Eating and drinking, Leisure pursuits, Skateboarding, travel

Forget what you thought you knew about Atlanta (and take a walk in the park)

It seems like everyone passes through Atlanta, the hub of the south, but almost no-one seems to spend any length of time there, or explore the city beyond the confines of its downtown business district. Perhaps that’s not surprising, given that all Google throws up when you do an image search are depictions of a skyline that could be anywhere in the world. At Stanford’s, London’s largest travel bookshop, I could only find one travel guide on Atlanta, from the soulless, ever-so-earnest Wallpaper series. (It had one good listing in it – the rest of the booklet devoted itself to staircases of note, and wanky boutique hotels). As a result, I expected a soulless, corporate centre (Coca-Cola, CNN) set in a sprawling sea of projects (which I imagined all that hip hop ATL is so famous for must be coming from).

Wear a funny hat and I am yours

Wear a funny hat and I am yours

I was proved wrong. Yes, Atlanta has a concrety, skyscapery city centre, and yes, there are only a tiny handful of historic buildings left downtown, such as the Georgia State Capitol and the Tabernacle concert hall. But outside this relatively small core – think Croydon or Frankfurt minus pedestrians – is a lush, verdant city consisting of quiet, well-kept streets which are made up of wooden houses and brownstones. Almost all of Atlanta’s cityscape is low rise and human in scale, making it a joy to explore on foot (a pursuit which will immediately mark you at as European or very odd, or probably both.)

Big botany

Atlanta is so green, it has a tree coverage of 53.9 per cent, ranking first of all major cities in the US. And they don’t just have any trees: gorgeous pink crate myrtles are in bloom everywhere, accentuated by white magnolias and – if you look closely enough – peach trees (a fruit Georgians are famously dotty about). And the people? Well, they say Southerners are hospitable and Atlantans certainly live up to that label. Here, people make time to talk – but crucially, they also get things done. Visit any café or restaurant and you’ll find that staff have found the sweet spot between easy-going small talk and American-style speed and efficiency. So here are a few highlights of the city.

Don't miss Piedmont Park

Don’t miss Piedmont Park

Leaving the tourist attractions of The World of Coca-Cola, CNN and the Georgia Aquarium (which everyone raves about) for later, take a breather first and acclimatise to the city in the serenity of Midtown’s Piedmont Park. Gleaming in the distance, you’ll see the tall buildings of the business district, together with the W Hotel, while all around you there is beauty on display. The sophisticated landscaping – based on the Olmsted Brothers’ 1912 design – creates a huge variety of vistas, uses, activities and people.

Take the time to explore and there are surprising features everywhere. At the park’s centre is a lake, almost hidden away by the surrounding trees. There are swings to relax in and a small path leads across the water to the swimming pool. Before you get there, you’ll pass a gazebo inviting you to stop awhile and take in the view. The running track, basketball and tennis court attracts some astonishingly handsome locals who casually display their perfect physiques. On Sundays, the picnic stands play host to cookout parties, blasting R&B and hip hop out into the park. And in the back, there’s a vast expanse of mud for dogs both big and small to play in, which keeps the belabelled lifestyle gays who own them away from the cruising ground (legal waiver: there isn’t one). Best of all, if you’re into longboarding, you’ll have hours of fun on the park’s slopes and inclines, with just enough people to make slaloming around them a little bit of fun.

The Piedmont Park area is a tad gay, actually

The Piedmont Park area is a tad gay, actually

The truth about grits

If you’ve had enough or your tummy rumbles, there are a number of great cafés and restaurants nearby: Willy’s and Zocalo’s serve Mexican, and The Flying Biscuit is so renowned for its breakfast people stand in line on Sundays. Do not miss but never, ever order grits by themselves – add shrimps or frankly, anything at all to this tasteless pap. I thought my tongue was malfunctioning but in reality, I just didn’t know that this quintessential southern favourite has the consistency of glue (sadly lacking its taste). And another word of warning – your Biscuit may be airborne at this restaurant, but your wifi will stay grounded. To go online, y’all cross the road and hook yourself up for free at the Caribou coffee shop on the corner of 10th St and Piedmont Ave.

By the way, did I mention that this is the heart of Atlanta’s premier gaybourhood? Just in case the massive rainbow flag flying from Zocalo’s didn’t give the game away….

Stay tuned for more of Hotlanta’s delights in the next post!

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Leisure pursuits, Things to do now

Monty’s Winter Garden: Fake penguin, genuine panorama

As you dodge the demented crowds of shoppers in Oxford St, your frazzled nerves may well cry out for the balm only a people-free view can provide.

So walk up to the roof at John Lewis, currently home to Monty’s Winter Garden. Yes, it’s another retail opportunity encouraging you to spend and consume. But then, a hot coffee with a view of London may be just the ticket.

Let’s not delude ourselves: what’s on offer isn’t the marble roofs of Rome, nor are we as high up as Panorama Bar in Centre Point. But it’s lovely still.

As for Monty the Penguin, he’s obviously fake. But children are impressionable and they don’t seem to mind. Instead, they’re happily playing with the gadgets and materials laid on by a Japanese electronics producer. It’s all quite creative — kids get to produce their own Christmas cards among other stuff, so it can’t be all bad.

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Leisure pursuits, Skateboarding

The day I hired a personal skateboard trainer

Skateboarding is on the rise. Gliding along effortlessly on a plank of wood, gracefully slicing through council estates, perhaps even performing a few tricks up and down the half-pipe, is the epitome of youthful cool. But swag comes before the fall and few sights are more laughable than that of a skater kissing the asphalt. Kids look funny when they tumble off their decks, and being made of rubber, they just bounce off the ground. But if the klutz in question is middle-aged, the embarrassment is even more painful than that sprained knee. Suddenly, a session with a personal skateboard trainer seems a prudent investment.

It wasn’t the first fall, when I hit my shin so badly i that the dark, purple scar is still clearly visible nine months later. Nor even the second, in which I badly sprained my fingers and almost tore a knee ligament. I’d never felt pain like this before – it almost made me vomit. It was the third time that did it – when I fell again, less seriously this time, but uncannily hitting exactly the same, tender spot. I was either going to burn my newly acquired, expensive longboard on a madly raging pyre, or take professional tuition.

Three weeks later, Josh from Skates and Ladders meets me at Royal Oak tube station. He’s young, well-spoken and friendly – the fact that he has a posh double-barrelled name is, for a split-second, baffling, then reassuring (such is my deference for my social betters). Plus, he doesn’t skip a beat when he realises his trainee today is a forty-something balding man. I feel in safe hands.

The skatepark underneath the Westway is deserted at this hour – 11am in the morning. I picked this shame-free hour purposely – come after three thirty, when schools finish, and carefree pipsqueaks will skate circles around you, their baseball caps turned back to front, and giggle as you fall. You have been warned.

“The first thing we need to achieve is balance on the board”, explains Josh. “To feel comfortable, try skating along just on one leg.”

Why haven’t I thought of this before? In all these weeks and months, it never occurred to me to do this simple exercise. I can see the benefit immediately.

The next thing we practise is how to push off properly to gain speed. Josh looks at me in his gentle, judgment-free way and tells me my technique has been totally wrong all this time. Apparently, there’s a much better way, but it all goes back to having that balance. In forty-five minutes, Josh shows me how to do a kick-turn – that is, to change direction by balancing on the back of wheels of the board while turning in the desired direction with the front wheels lifted off the ground. Sound complicated? well, et me tell you it is. I fail miserably but at least I know what to practise now. Another thing Josh shows me: how to go up a bank, reach dead center and start rolling down again without falling on my face. He shows, me – he doesn’t teach me. I quickly find out that I can only master the skill through practice, practice, practice. Now Josh has to go and his friend “Spinny” takes over.

A kind of suicide attempt

Spinny is much more like the archetypical skater – in fact, he’s just a surfer boy who happens to ride the concrete wave. He, has – naturally – long hair. An eternally cheerful Aussie, he tells me to be proud of my wounds, to delight in my scars.

“Can you see my lucky egg?”

He points at a protuberance under the skin of his underarm, the shape of a large peanut M&M.

“I love my lucky egg, I always kiss it before I go and skate.”

And he does indeed kiss it, happy as a child.

Next it is time to take on the ramp. This is the, frankly, terrifying exercise of pushing downhill with nothing to hold on to. Lose your nerve and balance, and the consequences, at least in my mind, are unimaginable. But Spinny holds both my arms in a monkey grip as I descend for the first time. I feel like a child – I am a child – and Spinny is my good-natured big brother. We repeat the exercise, with Spinny only holding one arm, then my pinky, then nothing. It is now time to hurl myself down without any support.

I am fine, really, I am. With skateboarding, it’s all in the mind. The best thing is just to resign oneself to the fact that one is now going downhill one way or the other in that eternal split second when the board – and oneself on it – goes irretrievably over the edge. One may live, one may die – one must face this calmly, like the stoic philosopher Seneca, as one gathers pace and almost – almost – falls.

And suddenly you realise that you are racing downhill at what seems incredible speed; that you are making it, you have made it, downhill. Now you’re going at a mad pace, you fly across the ground towards the opposite bank. Bending down, you get ready to turn, you lean into the corner, carve up the bank, glide along it horizontally, at an oblique angle to the ground, and make it back onto the flat, where you let yourself run out. You feel like a hero.

“You made it, man!” Spinny cries excitedly. I can see pure happiness in his eyes, a genuine, big-hearted delight at my accomplishment.

We bump fists – another thing I’ve never done. It’s a day of firsts. I feel relived, I feel proud, I feel like a kid. And I marvel how something as simple as a wooden board on wheels can hurt so much, and then provide such joy.

 

To book a lesson with Josh and his crew, go to http://www.skatesandladders.com

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