event to celebrate the end of the first year and it was actually the first time that all participants were present in the same room together believe it or not. It was a nice way to end the year and for me the highlight of the night was when my fellow participant and good friend Peter gave a speech on why he was returning home and why this is an exiciting time to be in Northern Ireland.

US-NI Mentorship Graduation Ceremony

12. Thanksgiving near Princeton, NJ

24th November – Karen, a VP in the company I was working for invited me to join Thanksgiving with her and her family. Having arrived in the USA late in the evening on Thanksgiving 2010 this was a wonderful way to celebrate the previous 12 months and to take some time to reflect on how thankful and privileged I was for having this amazing experience. We had some very tasty not-so-traditional Lasagne followed by the traditional Turkey and some delicious pies for dessert. After food, I enjoyed helping Karen and her family put up their Christmas tree! Earlier in the day I also had the opportunity to check out the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade which was quite spectacular!

Macy's Thanksgiving Parade
Thanksgiving Dinner
Thanksgiving Christmas Tree

11. Sleep no more, New York, NY

15th September – Shakespeare’s Macbeth as you have never seen or experienced it before, in the dark, walking around endless rooms and passageways wearing a mask. Simply amazing. I also enjoyed many other performances in New York including How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying starring Daniel Radcliffe, Phantom of the Opera, The Addams Family, The Fantasticks, Freud’s Last Session, Cambridge Footlights and A Night With George.

10. New York Stock Exchange, New York, NY

8th February – We were invited to an American Ireland Fund party on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange!

Trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange

9. Northern Ireland Represented, New York, NY

Throughout the year I had the opportunity to attend high profile events through the American Ireland Fund and the Northern Ireland Bureau. These included events in both the Residence of the Irish Consul-General, Noel Kilkenny and the Residence of the British Consul-General, Danny Lopez. During the year I also got to meet Geraldine Hughes, Liam Neeson and the Northern Ireland First and deputy First Ministers, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.

Geraldine Hughes
Liam Neeson
Northern Ireland First and Deputy First Ministers

8. Philadelphia, PA

I have visited Philadelphia many times during the year and have many memorable moments from my time there. Some of the highlights include Pat’s cheesesteaks, Bassets Ice Cream (America’s oldest ice cream company), touring the Kimmel centre, seeing STOMP live, visiting the Museum of Art and Rocky steps, Independence Mall and the Liberty Bell.

At the Rocky Steps, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia in the Fall
Manayunk
Ice Cream Trolley
An evening by the pool
Liberty Bell
Philadelphia
Schuylkill River, Philadelphia
Perkasie, PA
Nockamixon

7. A day in Jim Thorpe, PA

20th February – This was the first adventure of the year that the trio of Ben, Peter and myself embarked on. One of the most memorable moments was Ben and Peter’s rendition of ‘Ice Ice Baby’.

Carving ice sculptures in Jim Thorpe
Jim Thorpe, PA

6. Cycling in Boston, MA

19th-21st August – The first time I went to Boston we had to cross the George Washington Bridge to meet Peter at a car park in New Jersey. It would have been a good idea had there not been a massive frickin thunderstorm directly overhead! Regardless I really liked Boston, it reminded me a little of home. We hired bikes and cycled round the city (I hadn’t cycled in years!). Memorable moments included Ben drawing a mouse on the wall, running through water fountains and solving riddles at the Top of the Hub restaurant on the 52nd floor of the Prudential Tower whilst eating delicious freshly baked cookies. I enjoyed it so much I returned to Boston on 17th September with my university friends Adam and Laura where we visited Harvard and ate more cookies!

A thunderstorm over the George Washington Bridge starts the weekend adventure
Boston
Boston State House
Charles River, Boston

5. Lake Winnipesaukee, NH

29th-31st July – Earlier in the year we had attended an Emmanuel College Alumni Dinner hosted by Lord Winston of Dinton at the Harvard Club in New York City. At that dinner we met a lovely couple, Averill and Gregory who we became friendly during the year and in August they invited us to spend the weekend at their cabins on Lake Winnipesaukee. The weather was amazing and we enjoyed meeting their friends who were staying with them from England. We got a tour of the lake and saw the house where Nicolas Sarkozy stayed one summer and Mitt Romney’s summer retreat. Peter, Ben and Vicki had a go at water skiing but I couldn’t join them because of my ear!

The sun sets over Lake Winnipesaukee, NH
Peter waterskiing on Lake Winnipesaukee
Group photograph with Lake Winnipesaukee in the background
A dragonfly on the jetty
Group photo at Riverside station, Newton, MA

4. North Carolina

3rd-7th November – Hurricane Irene upset the original plans for a visit to North Carolina on the last weekend in August, but thankfully I was able to reschedule the flights and enjoyed Fall in North Carolina instead. Highlights included walking around Duke Gardens, visiting Hillsborough, our day trip to Raleigh where we saw some classic vehicles and some live music, we took another day trip to Wilmington where we saw some beautfiul landscapes and pelicans. We also got to see Samuel Beckett’s Endgame at the Gate Theatre in Chapel Hill.

Hillsborough, NC
Hillsborough, NC
Carolina Beach State Park, NC
Carolina Beach State Park, NC
Pelican flying over Fort Fisher near Wilmington, NC

3. Marine One landing at The White House, Washington DC

27th-30th May, Memorial Day Weekend – Following Barack Obama’s visit to the Republic of Ireland and other countries in Europe we witnessed the final stage of his journey home as he landed in Marine One on the South Lawn. With snipers on the roof and mutliple decoy helicopters it was quite exciting to witness! Other highlights included getting free admission to the Washington Monument, seeing the Lincoln Memorial, visiting the Museum of Flight, visiting the Iwo Jima memorial and Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia,  and setting foot on Northern Irish soil in the form of a quick tour of the Northern Ireland Bureau given by our host for the weekend Norman Houston. We returned to Washington DC on Columbus Day weekend (7th-9th October) where we saw the new Martin Luther King memorial and the Thomas Jefferson memorial. I returned for a day trip on 6th December to visit the Library of Congress and the National Archives to see the Declaration of Independence, United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The White House
Marine One with decoy helicopters
Marine One
Marine One landed on the South Lawn of the White House
US Capitol
Thomas Jefferson Memorial
I Have A Dream

2. Pacific Coast, LA to San Francisco, CA

8th-15th December – I flew from JFK into LAX on the 8th December and met my friend, Jonathan, from University who had flown in from LHR (Heathrow). We rented a hire car, a pretty reasonable Mazda 3 and headed to Venice Beach where we took some night shots. The following day we ate at the Urth Cafe and drove up to the Griffith Observatory where we got amazing views overlooking LA and saw the Hollywood sign. Whilst we were in LA we saw them starting to set up equipment for the overnight filming of a new Ryan Gosling movie Gangster Squad. That night we had a fascinating drive around Beverely Hills and Bel Air and headed to Santa Monica to grab something to eat – Santa Monica was one of my favourite places on this trip and we enjoyed a very delicious Aurora sauce at Locanda Del Lago and an amazing Irish Cream gelato from Angelato Cafe. On Saturday we departed LA and started our two day drive to San Francisco driving along the Pacific Coast Highway making many stops including Malibu Beach, Santa Barbara, Morro Bay (our overnight stop), Hearst Castle, Big Sur, Monterey, Santa Cruz, 1 Infinite Loop Cupertino (Apple HQ) and Amphitheatre Parkway Mountain View (Google HQ) before arriving in Pleasanton, CA where we would be staying with family friends as a base for exploring San Francisco. San Francisco was also brilliant and we took a cable car to visit Chinatown, Lombard Street and Fisherman’s Wharf before visiting Pier 39 to seal the sealions. We took a night tour of Alcatraz which I would highly recommend. Obviously we also drove across the Golden Gate bridge, had lunch in Tiburon and then visited Muir Beach and drove around Muir Woods. On my final day before flying back from SFO, I visited the USS Pampinto submarine and the SS Jeremiah O’Brien Liberty Ship which were both very interesting and enjoyable.

Venice Beach
Los Angeles
Hollywood Sign, Los Angeles
Santa Monica
Morro Bay
Hearst Castle
Elephant Seal
Golden Gate Bridge
Alcatraz
Golden Gate Bridge

1. Mumford & Sons, Telluride, CO

15th-20th June – In June, my friends Ben, Peter, Katie and Jessi had an adventure I will never forget! We flew from Newark to Denver Colorado where we hired a beast of a rental car, a Chevy Tahoe and stayed with Peter’s friends near Castle Rock on the first night. Our destination was Telluride to see Mumford and Sons perform at the annual Bluegrass Music Festival. Along the way we enjoyed Georgetown, Loveland Pass, Breckenridge and the natural hot springs at Glenwood Springs. For most of the holiday we stayed at Ouray (the ‘Switzerland’ of America) and enjoyed horse riding in the mountains with our guide called Post who was quite an interesting character. We also went to the Box Canyon Falls, visited a ghost town and saw real chipmunks! The girls also made some new friends, Garrett and Steveo, which provided Peter and I with much entertainment. The festival itself was brilliant and Mumford and Sons were awesome! The rain and weather which only started shortly before the set and lasted for most of it, ‘After the Storm’ the sun came out and we could see snow on the upper parts of the hillside which was amazing. A truly remarkable and enjoyable holiday and most deservedly number one on my list!

Mumford and Sons perform at Telluride
Telluride, Colorado
Colorado Group Photo at Loveland Pass
Horse riding with Post
Colorado Chipmunk
Colorado
Ouray, Colorado
Colorado

Strawberry Ice Cream

Strawberry Ice Cream
Strawberry Ice Cream
Strawberry Ice Cream

I love ice cream! This is one of my favourite homemade ice cream recipes. The first time I ever made this was as a member of ERICS (the Emmanuel Real Ice Cream Society) at Cambridge. I don’t have the recipe we used back then so I came up with this recipe which is the one I now use. I’ve made several times before but this time I thought I’d share it with everyone – in full pictorial detail!

Ingredients

Strawberry Ice Cream Ingredients
Strawberry Ice Cream Ingredients

You’ll need the following ingredients:

  • 500g Fresh Strawberries
  • 175g Caster Sugar
  • 500ml Whipping Cream
  • 4 tablespoons fresh orange juice

N.B. The orange juice should not be made from concentrate.

Ingredients Receipt
The ingredients cost less than £6

On this occasion buying the ingredients cost under £6 and I didn’t use everything I bought so taking account of what I did use it actually cost me a lot less:

Item Total Cost Used Actual cost
Strawberries £3.00 500g of 800g £1.88
Whipped Cream £1.00 500ml of 500ml £1.00
Orange Juice £1.00 71ml of 1L £0.07
Caster Sugar £0.97 175g of 1Kg £0.17
Grand total £3.12

Instructions

Just follow the simple steps below to make this delicious ice cream!

1. Hull the Strawberries

Hulled strawberries
Hulled strawberries

Using a sharp knife at an angle, core the stems out of the top of the strawberry. If this doesn’t make sense check out this guide.

You should also wash the strawberries at this stage so they are ready to be mashed.

2. Mash the Strawberries

Mash the strawberries
Start mashing those strawberries!

This is the fun part of the process – use a potato masher or your hands and mash it as fine as possible. Avoid blending as you will loose the texture.

3. Add the orange juice

Add the fresh orange juice
Add the fresh orange juice

Add 4 tablespoons of fresh orange juice (not from concentrate)

4. Stir in the sugar

Add the Caster Sugar
Stir in the Caster Sugar

Stir in all of the Caster Sugar.

5. Add the whipping cream

Whip the cream until it forms soft peaks – don’t overwhip!

Fold in the whipped cream
Fold in the whipped cream

Fold the cream into the strawberries.

Finished mixture
The resulting mixture

6. Freeze

Transfer the mixture to a container and put it in the freezer for 90 minutes – until it is partly frozen

Put the ice cream in the freezer
Freeze for 90 minutes

7. After 90 minutes…

The mixture should be partially frozen. Transfer it into a bowl and break it up with a fork.

Partially frozen
Transfer partially frozen mixture to bowl

Then mix until smooth – this helps the consistency and texture (avoiding ice crystals).

Mix partially forzen mixture until smooth
Mix partially frozen mixture until smooth

Pop it back in the freezer until it is completely frozen.

8. After a further 5 hours…

The mixture should be completely frozen!

Serving Suggestion
Serving Suggestion

Serve and enjoy!

Strawberry Ice Cream
Strawberry Ice Cream

The sauce I’ve made here is a simple Strawberry sauce – boil 4 tablespoons of water + 3 tablespoons of sugar + 50g mashed strawberries for a few minutes, then filter to leave the pure juice.

FTA

Even if I do say so myself!

Flavour: 8/10
Texture: 4/5
Appearance: 4/5

Overall: 16/20


The real cost of fuel

Road Trip Application Graph

Last year (on 11th April 2009 to be precise) I starting using the Road Trip application (the Lite free version of course!) for my iPhone, initially this was to monitor my fuel efficiency (which happens to be about 49MPG) but it’s actually been more useful in helping to keep track of my fuel costs.

I commute to and from work every day – a round trip of just over 70 miles per day, 5 days a week. On average I drive about 1500 miles per month (or to look at another way, about 75% of the circumference of the earth each year). Public transport is available but would require a 20 minute walk to the bus station to catch the bus at 6.25am and taking a taxi from the bus station at the other end to my work. It’s more hassle, more expensive (see here) and less comfortable. However, given the rising cost of fuel I wouldn’t be surprised if in another few months it will be cheaper to use public transport!

Road Trip Application Graph
Graph from the iPhone Road Trip App

On the 11th April 2009 unleaded petrol cost £0.929 per litre, today (10th April 2010) it costs £1.179 – that’s a rise of 25p. It’s clear from the yellow graph  that there has been a steady upward trend over the past 12 months but what factor has had the biggest impact?

VAT
VAT is charged on the cost of fuel plus duty. VAT rates did change during this period; from 1st December 2008 until 31st December 2009 VAT was charged at a lower rate of 15%. Since 1st January 2010 VAT has been charged at 17.5%. From the data I have collected I found that between 16th December 2009 and 6th January 2010 the price of fuel rose from £1.039 to £1.069. The actual price of fuel on the 16th December 2009 I determined to be £0.3416 whilst on 6th January 2010 I calculated it to be £0.3479 (these figures calculated by removing VAT and duty). If the 15% rate was still active today fuel priced at £1.179 would actually cost £1.154. Rounding up, the increased VAT rate was accountable for (at most) a three pence rise* in fuel costs in the past 12 months.

Of course as the actual cost of fuel rises or as the duty rises so too does the VAT paid:

Date Total VAT paid (ppl)
11th April 2009 13.55
10th April 2010 17.56
Increase 4.01

So as a result of the VAT rate change, increased duty and increased actual fuel cost I’m paying 4.01 pence more VAT compared to this time last year.

Fuel Duty
Fuel duty (or Hydrocarbon Oils duty to give it’s more official name) is now 57.19p per litre following the 1p increase on 1st April 2010 (see here for a PDF of the current rates from HMRC). I’ve compiled the most recent rates and future rates in the table below.

Date Duty Rate (ppl)
1st December 2008 52.35
1st April 2009 54.19
1st September 2009 56.19*
1st April 2010 57.19
1st October 2010 58.19
1st January 2011 58.95

From the table it’s clear that fuel duty has risen by three pence (ex. VAT) since 11th April 2009.

Taking VAT into account on the duty alone:

Date Duty Rate inc. VAT (ppl)
11th April 2009 62.32
10th April 2010 67.20
Increase 4.88

This increase of 4.88 pence is Mr Darling’s responsibility. I calculated these figures as it is important to highlight that an increase in duty of say one pence actually adds more than one pence to the price of fuel when you factor in VAT. Those figures presented above would be the price you would pay to the government if the actual cost of the fuel was £0 (and there was no forecourt profit or other associated costs).

The actual cost of fuel
The remaining cost (which I have referred to as the ‘actual cost’) is the combined cost of the fuel itself, forecourt profits, transportation costs and any other associated costs. I’ve calculated costs at quarterly intervals over the past 12 months.

Date Pump price (ppl) Duty and VAT (ppl) Actual cost (ppl)
11th April 2009 92.90 66.31 26.59
13th July 2009 99.90 67.22 32.68
9th October 2009 101.90 69.48 32.42
13th January 2010 107.90 72.26 35.64
10th April 2010 117.90 74.75 43.15

It’s difficult to determine the exact reason for the rises in the ‘actual cost’. I’ve heard some arguments about the influence of the US Dollar exchange rate (a 1 year graph of rates is here) however the pound is slightly stronger now (approx. 1.53) than it was in April 2009 (approx. 1.47). Although I admit it has weakened since the start of this year. The BBC did report here that if currency rates were at 2008 rates petrol would be 10 pence per litre cheaper now but this seems irrelevant in our comparison considering the rates in April 2009 are weaker than in April 2010.

The price of oil is higher but not ridiculously high – according to this BBC article:

…oil currently costs about $85 a barrel, well below the $147 a barrel it cost when petrol prices were last this high.

In April 2009 an oil barrel (containing 159 litres of oil) cost approximately $50. This is an increase of about £23 per barrel. I’m not sure of the yield produced from a barrel (I’ve found various answers online) and there are also other products produced and sold so I’m unsure exactly how much this would increase prices.

The final factor to consider is profit, oil and fuel are big business and it’s quite likely that some of the increase is as a result of companies increasing prices to make a profit but again it is difficult to determine exactly how much this would account for.

Conclusion
Whilst it’s shocking that we pay so much duty and tax on a litre of fuel (almost 75p) the increase in recent months hasn’t been solely to blame on the Government, in fact it is the actual cost which has risen by 16.56 pence (ex. VAT) that has been the biggest factor. Indeed, looking at a graph of the cost breakdown for my fuel expenditure over the past 12 months it is quite clear that the actual cost (green) is trending closely with the total cost (black).

The real cost of fuel
Fuel costs have risen steadily over the past 12 months

*Arguably you could say VAT was responsible for a 5 pence rise as the 2p increase in fuel duty on 1st September 2009 was supposed to have been brought in to cover the loss of tax experienced as a result of the lower VAT rate!