A Midwest Road Trip: Minnesota

Crossing the Mississippi River into Minnesota state

After a weekend in Chicago and a few days on the road in Wisconsin, we were about to enter Minnesota – the state that had been the inspiration for a lot of our 3-week road trip after we’d spotted the Largest Ball of Twine on a map while researching our trip. But more about that random road side attraction later, first of all we had 2 nights in the Twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul ahead of us.

Arriving at the Mall of America

After leaving Wisconsin behind, we came to our first major driving challenge of the trip – navigating the busy, at times 5-lane, interstate system around the city of Minneapolis. Our first attempt didn’t go too badly and we managed to get onto the busy road easily enough and back off at the correct exit for our first stop in the state, the Mall of America. The bit of city driving between the interstate and the Mall’s car park also went smoothly and soon, we were making our way into the Mall for an afternoon of shopping and amusements at the Mall’s Nickelodeon Universe.

Rides at Nickelodon Universe, and below, a bit wet after a trip down the log flume and a BBQ dinner

The Mall was as huge as we expected and it took a while for us to navigate our way around to the stores we wanted to visit. After a bit of browsing, we followed the signposts down to Nickelodeon Universe, a huge amusement park built into the basement of the mall. Here, we purchased wristbands allowing us access to the rides which included huge roller coasters, flying chairs and even a log flume (which I got absolutely drenched on!)

After experiencing pretty much every ride in there, we went for dinner at a BBQ restaurant before heading back to the car for take two on the interstate.

Almost in the city of St Paul

At this point, it was rush hour making driving on the busy multiple-lane road even scarier. We missed our exit for our St Paul hotel after being instructed by our Sat Nav to somehow make our way across 5 lanes of traffic into the exit lane but after it re-navigated, we made it off at the next exit then through the city to our DoubleTree Hotel, all breathing a sigh of relief as we pulled up.

The next morning, we had a Segway tour booked in Minneapolis.

We had hoped to have arrived in St Paul the previous day early enough to go out and figure out the public transport system into Minneapolis but seeing as we’d not had time, we decided to jump in a taxi to ensure we made it there in time for our tour check in.

Down by the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, and below, exploring the riverside area during our segway tour

After a quick practise to refamilarise ourselves with riding a segway, we followed our guide across the bridge and alongside the Mississippi river, stopping regularly to hear about the city or pose for photos. While I don’t feel I learnt a great deal about Minneapolis or that there was really a lot to see, it was a lot of fun riding segways for a couple of hours and we were delighted to receive a ‘Segway Driving License’ as a fun souvenir at the end of our tour!

View from St Anthony Falls Visitor Centre

After the tour, we walked into the city stopping along the river at St Anthony Falls Visitor Centre for a closer look at the falls we’d seen on our Segway Tour and learn a bit about the lock and dam at the Upper Falls.

Then, after grabbing lunch at a Potbelly’s Sandwich store we made our way through Loring Park to Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

The Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture

The sculpture park is next to Walker Art centre, a contemporary art museum and is free to look around. We were there to see one particular sculpture, Spoonbridge and Cherry, but it was fun to explore the grounds and the other sculptures while we were there.

Posing with the sculpture in Minneapolis, and below, back in St Paul with the Peanuts sculptures in Landmark Park

From here, we managed to navigate our way back to St Paul using the cities’ light rail system. It was late afternoon by now which didn’t give us a great deal of time to explore the city of St Paul but we did at least find the time to see the Peanuts bronze sculptures in Landmark Park, a tribute to Peanuts creator and St Paul native, Charles Schulz.

Dinner this evening was at the historic Mickey’s Diner, a traditional American diner. The diner, set in an old train car, has been in operation since 1939 and has featured in films including The Mighty Ducks and Jingle All The Way as well as regularly being rated in top 10 diners lists and appearing in various travel and food TV series. I ordered the One-Eyed Jack, a grilled cheese, ham and egg sandwich served with hash browns and it was delicious!

Leaving St Paul for the town of Darwin MN

The next morning, we were up at the crack of dawn. We had a long drive day ahead of us, 7 hours in total to our destination of Omaha, Nebraska, and we wanted to make sure we reached our first stop at the long-anticipated Ball of Twine as soon as its visitor centre opened. That meant a 7.30am start to get there for 9am!

Arriving at the World’s Largest Twine Ball

We spent most of the journey singing along at the top of our voices to Weird Al’s Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota song, playing it on repeat as we neared the town of Darwin. Soon, the shed encasing the ball was in view and as we pulled up alongside it, we couldn’t contain our excitement any longer!

The twine ball was quite a sight to behold. As the song says “what on earth would make a man decide to do that kind of thing?” We hoped to find out by visiting the small museum and gift shop (we really wanted to purchase our own miniature ball of twine souvenir – also mentioned in Weird Al’s song!) but were disappointed to find its doors were closed.

Pinned to the front was a card with a phone number to call if you wanted to visit so, despite the hefty fees for calling a US number from our UK phones, we rang it and spoke to Marilyn who said she be there in 5 minutes to let us in!

It’s the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota!

The museum gave a bit of background to the ravelling of the twine ball as well as featuring some displays on the history of the town of Darwin, Minnesota. After looking around, we went straight to the gift store and all purchased a mini-ball of twine fridge magnets and our own ball of twine starter kits!

Then, after thanking Marilyn for her time, it was back on the road, listening to Weird Al’s song one last time as we pulled away, our adventures in Minnesota state over!

A Midwest Road Trip: Wisconsin

After a couple of nights in Chicago to overcome our jetlag, we were on our way back to its airport, this time to pick up a rental car which would be our main form of transport for the next few weeks. Despite having never driven in the US before, or hired a rental car anywhere before, we had planned a pretty ambitious road trip around the Midwest States of the US and we were nervous and excited in equal measure as we approached the AVIS building.

We had pre-booked our rental well in advance of our trip, paying up front in order to avoid any costs at pick up – or so we though, as we were charged for something or other at handover, a charge we spent the rest of the trip trying to figure out! The trip was not off to the best of starts when as well as the unexpected rental charges, we arrived at our designated pick up time to find a huge queue for the pickup desk, a queue that was moving at a snail’s pace!

Holding up the Leaning Tower of Niles!

Unimpressed with the service we had received from Avis so far, we were relieved to finally get the keys to our rental and get on the road towards Wisconsin.

We had a 4 hour drive to Wisconsin Dells ahead of us and lots of stops at roadside attractions planned along the way and we were already over an hour behind schedule thanks to the car pickup process being a lot more time-consuming than we had expected!

Sat nav set up, we were finally on our way towards our first stop of the day – and of the trip – in the town of Niles, Illiois where we were hoping to find the Leaning Tower of Niles, a smaller scale replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and a bench where you could sit next to an Abraham Lincoln sculpture!

Entering Wisconsin state

As we made our way out of Chicago, we were unsure whether we’d find either or even a place to park but 20 minutes later, there was the leaning tower in front of us! After a few attempts going back and forth along the road, we settled on a place to park and hopped out to grab photos with the random sculpture. It was lunch time already so we popped to the supermarket next to the tower to grab snacks then back to the car.

Above, arriving at the Jelly Belly Factory, and below, touring the factory on the Jelly Belly Express

Our 5 minute stop had taken at least half an hour putting us even further behind schedule so with that in mind, we decided to skip the Abe Lincoln bench and continue on into the state of Wisconsin.

Here, our first stop was at the Jelly Belly Factory where we had read that free tours were offered. We found Jelly Belly easily and luckily it was pretty quiet meaning we got on the next tour.

In the Jelly Belly gift store

We were handed Jelly Belly hats which had to be worn through out then boarded the train which took us around the factory, our guide telling us about it or stopping for us to watch videos. It was a fun stop and we even got a free bag of jelly beans each as we left through the gift store.

Next up was the Mac Cheese Castle, a huge cheese store near the town of Kenosha. As we neared the highway exit, we could see it lying just off the main road but as we reached the junction, the signposts vanished and we couldn’t work out how to get to it! Ending up back on the highway, we decided to give up and continue towards our destination. Conscious that time was rapidly ticking away, we also decided to abandon our plans to stop in Milwaukee – city driving didn’t seem like the best idea when we were still getting used to the car, the US road system and driving on the opposite side to what we were used to anyway!

Above, and below, moving figures at Ella’s Animatronic Deli

Instead, we stopped late afternoon in the town of Madison to visit Ella’s Animatronic Deli, a diner we had found which was crammed full of hundreds of moving figures. It was a fun food stop with lots to see as we waited for our food order to arrive.

At a Wisconsin Cheese gift store

We had one more food stop to fit in at the Mousehouse Cheesehaus in Windsor, a store specialising in Wisconsin cheese.

The sun setting as we near Wisconsin Dells

We had a quick look around, stretching our legs, sampling some of the cheese and taking photos of the huge mouse adorning the entrance before continuing to our motel in Wisconsin Dells, finally arriving just as the sun set!

Breakfast at the IHOP, and below, interesting sights driving through the Dells

The next morning, we were up early to grab breakfast at the nearby IHOP. We had all visited Wisconsin Dells once before, stopping for an hour or so as part of our Trek America tour through the Northern States but this time, hoped to see more of what it had to offer.

We started with a visit to Noah’s Ark, via quick pitstops at a Trojan horse, the Colosseum and an upside down White House – some of the Dell’s more random attractions along the way! Noah’s Ark bills itself as America’s largest water park and is one of many water and amusement parks in the Dells.

Above, arriving at Noah’s Ark, and below, at The Dell’s Lumberjack Show

We had decided to mainly because we got free entrance included with our motel stay so it seemed a shame not to stop by for a few hours. But after paying hefty parking fees and entering to find huge queues for every ride (it was the height of summer, after all), we regretted our decision. In the couple of hours we were there, we only got on one ride and ended up spending most of our time in the wave pool, the one thing you didn’t have to queue for.

Giving up on Noah’s Ark, we returned to our motel briefly to shower and change before walking down the main strip to see the Dell’s Lumberjack show. We had pre-booked our tickets to the afternoon show and while we enjoyed watching, it was pretty much a rerun of the same show I had seen at Grouse Mountain in Vancouver – same stunts and even the same jokes!

Lunch at the Cheesey Tomato Cafe

After the show, we walked back along the strip, stopping at the Cheesy Tomato cafe for a grilled cheese sandwich lunch and souvenir shopping. The Dells is full of random attractions but none of them are cheap and you could easily spend a fortune paying out for them all. We decided on a round of glow-in-the-dark mini-golf at one of the many entertainment complexes and this also gave us access to a giant King King sculpture which gave us some fun photo opportunities!

That evening, we had booked a trip on the Wisconsin Dells’ ghost boat. For some reason, we had assumed it would be like a ghost walking tour but on a boat.

We were expecting to cruise along the river being entertained with ghost stories about the Dells but this is not what we go at all! Instead, we were dropped by boat at an island which we roamed as we were chased by various actors dressed as all kind of gruesome, spooky characters! A bit like a longer version of the old House of Horrors at Universal Studios but outside in the dark!!

On the road again, travelling through Wisconsin

I love that kind of thing and had a great time but my travel buddies were less than impressed!

The next day, we were back on the road travelling through the state of Wisconsin towards our next destination of Minneapolis.

The World’s Largest Bicycle in Sparta, Wisconsin, and below, The World’s Largest Six Pack in LaCrosse

Once again, we had a long list of roadside attractions to stop off at along the way, starting with the World’s Largest Bicycle in the town of Sparta. We found the sculpture sat in a park straight away and hopped out to take photos between giggles, trying our best to be a bit quicker than we had at previous stops.

The next stop was in the town of LaCrosse where we found the World’s Largest Six Pack, another great photo opportunity!

UFO sculpture in Elmwood, Wisconsin

Our final stop in the state of Wisconsin was in the town of Elmwood, supposedly the UFO-sighting capital of America! The town plays on this title with UFO-themed window displays as well as hosting ‘UFO Days’, an annual festival celebrated every July with a parade and other UFO-themed events.

As we had just missed the festival by a few days, the town was still decked out with bunting and decorations.

Banners left up in Elmwood from the previous weekend’s festivities

After our stop in Elmwood, it was time to say goodbye to Wisconsin as we crossed the border into Minnesota to continue our trip. We’d had a fun start to our adventure, finding some fun and unusual roadside attractions as well as getting to revisit Wisconsin Dells to spend a bit more quality time there and now we looked forward to what the rest of our trip would bring!

A Midwest Road Trip: Chicago

After spending over 6 months planning a self-drive road trip of Midwest USA, the time had finally come to depart for our gateway city of Chicago. Being used to taking either short city breaks in the USA or escorted small group tours for longer trips – neither of which required us to do any of our own driving – it was the first time any of us had undertaken such a trip and we were equally excited and nervous for the weeks ahead.

At the airport waiting to board

To help to calm the nerves, we had chosen to begin our trip with a few (carless!) days in a city familiar to us all – Chicago. The three of us had all spent a few days here as part of the Trek America coast to coast tour through the Northern states we previously taken – the trip we had actually met on – and I had visited a few times prior to this and knew the city pretty well (read my tips for visiting the city here).

After meeting up in the arrivals at Chicago airport (we had all flown in from different parts of the UK), we managed to navigate our way into the city and then drag our luggage the short distance from the subway to our Michigan Avenue hotel. It was already early evening so after checking into our room, the only thing on our mind was food and sleep. We grabbed take away from the first place we stumbled across and then settled down in our room for the night.

Rising early thanks to the jetlag, we began the next day – our only full day in the city – with a stroll along Michigan Avenue up to the John Hancock building. After stopping for breakfast at Starbucks, we continued across the DeSable Bridge and onto the ‘Magnificent Mile’. This area is a shoppers paradise and we couldn’t resist popping into a few of the stores we passed including Dylan’s Candy Bar and the Disney Store.

Above, and below, views from Chicago 360

Eventually, we reached the John Hancock building where we had booked tickets up to its observation deck, now rebranded as Chicago 360. On our last visit together to the city, we had instead visited the observation deck at the Willis Tower but having been up both before, the John Hancock building’s observation deck was my favourite. Feeling adventurous, we had also purchased tickets to try out Chicago 360’s latest attraction, TILT. Branded “Chicago’s newest thrill ride”, here visitors can stand against a glass window on the 94th floor observation deck as it slowly tilts forward over the city below.

It was a clear, sunny day and the views over the city from the top, especially looking towards Lake Michigan, were beautiful. The TILT ride was fun, if short-lived, and not nearly as scary as it looked in my opinion although the screams from other visitors showed that not everyone agreed with me on that!

Walking along Lake Shore Drive

Once back at ground level, we walked east towards Lake Shore Drive, crossing to the path running alongside the lake and following it south past the beaches towards Navy Pier. Wanting to get out on the lake but having taken the Shoreline Sightseeing company’s Lake Michigan cruise on our last visit, this time we opted for a jetboat ride.

With some time to kill between booking our boat trip and its departure time, we walked the pier and had a go on some of the amusements before returning to board.

Navy Pier fun

The jet boat trip was great fun as we sped across the lake twisting and turning, getting us just wet enough to cool us down a bit from the the strong, summer sun without soaking us.

We returned to the pier at a slightly slower pace allowing us the opportunity to take some photos of the Chicago skyline in front of us.

Above, and below, having fun at the Cloudgate Sculpture

Leaving Navy Pier behind, we walked south to Millennium Park, home of my favourite Chicago attraction – the Cloudgate Sculpture or ‘the silver bean’ as we prefer to call it. Here, we spent more time than was probably necessary staring at the reflections of ourselves ad the city skyline in the sculpture, walking beneath and finding lots of different angles to take photos from.

Also in Millennium Park and not far from Cloudgate, is the Crown Fountain and with it being a boiling hot summer’s day, it was full of children – and some adults – cooling off by paddling their feet and waiting for the faces on the screens at each end to ‘spit’ water over them.

Crown Fountain

Having spent all day under the hot, summer sun, and now being almost back at our hotel, we couldn’t resist diving under the jet of water suddenly spewed from the fountain. We were absolutely drenched but it felt so good!

Next stop was across the road to our hotel to change – and to try to dry our clothes before the start of our road trip the next day! – before heading back uptown later for pizza at our favourite Deep Dish restaurant, Gino’s East. As usual, the pizza took a while to cook but we kept ourselves entertained adding to the customer graffiti covering the restaurant’s walls and furnishings!

The deep dish didn’t disappoint and full up, we waddled back to our hotel full of anticipation for what the next day would bring.

This was it, it was time to check out of our city hotel, head back to the airport and pick up our hire car for 3 weeks on the road. We would be back in Chicago at the end of it all having hopefully returned from a fun-filled Midwest adventure!!

Planning a US Road Trip

After years of visiting major American cities on various city breaks and then spending some time travelling across America on small group escorted tours, I was really starting to tick the 50 states of America off, having even managed to visit Alaska which isn’t part of the ‘Great 48’ mainland states.  A visit to Denver, Colorado marked reaching my 30th state (ok, some states I’d just passed through without stopping at at this point, but it still kinda counted!) and it seemed silly now not to try and aim to tick off all 50.

30 States down (pink), 20 to go (grey)

Looking at a map, it became clear that the majority of the states I had left to visit, were congregated around the middle – the Midwest states – and as it seemed to be agreed on most travel sites that there wasn’t a lot to see in this part of the USA, none of the small group tours I looked at visited any of these in much detail, if at all.

Having made a great group of friends on the tours I had previously done, I began to see if any of these would be interested in adding to the number of states we had visited and eventually, this lead to a group of 3 of us deciding to plan our own tour, a roadtrip of the Midwest states, lasting around the 3-week mark.

We were all drivers so would hire a car, plan a route and take it in turns to drive each day.  The aim was to tick off the states in the middle and find our own adventures along the way, proving the websites which said there was nothing to see in these states wrong!

Starting our trip in Chicago, and below, visiting the Gateway Arch in St Louis, Missouri

Having never planned a trip like this before – we were all used to jumping on a group tour and having everything done for us – we were unsure where to start but having seen our tour guides in action, how difficult could it be driving across America, getting to places on time and finding interesting places to stop at along the way, right?

Deciding that Chicago would be a good ‘gateway to the Midwest’, we began to plot a possible circular route passing through as many states we hadn’t yet visited as possible before arriving back in Chicago.

Above, and below, visiting various Wizard of Oz themed attractions in Kansas

Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri were all on our list and, similar to our Trek trips, we decided to aim to spend just one or two nights at each stop along the way.

We had very little idea on what each of these states had to offer but we’d heard of St Louis, Missouri and all wanted to visit its Gateway Arch and one of us knew someone who had visited a Wizard of Oz-themed attraction in Kansas which sounded like fun – who doesn’t like the Wizard of Oz after all – so we added those ideas to our list as a starting point. 

On a segway tour of Minneapolis

Wanting to try and recreate the feel of our Trek America trips, we also made a list of all the activities we had enjoyed on these tours so that we could find similar opportunities along the way this time – National Park visits, white water rafting, horse riding, bike or Segway tours… were all jotted down on a document we had created and shared via Google Drive.

On our Trek America trip across the Northern states, we had spent a lot of time travelling through South Dakota but never made it across the border into North Dakota.  It was a bit out of the way, to say the least, of the other states we were aiming to cross off this trip but as we were unsure when else we would ever get there, we started to look into whether we could somehow add it into our itinerary.

At Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, and below, visiting the huge Mall of America with its indoor amusement park in Minnesota

Remembering a brief couple of hours stop we’d had at Wisconsin Dells on our Trek America trip, we thought we could factor in a longer stop there after leaving Chicago then from there it made sense to once again pass through the state of Minnesota from which we could travel up into North Dakota before heading south through South Dakota and into Iowa to begin our original circular route back to Chicago.

So that is where we began, with 2 nights pencilled in in Chicago then 2 nights in Wisconsin Dells. I’d heard a lot about the Mall of America with its indoor amusement park which sounded like fun so we pencilled in a 2 night stop in Minneapolis. 

Some of the roadside attractions we visited included the World’s Largest Ball of Twine and the Jelly Belly Factory

Thinking of Minnesota reminded us of the random stop we had made during our Trek America trip at the Jolly Green Giant statue and museum and got us wondering what other random roadside attractions we might be able to find. This led us to the discovery of The World’s Biggest Ball of Twine, also in Minnesota and suddenly our trip took on a whole new direction. 

Visiting a cheese store in Wisconsin

We decided to try and find as many random roadside attractions as we could to stop at along the way and as we soon found out, if that was our aim, then the Midwest was definitely the right place to be to find them!

Finding a couple of websites that listed this kind of thing, we began to plot our route and itinerary around these random stops! The Roadtrip America and Roadside America sites, both had useful map features pinpointing places of interest in each state and we soon had a long list for Wisconsin alone including the Jelly Belly Factory, a Cheese Castle and giant sculptures of a cow, an elephant and a bicycle!

A huge bicycle in Wisconsin state

We had a lot of debate over where our overnight stops should be in each state, how long our drive times each day could reasonably be and what routes to take and there had to be a lot of compromise. Eventually, we realised that adding in North Dakota was too much of a stretch so we dropped the 4 days we’d have spent there and in South Dakota from our original plans, leaving us with a couple of days to add in elsewhere along our route which we ended up allocating to a stop in Branson, Missouri.

A Titanic Museum in Branson, Missouri shaped like the ship itself

A rough route worked out starting and ending in Chicago and taking exactly 3 weeks, the 2 of us who were school teachers and had more time to play with plotted out an extra week or so on the end of our trip with the aim of ticking off the states of Michigan and West Virginia and ending in Philadelphia – a city we’d made an hour’s stop in on our Trek America tours but felt we needed a bit more time exploring.

Flights booked, we went back to the first draft of our itinerary and spent the next few months fine tuning it, looking at where we’d make our one or two night stops and booking roadside motels or convenient city hotels.  Here, we found a slight problem for travelling as a group of three in that most accommodations offered rooms with 2 doubles and didn’t offer triple rooms or rooms with an extra bed. This meant that most nights, two of us had to share a double bed while we took turns have the other bed to ourselves! Car parking was also something new for us to consider and while most roadside motels offered it for free, this was rarely the case in the cities so we had to factor this into our budget.

A rough map of our 3-week route taking in Illinois, Chicago,Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky and Indiana

We had originally said we’d aim to keep drive days down to a maximum of 4-5 hours driving but the more we researched the states we were passing through, the more random roadside attractions we found that were ‘just a short diversion off our route’ and just had to be added into our itinerary.  We even managed to alter our route to include cutting through a corner of Texas as one of us hadn’t been to that state before!

Suddenly, we found that some of our 4 hour drive days, were now 6 or 7 hour drive days but we told ourselves it would be fine as we could make an early start and share the driving three ways. With two of us making it clear from the start we were much less confident with city driving, we also had to make plans to switch drivers well before we reached any cities on our itinerary.

The last thing we got around to booking were the attractions and activities that needed to be booked in advance. Where possible, we booked these in places where we were staying 2 nights so we were already in the area and didn’t have to factor in possible traffic stopping us from reaching the attraction on time. If we couldn’t do this, then we aimed to book them for first thing in the morning on the day we left that area so any driving was after.  There were a couple of activities including ziplining in Kentucky where we had to book for the afternoon we arrived so we made sure we didn’t have any other stops planned along the way that day and added an extra hour or so onto our arrival time, booking a slot for late afternoon. It was good job we did in Kentucky as we had completely forgot to factor in US time zones into our plans and we later realised we would lose an hour crossing a time zone that day!

On an airboat in Nebraska

There were also some activities we had to drop purely because we didn’t have the time – we’d read that in Nebraska, something called ‘tanking’ was a popular summertime activity. It involved floating down a river sat in a giant tub and it looked like great fun. But as we researched it, we realised it was a full day activity with tanking trips taking 4-5 hours and unfortunately there was no way we could fit that in. We replaced it with an air-boating trip on the River Platte so we did at least get out on the eater!

When our trip finally came around, we were very excited but also nervous at the thought of hiring a car and driving around such a huge country, on the other side of the road, with its complicated multilane highways around the cities.  We had a great few days in Chicago after arriving in the US but sat in silence on the subway en route to the airport to pick up our hire car on the day our road trip was to begin, probably all thinking about all the things that could go wrong!

Heading back to the city of Chicago 3 weeks after our trip began

Three weeks later, we were back in Chicago after what had been, all in all, a pretty successful trip.  While we had learnt that we had way over planned what we could fit in on a drive day, we had made it to many of the roadside stops we had in our itinerary and had made it on time to all of the activities we had booked specific time slots for along the way.  We also found out that 6-7 hours drive days were not a good idea as we somehow seemed to add on 3 hours to the timings we had down in our itinerary each day once food stops, petrol stops, stops to switch drivers, time spent at each attraction along the way and general faffing had been added in; so an estimated 4-hour drive day took us 7 hours and a 7-hour drive day took us 10 hours!

Lessons learnt for our next US roadtrip and there have been 2 more equally successful trips since.

I’ll be writing about our trip soon so come back to find out exactly how our trip went and what we got up to along the way soon!!

New York at Christmas

View of the Empire State Building from Herald Square

Despite having visited New York multiple times (you can read my guide to the city here), it had always been at Easter or during the summer. As a teacher, I was only able to take trips in the school holidays and it usually worked out that the Christmas break began right before Christmas itself and then continued into the New Year meaning unless I wanted to be away for Christmas Day – which I didn’t – there was never time to fit in a short break before Christmas and make it back in time.

So as soon as I made the decision to take a break from my teaching career, the first trip I booked was a mid-December visit to New York City. We made the decision to stay outside of Manhattan for the first time, just across the East River in the borough of Queens, to cut costs. We ensured the hotel was just a short walk from the nearest subway station and therefore it took us no longer to get to and from midtown Manhattan than it would have staying in lower Manhattan. The main problem our location caused us was getting to and from the airport as we were flying into Newark, New Jersey, west of Manhattan. We pre-booked a taxi service for our arrival but were met with unexpected costs from toll roads and bridges to get to Queens so for the return trip, we cancelled our booking with the same service and instead got the subway into Manhattan then a yellow cab to Penn Station and used the NJ airport express train to get to the airport from here. Taking luggage on the subway wasn’t ideal but the journey not only cost a lot less than the outbound taxi but also took a lot less time!

We arrived at our hotel late afternoon and after checking in, caught the subway straight into the city getting off at the Rockefeller Centre for our first glimpse of the famous tree. Being a Sunday evening at this point, Rockefeller Plaza was ridiculously busy with huge crowds of people trying to get in and out while police controlled the various entrances and exits to the area. Deciding to come back when it would be quieter, we instead walked down towards Times Square and went for dinner at one of my favourite places to eat in the city, Ellen’s Stardust Diner. This is the restaurant where all of the waitstaff are wannabe Broadway performers and entertain diners with a song in between serving them and is a really fun place to eat!

Off to Santaland in Macy’s

We had purchased a New York Pass each valid for the duration of our stay and wanting to make the most of it, decided to head to one of the few places open late, Madame Tussaud’s, to make use of our card. To be honest, I’ve never really understood why so many people flock to these wax museums around the World – just hang out at a stage door and you can meet the actual celebrities! – but if it’s included on a pass then as long as you go in the evening when it’s quiet it can be a fun way to spend an hour.

One of our must do Christmas activities for the city was a trip to Macy’s Santaland to meet the man himself. I had researched beforehand and heard that it got very busy, especially on weekends but was open til reasonable late and that the best time to go was after 8pm so after leaving Madame Tussaud’s, we walked down to Herald Square and made our way to the top floor grotto. Luckily, the wait time was around 20 minutes and within 10 minutes we had entered the grotto area and were surrounded by gingerbread houses, enchanted trees, dancing snowmen and elves making their way up and down the line checking everyone was having a good time.

I hadn’t been to a Christmas grotto since I was a kid but I’d still say that this was one of, if not the, best grotto I’d ever been too and passing slowly along the line, it didn’t feel like we were queuing at all as there was so much to see and take in. All too soon, we reached Santa’s house and were taken in to meet Santa Claus. Surprisingly, we were allowed to have photos with Santa taken on our own cameras, rather than being forced to buy the official ones and we were given a Santaland badge as a souvenir of our visit!

Macy’s
The Manhattan skyline from the boat to Liberty Island

Before leaving Macy’s, we spent some time looking around their Christmas store where the millions of tree decorations were already heavily discounted and we made a few purchases. Then it was back on the subway to head back to our hotel in Queens for the evening.

The Statueof Lierty

The next day, we had a rest from Christmas and instead took the ferry across to Liberty Island as this was included on our New York passes. The pass gave us access to the island and audio guides but did not allow us entrance into the pedestal or to climb the Statue itself. We were glad we had wrapped up warm as it was freezing out on Liberty Island! We spent some time exploring and listening to the commentary on our audio guides before catching a second ferry over to Ellis Island. Although I had visited Ellis Island and its immigration museum before, I hadn’t spent a great deal of time there so this time, I took more time exploring and found the museum to be really interesting.

Once back in Manhattan, we spent some time exploring downtown and visited the 9/11 Tribute Museum This small museum, separate to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, presents stories from people that were actually there such as survivors, responders and volunteers and is definitely worth a visit.

Store display in Little Italy

After dinner at Denny’s, we walked the short distance to China town then wandered through Little Italy where Mulberry Street was decorated for Christmas and we found some Christmas stores to look around. Then that evening, we headed to Broadway to see a show.

Day 3 and we decided to make use of our tourist passes along the museum mile. We started off at the Museum of the City of New York, a museum I hadn’t visited on my previous trips to the city. The museum houses ever-changing exhibits showcasing its collection of art and artefacts from the city’s past and was an interesting way to spend an hour.

Looking up at the roof inside the Guggenheim
Classical sculpture in the Met

Next up was the Guggenheim to scratch our heads at the displays of modern art and then onto the Metropolitan Museum of Art where a huge Christmas tree stood in the main atrium. From here, we walked across Central Park to the Museum of Natural History where a Christmassy looking dinosaur had been erected outside!

The famous Rockefeller Centre Christmas Tree

As we left the museum and walked down towards the south end of Central Park, we stumbled across a small Christmas market at Columbus Circle and spent some time wandering through, browsing the stalls.

All museumed out, we decided to return to Rockefeller Plaza to see if the crowds had died down from the weekend. Luckily, it was a lot quieter now and we could get close enough to the famous Christmas tree to take some photos with it. It is just as impressive as it looks in all the photos and movies!

Bryant Park
Christmas Tree and market stalls in Bryant Park

Next stop on a jam-packed day was Grand Central Terminus where we found another Christmas market – the Grand Central Holiday Fair – in full swing! Across the road from the station, at Bryant Park, the Christmas spirit was in full swing and an ice rink and Christmas tree had been erected along side another Christmas market. Unable to resist purchasing something any longer, we picked up a few more trinkets to take back for our tree at home!

Houses decorated for Christmas

For that evening, we had booked ourselves on an organised Christmas lights tour which would take us out of Manhattan to a Brooklyn neighbourhood where competitive residents dress the houses, gardens and anything else they can find in an array of bright lights and glowing ornaments!! It was a fun tour and some of the displays were jaw-dropping. Along the way, the coach stopped regularly so we could walk up and down the streets admiring the decorations and take photos. One house even had a Christmas song on rotation being broadcast on an unused frequency and invited cars to tune in as the watched its Christmas lights ‘dance’ in time to the song!

Once we’d been dropped back in the city, we decided to make the most of what was left of the evening with a late night trip up the Empire State Building.

I knew from past experience that it was always a lot quieter late at night and as expected we didn’t have to queue to get in and once at the observation deck, we had plenty of room to move around. New York always looks amazing lit up at night so it’s a good time to go all round!

Tiffany’s, 5th Ave

After an extremely busy day, we decided to take it a bit easier the following day and spent most of the morning on Fifth Avenue to see the stores’ Christmas windows.

The Rockefeller Centre

We then made use of our tourist passes by jumping on a walking tour of the Rockefeller Center which was really interesting giving us some access to parts of the complex you can’t otherwise enter as well as pointing out a lot of the art and sculpture in and around the building, much of it which I must have walked past many times before but never really noticed.

St Patrick’s Cathedral opposite the Rockefeller Centre

Top of the Rock

The weather today wasn’t great and was getting colder and cloudier by the second but as it was our last full day in the city, we decided to use our passes to take a trip up to Top of the Rock. We were warned by the staff that it was currently zero visibility at the top but as it was the only time we’d have to go, took a chance and luckily, it had cleared enough that there was some kind of view from up there. While at the top, it started to snow although when we got back down to ground level, it hadn’t quite reached the pavements of Manhattan just yet!

Rockette costumes

To get out of the cold for a while, we used our passes to take another walking tour, this time, a tour of Radio City Music Hall. This again gave us behind the scenes access to parts of the building you ca’t otherwise enter as well as giving us some history of the building. At the end of the tour, we got to peer into the live Christmas Spectacular show going on and then to meet one of its stars, a Rockette. It really made me wish I’d bought tickets to see the show while in the city for Christmas but maybe I’ll get the chance again one day.

Dinner at Dallas BBQ

That evening, after dinner at a branch of Dallas BBQ, we went to see an off-Broadway show. These shows tend to be held in much smaller theatres but ticket prices are a lot less than the bigger shows and there’s usually some really good productions on!

The Rockefeller Tree at night

As it was our last night in the city, we finished the evening off with one last visit to the Rockefeller Centre, this time, to see the tree all lit up at night. While there we also happened to catch the Saks Fifth Avenue Christmas Laser Light show which was beamed onto the walls of the building!

The Freedom Tower in Downtown Manhattan

Display at the 9/11 Museum

We had one morning left in the city before catching our flight home and we’d booked tickets to visit the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. This was a really moving experience and despite allowing ourselves the recommended few hours to go around the museum, we ran out of time in the end and had to rush through the later part of the museum.

Christmas time in New York had been everything I was expecting and more and had definitely put us all in the Christmas spirit! It’s something I would definitely recommend doing if you can!

Watch a video montage of my Christmas trip to the New York City here:

San Francisco

The city of San Francisco was my first experience of the state of California and it was pretty much love at first sight – for both the city and the state.  This year, I was planning my fifth visit to the city until the pandemic got in the way but I can’t wait to reschedule my trip.

Here’s my guide to how I like to spend my time in this Northern California city.

Where to stay

View from my room at the Mark Hopkins InterContinental Hotel

On each of my visits to San Francisco, I’ve stayed in very different accommodations – a luxury hotel on my first trip, a budget hotel on trip number 2, a hostel on my third visit and a roadside motel the last time – but on 3 out of 4 of my visits, I at least stuck to the same area of the city – Union Square/Nob Hill.

The area is one of the most central areas of the city, convenient for the theatres and shopping malls and with plenty of transport links – including a terminus for the famous San Francisco cable cars – to easily reach other parts of the city.

The Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel, perched on the top of Nob Hill near to Grace Cathedral, was one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed in – although having to walk up the city’s largest hill from the bottom of Union Square at the end of each day was not my favourite! 

At the Top of the Mark martini bar

We won our stay there on a Priceline bid so stayed there for a fraction of the usual cost and we spent most of our evenings sat in its top floor martini bar, Top of the Mark, listening to the piano player while looking out at the city through its floor to ceiling windows.

Wherever I’m staying in the city, I try to make a return visit to the Top of the Mark bar to enjoy the city view overs a drink and watch the fog roll in over the city.

If you’re looking for something a bit more budget for your stay, I found both the Hotel Beresford and the nearby USA Hostels to offer clean and comfortable accommodation also in a convenient Union Square adjacent location.

Union Square shops

My only reason for not staying in the Union Square area on my last visit was having a car.  We were visiting the city as part of a road trip so looked for somewhere within our budget that was easily accessible without too much city driving and had free parking. The roadside motel La Luna, somewhere between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Presidio area, was where we ended up and was a comfortable budget option for a couple of nights.

Getting Around

San Francisco City Hall

On my first visit to the city, we barely used public transport. In the city for 4 nights/3 days, we bought tickets for the hop on/off tour bus which lasted us for the first 2 days and used the cable car, and even a taxi, for the third day.

The hop on/off bus worked well for us on our first visit, helping us to get our bearings and to see the highlights of the city and learn a bit about it without having to navigate our way around an unfamiliar public transport system.

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on the hop on/off bus, and below, riding the famous Cable Cars

There were 2 routes to ride, one which took us from Union Square out past Alamo Square – home of the famous ‘Painted Ladies’ houses – to Golden Gate Park then back via Fisherman’s Wharf and a second which took us across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and back and we decided along the way which stops to hop off and explore at.

On my subsequent visits to San Francisco, being more familiar with the city, I have made the effort to use the public transport system, usually purchasing a 1 or 3-day MUNI Visitor Passport allowing unlimited rides on the buses, metro, streetcars and cable cars and have found it to be and easy and convenient system to navigate.

The famous, historic San Francisco cable cars are, in my opinion, the most fun way of travelling across the city but the queues to ride at the terminus for these can be quite long and often, it is difficult to hop on elsewhere as there isn’t always room for new passengers when the cars reach these stops unless people are getting off there.

Waiting to board a cable car

I try to head to the the Union Square or Hyde Street cable car terminuses either early morning or late evening/night as these are the best times to avoid long queues. If there is a queue, it is at least fun to watch the cable cars come in before swivelling around on the turntable and heading off in the opposite direction again.

When riding, I love to stand on the ledge on the outside of the cable cars, clinging on tightly as they ascend and descend the city’s huge hills but it is possible to find seats inside the cars if you prefer!

The Golden Gate Bridge

Probably the most famous of San Francisco’s sights, the suspension bridge painted the iconic shade of International Orange is a must-see on any visit to the city and there are a range of ways you can cross the bridge.

Tour bus

With the bridge not being visible from a lot of the more touristy areas of the city, it took to the end of my first visit to the city before we caught a glimpse of it while on a visit to the Presidio area. Later that day, we used the hop on/off buses’ Sausalito route to cross the bridge.

At the Palace of Fine Arts

The bus took us from Fishermans Wharf to the Marina District where we made a stop at the beautiful Palace of Fine Arts building before we drove across the bridge and see it up close. The main thing I remember about this is the wind in my face, whipping my hair into one huge tangle as we sat on the outside deck upstairs on the bus, whizzing across!

I managed to cling onto my camera long enough to take a few photos and luckily, it was a clear afternoon meaning the bridge was completely visible – which isn’t always the case!

Looking out from the viewpoint actross the bridge

Once across the bridge, the bus made a 10 minute stop at a nearby viewpoint where we could look back at it and at San Francisco city across the bay. The bus then continued to the pretty town of Sausalito where it was possible to hop off and explore. Being short on time, we instead stayed on the bus to return back across the bridge to the city.

Bike

Getting closer to the bridge, and below, photos of the views as we cycled to the Golden Gate Bridge

On my second visit to the San Francisco, we decided to hire bikes from the Fisherman’s Wharf area of the city and cycle across the bridge. Our hire bikes came with a map and detailed instructions of the route to reach the bridge, Sausalito and continue further to Muir Woods should we wish to.

The cycle to the bridge was mainly easy with some on road and steep uphill sections and it was great fun then cycling across the bridge, being able to stop along the way to take photos and enjoy the view.

Finally at the Golden Gate Bridge, and below, exploring Sausalito

The weather was mainly on our side with the unpredictable San Francisco fog only occasionally drifting in to obscure the peaks of the bridge. Mainly though, it was clear and sunny.

Once across, it was then down hill into Sausalito where we stopped for lunch and a look around this beautiful bay side town with its cafes, restaurants, galleries and boutique stores before catching the ferry with our bikes back to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Walking

Walking across the Golden Gate Bridge

My third visit to the city was as part of my Trek America coast to coast tour across the USA through the Northern states and this time, we were dropped off at one side of the bridge early morning and walked across to then meet our tour guide at the other side.

It was an easy walk across but unfortunately the weather wasn’t the best with the fog covering the bridge for much of our walk across and only clearing occasionally.

Our catamaran heads under the Golden Gate Bridge

Boat

On this trip, we also took a sunset catamaran cruise out to the bay but, as much fun as this was, the weather clouded over and the fog descended meaning we didn’t see any sunset and could hardly make out the bridge at all until we were right up close to it!

Self-drive

The fog obscures the view as we drive across the Golden Gate bridge early one morning!

On my final visit to the city, we were on a self-drive trip where we needed to make a very early start. This meant the fog hadn’t had time to clear at all and we couldn’t see the structure of the bridge at all, it could have been any other road, which was a shame!

If possible, I would definitely recommend cycling across the bridge and including a stop in Sausalito before returning, definitely my favourite way of seeing this famous structure!

Alcatraz Island

Saining across to Alcatraz

Another must-do on my first visit to San Francisco was a trip over to Alcatraz Island to explore the infamous former prison. Boats to the island leave from one of the piers near to Fisherman’s Wharf and need to be booked in advance – often well in advance! – from the official Alcatraz Cruises site. We decided on an evening visit, departing the mainland just as the sun was setting – not that we could tell as it had long clouded over.

Nearing Alctaraz Island, and below, touring Alcatraz

Once on the island, we were handed headsets and listened to a commentary which guided us around the building while explaining the significance of each room or block and recounted stories from when it was an active prison. Night had fallen by the time we completed our tour and it was an eerie experience being on the island in the dark.

I have since been back in daylight hours and after we’d finished touring the prison, it was possible to stay on the island longer to join Ranger-led talks and find out more.

Fishermans Wharf

Probably the most touristy area of San Francisco and a popular area for many visitors to stay in, Fishermans Wharf is home to a variety of shops, restaurants and tourist attractions including Pier 39.

The Pier 39 Sealions

I love walking to the end of the pier where you will usually find the famous San Francisco sealions clambering onto pontoons in the bay, barking loudly at each other. It’s always amusing to watch if you can put up with the smell!

You’ll also find the Victorian-style carousel towards the end of the pier, notable for unusually being a double-decker carousel!

The Embarcadero Clock Tower, and below, Hyde Street Pier

From Fishermans Wharf it is possible to walk along the bay front in one direction towards the Embarcadero area with the various piers and jetties and its striking Embarcadero Clock Tower or towards the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park in the other direction. It’s visitor centre is free to look inside or for a fee, you can board some of the old ships docked in the bay at Hyde Street Pier or explore the Maritime Museum.

A bust Ghirardelli Square

A bit further along from Hyde Street Pier but still in the Fishermans Wharf area is Ghirardelli Square, site of the former Ghirardelli chocolate factory and now home to various stores and restaurants including the Ghirardelli Chocolate shop and cafe for amazing ice cream sundaes!!

Lombard Street

Crowds watching the cars weave down Lombard Street

A quirkier attraction of San Francisco city, this road is often referred to as ‘the crookedest street in the World’. It is walkable to the top of the street from Fishermans Wharf if you don’t mind steep uphill walks – we had to make a few stops along the way up to catch our breath! – or the cable cars stop here. From the top, you can see the street winding down and watch the cars slowly crawl their way down before walking down to the bottom end of the street for a view of it from the other end.

Segwaying down Lombard Street

Feeling a bit more adventurous on our last visit to the city, we not only drove our hire car down it but also took an ‘advanced’ segway tour of the city which involved segwaying down Lombard Street as crowds of tourists videoed and photographed us!

Museums

The deYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park, and below, the Cable Car Museum near Chinatown

If it’s culture you want, then San Francisco has plenty! As well as the previously mentioned Maritime Museum in Fishermans Wharf, San Francisco is home to a variety of museums. Golden Gate Park is home to the de Young Museum – an art museum – and the science museum, The Californian Academy of Science. If art is your thing, the Legion of Honor Museum in Lincoln Park is also well worth a visit.

A small but excellent free museum that is worth a visit is the Cable Car Museum, not far from Union Square in the Nob Hill area.

Viewing the cablecar system mechanics at the Cable Car Museum

As well as exhibits on the history of the city’s cable car system, the museum is housed at the powerstation for the cable car system and there is a viewing area where you can see the huge wheels whirring and cables shifting powering the cars along through the city!

My favourite San Francisco museum is the Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio area of the city. The museum explores the life of Walt Disney and tracks the establishment of the Walt Disney company with plenty of clips from his early animated features and is really interesting for any Disney fan.

Golden Gate Park

The Japanese Tea Gardens, and below, views across the park from the deYoung Museum observation deck

Named Golden Gate Park despite it not actually being anywhere near the Golden Gate Bridge, this huge park – larger than Central Park in New York – is definitely worth a visit. Along with the aforementioned museums, the are plenty of other attractions in the park including the Conservatory of Flowers and the Japanese Tea Gardens.

Above, and below, exploring Golden Gate Park

If you don’t want to pay entrance fees into the attractions, there’s plenty to do and see for free. It’s possible to visit the viewing platform at the deYoung Museum without paying to go into the museum itself and there are plenty of gardens, sculpture parks, open spaces, lakes and even waterfalls to explore.

Ocean Beach

We explored the east side of the park before exiting and catching a bus down to the west end where the park reaches Ocean Beach.

San Francisco Hearts

The only heart permanently in Union Square and painted International Orange – the same shade as the Golden Gate Bridge!

If you’re wandering around Union Square, you might notice four heart-shaped sculptures, one on each corner of the square, each uniquely decorated. These hearts, part of an art installation and inspired by the Tony Bennett classic I Left My Heart in San Francisco, can be found all over the city.

Above, and below, heart-spotting in San Francisco

A google search will bring up various websites listing some of the locations, some in obvious, easy to access places like at the end of Pier 39, some in harder to find places – we found one in a corner of Macy’s in Union Square and another in the foyer of a bank!

It can be fun trying to track them down and a good way to explore the city!

Exploring different areas of the city

The city of San Francisco is made up of many very distinctive areas, including Fisherman’s Wharf and the Union Square/Nob Hill areas which I’ve already mentioned, all of which are worth exploring.

Haight-Ashbury

Above, and below, brightly painted stores and murals in the Haight-Ashbury area

The historic Haight-Ashbury area was made famous in the 1960s for being the birthplace of hippie culture.

Near to the east end of Golden Gate Park, the area has the quirkiness of Camden in London and Venice Beach in LA with its colourful houses, brightly painted murals and eclectic array of mainly independent stores.

The Painted Ladies houses in Alamo Sqaure

If you are in the are, it is also possible to walk to Alamo Square from the main street to see the famous ‘Painted Ladies’, a row of colourful Victorian houses. There’s also great views of the city from the top of the hill in Alamo Square Park!

Chinatown

Not far from the Union Square/Nob Hill area, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest outside of Asia. It’s always fun to walk down its bustling streets with the many market stalls and souvenir stores but my favourite place to visit there is the the Fortune Cookie Factory.

Fortune cookies piled up at Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in Chinatown

It’s free to enter and watch the fortune cookies being made, although if you want to take photos or videos you are asked to leave a donation, and it is even possible to write your own message to be put into a fortune cookie to give to someone!

North Beach

The view from outside City Lights bookstore in North Beach, and below, Washington Square

Right next to Chinatown is the North Beach area which, confusingly, is not actually anywhere near a beach! This is actually the Italian district of the city and a great place to head to in the evening to find a nice Italian restaurant to eat out at.

Apart from the many Italian restaurants other points of interest in the area include the City Lights Bookstore, a large independent bookstore founded in the early 1950s; The Stinking Rose restaurant – the original garlic restaurant where it’s even possible to order a dessert made with garlic! – The Beat Museum which traces the history of The Beats generation from the 1950s onwards; the pretty Washington Square overlooked by Saints Peter and Paul Church (famous for being the site of Marilyn Monroe & Joe DiMaggio’s wedding photos) and Telegraph Hill where you’ll find San Francisco’s Coit Tower.

Enjoying the sunshine in Washington Square

Above, the Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, and below, views from Telegraph Hill and the Coit Tower observation deck

Often said to resemble a firefighter’s hose, and coincidentally a monument to San Francisco’s firefighters, the Coit Tower stands atop Telegraph Hill and can be seen from many points in the city.

Walking up to Telegraph Hill there are views of San Francisco bay in one direction and the financial district with the distinct pyramid-shaped TransAmerica building on the other direction. It is possible for a small fee to go up to the top of the Coit Tower to a small observation deck but there’s not lot of room up there and I found the views to be slightly obscured by scratched windows in need of a clean!

A pagoda in Japantown

There are many other areas of the city worth a visit, the Mission area is a great place to head to for a night out with its many bars and on my next visit I’m planning to visit its Delores Park which is supposed to have great views of the city skyline. Japantown offers many Japanese restaurants and Japanese-style spas and I’m yet to visit Treasure Island, an artificial island across the Bay Bridge.

Beyond the city, its also possible to take a trip out to Yosemite National Park to see the highlights – although I would argue that a day there really isn’t enough! – or to the closer Muir Woods which is on my ‘to do list for my next visit. Or head across the bay to visit the cities Oakland and Berkley.

However you spend your time in San Francisco, you’re bound to have a great time in this eclectic, beautiful city.

Wellington, New Zealand

Completing my tour of New Zealand’s North Island

It was the final few days of my week-long tour of New Zealand’s North Island with small group adventure tour company Haka Tours.  I’d joined the tour after spending some time travelling solo to the Bay of Islands and Auckland and so far, we’d spent time on the Coromandel, in Waitomo and Rotorua.  Now, we were about to leave a 2-night stay in Taupo behind us.

Looking back at Tongariro National Park from the road

Still exhausted and aching all over from completing an almost 20km hike across Tongariro National Park the day before, we checked out of our hostel, loaded up the bus with our luggage and hit the road.  Today, we’d be heading to our final North Island destination, New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington.

At the National Army Museum

Along the way, we made a couple of stops.  First up was a roadside stop to enjoy the stunning views of Tongariro National Park and then a stop at the a National Army Museum.  While none of the group decided to pay to go into the museum, we used the opportunity to stretch our legs, use the conveniences and pose for photos with the tanks outside!

Gumboot sculpture in Taihape

Our second stop was on the outskirts of the town of Taihape where the town’s boundary was marked with a sculpture of a giant ‘gumboot’ or Wellington boot as we’d call it in the UK.  Taihape is the gumboot throwing capital of New Zealand. 

Competitions in this unusual sport are held regularly here on a purpose built court and after we posed for photos with the giant boot, that’s exactly where we headed next for our own bit of friendly competition throwing gumboots!

Armed with a boot each, we stepped up in pairs to throw it as far as we could, winner staying on to compete again.  I somehow won my first couple of rounds, luck more than anything, but it certainly wasn’t third time lucky for me as I crashed out in the next round!!

Game over, we walked to a nearby café for a well-deserved cup of tea and some lunch before our next stop at Gravity Canyon.

Trying out the Flying Fox at Gravity Canyon

Here, we had the option of trying out a Flying Fox – a kind of zip line over a canyon where you fly down head first like Superman! I’d ziplined many time before and didn’t see how this could be any scarier than that so seeing as I’d not signed up for any of the other more adventurous activities like bungee jumping or skydiving, I decided to give this one a go!

Three of us were strapped into the holster next to each other before a cord was pulled sending us hurtling down over the canyon below. It was great fun and I was glad I decided to do it.

From here, we continued on towards Wellington. Just outside of the city, we stopped once more to stretch our legs at a park, letting out our inner kids to play on the swings etc.  Traffic was already heavy into the city and our rush hour arrival made it worse so by the time we arrived at our YHA hostel accommodation, there wasn’t a lot of the day left.

We made plans to all meet for dinner after a bit of downtime.

With most of the group deciding on an Asian Fusion restaurant recommended by our tour guide for dinner, a couple of us who were not keen on this cuisine made plans to either eat elsewhere or cook our own food at the hostel before meeting back with the others at the Asian Fusion bar after for drinks.

Still tired from the previous day’s hike, most of us went straight back to our hostel dorms afterwards for an earlyish night.

Wellington waterfront

The next day was the final day of our week-long North Island tour. Tomorrow, some of the group would be continuing on to complete the South Island leg of the tour while I would be staying a few more days in Wellington alone before flying home.

Walking along the waterfront

Today, we had the full day in Wellington to spend as we wished.  Our guide was offering to take us on a tour of the city in the morning or we could make our own plans.  A few of the Lord of the Rings fans in the group wanted to visit the Weta Workshop, where many of the props for the films were made, for a tour.

As a big film fan, I decided to go along too so rather than join our guide’s city tour, we instead walked to the tourist information office to book a place on a tour later that morning.

Arriving at Weta Cave for our Weta Workshop tour

We had an hour to kill before our tour was due to leave so we had a walk along the water front and got drinks and a snack from a nearby café before returning to catch our mini bus.

The bus took us out to Weta Workshops where we were taken on a guided tour of the premises. We were shown props and costumes from the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films as well as other films made in New Zealand – unfortunately we were not allowed to take any photos during the tour – and I was surprised to learn what a big part Wellington played in the film industry.

Part of our food order

After our tour, we had some time to spend in the gift store/museum before our minibus arrived to take us back to the city centre where we met up with a few more of our group who were now back from their city tour. We spent some time exploring the city – grabbing tea and cake from yet another cafe! – before heading back to the waterfront where we sat out at a riverside bar ordering pretty much everything off its menu between us for dinner!

Above, and below, walking along Oriental Parade

That evening, the entire group went out for final night drinks at a bar we found with a 60s cover band playing.  We had fun dancing the night away before returning to the hostel and, as those continuing the tour had a very early start the next day, said our goodbyes.

Looking back at the view as I made my way up to Mount Victoria

The next morning, I moved out of my now empty dorm room and into a private room at the YHA then set out alone to explore more of the city.

First up, was a hike up to Mount Victoria.  It was a beautiful, sunny day and I’d found instructions for a self-guided route which took me along Oriental Parade past the city’s pretty sea front and then up a steep path until I reached the viewpoint at the top.

Relaxing on the beach after my hike, and below, catching the Wellington Cable Car

After spending some time enjoying the views from the top, I walked back down to sea level stopping to relax on the beach, enjoying the sunshine and even taking a dip in the sea.

Above, and below, at the Cable Car Museum

Following a quick change back at the hostel, I walked to the terminus of the Wellington Cable Car catching it uphill to the viewpoint at the top. Once at the top, I had a quick look around the small cable car museum then walked back down to the city through the Botanic Gardens.

As one of the girls from my tour group was also still in Wellington, we met for dinner then went for drinks. It was Chinese New Year and there were celebrations going on at the waterfront ending in a firework display so we watched them from outside the bar – a great way to spend my last night in the city – and New Zealand!

My flight home via Sydney wasn’t leaving until late afternoon the next day so after checking out of the hostel, I went for a hearty breakfast at a café then spent the morning visiting some of Wellington’s museums.  I started off at the Te Papa, the city’s Museum of New Zealand .

After spending a few hours looking around the various exhibitions, I still had some time to spare so walked along the waterfront to the Wellington Museum, a much smaller, but equally interesting museum tracking the history of the city.

At the Wellington Museum

Eventually, it was time to say goodbye to the beautiful city of Wellington and to New Zealand and begin my long journey back to the UK.  I’d loved my time in the city and exploring New Zealand’s North Island, in fact, despite everyone telling me I’d be disappointed after first visiting South Island and that South Island was the best of the two islands to visit, I think if I had to pick, I actually preferred visiting North Island.

I loved the island’s areas of geothermal activity and volcanic landscapes, found learning about Maori culture fascinating, loved the vibrant cities of Auckland and Wellington and visiting the coastal areas of the Northlands and the Coromandel and while the scenery may not have been as constantly dramatic as South Island’s, it’s just as beautiful in its own way.

I was definitely sad to be leaving New Zealand and hoped to return some day.

Taupo, New Zealand

I was nearing the end of a second solo trip to New Zealand. Having visited South Island previously, this time, I was exploring North Island. After spending time alone in the Bay of Islands and Auckland, I had joined a one-week small group tour with Haka Tours which had so far taken in the Coromandel, Waitomo and Rotorua and we were now en route to our first 2-night stop of the trip, Taupo.

Leaving Rotorua mid-afternoon after a morning visit to Hobbiton and a stop off at Wai O Tapu Thermal Wonderland, it was only an hour’s drive so we still arrived at our Haka Lodge accommodation with some of the afternoon to spare. After checking into our dorms, we were taken to the nearby Spa Park. Here, there was a natural thermal hot spring which we spent the next hour or so relaxing in.

Once back at the hostel, it was time for some shopping. Most of the group would be taking on the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing the next day, a 19km hike, so supplies were needed to sustain us along the way. Hiking supplies bought, we then grabbed some food from the rather interesting Taupo McDonalds – a converted airplane! – before getting an early night.

We were up at 4am the next day to be picked up and taken to the start point of the crossing. Before starting the hike, I had little idea of what exactly it entailed other than the length of it but I had been told by members of my South Island tour group who had completed it, that although tiring, it was must do on the North Island tour and that had been my main reason for signing up.

After being dropped off, we made our way along the first part of the track. It was pretty flat and easy going and markers along the way tracked how far we had walked and how far we still had to go. We soon realised we’d been lulled into a false sense of security as we reached the infamous Devil’s Staircase part of the trek an hour or so later.

A long, uphill section with a mixture of steep pathways and stairs to climb causing us to take plenty of stops to ‘take some photos’ of the views!

The path then evened out again as we passed through the barren volcanic landscape of a crater before climbing steeply again, culminating in a tricky section where we had to use a rope attached to the rocks to scramble up a sharp ridge!

At the highest point of the trek now, Red Crater Summit, and also around the halfway point, we stopped to eat lunch. The weather so far had been very changeable and out of nowhere as we reached the summit, a huge cloud had descended around us masking the view.

Undeterred, we were soon ready to begin our descent down the other side of Red Crater. Glad there was some respite from walking uphill for the foreseeable future, we were surprised to find that this would actually turn out to be the most difficult part of the entire hike!

The path down was not only extremely steep but the surface was made up of loose lava fragments, like gravel, making it difficult to get a firm grip. We all lost our footing at some point, some sliding down the track before managing to steady ourselves again and the sheer incline at either side of us made the path even more precarious.

As we carefully made our way down, the cloud around us started to clear revealing the Emerald Lakes in the distance below.

Eventually we reached the lakes and looking back at where we just were and the hikers behind us looking tiny as they came down the steep path, we couldn’t believe we’d ever even managed to get to that point!

We continued on to Blue Lake where we stopped for snacks and to take in the beautiful scenery around us.

Next, there was another uphill section but the climb was much gentler than the previous climbs and the views along the way were stunning. From this point, the scenery started to change, becoming greener and less barren. Soon, we could see Ketetahi shelter in the distance – the first public conveniences since the first part of the track – but the winding track to get there seemed never ending!

Finally reaching Ketetahi shelter, some of the group were starting to flag but after a quick pit stop, I just wanted to get the last section of the trek done so edging ahead of the rest of the group, I started to pick up the pace as the path started to wind downhill. Again, the scenery began to noticeably change until I was walking through a forest of lush green plants and past a stream small waterfall before finally opening out into a car park.

Exhausted but also feeling a sense of achievement, I found somewhere to slump down as I waited for the rest of the group. Once on the coach we all fell asleep pretty much immediately on the journey back to our hostel.

We arrived back to find the few members of the group who hadn’t joined us on our hike looking a lot livelier than us after they’d spent the day exploring Taupo. They excitedly told us our tour guide had organised for us to go on a sunset cruise on the lake that evening. Struggling to muster up the energy to be excited for the prospect of doing anything other than sleep that evening, I retreated to my bed for a nap to recover from the day’s exertions.

After my nap and a shower, I still felt exhausted and ached all over but despite some of my fellow hikers deciding to give the cruise a miss, I decided I didn’t want to miss out so managed to drag myself out of my room and down to the meeting point just in time to be dropped down at the marina.

Here, we found a sail boat waiting for us along with crates of drinks in a cooler and a delivery of pizza’s for everyone. The cruise turned out to be just what I needed as I sat relaxing, wrapped up in the blankets that had been provided enjoying the good food, good company and pretty views.

The boat took us out to the Mine Bay Maori Rock Carving and then back to Taupo as the darkness began to descend. It had been a really fun evening and I was really glad I made the effort to go along but I was also very happy to get back to my bed and slept very well that night!

It had been a fun but exhausting couple of days in Taupo and I wished we had another day there to spend some more time exploring the town and relaxing down by the lake but for now, it was on to the last stop of the North Island tour, the capital city of New Zealand, Wellington.

Rotorua and Hobbiton, New Zealand

Having spent an exciting morning black water rafting through the glow worm caves of Waitomo, it was on to our next destination in New Zealand’s North Island. I was visiting New Zealand as a solo traveller and so far, I had visited the Bay of Islands and explored Auckland alone before visiting the Coromandel and Waitomo as part of an escorted tour with adventure travel company, Haka Tours and today we were off to Rotorua.

The journey from Waitomo to Rotorua took under 2 hours and once there, we made our first stop at Agrodome, a farm and adventure park just outside of Rotorua.

Riding the Agrojet boat

After cooing over the cute goats and emus, we were given the opportunity to have a go on some of the park’s activities including the high-speed Agrojet boat. After watching some other group members taking a spin on it, I decided it looked like fun and before I knew it I was strapped in and being whizzed around the water track at full speed! The boat was great fun!!

At OGO Rotorua

After grabbing some lunch from the cafe, it was on to our next stop just down the road, OGO Rotorua, where some group members tried their hands at Zorbing – rolling down a grassy slope in a large, inflatable ball. While I decided not to have a go myself, we all had lots of fun giggling at the others as we watched them attempt to stay upright inside!

It was off to check in at our accommodation for the night next – the Rotorua YHA where we’d be in dorms for the night.

Our meal being cooked, and below, traditional entertainment before dinner

This evening, we’d be going out for dinner at a traditional Maori Hangi. After getting ready, we were dropped at the Mitai Maori Village. Here, we were shown our dinner being cooked traditionally in a pit before seeing a ‘Waka’, or ceremonial war canoe being sailed down the river then watching a traditional Maori cultural performance and Haka.

Dinner was then served to us followed by a guided bush walk to finish the evening with.

Arriving at the Hobbiton Movie Set

The next morning, we had the choice of white water rafting, visiting Hobbiton or exploring Rotorua. Although ideally, I’d have liked to have had time for all 3 options, as a huge movie fan who loves to visit movie sets and studios (read about some of the other movie sites I’ve visited on my travels here!), I had signed up to visit Hobbiton along with the majority of the group.

Hobbiton

We were picked up from a Lord of the Rings-themed store near to our hostel and taken to Hobbiton. The purpose set used in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films had been left up after filming was completed and turned into a tourist attraction.

A hobbit house at Hobbiton

We were taken around the hobbit village by a tour guide, told a bit about the filming process, how the set was built, how it was used and stories from when they filmed and were given the opportunity to take photos of and with the hobbit houses.

While I’m glad I got to visit, I did find the tour very rushed with the tour group behind us hot on our heels the whole time making it difficult to get the photos we wanted.

Posing outside a hobbit house

I also found the guided groups to be too large and it was sometimes difficult to hear what the guide was saying. It is possible to take tours to Hobbiton from Auckland and I wished I had done this so I had the chance to white water raft or explore Rotorua that morning instead.

At the end of our tour, we got to visit the Green Dragon Inn for a glass of ale, cider or ginger ale included in our ticket price then it was time to get the coach back to Rotorua to meet back up with the rest of the group and begin our drive to Taupo.

Bubbling mud pools, and below, geothermal activity at Wai O Tapu Thermal Wonderland

But first we had one more stop just outside of town – Wai O Tapu Thermal Wonderland where we followed the boardwalk to see some of New Zealand’s geothermal and volcanic activity. Similar to Yellowstone National Park, we saw geysers, bubbling mud pools and pools of colourful boiling hot water all accompanied by the lovely smell of sulphur! It was really interesting to see.

It was a shame I’d not got to see more of Rotorua itself but I’d enjoyed my stay in the town and the varied activities along the way!

Waitomo, New Zealand

After spending time alone exploring the Bay of Islands and Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island, I was now 2 days into a tour of the island with Haka Tours. This afternoon we had left the Coromandel behind and now we were journeying towards our next stop, Waitomo.

3 hours later, we arrived at our accommodation for the night, a small motel on the outskirts of Waitomo. I was allocated a comfortable 3-bedroom ensuite room to share with 2 other group members and after settling in, we met up with the rest of the group at the adjoining pub spending the rest of the evening eating, drinking and chatting.

Before we realised what we’d let ourselves in for!

I had taken a tour of New Zealand’s South Island with Haka Tours just a few months earlier and kept in touch with most of my group in a Whatsapp chat. As most of them had toured North Island with the company immediately before our South Island trip, I had made sure to ask them to recommend which optional extras I should book. There were 2 unanimous ‘must dos’ according to my friends – the Tongariro Crossing in Taupo and Black Water Rafting at the glow worm caves in Waitomo.

There were actually 3 options available to use for viewing the Glow Worm Caves – a boat tour, black water rafting or, the most expensive, time-consuming and high-energy option, an abseiling and caving tour.

I wasn’t completely sure what Black Water Rafting was but had done White Water Rafting a few times and loved it so taking my friends’ advice, I had upgraded my travel insurance cover (as apparently it was a higher risk activity than anything I’d previously done!) and signed myself up for it!

Finding out what was involved in black water rafting!

So the next morning, we were up early and those of us going black water rafting were picked up and taken to the headquarters of the Black Water Rafting Company. Once there, we were handed skin tight wetsuits, special boots and a helmet with a flashlight on the front to change into and led to a pile of black inner tubes to choose from.

Now, I’m not sure what I did expect from the tour but what I certainly didn’t expect was to have to leap from the top of a waterfall into the river below. Backwards. Landing in my inner tube! Upon finding out exactly what was involved in the black water rafting experience, a few of us (ok, all of us!) in the group started exchanging worried looks – You want us to do what?!

We got to practise outside first, all nervously lining up then standing as near to the edge of the small waterfall as possible, back to the river behind us, jumping backwards aiming to land lying down in our inner tube. I watched the first few group members go first, all successfully landing in their tubes and floating off down the river before scrambling back out. Soon, it was my turn and somehow, I managed it straight away too!

Carrying our inner tubes through the caves

Practise over, we were told to hook our tubes over our shoulders and lead off to the cave entrance. Now I knew there’d be caves involved – they’re glow worm CAVES, where else would we be going?! But I’m not sure I’d realised that caving would be involved. Squeezing ourselves along with our tubes through narrow, dark passages underground with nothing but the light on our helmets to guide the way.

But it was too late to back out now so I dutifully followed the rest of the group and our guide into the darkness.

Once in the cave, we scrambled down the dark damp recesses until we heard water in the distance. It go louder until we realised we were at the top of a waterfall with an underground river running below. It was a much higher waterfall than the one we had practised on above ground. Wanting to get it out of the way, I volunteered to be the first to leap off backwards into my tube. Somehow, I again managed it without injury. Landing in the cold water flowing below and drifting off down the river, I grabbed onto the wall to steady myself and wait for the rest of the group to also be sat in their tubes in the river.

In the caves of Waitomo

From this point, it was less strenuous and more like a lazy river in the dark! Led by our guide, we drifted through the cave system along the underground river until we came to the glow worm caves. Here, we formed a train, all grabbing the ankles of the person behind us. We were then asked to all turn the flashlight on our helmet off so we were in complete darkness.

Being at the front, I was then led through through the caves by the guide and pulling the rest of my group behind me. The darkness surrounding us was suddenly lit up by what looked like a million stars shining brightly above us – glow worms! And suddenly all the stress of clambering through the caves and leaping backwards off waterfalls before seemed worth it!

As we left the caves and then Waitomo behind to head for our next stop of Rotorua, we were exhausted but extremely glad we’d all gone through with it.

Black water rafting through the caves of Waitomo was certainly an experience and one I’d absolutely recommend to anyone. As our one week tour of North Island came to an end a few days later, we all agreed that seeing the glow worms in that way was definitely a highlight of the entire week!