After breakfast at the local Dunkin’ Donuts in Buffalo, it was back on the road to drive towards the state of Ohio. Once there, we’d be visiting Cedar Point Amusement Park near Cleveland, an activity I was really looking forward too!
Stops along the way we’re kept to a minimum today as we wanted to make sure we got as much time as possible in the park. We did take a slight detour to drop the American member of our group in Cleveland itself as he wanted to visit the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame there rather than visit Cedar Point.
Our base in Ohio was Sandusky where we’d be staying at the first of many KOA sites this trip. As this was a BLT (Budget Lodging Tour) rather than camping, we were staying in cabins. We checked in and dropped our luggage off and then jumped back on the van to be taken to Cedar Point.
Cedar Point is sat right on a peninsula by Lake Erie. It has some of the biggest roller coasters in the World and as we approached it we could see the tangled, colourful structures twisting and weaving through the sky ahead of us.
Arriving just after 2pm, we qualified for a reduced entry rate. The park was open til 11pm so we still had plenty of time to spend there. Not being familiar with the site, once inside, we headed straight to the nearest coasters which we’d seen from the car park, which were great but I wish we’d looked at a map and realised just how huge the park was and how many coasters were on offer rather than spending so much time in the front area riding not just the few coasters in that area but the smaller rides like the carousel.
Once we had delved deeper into the park, we were amazed by the sheer volume of coasters on offer – huge wooden coasters, the former World’s longest coaster, the former World’s tallest coast, steepest coaster…looping coasters, racing coasters, pretty much every kind of roller coaster imaginable! Thankfully the queues weren’t too long and we got to go on most of what we wanted. Highlights were the Raptor ride where you sit hanging from the track like on Alton Tower’s Nemesis and Millennium Force, once the World’s tallest, fastest coaster.
Throughout the day we’d been eyeing up a terrifying looking coaster called Dragster, debating whether or not to ride it. The ride shoots off reaching 120mph in under 4 seconds before climbing a 90 degree incline, twisting over the top and shooting straight back down the other side. The queue for it started to die down early evening so 5 of us decided to pluck up the courage to give it a go. A few minutes into the queue, one of the cars failed to make it up and over the top, causing the coaster to close for a while so we left the queue and went elsewhere. An hour before we had to leave, we decided to join the queue again and again, the coaster broke down. We were told it would only be a short closure so deciding we didn’t have time to go elsewhere we stuck it out and this time made it to the front of the queue, extra nervous about riding after witnessing the coaster fail a couple of times! We need not have worried as our car made it up and over without problem and it was an amazing exhilarating ride, totally worth the wait!
All roller-coastered out and exhausted from traipsing around the park all afternoon, at the end of the evening, we went to meet with the rest of the group choosing unanimously to go straight back to the KOA site and sleep rather than wait for the end of night firework display. Cedar Point was one of the best amusement parks I’d ever visited and I definitely wanted to return someday.
After spending the last few days getting to know each other in New York, we were all up early on the day of departure for our tour to meet the last 2 members of the group who hadn’t managed to make it into the city to meet up and our tour guide.
Our guide seemed bemused when he started a ‘get to know each other’ game only to find out that despite us being 11 solo travellers from all over the UK (plus one American!), we already knew each other pretty well! After the usual form-filling and trip rules talk, we loaded our luggage into the trailer and jumped into our home for the next 3 weeks – our Trek America van!
Advertised in the itinerary as ‘The Finger Lakes’, today was a bit of a low key day to start the tour on but the lack of exciting attractions at least gave the group time to bond further as we journeyed through New York State.
That’s not to say there weren’t any scheduled stops today. As well as the usual fuel and snack gas station stops (which are always great fun, it’s amazing what you can find to buy at these places!!), we made prolonged stops at both a winery and a waterfall!
Arriving at Taughannock State Park, on the west shore of Cayuga Lake, we took a short hike out to Taughannock Falls. The miserable weather only added to making the waterfall look and sound more dramatic and we took our first group photo of the trip in front of the cascading water.
Next up was the Crystal Lake Cafe at the Americana Vineyards. Not being a wine drinker, the highlight of the winery for me was the adorable dog enjoying all the fuss he was obviously used to receiving in the gift shop!!
We made one more stop to take photos of one of the Finger Lakes before continuing to our overnight stop at a Super 8 in Auburn, New York State where we ate dinner at a local bar.
The next morning, those of us up early enough walked to a local diner for a delicious pancake dinner before we departed for Buffalo.
Today, we’d be visiting the American side of Niagara Falls. After a Walmart stop to get food for a picnic, we arrived at the Falls in time for lunch. Picnic over, we took a trip of Maid of the Mist, a boat that takes you up close to the falls. This was an included extra on our trip meaning we didn’t have to pay any extra. The boat trip was amazing and we were all glad for the fetching blue ponchos that’s had been handed out as we boarded as we’d have got soaked by the spray from the falls without them!
How we spent the rest of our time at the falls was up to us with some members of the group walking to nearby viewing points to take photos and one even opting to walk across the bridge to Canada just to say he’d been! A few of us decided to visit the Caves of the Wind attraction where, after getting appropriately dressed in yet another provided poncho (bright yellow this time!) and provided water sandals, both of which we got to keep after, we followed a path which lead us alongside the falls, once again soaking us in the spray! This was great fun and well worth the extra cost!!
From Niagara Falls, we continued to the city of Buffalo where we checked into our hostel for the night then it was off out to a local bar for dinner. This bar wasn’t just any bar but the Anchor Bar where Buffalo Wings were supposedly invented in the 1960s! A couple of the group opted to take on the wings challenge ordering a plate of 50 wings between them and attempting (but failing!) to eat them all!
We stayed at the bar til late before taking the short walk back to the hostel and trying to get some sleep in our sweltering room. It had been a great start to the trip and we couldn’t wait to continue our adventure!
After taking the plunge and joining the 3-week Southern BLT with Trek America earlier in the year, I couldn’t wait to get on the road again so within weeks of returning, I booked my second adventure with them to depart that summer.
My last adventure had been in the winter months and we’d repeatedly ran into heavy snow throughout the trip so I was hoping for some sunshine and warmth this time around! Once again, I’d be travelling coast to coast over 3 weeks but this time, East to West from New York to Los Angeles through the Northern states.
With 2 months to go til the trip departed, I once again made use of the Trek America forums, posting a message asking if anyone else was taking the same trip. After getting a couple of replies, we set up a Facebook group dedicated to our trip and posted a link on the Trek site. Within a few weeks, we had found all members of our tour and were eagerly discussing our upcoming adventure on line.
As most of the group were staying in New York for a night or so prior to the tour departing, we began to make plans together in the city for those few days with me and one of the other girls even deciding to share a hotel room there to cut costs.
So in early June, I flew to New York and made my way to our midtown hotel. My group mate turned up about an hour later and, after chatting online for the last few weeks, it was as if we’d been friends for years. After freshening up, we headed out into the city to meet with another group member and walked up towards Times Square to find dinner. We settled on Applebee’s and were joined by a forth member of our group. We spent the evening excitedly chatting and our upcoming, getting to know each other and making plans for the next day.
Our second day in the city and some of the others had plans to visit the 9/11 Museum. As I had visited already just a few months ago, I instead caught the subway across to Williamsburg in Brooklyn and took a wander around the many Sunday flea markets, even finding myself a few unexpected bargains! After walking along the East River, enjoying the views of Manhattan, I caught the subway back to downtown Manhattan to meet up with my group mates and a few new members who had now arrived in the city.
We spent the afternoon at Coney Island sat on the beach chatting and riding the famous Coney Island Wonder Wheel then that evening we all went for dinner together at a pizzeria in midtown.
The next day we were all moving to our Trek America gateway hotel in New Jersey and the rest of the group would all be arriving into the US. While some of the group would be getting in late and had opted to stay in the hotel, most of the group planned on coming into the city that afternoon and we had booked tickets to go up to the newly opened Freedom Tower observation deck.
With the morning to spare before the remainder of our new friends arrived, some of us decided to walk up to Central Park and visit the zoo. Then, it was time to go and meet up with a few more group arrivals.
Before heading downtown, we made a quick stop in Greenwich Village to go and see the ‘Friends’ apartment block. Then we caught the subway down to Battery Park, finding somewhere to have dinner nearby before our sunset trip up the Freedom Tower.
After spending some time enjoying the views, those of us who’d been staying in the city all went to retrieve our luggage before meeting back up with everyone at Penn Station to catch the train out to the gateway hotel.
After a great few days in the city and with everyone already getting on great, we were all even more excited for the weeks ahead and couldn’t wait for our Trek America adventure to get properly started!
This was it. The end. After 3 weeks travelling cross country through the southern states of America with this eclectic bunch of people who had now become friends, today we would reach our final destination of New York City and say our goodbyes. But first we had today’s journey ahead of us with a stop in Philadelphia then New Jersey for our final group meal. So after a busy couple of days sight-seeing in Washington D.C., we loaded our luggage onto the Trek van’s trailer for the very last time.
En route to Philadelphia, we passed through the state of Delaware but unfortunately didn’t stop, not even for gas, leaving me uncertain as to whether I could officially say it was a state I had visited!!
Our first stop once we reached the city was on the outskirts at 9th Street where two rival Philly Cheese steak vendors sit across the street from each other. Both restaurants are popular with locals and tourists alike with queues often reaching around the block. We were given the choice of which we got lunch from and faced with an impossible decision, all ended up following our Trek guide to Pat’s. In hindsight, we should have split up, ordered cheese steaks from both and then halved them between us so we could have tried both but I guess I’ll just have to return to try a Geno’s cheese steak another time! I went for the basic sandwich with steak and cheese whizz and it was one of the most delicious things I had ever tasted !
Once we’d all eaten, it was back of the van to head to the main historic district of the city. We parked by Independence Hall and were given a hour to look around. We all joined the short queue to see the Liberty Bell. It was a lot smaller than I expected! Then we broke off into smaller groups. We wandered around the outside of Independence Hall as unfortunately, entrance was by advance ticketing only and there were no tickets available for the current time, and then walked down to the tomb of the unknown soldier before going to a visitors centre to get some souvenirs.
At the request of one of our group, we made one more stop in Philly at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This is where the famous scene from the Rocky movie was filmed and we all did our best to run to the top of the steps in one go!
From Philadelphia, we drove towards the last state of our trip – New Jersey where we’d be stopping in Jersey City at an Italian restaurant for our last group meal, pizza, and then there was just one more stop left, at Liberty Park to view the Manhattan skyline.
Unfortunately, as for much of our trip, the weather was not on our side and we arrived to torrential rain and heavy cloud obscuring a lot of the view. After one final group photo, we boarded the Trek van one last time and headed to the gateway hotel in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Only a few of the group were staying there, most of us had booked accommodation into the city. All but one group member, who had a flight out that evening, had planned to meet up in the city that evening so, our guide let those staying in New Jersey drop their luggage then took us all to the subway station.
After saying our goodbyes and thank-yous to our guide, we all caught the subway into Manhattan, briefly separating to drop bags at our various hotels & AirBnB’s before reuniting in Times Square an hour later. Not wanting our experience to end just yet, we made plans to meet again the next morning for breakfast and spend time in the city together.
The next day, the group started to shrink as one by one, members drifted away to catch flights or just do their own thing. A few of us stuck together to do as much sightseeing as we could in day before 2 members caught a flight home that evening.
We began downtown, visiting Battery Park for a slightly clearer view of the Statue of Liberty than we had had from Liberty Park the previous day then walked half way across the Brooklyn Bridge before catching a subway uptown to window shop along 5th Avenue and go for a walk in Central Park. Lunch was at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, where the singing waitstaff just happened to sing ‘Let It Go’ which had, with the weather we’d experienced, become our Trek tour anthem! Then we ended the afternoon with a trip up to Top of the Rock before saying goodbye to those who had to get to the airport.
That evening, I went alone to watch Kinky Boots on Broadway after queuing at the Time Square TKTS booth to get discount tickets and then met up with the only group member remaining in the city to take a late night trip up the Empire State Building.
The next day we met up again at Chelsea Market and after strolling through past all the food vendors, spent some time walking the Highline, one of New York’s newest green spaces formed from reclaimed land from an old elevated railway track.
From here, we took a subway to Brooklyn to explore the galleries and bookstores of the DUMBO area, take a ride on Jane’s carousel and enjoy the impressive views of downtown Manhattan before walking back across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan then it was off to Greenwich Village where we tried some cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery on Bleecker Street.
After another trip to the theatre that evening, this time with discounted tickets to see Jersey Boys on Broadway, it was time to say goodbye to the last of my Trek companions.
It was odd returning to being a lone traveller the next day, eating breakfast by myself at the IHOP and walking around the city alone. I had a few hours to spare before heading to the airport to catch my flight that evening so I decided to join a ‘free’ walking tour of Grand Central Station and the surrounding area that had been recommended t me by a friend. The tour was really interesting and we got to see inside buildings in the area that are otherwise off-limits to the general public.
Walking tour over, I strolled back to my midtown hotel to pick up my luggage then across the road to Penn Station to catch the train to Newark airport and await my flight back to the UK. It had been an amazing 4 weeks, travelling solo for the first time and joining a group tour for the first time and I was absolutely exhausted from the experience. But I had seen some incredible places and made some great new friends and I couldn’t wait do it all again!
After a fun evening in Nashville, it was a struggle all round to get up the next day and we departed for our stop in Wytheville, Virginia later than planned. Luckily, today was a bit of a nothing day and our overnight was just a middle-of-nowhere break up the journey kind of stop. Wytheville was notable for only two things – my first ever visit to a Cracker Barrel (we were all very excited at finding somewhere with proper vegetables on the menu along with potato options other than fries!) and our guide forgetting to tell us that the clocks went forward in the US that night meaning more tired faces and even some missed alarms the next morning after unexpectedly losing an hour!
We were down to the final 2 nights of our tour now and we were disappointed to find that these would be spent in a hostel, even more disappointed when our guide told us to expect rooms similar to the Austin hostel’s large communal dorms setup. Luckily, us 4 girls ended up in a 6-bed female dorm which would have been fine except for the over-powering stench of trainers/feet belonging to one of the mystery women also in the room with us. Hostel life! Not something from this trip I’d miss!!
As usual, we’d be spending very little time at our accommodation anyway and after dropping our bags, it was straight out for a monument tour given by our Trek tour guide. I’d been to Washington DC a few years before and it’s one of my favourite US cities as there’s so much to do. We walked down to the White House and took photos outside then walked down past the Washington Monument towards the Potomac River Basin, taking photos of the Jefferson Memorial across the river as the sun started to set.
From here, we walked back and along the National Mall in the direction of the Lincoln Memorial passing other monuments such as the World War Memorial along the way. Something I remembered from my last visit was how things look nearer than they are in the city when in fact, it had been a very long walk to reach the Lincoln Memorial and was then a very long walk back! We were all very ready for our group meal at a city steak house that night.
We were up early the next morning so that we could go and queue at the Washington Monument to try and get 11 of their on-the-day tickets for the entire group to go up the Monument. We were front of the queue and got the tickets without problem, all for the same late morning timeband so with a few hours to kill, we decided to explore some of the many museums along the National Mall. Another great thing about Washington DC is that most of the attractions are completely free! So our tickets up to the observation deck of the Washington Monument hadn’t cost us a penny and it was nothing to visit any of the Smithsonian group museums!
We began at the National Museum of Air and Space, a museum I hadn’t visited on my last trip to the city. The museum was excellent with displays on space travel, the moon landing and a history of air travel and we could have easily spent a lot longer there than a couple of hours but had to leave to make our Washington Monument timeband.
I had been up the Washington Monument on my previous visit to the city but as that was the height of summer and this was the middle of winter, this time the views were quite different with the National Mall recovering from heavy snow fall over the last few days.
After spending some time taking in the views from the observation deck, the group split up to do different things. We went to get some lunch before continuing to visit the many museums on offer.
Next up was the Museum of the History of America, a museum which had been closed for refurbishment on my last visit but, being pop culture related, was one I really wanted to visit. It didn’t disappoint and we saw some really amazing things on display including one of the pairs of Ruby Slippers from the Wizard of Oz film, some of the original Muppet and Sesame Street puppets, items belonging to previous Presidents of the United States and dresses worn by the First Ladies. Highlight of the visit was seeing the first flag of the United States which we viewed from behind a big glass screen while the American National Anthem played in the background.
Taking a break from the museums lining the National Mall, next we wandered up to Ford Theatre, another place that had been closed on my last visit to DC. The theatre is famous for being the place where President Lincoln was shot and killed and after seeing into the theatre and the balcony where he had sat that night, we explored the museum beneath the theatre telling the story of events and containing artefacts including the gun that was used.
My last museum of the day was the Smithsonian Natural History Museum back down on the National Mall. While smaller than a lot of other Natural History Museums I have visited in New York, Chicago and, of course, in London, this museum was still worth a look around, the highlight being the World’s largest diamond on display!
Despite it being the last official night of our Trek America tour, the group did not eat together this evening with some of the group opting to book a fancier restaurant for the last night while the rest of us went to a local Chinese before walking back down the the National Mall. There, a few of us decided to go ice skating outside the National History Museum and we followed this with concretes at Shake Shack for dessert! Then it was back to the hostel one last time.
I left Washington the next morning feeling that we’d made the most of our free day in the city and pleased that I’d got to see lots of things I’d missed out on on my last visit but I also felt that there was still much more to see and made a mental note to return for a longer visit at some point in the future.
After an amazing couple of days in the warm sunshine of New Orleans, it was time to move on to our next roadtrip destination. We were 2 weeks into our 3 week trip now so we’re on the home stretch, our final destination of New York growing ever closer, it was hard not to begin counting down the days.
But there was still much to look forward to, starting with one of the stops on our trip I was most looking forward to – Memphis, Tennessee, where we’d be visiting Graceland, home of Rock ‘n’ Roll legend Elvis Presley! Or at least that was the plan. As regular readers of this blog will know, there’d been a lot of surprises and abandoned plans along this trip and thus wasn’t about to change now! But more of that later…
Our journey to Memphis was uneventful. We made a stop for lunch in the state of Mississippi which we were just passing through before continuing on towards the state of Tennessee. Once we reached the city of Memphis, rather than going straight to our motel, we made a stop at Sun Studios for a tour. This tour was one of the included extras on our Trek America tour, meaning that unlike with most of the activities, we didn’t have to pay separately or the activity, it was covered in the price of our trip.
I’ll be honest, I had never heard of the studios prior to booking this trip and seeing the tour listed in the activities list and I hadn’t investigated any further since booking the trip. I assumed the studio would be linked to Elvis Presley in some way but didn’t know what to expect further than this.
After waiting in the gift store/cafe entrance for our tour group to be called, we were lead by our very enthusiastic guide up some stairs to a room housing displays of pop and rock memorabilia from the birth of rock n roll.
Our guide gave us a brief history of the studios and explained that a whole host of well known artists had recorded there including Elvis Presley. After being given time to look at the displays, we descended down another set of stairs to the studio itself, set up with various musical instruments and recording equipment like it would have been in the ‘50s and ‘60s. At the end of our tour we were allowed to take a picture with a replica of the microphone used by Elvis. The tour was extremely interesting and standing in a room where so many rock legends have stood and recorded songs we now hear all the time was a magical experience. I’d definitely recommend taking the tour if you are in Memphis.
As we left the studios, the staff there told our guide there was a weather warning in place for the evening and businesses were being advised to close up early so that staff could get home before the storm came in. We left and checked into our Econo Lodge accommodation in Memphis centre. It was late evening by now but there was still no sign of the bad weather everyone was telling us about. Since we left Texas, our guide had been promising to take us to another great BBQ place once we got to Memphis so once settled into our rooms, we all met up and walked down to Beale Street for dinner.
Beale Street is known as being the Memphis equivalent of New Orlean’s Bourbon Street, a lively entertainment destination lined with bars, clubs and restaurants, but tonight, it was eerily quiet. Most of the restaurants, including the BBQ one we had hoped to visit, had closed on the advice of weather forecasters along with some of the bars. Our choices limited, we ended up at Hard Rock Cafe for dinner. We emerged to find even more bars closed. Most of us decided to walk back to our motel while those who stayed were back within half an hour after the snow did indeed start to fall and the bar they had visited decided to close early too!
The next day, we awoke to a city covered in snow – and not just a bit of snow, a blanket of snow and it was still falling. This morning we were planning on visiting Graceland, something I had been excited for all trip, but at breakfast, we were disappointed to see it listed as one of the many attractions in the city that had decided to close because of the weather.
Our guide telling us not to worry, the attractions could open later in the day and if not, we could visit Graceland before departing for Nashville tomorrow, we instead wrapped up warm and walked into town while she tried to find out what was happening and what our other options for the day were. We spent the next hour building snowmen outside the baseball stadium and having a snowball fight on Beale Street before warming ourselves up with hot drinks at Starbucks – the only place we found open – where our guide told us that Graceland had now confirmed they would be closed for the entire day. Our alternative options were few but the Museum of Rock ‘n’ Soul which was just across the road from us had just opened so most of us decided to go and take a look at that.
The museum contained memorabilia from the birth of Rock n Roll through to the present day (I was most excited to see some *nsync costumes on display!) and being in no rush, we took our time going around the displays, listening to the commentaries on our included audio guide handsets.
Meeting up with the rest of the group, some of us decided to go to the Peabody Hotel to watch the famous March of the Peabody Ducks. The Peabody Hotel is a Memphis landmark which again, has links to the city’s Rock ‘n’ Roll history and Elvis Presley who signed one of his record contracts there. Now, the hotel is home to a group of mallard ducks who live in their own duck penthouse-paradise at the top of the hotel. Each day, at 11am, a ceremony is held during which the ducks descend in an elevator, walk across a red-carpet laid down in the foyer and hop into the central fountain where stay happily swimming around, until 5pm.
At 5pm, the ducks hop back out of the fountain, march back along the red carpet and into the elevator to return back to their penthouse suite! It’s just as bizarre as it sounds and we loved the pomp and ceremony of it all with the ducks being treated like little celebrities! Definitely one of those things that needs to be seen to be believed!
After watching the Peabody Ducks, we were given the option of being driven out to a nearby mall for the afternoon or just staying in the city. Those of us who decided to stay went in search of somewhere for lunch ending up at the Rum Boogie Bar, where the service was less than amazing but I’ll put that down to it being busy with it being the only place we had found open! We then spent a while walking around in the snow before deciding to go back to the motel for a bit.
Not long after getting back, the rest of the group arrived back after finding that the mall they’d visited had also closed with the snow. Some of us decided to return to the Peabody Hotel to watch the ducks march back to their room and then we wandered up to the river just as the sun started to set.
With the snow continuing to fall, dinner that evening was at Hooters, one of the few places open and was followed by an evening spent socialising back at the motel seeing as Beale Street was closed for business.
Unfortunately, the conditions had not improved the following morning and the tourist attractions including Graceland and the Civil Rights Museum remained closed. Even breakfast at a local restaurant, which we’d been promised had the best waffles, had to be cancelled when again, nowhere opened up. Disappointed, we set off for Nashville, making do with a Waffle House stop along the way. The journey took a lot longer than it should with road closures and diversions around the snow but as we neared Nashville, the snow seemed to be disappearing and we were pleased to see it had mainly disappeared in the city itself.
Our accommodation at Nashville was a hostel but it was definitely the nicest hostel of the tour and we were pleased to find ourselves in a quad room with just us 4 girls from our Trek. Having just over an hour to explore before we had to meet for dinner, there was no time to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame or any of the other activities recommended on the Trek itinerary so instead we walked along Broadway, souvenir shopping then walked up to Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge for views over the river before heading back to the hostel to get ready for our evening out.
Tonight was one of the night outs I had most been looking forward to as we were going line dancing. We had a table booked at the Wild Horse Saloon, a country music live venue and restaurant. Over the course of the evening, a variety of live country music bands played interspersed with hourly line-dancing lessons which anyone could join in. The whole group got up and had a go at the dancing. There was a lot of bumping into each other at first but we soon got into it and was a really fun evening. The BBQ style food wasn’t bad either but, like the drinks, a bit overpriced and after a while we decided to move on to some of the bars along Broadway where the drinks would be cheaper.
We walked back to the hostel at the end of the night via another walk across the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge to take photos of the Nashville skyline all lit up before spending some time in the hostel common room playing pool and just chilling out.
I’d really liked Nashville and it was shame the weather had stopped us from spending a little more time there. I definitely planned on returning there at some point in the future along with Memphis to visit all the places we’d missed out on.
Since our stay in Vegas – which now felt like a long time ago – this cold snap seemed to have been following us on our trip. But despite awaking to another cold morning in Texas, as we pulled over at a rest stop just across the state line of Louisiana, we couldn’t believe the change in the weather. Gone were the freezing cold air and snow spattered roads and instead there was a balmy heat!
Tonight we’d be stopping in Lafayette, just a pit stop to break up the journey between Austin and New Orleans, and our accommodation would be at the Blue Moon Saloon, a small quirky guest house. As usual, we waited in the van as our guide went to check in and we could tell as she returned that something wasn’t quite right – they’d got the booking wrong and there weren’t quite enough rooms and beds for us all. After some jiggling about and compromise – my roommate and I offered to share a double bed with another group member taking the couch in our en-suite room, another 2 members of the group had to make do with a makeshift bed in the corridor! – we were checked in and sorted. We went for dinner at a local bar down the road and then returned to the guesthouse. After been kept awake in Lubbock by the commotion outside and our late night out in Austin, many of us just wanted an early night tonight but that wasn’t to be. A band was playing at the guesthouse that night and their stage and speakers happened to back right onto the wall of our room! The room was shaking so much from the noise that a picture fell off the wall. It was the last thing we wanted but there was nothing we could do but sit it out until the music stopped at 1am!
Exhausted from 3 nights with little sleep, we dragged ourselves up and made the 7am departure time the next day. First stop was a Waffle House for breakfast before we reached the check in point for our Louisiana Swamp Tour.
It was a rainy day and as our boat picked up speed down the river, we got drenched but this turned out to be a really fun experience. Being February, we were told it was unlikely we’d see any alligators – we did as it turned out see one baby ‘gator sat on a log! – but there was plenty of other wildlife to be spotted including birds, snakes, wild hogs and a very friendly marshmallow-loving raccoon! We also found out about the history of the swamp and heard tales about the devastating effect of Storm Katrina.
Our tour over, we continued on to New Orleans where we were absolutely delighted to find our accommodation for the next two nights would be in a beautiful 4 star hotel! Arriving more or less to schedule for the first time in days, we settled in then regrouped for our guide to give us a tour of the French Quarter.
After handing us all some New Orleans beads to wear, we wandered through the French market where some of the group sampled ‘gator meat at one of the food stands (I played it safe and stuck to a grilled cheese sandwich!), walked down to catch our first glimpse of the Mississippi River, tried what our guide told us was the best praline in the city – it really was melt-in-the-mouth delicious! – and, of course, visited a few bars including the oldest bar in the city and a few along the World famous Bourbon Street.
After our busy afternoon, we had dinner at Oceana restaurant which specialised in fish along with traditional Cajun dishes before taking a ghost tour of the area – not particularly scary but actually really interesting and great fun!
Tour over, it was back to Bourbon Street where we found ourselves in a dueling piano bar – or at least those of us over the legal drinking age did, the remaining members of the group forced to stand outside and communicate with us through an open window!
Not wanting to waste our upcoming free day in the city recovering from the night before, a few of us chose to leave Bourbon Street a little after midnight and return to our hotel rather than staying out partying to the early hours. The next morning, just the 4 of us made it to breakfast at which we made the decision to get tickets for the hop on/off tour bus as our best option to see as much as the city as possible in a relatively short time and we definitely felt we packed a lot in. The bus took us out of the French Quarter, through the CBD and into the Garden District where we hopped off to take an included walking tour of the area, taking time to look in some of the local boutique stores and grab a delicious doughnut at the local District cafe while we waited for the tour to start.
The Garden District was a complete contrast to the French District of the city with its huge mansions along the tree lined streets. Our guide pointed out some of the celebrity homes in the area as well as discussing the area’s history and briefly taking us into its Lafayette Cemetery. We then hopped onto the next tour bus to continue our tour, eventually returning to the French Quarter.
For lunch, we decided to try some more of the local cuisine and opted for a cute but touristy cafe in the centre of the French Quarter where a live jazz band was keeping the patrons entertained. We had a leisurely lunch of Po’ Boy sandwiches, the braver of us sampling the ‘gator filling while I again stuck with cheese, enjoying the warm sunshine and the music playing before wandering through the streets of the French Quarter visiting some of the many art galleries we passed.
Before heading back to the hotel to get ready for our evening out, we had one more ‘must do’ item to tick off our list – trying some beignets from Cafe du Monde. Beignets are sugary pastries, similar to doughnuts, sold at many cafes in the French Quarter but Cafe du Monde is the most famous place to get them from and they’re supposed to have the best beignets in the city. Customers often queue around the block in the morning to get their beignets and coffee but being late afternoon, the queue was only short so we bought a bag of the pastries to share between us. The sugary treats were indeed delicious but after all the food we had already consumed that day, we struggled to finish them and took some back to the hotel with us to share with the rest of the group.
This evening, the whole group would be taking a dinner cruise on a steamboat along the Mississippi River. We walked up towards the river, all sharing stories of our day – some of the group hadn’t seen any more of New Orleans than the hotel’s laundry room, others had ventured out into the city to explore a bit like us. Once we arrived at the river, we waited as our guide went to pick up our tickets and watched as the steamboat played a tune on it’s steam pipe organ before boarding and taking our table in the restaurant. The food, served buffet style, was better than I had expected it to be – being a fussy eater, I was worried I wouldn’t find anything to my tastes but it was standard fare with enough options to keep everyone happy. After dinner, we were free to wander around the boat as we pleased. The New Orleans’ skyline isn’t the prettiest so there wasn’t much in the way of views and, being February, it had already gone dark with a bit of a chill in the air so we mainly chose to stay indoors. A jazz band played on one of the decks and we sat and listened for a while and it was also possible to go down to the boat’s engine room to take a look.
After the cruise, some of the group decided to head back to the bars on Bourbon Street and the rest of us decided to take a look at the other main ‘entertainment’ street in the city, Frenchman Street. A bit more laid back than the partying atmosphere of Bourbon, Frenchman Street offered a series of live music venue and we settled on a small bar where a jazz band played indiscreetly in corner allowing us to chat over drinks while still listening to the music and soaking up the atmosphere.
After another late night, we strolled back to our hotel, making the most of having a nice hotel room for the last time for a while and getting a few hours sleep before our early start. We’d all enjoyed our time in New Orleans and I definitely hoped to return and explore more in the future but for now, it was time for our adventure to continue elsewhere!
Texas is a huge state which I often forget I’ve even been to despite spending a few days of our trip travelling through it. After our entry to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico was delayed, we continued to make slow progress to the night’s stop in the Texas city of Lubbock, finally arriving to a snow covered car park in the dark.
Our first impressions of Texas didn’t get off to the best start when the motel was less than ideal – our room had seen better days to say the least. Walls were cracked with small holes in the bathroom making us uneasy, food was visibly crumbled into the carpet and, despite it being a non-smoking room, the air was thick with smoke. We didn’t have long to dwell on it as we had 5 minutes to drop our bags and cases before meeting back at the van to go for dinner before everywhere closed but we mentioned it to our tour guide on the way out.
Dinner was at a lovely Italian diner a short drive away and when we returned to the motel, our guide came into reception with us to complain about our room. The receptionist seemed annoyed and offered us a bottle of air freshener. When we pointed out this only (partly) dealt with one of the issues, she begrudgingly gave us a different room. This one was slightly better and we decided we could manage for one night but just after we settled to bed, we were disturbed by an almighty argument going on seemingly directly outside our room which ended in sirens and flashing lights appearing in the car park! We were more than a little relieved to leave Lubbock the next day!
Today was my birthday! More snow had fallen overnight and not long into our journey, we hit a roadblock due to an accident caused by the snow and were forced to take a long diversion. With lunch time approaching, our guide looked for somewhere to stop only to find most places closed due to the bad weather! We eventually found ourselves in the town of Abilene where the Flippin’ Egg diner was open and the staff were more than a little excited to have international visitors! After a delicious pancake brunch, and a visit to the British Shoppe a few doors down to stock up on some Dairy Milk chocolate, we were back on the snow-covered road to Austin, Texas.
Again, with the weather causing us to arrive later than we’d hoped, there was little time for sightseeing. Instead, we went straight to our out-of-town hostel and checked in. We were more than a little dismayed to find ourselves in a huge communal co-ed dorm of 20 but we’d not be spending a lot of time here. We had half an hour to get ready before we’d be heading out to dinner followed by a night out in the city.
Dinner was at the Salt Lick BBQ restaurant, a place that our guide had been raving about since the trip started and it certainly didn’t disappoint. After, we were driven into central Austin where we headed straight to the bars on 6th Street where we stayed until 2am.
Before leaving Austin the next day, we stopped at South Congress Street and walked around some of the quirky stores. We then continued our dive through Texas with one last stop in the state, Buc-ee’s, the biggest truck stop I have ever seen. Souvenirs, snacks and even lunch all bought, it was time to say goodbye to Texas and hello to the next state on our trip, Louisiana.
Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Roswell and Carlsbad Caverns National Park
After the unexpected heavy snowfall of the last few days, we were pleased to see little sign of the white stuff as we crossed into the state of New Mexico. We were heading to the city of Santa Fe but would, as usual, be making a few stops along the way to stretch our legs.
Today’s journey once again took us along part of the famous Route 66 highway and the first stop of the day was at a Route 66 Historic Hotel, the El Rancho, in Gallop, once the temporary home to various film stars in its heyday. The hotel has been restored to its former glory and is now a National Historic site. It was interesting to wander around the lobby with its traditional Wild West decor.
A stop on the outskirts of Albuquerque was next where we visited a fast food restaurant used in the popular TV show, Breaking Bad. As I’d never watched the show, this was a bit over my head but other members of the group who were favs of the series were very excited to sit in the booth where characters from the show are seen sitting!
Unfortunately, our motel for the evening wasn’t in central Santa Fe so after checking in, we had to be driven into the city by our guide. We had an hour of free time to wander around before meeting for a group dinner at a lovely Tex Mex restaurant. Just as we piled out of the van, snow once again started to fall but thankfully, only a light dusting this time. The city, the oldest capital in the US, was exactly as our guide had described it – 50 shades of brown! As it was already early evening, there was little open other than the touristy stores on the main square but as well as some souvenir shopping we did find time to wander into the city’s Cathedral before dinner.
The next morning we returned to the city and were given a bit more time to look around. Unfortunately the ‘oldest house’ in the city was closed to visitors while we were there but it was interesting wandering down the oldest street and seeing the old buildings. We spent the rest of our free time in the city visiting the many churches as well as some of the small art galleries and boutique stores before departing for our next overnight stay in New Mexico State, Carlsbad just as the snow started to fall again.
Our journey today was broken up with an unexpected stop at the infamous town of Roswell! With traffic and diversions due to the snowy weather, we reached there later than expected and by the time we’d stopped at Walmart to shop for tonight’s camp, it was late afternoon.
We were given some free time to look around the town and all headed straight to the UFO museum only to be told it would be closing soon. We all wanted to go inside anyway and the staff kindly waived the entrance fee as we’d not be able to see the entire museum in such a short time. The museum was fun in a tacky, tourist-pleasing way and after it had closed we looked around the neighbouring stores all selling UFO themed souvenirs!
From here, it was off to our only cabin stay of the tour at Carlsbad KOA site. The cabins were basic – we had to bring our own sleeping bags & pillows on the trip just for this one night – but comfortable enough and luckily, with the weather as it was, did have some kind of heating system.
It was already dark as we arrived and absolutely freezing cold, so much so that we struggled to cook the evening’s meal on the camping equipment, eventually settling for food somewhere between luke warm and still frozen!! We spent the evening sat around the campfire, wrapped in our blankets and sleeping bags trying desperately to keep warm, our guide attempting to keep up morale by playing guitar and leading sing songs. This was definitely one of the more character building evenings of the trip!
The next day, we awoke to another icy cold morning and a dusting of more snow and after breakfast, set off towards Carlsbad Caverns National Park. As we reached the park, we could see more snow had fallen in the area than we had had at our cabins causing our guide to pull over and check the park’s website – it was currently closed as they tried to clear the snow to allow access. After ringing the park and speaking to a ranger, our guide reported back that the park hoped to have a limited section of the Caverns open to the public within the next couple of hours and decided we should stick around and wait so we drove to a nearby cafe and settled down to hot chocolates and a group game of Cards Against Humanity as we waited for updates.
Luckily, the park did manage to open although as expected, only part of the trail through the Caverns would be accessible. It was bizarre to see frozen cactii lining the road as we drove to the car park and walked across to the cave entrance but at least once inside, we were out of the snow for a while! The caverns were really beautiful and worth sticking around to see. After following the self-guided loop trail, we returned to the gift shop for some souvenir shopping before finding a sheltered picnic bench to sit and have a late lunch on – leftovers from last night’s camp dinner!
Then it was on towards Texas to see what adventures awaited us next!
The highs and lows of a 3 week road tripacrossthe USA.
I was 4 days into a 3 week group tour across America and so far, things were going great. My first experience of hostel life was actually ok, the group were all bonding well, I’d already become firm friends with my roommate and I’d go as far as to say, I was having the time of my life!! But I should have known with this kind of trip to expect the unexpected!
LA, San Diego and Las Vegas already done, next up was 2 nights at the Grand Canyon. So far, we’d enjoyed glorious warm sunshine but as we boarded the bus outside our Vegas hotel the next morning, there was definitely a chill in the air. Time to pull out the hoodie!! As our guide told us much colder weather had been forecast for the next few days, an Australian member of our group admitted he’d only brought shorts with him, assuming that the Southern states were going to be mainly warm!
Our first stop of the day was at Hoover Dam and then at the ‘historic’ Route 66 town of Seligman, Arizona. We’d been told that in the summer months, it was hard to move in this town with all the tourists but on a cool February day, it was more like a ghost town and we were warmly welcomed in every souvenir store we entered as it would seem they get very little business this time of year!
The town, dubbed ‘the birthplace of Route 66’, was fun to wander round and was like something stuck in the past with all of its brightly painted buildings and Route 66 memorabilia. We had one more stop, for lunch at a Subway, before continuing the long drive to Grand Canyon National Park.
Arriving later than expected after being rerouted around road closures (we kept ourselves amused in the bus playing ‘Guess the song from the introduction’!), we were given an hour to get settled into our motel accommodation before regrouping for a pizza dinner at a local restaurant. While there, our tour guide outlined the options for the next few days – we could get up early to see the sunrise over the Grand Canyon if enough of us were interested, we could hike down into the canyon, book a helicopter flight over the canyon and there were also options to watch a film about the Grand Canyon at the IMAX in the village or do shorter, less strenuous walks at the canyon rim. All the group were up for seeing the sunrise and hiking down into the canyon and lots of us signed up to take a helicopter ride too. With that decided and dinner done, we were let loose for the evening, all deciding to meet for a game of bowling at a nearby hotel after getting our hiking supplies in for the following day.
Things took an unexpected turn as my roommate and I left the bowling alley to get an earlyish night to discover that snow was falling. And seeing as the ground was covered, it had been falling a while! Assuming that it wouldn’t be much, we set our 4am alarms and went to bed.
We awoke the next morning to find that the snow had certainly not stopped but continued to fall heavily throughout the night! Despite guessing that seeing the sunrise was now unlikely to be possible, we got ready and met with the group anyway and seeing as we were all up, our guide managed to drive us into the National Park anyway.
As expected, all we could see was cloud and snow but we amused ourselves by building a snowman and throwing snowballs into the Canyon – not something I ever expected to do!! For some of the Australians in the group, this was the first time they’d actually seen real snow so despite our disappointment at the sunrise not being visible, there was still plenty of fun to be had.
After breakfast back in the village, we were advised by our guide that the helicopter tours would not be running today and that the trails down into the Canyon were closed. It was possible there would be an opportunity for both activities the next morning depending on the weather but we’d have to find other ways to spend our full day at the Canyon. Seeing as the rim trail between Mather Point and Angel Point was open, we all wrapped up warm (the Australian with just shorts packed had purchased some long trousers, gloves and a scarf!) and headed out for a walk in the snow!
To be honest, I had never even realised the Grand Canyon got snow before. Luckily, unlike many of the group, I had visited this part of the National Park before and seen the Grand Canyon under clear, blue skies and sunshine and there was actually something really special about seeing it under snowfall – not that we could see much of the canyon itself! Cold and wet, we warmed up with lunch at Angel Point Hotel before returning to the village for the rest of the afternoon.
With nothing else to really do, a few of us went to watch the IMAX film, so we could at least see what the Grand Canyon usually looks like, and spent some time souvenir shopping before we met for a group meal at a nearby Steakhouse. A few of us then congregated in our motel room with snacks to watch the evening’s Oscars Ceremony!
Unfortunately, we awoke the next morning to yet more heavy snowfall, dashing any remaining hopes of getting to do the helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon or hiking down into the canyon so instead we set off for today’s destination, Monument Valley, stopping first at a watchtower in the Grand Canyon Park. There wasn’t really much of a view from the tower, just more snow, so we didn’t spend long there but as we drove out towards Utah state, conditions did seem to be clearing slightly.
Our first stop in Utah was at a Navajo trading post in Cameron and we were pleased to not have to wade through any snow to get from the van to the store. We weren’t as lucky when we reached our lunch stop, a Burger King, which doubled as a Museum on Navajo Code Talkers, a couple of hours later. Here the snow had really fallen and we wondered if our destination of Monument Valley would be open for our tour to go ahead.
Luckily, despite the heavy snowfall, the site had remained open although we were told that the jeeps used for the tours could only access a smaller part of the area and therefore we would receive a discount.
If anything, the snow only added to this amazing experience. We were told that snow of any kind rarely falls at Monument Valley, nevermind a blanket of it, and even our Navajo guides were stopping to take photographs of the beautiful scenery as they showed us around. We spent most of the tour stood marvelling at the beautiful snow-covered scenery, enjoying the peacefulness that had descended over the area.
Our visit to Monument Valley ended with a traditional burrito meal before we drove to our motel in the amusingly named town of Mexican Hat. We awoke the next morning to find the snow was starting to melt.
We made one more Monument Valley stop, on the road at the point where Forrest Gump stops running in the Oscar-winning film, before heading off towards the next state on our itinerary – the hopefully less snowy New Mexico!