After teaching in Primary Schools for 10 years, I decided to take some time out to travel more while doing a bit of supply work between trips. I'd never travelled solo before so it's all a big adventure!!
After flying to Australia towards the end of the Christmas period and spending a once-in-a-lifetime New Year’s Eve in Sydney, I was waving goodbye to the group of friends I had arrived in Australia with to begin the second part of my 7-week adventure – 2 weeks travelling up the East coast of Australia from Airlie Beach to Cairns. I’d be meeting up with a friend from one of my Trek America adventures, who also just happened to be in Australia over New Year, and we’d be beginning our adventure together with 5 nights based in Airlie Beach from where we could explore the Whitsundays.
While I had never been to this part of Australia before, my friend had backpacked here as a gap year student years earlier and was keen to return, hoping to party less and appreciate it more this time around.
Despite both being in our mid-30s, we had decided to go with mainly budget accommodation for the 2 weeks in order to splash out on the excursions instead. We had opted for hostel accommodation – private rooms rather than dorms, at least -in Airlie and Cairns, breaking this up with 3 nights in a budget hotel in Townsville.
For our 6 nights at Airlie Beach, we’d be staying at Magnums Backpackers resort situated right in the town centre and within walking distance of the main marina.
We arrived into the area at Hamilton Airport on one of the Whitsunday Islands, my friend flying in from Brisbane and myself from Sydney, and then boarded a pre-booked boat, with our luggage checked on board, to the Port of Airlie. From here, we caught the local bus the short, but uphill, distance into town and quickly found Magnums not far from where we were dropped.
The resort was set out around what felt like a tropical rainforest with tall trees and tropical plants growing all around the hut-like accommodation. Our upstairs room was like a box with a bunk bed in the middle, a small TV mounted on the wall and a small fridge in the corner but for the time we were planning on spending in there, it was fine.
There was a communal shower and toilet block just along the landing so we didn’t have far to to go at least. Wifi was not available in the room but could be picked up in a nearby communal outdoor seating area in the grounds – although we found the surrounding plants and trees, along with the humidity, made the area a haven for insects so even smothered in bug repellent, we had to limit the time we spent there!
Arriving late afternoon, we settled into our room then walked down to the seafront following the path along the front and out to Airlie Lagoon, a large outdoor pool. We’d taken our towels and swimwear with us and decided to cool off with a dip but were disappointed to find the water was heated too much to cool us down. This, coupled with the onset of evening bringing out the mosquitos, meant we didn’t stay long!
After popping back to the hostel to change, we were now pretty hungry so wandered along the main street in Airlie trying to decide between the many bars and restaurants offering cheap food to backpackers and eventually settling on a filling bowl of pasta at Mangrove Jacks.
After eating – and making use of the free wifi! – we stopped off at the Woolworths store next to the hostel to pick up some snacks and supplies for the next few days before returning to our room for an early night.
Before setting off on our Australian adventure, we had booked a multi-adventure ticket including a variety of excursions for our time in Airlie Beach – a trip out to the Great Barrier Reef, a day of island hopping and a day sailing around the Whitsundays with a stop off at the famous Whitehaven Beach.
We had 4 full days in the area and had planned to keep the first day as bit of a relaxation day in and and around Airlie Beach. We’d talked about including some time at Airlie Lagoon in this but having been unimpressed on our visit the previous afternoon, we were now unsure how to fill our day.
There were plenty of excursions and activities in the area being offered by various ticket agencies along the front, including kayaking trips out to see turtles and scenic flights, but it was too short notice to book for that day.
The scenic flights over the Whitsundays sounded especially appealing, so as it was fully booked for that day, we decided to book one leaving from Hamilton Island a couple of days later when we would be visiting there.
Scenic flight booked, we headed back towards Airlie Lagoon picking up Bicentennial Walkway, the path that winds its way along the seafront. We followed the path West past Coral Sea Marina and along to Shingley Beach. Here, we found a company offering kayak and paddle board rentals so we decided this would be a fun way to spend some of the day.
Hiring a 2-man kayak, we managed to paddle out against the current to the shipwreck we could see in the distance. We kept our eyes open for sea turtles along the way but unfortunately didn’t spot any. Feeling a sense of accomplishment reaching the wreck, we circled it a few times using our old skool waterproof single-use camera to snap a few pictures before paddling back to shore.
Walking back to a cafe we’d seen along the seafront for lunch, we then returned to Shingley Beach later that afternoon to give paddle boarding a go. Neither if us had tried Stand Up Paddle boarding before and we were both convinced we’d be hopeless at it and spend most of the time falling off into the water but after a quick lesson on the beach, we were delighted to find it wasn’t anywhere near as hard as it looked to clamber to an upright position on the board and stay there!
After a couple of laps of the small bay, we were actually a bit bored and ended up handing our boards back well before our full hour was up!
We spent the rest of the day wandering around the town and shopping for souvenirs before dinner at the extremely busy Hog’s Breath Cafe that evening.
Then another early night in preparation for an early start the next day. After a fun day in Airlie, we were now very excited for 3 days of excursions and getting out on the water around the Whitsunday Islands, starting with a trip to the Great Barrier Reef tomorrow…
Having spent the last 5 days based in the city of Naples on the west coast of Italy, we were now cramming ourselves and our luggage onto the very busy Circumvesuviana train to spend a few days in the coastal town of Sorrento.
It was our third time riding the Circumvesuviana line from Naples having used it already over the last few days to visit the archaeological sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii as well as to visit Mount Vesuvius itself. Sorrento is the last stop on the line and it took us just over an hour to get there.
From Sorrento station, we got a taxi to our hotel for the next 3 nights. Hotel La Badia was situated on top of a hill just a short, but steep, 15 minute walk from the centre of town. Being on a hilltop, there were beautiful, sweeping views of the coast from our room.
By the time we had arrived and settled in, it was already dusk. We had a wander into town and I was surprised at how crowded with tourists it felt after spending time in the much calmer Naples. It did at least make for a jovial atmosphere and despite it being night time, I could straight away see how pretty Sorrento was. We were spoilt for choice for places to eat and settled on pasta from a small restaurant-cafe down a narrow side street.
With our time in Naples being spent constantly on the go either in the city or on trips out to nearby attractions, we decided to spend our first day in Sorrento relaxing. We awoke to beautiful weather – blue skies and warm sunshine – so after breakfast at the hotel, spent the first morning sat by the hotel pool and cooling off with a quick dip before taking a stroll into town mid-afternoon to explore.
The town of Sorrento is made up of a series of narrow cobbled streets all lined with a range of stores and restaurants and we spent the afternoon browsing and shopping for souvenirs. Every other shop seemed to be a Lemoncello store, selling a range of products based on the liqueur famously produced in the region and all offering samples to try and get tourists through the doors.
From the town, we walked down to the marina, strolling along the front to enjoy the views before sitting at one of the many restaurant-bars near the harbour for drinks.
After more shopping back in town, we found another bar perfectly positioned for people watching and sat out in the sunshine for aperitivo – an Italian socialising tradition of having drinks served with various nibbles.
After heading back to the hotel to freshen up, we then walked back into town. Sorrento is just as bustling in the evening with many of the stores lining the narrow streets staying open late so we once again wandered through the centre to look in the shops before going for a late dinner at one of the many local restaurants.
The next day, we took a boat trip out to the nearby Amalfi coast town of Positano.
The town is built into a cliff and we spent the day exploring, shopping, visiting some of its churches and enjoying the amazing views over the coast from the cliffs. After a pizza lunch at one of the many restaurants, we spent some time relaxing on the beach before catching the boat back to Sorrento for the evening.
Once back in Sorrento, we spent the last evening of our trip having drinks in town. I’d enjoyed our time on the Amalfi coast and Sorento had been the perfect place for a relaxing few days after our busy time sightseeing in Naples.
With my friend studying Italian in Rome, I decided to fly out there as her course ended for a couple of nights there followed by a few days in Naples and then Sorrento.
Having been to Rome a few times before, my time there was mainly spent at the bars, cafes and restaurants catching up with my friend and enjoying the sunshine in Villa Borghese gardens. From here we caught the train from Termini station south to the city of Naples.
It would be my first visit to the city although my friend had been once before and we were staying at the same hotel she had stayed in before, La Stanze Del Vicere Hotel, near the Toledo area of the city and not far from the Archaeological Museum. The hotel is situated inside a restored 16th century townhouse and the original 16th century staircase remains leading into the main building.
Checking into the hotel late afternoon, one of the first things we wanted to do was experience the famous Neopolitan pizza – the Margherita pizza is said to have originated in the city of Naples, but more on that later! – so we went for a walk to Piazza Dante, stopping along the way at a tucked away restaurant for dinner, then on to the popular Piazza Bellini for drinks.
The next day, we walked the short distance to Naples Archaeological Museum spending most of the morning exploring its extensive collection of Roman artifacts including many from the nearby archaeological sites of Herculaneum and the more famous Pompeii.
After leaving the museum, we spent some time exploring the historic centre of Naples. Heading south along Via Duomo, we passed Naples Cathedral stopping to have a look inside then we wandered along the busy Via dei Tribunali with its many cafes and souvenir stores.
After stopping for coffee and pastries we decided to buy tickets for the nearby Naples Underground attraction. Here, visitors can take a tour of a series of tunnels running beneath the city once used as Roman aqueducts and, more recently, as bomb shelters in the Second World War.
The tour was really interesting but not one to take if you don’t like confined spaces – at one point we had to squeeze along an extremely narrow passageway with just a candle to light the way!
Following on from our underground tour, we continued to walk south towards the marina stopping in Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, overlooked by the church it is named after. Unfortunately, the church’s doors were closed so we didn’t have chance to look inside but instead, we sat out at a cafe in the square having drinks to cool us down before continuing our walk to the seafront.
Finally reaching the seafront late afternoon, we visited Castel Nuovo, a medieval castle overlooking the marina.
While not the most exciting attraction in the city, the views across the bay with Vesuvius looming in the distance made the small entrance fee worth it.
From Castel Nuovo, we walked towards Piazza del Plebiscito, a large pedestrianised square beside the Royal Palace of Naples before taking a stroll along the sea wall to the imposing Fontana del Gigante, a 17th century fountain and then along the peninsula to Castel dell’Ovo.
It was free to look around this castle overlooking the harbour and as the sun was starting to set, we spent a bit of time enjoying the views.
After visiting Castel dell’Ovo, we walked back along the sea front to Piazza del Plebiscito and the nearby Pizzeria Brandi.
Supposedly the birthplace of the Margherita pizza, there was a long wait for a table but it was worth it to eat in such a historic venue as well as it being the best pizza I had all trip!
Then we walked to a nearby metro station to catch the train back to our hotel, stopping first for more drinks (and dessert!) at one of the many bars along the way.
The next day, we caught the metro to Central Station where we would be catching the Circovesuviana train out to the archaeological site of Herculaneum.
The Circovesuviana runs between Naples and Sorrento with stops including Pompeii and this would be the first of a few trips along this route during our trip.
Herculaneum is an ancient town which, like the better known Pompeii, was buried under ash following the explosion of Mount Vesuvius.
The site is even better preserved than Pompeii – there was a lot less structural damage to the town than there was to Pompeii so there are buildings almost entirely intact with perfectly preserved mosaics and many household objects still there. Visiting the site was almost like walking around a Roman town as it would have been back then.
After spending a few hours exploring, we stopped for lunch nearby before catching the train back to Naples where we spent the evening having drinks in Piazza Bellini.
Day 3 of our stay in Naples was once again spent outside of the the city, this time visiting the island of Capri.
We’d booked our ferry ticket in advance catching the metro down to the marina early morning ready to board. Once in Capri, I was really looking forward to seeing the Blue Grotto, a sea cave you can go on a boat tour to visit, but after a tumultuous crossing from Naples – causing sea sickness among many passengers! – it was announced that the conditions were too rough for the small rowing boats to make trips out to it.
That gave us a bit more time in Capri itself and we decided to spend some time relaxing on the small pebble beach enjoying the sunshine for a while in order to recover from the ferry trip!
From the beach, we took the bus to Anacapri, one of the towns on the island situated high up on the island. Being summer, there were huge queues for the bus – a tiny minibus with very few seats and we were packed on like sardines trying our best not to fall over as we raced up the steep hills of Capri.
Once at our destination, we spent some time enjoying the views over the bay before wandering down the streets for some window shopping and then finding somewhere just about affordable for lunch.
After lunch we walked to Capri town for more window shopping before catching the funicular railway back down to sea level and catching the ferry back to Naples.
Our last full day in Naples and we were again riding the Circumvesuviana, this time to Pompeii.
The Pompeii archaeological site was somewhere that had been high on my list of places I had wanted to visit for a long time and while I did find exploring the site fascinating, I do wish that I had taken a guided tour of the site to get more out of my visit and learn more about what I was seeing.
Arriving early, we spent all morning at Pompeii. After eating lunch at a local cafe, we then went to visit the crater of Mount Vesuvius.
We booked transport on the Busvia del Vesuvio which dropped us at the start of the path which lead up to the crater. It was an easier hike than I expected and once at the crater, there were guides at the top ready to answer any questions and reassure us that we weren’t in any immediate danger of an eruption! After retracing our steps back down the path, we were picked up by the bus and returned to Pompeii station to catch our train back to Naples again.
The next day, we would be leaving Naples for a few days on the Amalfi coast but first, we had the morning to spend in the city.
We decided to walk to Via San Gregorio, often referred to as ‘Christmas Avenue’. The road is famous for being the home of a row of shops selling Christmas ornaments and gifts all year around. After spending some time browsing, we picked up some ornaments as souvenirs to take with us.
Then it was time to collect our luggage from our hotel and once again make our way to the train station to catch the Circumvesuvio, this time, all the way to the end of the line in Sorrento.
I’d really enjoyed my time in Naples and the surrounding area. Away from the touristy marina area, I had found it to feel a lot more authentically Italian than some of the other more touristy Italian cities I had visited with its narrow lanes, cobbled streets and residents busily going about their day and I hoped to return someday.
Despite it being just a short 45 minute flight from my local airport, its only been within the last few years that I first visited the Irish capital. I loved it so much, I’ve been back a few times since, trying to see a bit more of this colourful city each time.
Here are some of my tips and favourite things to do on a short city break in Dublin!
Generally arriving at Dublin’s international airport, I have always made use of its airport link bus with its regular and, in my experience, reliable services in and out of the city. It is also possible to use the local buses between the airport and the city. While a slightly cheaper option, these buses make more stops along the way so the journey takes longer but depending on where you are staying, might possibly drop you more local to you accommodation so are worth looking into.
For the most part, Dublin itself is a pretty walkable city, but for those attractions a bit further afield, it is well served by public transport with an easy to use tram service running alongside the local buses.
On my first visit to the city, I made use of the hop on/off tourist bus to get around. Most of the buses came with a live guide rather than a pre-recorded commentary and we found it a convenient way to get out towards those attractions which weren’t quite walkable from where we were staying – such as the Guinness Factory and Phoenix Park – while also learning some of the history of the city.
Where to stay
Each time I have visited the city, I have stayed in different areas of the city as well as very different types of accommodation. On my first visit, we stayed north of the River Liffey where we found prices to be cheaper. This put us close to O’Connell Street and it was still walkable Temple Bar and other more touristy areas across the river. Our accommodation on that trip was Anchor House, one of the many small, family run guesthouses in the area and was perfect for what we needed for a 4 night break in the city.
If it’s a bit of luxury you are after then I couldn’t fault the beautiful and very conveniently located Westin Hotel by Trinity College. I stayed there after winning it at an extremely reduced price last minute in a priceline bid and it has to be one of the nicest hotels I have ever stayed in.
To cut down the cost of eating out, a city apartment is always a good bet. We booked an apartment for 4 located in the Temple Bar area though The Key Collection and making full use of the kitchen to save a bit of money.
For budget hotels in the city, you can’t go wrong with a Travelodge and we found the St Stephens Green Travelodge to be particularly well-located for the price.
Things to do
On my first trip to the city, seeing as many sights as we could was the main priority. We spent 4 nights in the city giving us 3 and a half days to explore and we easily managed to fill this time.
Using the hop on/off bus, we started with the famous Guinness Factory. While not a big drinker and certainly not a drinker of stout, visiting the Guinness Storehouse while in Dublin just seemed like a must-do.
The self-guided tour through the factory traced the story of the drink showing the brewing process, providing samples to try along the way and also covering the role of the drink in popular culture and adverting for the brand. The highlight though, came right at the end with a visit to the Gravity Bar, a bar on top of the Storehouse which offers views across the capital. After trying a sample of Guinness along the tour and deciding it definitely wasn’t for me, I opted to exchange the voucher we had been given for a free Guinness in the bar for a Diet Coke instead!!
If whiskey is more your thing, then there are a few distilleries you can tour in Dublin including the original site of the Jameson Distillery on Bow Street.
Trinity College and the Book of Kells
The next day, we walked across the River Liffey to south Dublin and visited Trinity College. While it is possible to take a guided tour of this historic campus, we chose to look around by ourselves, picking up some pamphlets from its visitors office. Here, we also booked tickets into the college’s Book of Kells exhibition. The Book of Kells is an illustrated Gospel dating back to the first century and it was really interesting to see pages of the intricately decorated text and learn about it.
That afternoon, we hopped back onto the tour bus, riding it out towards Phoenix Park and hopping off at Kilmainham Gaol. This former prison can be visited by taking a guided tour. Our small group was lead around the building with its history and stories of former inmates explained to us. With Ireland having such a rich history of civil unrest, there were plenty of tales to be told and while this was one of the more unusual attractions on our list, we found the tour fascinating.
Staying more central the next day, we wandered back towards the River Liffey, veering off O’Connell Street for a spot of shopping on Henry Street. Running west from the huge Spire sculpture on O’Connell Street, Henry Street is a great place to shop with a huge selection of high street stores including Penney’s, the Irish version of Primark.
Heading next across the bridge to the Temple Bar area with its cobbled streets and snapping a photo with the famous Temple Bar pub, we then walked along the river to take photos with the iconic Ha’penny Bridge before walking further into the city, past the Molly Malone Statue and up to Grafton Street.
This is the main shopping street in Dublin, lined with department stores such as Brown Thomas and high street favourites like the Disney Store. It is also well-known for its buskers. Acts can only play there for an hour before moving on so there’s usually something different on offer each time you walk down the street!
At the top of Grafton Street, lies St Stephen’s Green, a pretty city park with landscaped gardens, fountains, a lake and sculptures dotted around. We found the park to be an oasis of calm from the busy city and enjoyed our stroll through.
If you enjoy exploring green spaces then head to Phoenix Park in the west of the city. This park is one of the largest in Europe and also home to Dublin Zoo.
Not far from St Stephen’s Green is smaller Merrion Square. Our main reason for visiting this park was to see the Oscar Wilde sculpture surrounded by some of his famous quotes.
If you’re a fan of Irish literary works, then a visit to Dublin’s Writers’ Museum on the north side of the river at Parnell Square is a must do.
The museum celebrates the works of Irish writers including Wilde, Yeats, Joyce with letters, books and personal artefacts on display and an audio tour guiding you through is included in the admission.
While in the area, we also visited the Garden of Remembrance at Parnell Square.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know Dublin had a castle until it was pointed out to me on the hop on/off bus tour of the city!
We decided to visit and took the guided tour option which took us through the state apartments and more. We found the tour interesting, providing plenty of history on the city although after taking the bus tour and Kilmainham Gaol tour, we felt we had heard some of the stories over and over again by now.
We did especially enjoy seeing the many opulently decorated rooms of the castle.
River Liffey Boat Cruise
We got out on the River Liffey taking a 45-minute guided river cruise with Dublin Discovered Boat Tours. The boats were fully enclosed allowing the cruises to operate in any weather but had large glass windows allowing us good views out as we sailed down the river.
The tour took us down to Dublin Docklands from Grattan Street bridge in the city centre and back as the history of some of the many bridges we passed under was explained as well as important building such as Customs House pointed out.
Since my first visit to Dublin, I have returned a further three times, each time the main reason being to attend a concert. The city’s o2 Arena, east of the city on the north bank of the River Liffey at The Point, is a great venue and easy to get to on public transport from the city if you don’t fancy the walk.
If you’re after some Irish culture, there are a few venues in the city offering traditional Celtic nights with Irish dancers and music. We attended one at the Arlington Hotel. Although it was possible to attend it as a dinner show with a 3-course meal included, we opted to just sit in the bar area and have drinks while watching the entertainment.
Dublin has a lively nightlife with the Temple Bar area being especially popular with clubbers and stag and hen parties. We chose to stay away from that area in the evening but did enjoy a visit to Cafe En Seine on Dawson Street with its Art Nouveau decor and delicious cocktails.
Dublin has lots to offer and plenty of other attractions to visit including many World-class museums such as the National Gallery of Ireland, the National Museum of Ireland’s Natural History Museum, The Little Museum of Dublin and the GPO Museum.
It is a city I love to return to over and over again!
After spending the morning at Hershey’s Chocolate World, we were now making our way to Philadelphia airport to hand back our rental before making our way into the city for one last night in a hotel.
Our route to the airport briefly took us into Delaware, a state which we had travelled through before on a Trek America tour but not stopped in so we had made plans to divert slightly to the city of Wilmington. We had left it to the last minute to look up where to aim for in the city but after a bit of googling in our motel the night before, had found a National Park Service site there so decided to stop there.
Pulling up at Fort Christina Park, the National Historic Site on the banks of the Christina River, we walked down to the monument which stood there. Unsure at what we were really looking at, we were pleased when a Park Ranger came down to chat with us, answering some of our questions and explaining that the site was like the ‘Plymouth Rock of Delaware’, being where the first Swedish and Finnish settlers had arrived in the USA.
Just down the river from the monument, was a replica of the ship they sailed on, the Kalmar Nyckel.
After leaving Fort Christina Park, we continued to the airport, saying a fond farewell to our rental car then catching the train into the city of Philadelphia.
We arrived at the end of a horrendous thunderstorm and made our way to the Sheraton hotel having decided to spend our last night in a bit of luxury after 4 weeks of roadside motels.
That evening, we walked the short distance to the One Liberty Place building to visit its 57th floor observation deck. The rain had cleared and the sun was starting to set which made for some pretty views across the city.
The next day, we had a late night flight back to the UK so we could spend the day exploring the city. We had visited Philadelphia before on our Trek America tour but it had been a short, one hour visit so we hadn’t seen anything in any detail. This time, we had booked tickets to tour Independence Hall in the morning.
We arrived a bit earlier than our ticket time so we could first visit the nearby Independence Visitor Centre and pick up Junior Ranger booklets to fill in.
The tour was interesting and we especially enjoyed seeing printings of the Articles of Confederation, the American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence in the Great Essentials Exhibition.
After our tour, we joined the lengthy but quick-moving queue to see the Liberty Bell before returning to the Independence Visitor Centre to hand over our Junior Ranger booklets to earn our badges.
After a Philly Cheesesteak lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, we decided to get tickets for the hop on/off city tour bus in order to see as much of the city as we could in a short amount of time.
We first hopped off the bus at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, not to visit the museum itself, but to see the building’s famous ‘Rocky steps’. The steps to the museum feature in the Rocky film where Sylvester Stallone runs up and down them to train and we decided to also attempt to run all the way from the bottom to the top.
We spent the rest of the afternoon completing the bus tour loop, hopping off again at Elfreth’s Alley, America’s oldest residential street and also walking to see Betsy Ross’ house, supposedly the place Betsy Ross lived in when she sewed the first American flag.
Then it was time to collect our luggage from the hotel and catch the train back to Philadelphia airport. After more than 4 exciting weeks travelling across 16 states of the USA, it was finally time to return to the UK.
After 4 weeks on the road, 3 spent travelling through the Midwest states and a final week cutting across from Chicago to Philadelphia via Indiana, Michigan and Ohio, we were a just a day away from returning home to the UK.
We had spent most of the day in Ohio, visiting Cleveland then driving through Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It was now late afternoon and we still had to make it to tonight’s stopover point at a motel on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Leaving Ohio behind, we briefly cut through a corner of West Virginia, a deliberate detour as it was another state we had not visited before. Here, we had a stop planned in the town of Chester as it is home to the World’s largest teapot! Finding this roadside stop easily – it was hard to miss! – we pulled over and jumped out, posing under it for photos holding empty Starbucks cups we had kept purely for this occasion!
Then, after a quick visit to the local CVS to purchase a West Virginia souvenir, it was back on the road and we were crossing the border into Pennsylvania just minutes later.
Battling rush hour traffic around Pittsburgh, we were relieved when we finally made it to our motel to relax for what was left of the evening.
The next day, we were excited to be visiting the town of Punxsutawney, another last minute addition to our road trip itinerary – and quite a hefty diversion from our original route! – after I had happened to watch Groundhog Day just a few weeks before we departed and, seeing it was set in Pennsylvania, had the idea to visit the groundhog!
Although the movie wasn’t actually filmed in Punxsutawney itself, the annual Groundhog Day ceremony is actually help there each year and the town has plenty of Groundhog-related reasons for stopping by!
Upon arriving in Punxsutawney, we were greeted by a giant, top hat wearing Groundhog welcoming us.
After a quick stop for photos, we continued into the town where we quickly found Phil’s Burrow, we den where Punxsutawney Phil sleeps the rest of the year either side of the Groundhog Day festivities. As we peered in, we could see the cute groundhog snuggled up inside and at one point, he even looked up at us, stretching and yawning before snuggling back down again!
The town had figures of groundhogs dressed in various ways dotted around it and after having a quick look around, we drove to the interestingly-named Gobblers Knob, site of the annual Groundhog Day ceremony, for more fun photo opportunities!
After that fun diversion, it was a bit of a race against time to reach our destination for the day, Gettysburg, where we had booked a historical tour of the battlefields on horseback.
Having done horse-riding in Wyoming on our Trek America tour a few years before, we were both eager to fit it in somewhere on our trip this time and this tour seemed like a good way of ticking that off our list as well as finding out some of the history of Gettysburg.
We arrived too late to spend any time exploring the town, instead having to quickly drop our things at our motel before checking in for our horseback tour.
Unfortunately, it was a sweltering humid day and way too hot to be sat on the back of a horse, out in the middle of a field with no shade, listening to a history lesson on the American Civil War! At one point, I was so uncomfortable, I thought I was going to pass out! Luckily I didn’t but I spent so much time concentrating on not fainting in the heat that I found I wasn’t really following what was being said by our guide.
We also both felt that the tour had taken for granted that those on it would have some background knowledge of the Civil War as I guess most Americans would have studied it at school whereas being from the UK, our knowledge was less than even basic which made the tour even harder to follow.
I did at least enjoy the parts of the tour where we were trotting past the battlefields with a slight breeze blowing through my hair but these parts came too few and far between.
The next morning, we visited the Gettysburg National Military Park’s Visitor Centre and Museum which we felt we got more out of than on the horse back tour the previous evening. Then it was back on the road to drive towards the final destination of our road trip, Philadelphia.
We still had a few stops scheduled before returning our hire car to the Avis drop off at Philadelphia Airport, starting with a visit to Hershey’s Chocolate World!
As well as the huge Hershey store, Hershey’s Chocolate World operates a free tour to all visitors. We arrived early just after opening time but the site was already pretty busy. The queue for the tour moved quickly though and acted as part of the attraction as information boards along where we queued told us the history of Hershey’s chocolate. The main attraction though was a ride through a mocked up Hershey’s chocolate factory. We sat in a small car which took us around the factory while Hershey products including chocolate drops, talked and sang to us explaining how the chocolate was made.
As part of the tour, we were also given some free chocolate bars to sample. Definitely worth the stop!
From Hershey World, we continued on our way and soon found ourselves in Amish Country, finding ourselves sharing the roads with horse-drawn Amish buggies a few times as we drove through the Pennsylvania countryside stopping briefly in Lancaster.
After our stop, we would be leaving Pennsylvania briefly, driving into Delaware en route to Philadelphia to finally complete our road trip!
Our first stop, just across the Michigan-Ohio border in the city of Toledo, was at a restaurant we had spotted on a roadside America website, Tony Packo’s. The Hungarian-American restaurant specialises in hot dogs and is a local institution having been in the area since the 1930s and while the food was fine (we especially enjoyed our cookies and ice cream dessert!), we were stopping by because it also doubles as a museum of signed hot dog buns!
All the walls were plastered with autographed hot dog rolls from celebrities who had stopped by over the years and it was fun trying to spot the stars we recognised!
Staying overnight in a Toledo motel, we were up early the next morning to drive to the familiar surrounds of Sandusky, home of the best amusement park we had ever been to, Cedar Point. We had spent the afternoon at the park on our Trek America tour a few years earlier and it just wasn’t long enough so today we were heading back to make a day of it!
Unfortunately, our visit coincided with a corporate day out meaning the park was a lot busier than it would have otherwise been but we still had a fantastic day riding the many World-beating roller coasters.
Leaving the park late evening, we drove the short distance to the outskirts of Cleveland where we were staying the night in a Travelodge on the edge of Lake Erie.
The next morning, we drove into Cleveland itself to visit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a museum we had passed on our last visit to Ohio but not stopped at. The museum, sat on the bank of Lake Erie, had lots of music-related artefacts including costumes and instruments belonging to many popular rock and pop artists from over the ages.
Despite it being a ‘rock’ museum, the displays covered a diverse array of artists including Elvis, the Beatles and Roy Orbison, Aerosmith and Michael Jackson all the way up to modern day popstars including Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and it was fun to explore.
After our Cleveland visit, we drove south to spend the afternoon in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, one of the lesser known National Parks of America.
Knowing little about the park, we made the visitor centre our first port of call, talking to a park ranger to help us decide on an itinerary for the afternoon.
Having entered the park at it’s north entrance, it made most sense to head south and exit at the other end so we drove along the main park road stopping along the way at some of the short trails to see waterfalls, rivers, woodland, marshlands and a covered bridge!
From Cuyahoga Valley National Park, we continued to drive through Ohio towards the state of Pennsylvania where we would be spending the remaining couple of nights of our trip. It had been fun revisiting Ohio and I’m sure we will return again one day!
We were back in Chicago after a 3-week road trip through the Midwest states and after saying goodbye to one of our tripmates, two of us were continuing the adventure for one more week to tick off a few more states as we travelled to our final destination of Philadelphia.
After grabbing breakfast to eat in Millennium Park (because we couldn’t possibly spend a few hours in the Windy City and not visit the Cloudgate sculpture), we retrieved our rental vehicle from the hotel car park and hit the road again, driving north towards the state of Michigan.
Today’s destination would be the lakeside town of South Haven. From Chicago, we’d be following the east shore of Lake Michigan up through Indiana and into Michigan State.
Our first stop of the day was at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (now Indiana Dunes National Park). After calling into the Visitor Centre, we drove down to shore to have a picnic on the beach and walk along the lakeshore gazing up at the huge dunes backing the beach.
Back on the road, we continued towards Michigan and our South Haven motel. After checking in and grabbing some food from the Arby’s next door, we drove further north along the lakeshore to the town of Saugatuck where we had booked a dune buggy ride.
Sat in the back of a trailer, we were taken out on an off-road trail through the dunes. Racing up and over the dunes was great fun and half way through our tour, we stopped at a view point on top of the dunes and were given some time to take photos before we were on our way again.
After our dune buggy ride, we returned to the pretty lakeshore town of South Haven. We had booked a sunset lake cruise and luckily it was the perfect weather for it. We spent the next hour or so relaxing as we watched the sun go down on the horizon.
The next day, we drove east across the state towards Detroit. Today, we had a roadside stop scheduled that we were especially looking forward to – a trip to Hell!
The town of Hell did not disappoint. Playing on the town’s name, we were greeted with ‘Welcome to Hell’ as we entered Screams store and got to walk through the Gates of Hell to enter the grounds of the Hell Chapel of Love, a popular wedding venue!
While grabbing lunch from the Hell Hole Bar, we wrote the Hell postcards we had bought from Screams then visited the post office to send them. Before dropping them in the postbox, the cashier stamped them with ‘Been Thru Hell’ and singed them so they looked like they’d been through the fires of Hell!
A really fun roadside stop!
Our final stop in the state of Michigan was just outside the city of Detroit at the Henry Ford Museum.
We had read that this was a great museum to visit, on par with the Smithsonian Museums in Washington but it was even better than expected. As well as popular culture exhibits, the museum had a huge collection of historical artefacts including George Washington’s camp bed, the Ford Theatre chair President Lincoln was sat in when he was shot, the Rosa Parks bus and the car which President Kennedy was assassinated in.
It was a fascinating museum to visit.
After leaving the museum it was also time to leave the state of Michigan as we continued towards Ohio where we were staying that evening but we’d really enjoyed our first visit to the state.
When my friends announced plans to fly to Australia to see the New Year in in style, I couldn’t resist joining them. Here’s how we got on spending 6 days in Sydney over New Year.
Having decided to extend my trip to a 7-week, mainly solo travelling adventure in Australia and New Zealand, I was on a bit more of a budget than my friends who were spending 2 weeks split across Sydney and Melbourne so rather than joining them on their outbound flights from the UK to Sydney with Emirates, I opted for significantly cheaper return flights with Air China. I had flown solo to Australia before so this side of it didn’t bother me and my flight was due to arrive into Sydney within an hour of my friends arriving.
The only downside really was a 5 hour stop in Beijing on the outbound flight and an 8 hour layover there on the inbound flight but I figured it was worth it for the £500 saving!
As it turned out, by the time I had got through security (and a rather scary experience where I was repeatedly shouted out in Chinese, unsure of what was going on, only to have a portable phone charger yanked out of my hand luggage and thrown into a bin!), grabbed some food (I had brought a small amount of Chinese Yen with me purely for this reason) and had a nap on the airport benches, the 5 hours had flown by and it was time to board my Sydney bound flight. I even ended up landing in Australia slightly ahead of my friends after their Emirates flight was delayed in Dubai!
After our early morning airport reunion at Sydney International arrivals, the 5 of us hopped into a ‘maxi taxi’ to set off for our city centre accommodation. Normally, I’d use public transport from the airport but as there was a group of us, a taxi worked out around the same price.
With accommodation prices being sky high over the Christmas and New Year period (we had left the UK on December 28th and arrived in Sydney on December 29th), we had decided to split our stay between 2 places, one that was cheaper over New Year, one that was cheaper in the days after.
For New Year itself, we would be taking up 2 studio apartment rooms at the Mantra 2 Bond Street for 5 nights. The hotel was in an extremely convenient location being walking distance from Sydney Harbour which is, of course, at the centre of the New Year celebrations each year. The apartments had full kitchens allowing us to keep spending down by eating in for the most part.
Arriving so early meant our rooms were not yet available but the staff went out of their way to get one of the rooms ready as soon as possible so we could use that to freshen up in. Once we’d done that, we decided the best way to get over the jetlag would be to get out into the city. It was a beautiful, warm summer’s day so we walked towards The Rocks area of the harbour and found a pub to sit out and grab some food at – my first of many chicken parmas of the trip!
Then we strolled around The Rocks area and walked around Circular Quay towards the iconic Opera House and its Opera Bar – the site of the New Year’s Eve party we had booked to attend a few days later! The area was busier than I had ever seen it on previous visits to the city but we managed to find a gap on the sea wall benches to sit and relax for a while until it reached check in time back at our hotel.
Once checked in, we walked to the local Coles supermarket to grab some essentials for our stay before having lazy evening and an early night catching up on lost sleep.
Our first full day in Sydney, and New Year’s Eve’s Eve, was another gloriously sunny and hot day. After breakfast we made some sandwiches for lunch and walked to Circular Quay to catch the ferry to Manly Harbour. The ferry ride was a really enjoyable experience in itself, offering beautiful views of Sydney Harbour with its bridge and opera house and also views of the city skyline. Once in Manly, we strolled down the busy Corsa, stopping to take photos with the huge Christmas tree still standing proud, and found our way to the main beach.
The day was mainly spent sunbathing and relaxing. Being someone who can’t sit still for long, I took a walk with one of the others along the sea front towards the lido at the far end of the beach.
Later, after we all cooled off a bit in the ocean, I took a solo walk in the opposite direction along the coast path. Passing an area signposted as Cabbage Tree Bay, I met a few water dragons basking in the sunshine along the way and eventually came to a small but busy cove before turning back and heading back to meet my friends.
Leaving the beach early evening, we sat out at one of the restaurants on the Corso for a fish and chip supper before catching the ferry back to Sydney Harbour.
We timed this perfectly to see the sunset, reaching Sydney as night fell and the city lit up.
Still not completely over the jet lag and knowing we had a busy day and late night the following day, we spent another evening in at the hotel, making use of the hot tub and pool on the hotel roof!
The next day was New Year’s Eve. After a lazy morning, my friends were planning on spending most of the day getting ready for our big night out.
Not being one for spending ages getting dressed up or indulging in pre-party drinking, instead, I met up with a friend who happened to be in the city and we took a walk to Darling Harbour and visited Sydney Wildlife Park. The wildlife park was a bit disappointing as, maybe because of the heat, many of the animals were not out and we didn’t see a single kangaroo our whole visit!
Getting back to the hotel early afternoon, I quickly got ready for the evening and we made our way to the Opera Bar party.
We had done a lot of research into where to watch the evening’s celebrations from. There were many places to go to watch for free – in parks, for example, but here, drinking was either not allowed or you couldn’t take in your own alcohol so my friends worried about long queues at vendors.
We considered a boat party out on the harbour but read some reviews that it could be difficult to get a good place on the boat to see the bridge and watch the light and firework displays.
Our research threw up nothing but good reviews for the Opera Bar party so we settled on this, buying tickets well in advance on the day they went on sale in September.
The theme for the party was ‘Long Hot Summer’. Our tickets gave us entry into the cordoned off grounds of the Opera House where there would be included entertainment and snacks, drinks would be at our own expense. We arrived early with the intention of grabbing a good place to watch the fireworks from and we found the perfect spot right on the sea wall settling in there for the evening.
From here we could take it in turns to go and get drinks or nibbles and the entertainment – stilt walkers, jugglers and dancers in various costumes came to us as they made there way through the party.
The atmosphere was great and they had let enough people in to make it feel like a real party atmosphere without it ever getting rowdy or feeling too packed.
From our space, we were able to perch on the sea wall to watch the jet boat displays in the harbour or get up and dance in front of it to the tunes being played by the party DJ later into the evening.
At 9 o’clock we got a taste of what was to come as the countdown began to the ‘family fireworks’ – a pre-New Year display aimed at those who wouldn’t be staying up for the main event – and this was followed by a parade of boats lit up in bright white lights, sailing around the harbour before docking for their passengers to watch the midnight celebrations.
Midnight itself was an emotional experience. Having seen the Sydney celebrations so many times on new reports back home in the UK over the years, it was a surreal experience actually being there with a group of my best friends seeing the New Year in and we all shed a few tears of happy emotion as we toasted the New Year in and watched the spectacular pyrotechnics on Sydney Harbour Bridge and the accompanying dizzying firework display.
Following that, the party continued into the early hours as the DJ cranked up the music and we finally left our spot for the evening to hit the dancefloor.
With the music becoming a bit too ‘dancey’ for my tastes after the singalong commercial pop preceding it, and with late nights never being something I particularly cope well with, I retired well before 2am, making my way back to the hotel by myself through the throngs of revellers still out on Sydney’s streets, my friends lasting another hour or so longer! It had certainly been a night we wouldn’t forget in a hurry, a once in a lifetime experience and worth every penny.
Feeling surprisingly fresh the next morning, we awoke late, made breakfast and, with it being another perfect summer’s day, made plans to walk through the Botanic Gardens for a chill out day. As we walked through Circular Quay towards the Opera House, we spotted the jetboats touting for customers along the harbour and decided it might be a fun New Year’s Day activity so we booked a spur of the moment trip out for later that afternoon.
Then we walked past the scene of last night’s party at the Opera House and followed the path around into Sydney’s Botanic Garden, sauntering along the sea wall path until we reached Macquarie Point.
Here, we found the perfect spot to sit, overlooking the water’s edge with the Opera House and Harbour Bridge in the distance. After eating our picnic lunch, we relaxed in the sunshine until it was time to make our way back to the harbour to check in for our jetboat ride.
Despite being a bit of a spur of the moment decision to ride, the jetboat was one of the best parts of our trip and made for a great start to the new year!
We got absolutely soaked as we cruised through the harbour, spinning through crazy turns, nosediving into the water, the boat feeling like it was going to overturn each time.
It was exhilarating, hilarious fun and a great way to cool down on such a hot day.
Soaked to the skin, we returned to our hotel abandoning our plans to go back out later and instead stayed in taking to the hotel’s rooftop pool and hot tub to once again toast the new year.
The following day, we caught the bus out of the city to Sydney’s North Beach area, visiting Palm Beach, otherwise known as Summer Bay in Australian soap opera Home and Away.
The show wasn’t currently filming but we took a walk up to the lighthouse for beautiful views of the peninsula location then spent the afternoon relaxing on the beach. Just before we left, warning signs had to be put up to prevent people swimming or surfing as there’d been a shark sighting off the coast! We had dinner at the golf club across the road before catching the bus back to Sydney.
We were checking out of our hotel the next day, moving to the World Tower apartments near Darling Harbour for our last 2 nights in the city. A couple of our group had been up early to do the Sydney Harbour Bridge climb so after meeting them at the Harbour Bridge, we went to retrieve our luggage and move to our new accommodation.
I had stayed at World Tower on a previous visit and been very impressed with its apartments. It was no different this time and our mouths were all open as we took in our huge, 76th floor plush apartment space with breathtaking views over the city. Unfortunately, the weather had started to take a turn for the worse and rain clouds were moving in.
While some of the group decided to abandon our plan to go to Bondi Beach that afternoon and instead enjoy our new apartment, a few of us decided to go anyway – and we arrived to a torrential downpour!
We headed to the nearest bar and once the rain had eased off a bit, I decided to take a walk along the coastal path to neighbouring Bronte Beach. It was a really beautiful walk despite the overcast weather with lots of dramatic coastal scenery along the way. The skies started to clear slightly as I walked back to Bondi and I found my friends waiting for me sunbathing on the beach.
Back in Sydney, we finally made it on a night out deciding on a visit to Darling Harbour where we had drinks in some of the bars overlooking the harbour, ending up in a nice cocktail bar.
My last day in the city was spent getting caught in torrential downpours walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to Luna Park and catching the ferry back to Circular Quay. The weather dried up in the evening allowing us to head back to Darling Harbour for more drinks out before I set off on the rest of my trip the next day.
It had been a fantastic experience spending the week over New Year in Sydney and I’d advise anyone who ever has the opportunity to spend New Year’s Eve celebrating in Sydney at least once in their lifetime.
Christmas had always been a family occasion for me. No matter what we were doing, my brother and I would always spend Christmas Day at my parents. There would be the usual big dinner followed by board games, more food and the inevitable slump in front of the TV at the end of the day.
But after my brother got married and they wanted to spend a few Christmases alone as a new family, it became just me and my parents for Christmas Day and it began to feel just like a standard Sunday.
So I decided to mix it up a bit. Telling my parents I had decided I was going to go abroad for Christmas and it was up to them if they wanted to join me or not, they said if I could get a cheap enough deal, they would consider it. Cheap and Christmas break don’t necessarily go together and for a while, it was looking like another standard Christmas in the UK but finally, in mid-December, I found a hotel and flights package through Love Holidays for a week in the resort of Costa Teguise in Lanzarote over Christmas coming in at under £250 each. It was departing from Manchester, not our local airport, but even factoring in getting an airport hotel, doing a stay and park deal we found on Holiday Extras, and petrol, it still worked out a pretty bargainous deal.
We had gone away for Christmas once before, spending 3 weeks in Cyprus over Christmas and New Year when I was a teenager. Back then, Christmas at home had been a fun time of the year I always looked forward to and it was odd spending it away. As much as we enjoyed the holiday itself, Christmas felt weird an we all said we’d never do it again. But now as an adult, when Christmas was different anyway, it felt like the right time to give Christmas abroad another go.
Things did not get off to the best start when we arrived at the Oasis Lanz Beach Mate aparthotel to find they didn’t have our booking. We were told we had cancelled our booking, which obviously we would never have done, and had to use the hotel phone to contact Love Holidays to find out what had happened. It turned out they had accidentally cancelled the hotel portion of our trip.
Luckily, the hotel had a room we could have, although not the superior room we had booked. Without any other options, we took it and Love Holidays refunded us the difference.
The room was fine for the time we spent in it – a ground floor room with one bedroom and a bed-settee in the lounge, a fully equipped kitchen and a patio which opened out onto the hotel pool. It was also in a great location just a short walk from the beach and the main part of town but far enough away from the bars and clubs that it was nice and quiet for us.
We had been to the resort of Costa Teguise once before, again when I was a teenager, and were keen to find out if it had changed much from what we remembered so once the room drama was sorted and we had settled in, we ventured out into the evening to see if we could get our bearings and still remember our way around.
We found that the area hadn’t changed much at all, maybe a few more bars and clubs, especially of the British variety, which we would make sure to keep away from.
The next day was Christmas Eve’s Eve and unfortunately, a rare cloudy day on the island. We used the day to explore the area more now it was daylight, walking along the main stretch of beach, Playa de la Cucharas, to the small cove up by the five star Melia Salinas hotel, the beach we had mainly used on our last visit many years ago.
Continuing along the coast path, we eventually reached Playa de los Charcos, another small beach, where we sheltered from the wind in an already built stone windbreak and sat having lunch before walking back into town.
The sun making an appearance in the afternoon, we returned to our apartment and sat poolside, taking a dip in the pool to cool off, venturing out in the evening to a local pizza restaurant for dinner.
The weather improved on Christmas Eve but the strong winds made it too chilly to sit out on the main beach so instead, we followed the coast path around to Playa del Jablillo, the small cove by the Hotel Grand Teguise Playa, where it was more sheltered.
As the sun started to retreat in the late afternoon, we decided to go for a walk further along the coast path where we ended up at another small cove, Playa Bastian. It was a really pretty walk and it became a regular stroll for us over the course of the week.
The next day was Christmas Day and it was strange waking up to warm sunshine. We put a Christmas song playlist on in our apartment and opened the few presents we had brought away with us before walking to the beach. It was a great atmosphere on the beach and in the town with lots of people wearing Christmas shirts, hats and other adornments.
That evening, we had booked to eat out at a Steakhouse in town and while not the usual Christmas dinner, we really enjoyed our meal.
The rest of the week was more of the same, a really nice few days of sunshine and relaxation and when the time came to go home, we were sad that we had only booked to go away for a week.
While not the usual way to spend Christmas, we had really enjoyed our alternate celebrations and agreed we wouldn’t hesitate on going away for Christmas Day again in the future.