On a pub-crawl walking tour, Rob McFarland finds fun in the company of strangers.
Travelling on your own can be both the most liberating and soul-destroying of experiences. On the one hand you have the ultimate flexibility over your itinerary; on the other hand you have no one to share it with.
Think back to any memorable travel experience and often it was as much about the people you were with as it was about the place you were in.
Ironically, cities can be the hardest places to meet like-minded people. It takes a special type of person to walk into a busy bar on a Saturday night and strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to them.
During his travels, Sam Cook saw first hand the increasing popularity of independent travel and decided to set up a tour company in New York that allowed travellers to meet, socialise and learn a little about the city.
In March he started Uncle Sam's Walking Tours and now offers a range of 10 including daytime, pub and nightclub tours. I meet him and seven others outside the White Horse Tavern on a Friday night for a pub crawl through one of New York's most engaging districts: the West Village.
After some quick introductions, we head inside for a drink and Sam talks us through the pub's illustrious history. Opened in 1880, it has long been a gathering place for writers and bohemian types living in the area. Jack Kerouac mentions the pub in his best-selling book On the Road and, as is commemorated by the “Jack go home!” message scrawled on the bathroom wall, he was thrown out on more than one occasion.
Other famous patrons include Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Hunter S. Thompson. Dylan Thomas was a regular in the pub and, according to Sam, he still holds the record for the most whiskey consumed in one sitting. If you're tempted to try and better his effort of 18 shots, it's worth knowing that he died in a nearby hospital the following morning.
From the White Horse Tavern we stroll along 11th Street, past the Magnolia Bakery (whose cupcakes are now famous courtesy of the Sex and the City girls), and through graceful tree-lined avenues featuring classic brownstone houses.
Our next stop is the Kettle of Fish, a dimly lit, low-ceilinged establishment that doesn't look like it's changed in decades. Boasting an old-fashioned jukebox, a dartboard, and several comfortable sofas, it offers refreshing respite from some of New York's $15-a-beer, “Sorry, you can't come in because we don't like your shoes,” type of establishments. One old guy sitting at the bar looks like he walked in when he was 21 and hasn't left since.
Our final port of call is Kenny's Castaways on Bleecker Street. A veritable live music institution, it has played host to a long list of legendary acts including Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen and the New York Dolls. The walls are plastered with memorabilia and the bar boasts some truly bizarre interior furnishings. Beer barrel tables, an antique brass till and an antler's head covered in trilbies are just some of the highlights. Imagine someone going crazy on eBay and you'll be on the right track.
We walk under a large neon sign declaring that “Through These Portals Walk the Famous” and take our drinks upstairs to watch tonight's offerings. It would be fair to say that Bruce Springsteen needn't be too worried by the talent on display but it's an entertaining evening nonetheless.
At the start of the tour Sam declared that “by the second pub, I'm largely irrelevant”. As I look around at the seven people who started tonight as strangers and who are now laughing and chatting, I can see what he means.
The writer was a guest of V Australia, Delta Air Lines and Uncle Sam's Tours.
Tours start outside the White Horse Tavern, 567 Hudson Street, and cost $US50 ($54), which includes three drinks. Participants must be aged 21 or over and bring photo ID. Tours last 3 hours and cover 2.4 kilometres.