Southern BLT 18 -20: 2 days in Washington D.C.

My first Trek America Experience Part 7

After a fun evening in Nashville, it was a struggle all round to get up the next day and we departed for our stop in Wytheville, Virginia later than planned. Luckily, today was a bit of a nothing day and our overnight was just a middle-of-nowhere break up the journey kind of stop. Wytheville was notable for only two things – my first ever visit to a Cracker Barrel (we were all very excited at finding somewhere with proper vegetables on the menu along with potato options other than fries!) and our guide forgetting to tell us that the clocks went forward in the US that night meaning more tired faces and even some missed alarms the next morning after unexpectedly losing an hour!

On the road again

We were down to the final 2 nights of our tour now and we were disappointed to find that these would be spent in a hostel, even more disappointed when our guide told us to expect rooms similar to the Austin hostel’s large communal dorms setup. Luckily, us 4 girls ended up in a 6-bed female dorm which would have been fine except for the over-powering stench of trainers/feet belonging to one of the mystery women also in the room with us. Hostel life! Not something from this trip I’d miss!!

National Monument, Washington DC
The Washington Monument

As usual, we’d be spending very little time at our accommodation anyway and after dropping our bags, it was straight out for a monument tour given by our Trek tour guide. I’d been to Washington DC a few years before and it’s one of my favourite US cities as there’s so much to do. We walked down to the White House and took photos outside then walked down past the Washington Monument towards the Potomac River Basin, taking photos of the Jefferson Memorial across the river as the sun started to set.

Sunset in Washington DC
The sun setting over a frozen Potomac and the Jefferson Memorial

From here, we walked back and along the National Mall in the direction of the Lincoln Memorial passing other monuments such as the World War Memorial along the way. Something I remembered from my last visit was how things look nearer than they are in the city when in fact, it had been a very long walk to reach the Lincoln Memorial and was then a very long walk back! We were all very ready for our group meal at a city steak house that night.

The National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC

We were up early the next morning so that we could go and queue at the Washington Monument to try and get 11 of their on-the-day tickets for the entire group to go up the Monument. We were front of the queue and got the tickets without problem, all for the same late morning timeband so with a few hours to kill, we decided to explore some of the many museums along the National Mall. Another great thing about Washington DC is that most of the attractions are completely free! So our tickets up to the observation deck of the Washington Monument hadn’t cost us a penny and it was nothing to visit any of the Smithsonian group museums!

We began at the National Museum of Air and Space, a museum I hadn’t visited on my last trip to the city. The museum was excellent with displays on space travel, the moon landing and a history of air travel and we could have easily spent a lot longer there than a couple of hours but had to leave to make our Washington Monument timeband.

I had been up the Washington Monument on my previous visit to the city but as that was the height of summer and this was the middle of winter, this time the views were quite different with the National Mall recovering from heavy snow fall over the last few days.

The Museum of the History of America

After spending some time taking in the views from the observation deck, the group split up to do different things. We went to get some lunch before continuing to visit the many museums on offer.

The Ruby Slipper on display at the Museum of the History of America, Washington DC
A pair of the ruby slippers

Next up was the Museum of the History of America, a museum which had been closed for refurbishment on my last visit but, being pop culture related, was one I really wanted to visit. It didn’t disappoint and we saw some really amazing things on display including one of the pairs of Ruby Slippers from the Wizard of Oz film, some of the original Muppet and Sesame Street puppets, items belonging to previous Presidents of the United States and dresses worn by the First Ladies. Highlight of the visit was seeing the first flag of the United States which we viewed from behind a big glass screen while the American National Anthem played in the background.

The gun that shot Abraham Lincoln

Taking a break from the museums lining the National Mall, next we wandered up to Ford Theatre, another place that had been closed on my last visit to DC. The theatre is famous for being the place where President Lincoln was shot and killed and after seeing into the theatre and the balcony where he had sat that night, we explored the museum beneath the theatre telling the story of events and containing artefacts including the gun that was used.

A diamond at the Natural History Museum

My last museum of the day was the Smithsonian Natural History Museum back down on the National Mall. While smaller than a lot of other Natural History Museums I have visited in New York, Chicago and, of course, in London, this museum was still worth a look around, the highlight being the World’s largest diamond on display!

Despite it being the last official night of our Trek America tour, the group did not eat together this evening with some of the group opting to book a fancier restaurant for the last night while the rest of us went to a local Chinese before walking back down the the National Mall. There, a few of us decided to go ice skating outside the National History Museum and we followed this with concretes at Shake Shack for dessert! Then it was back to the hostel one last time.

Ice rink at the Natural History Museum

I left Washington the next morning feeling that we’d made the most of our free day in the city and pleased that I’d got to see lots of things I’d missed out on on my last visit but I also felt that there was still much more to see and made a mental note to return for a longer visit at some point in the future.

Going It Alone My first solo travel adventure

Day 1-4: LA, San Diego and Vegas

Day 5-7: Grand Canyon and Monument Valley

Day 8-10: New Mexico Day 10-12: Texas

Day 12-14: New Orleans Day 15-17: Memphis and Nashville

Southern BLT Day 15-17: Memphis and Nashville

Exploring the Deep South

My first Trek America Experience

Sun Studio, Memphis
Sun Studios in Memphis

After an amazing couple of days in the warm sunshine of New Orleans, it was time to move on to our next roadtrip destination. We were 2 weeks into our 3 week trip now so we’re on the home stretch, our final destination of New York growing ever closer, it was hard not to begin counting down the days.

But there was still much to look forward to, starting with one of the stops on our trip I was most looking forward to – Memphis, Tennessee, where we’d be visiting Graceland, home of Rock ‘n’ Roll legend Elvis Presley! Or at least that was the plan. As regular readers of this blog will know, there’d been a lot of surprises and abandoned plans along this trip and thus wasn’t about to change now! But more of that later…

Sun Studio, Memphis

Our journey to Memphis was uneventful. We made a stop for lunch in the state of Mississippi which we were just passing through before continuing on towards the state of Tennessee. Once we reached the city of Memphis, rather than going straight to our motel, we made a stop at Sun Studios for a tour. This tour was one of the included extras on our Trek America tour, meaning that unlike with most of the activities, we didn’t have to pay separately or the activity, it was covered in the price of our trip.

Sun Studio, Memphis
Entering the Studio Tour

I’ll be honest, I had never heard of the studios prior to booking this trip and seeing the tour listed in the activities list and I hadn’t investigated any further since booking the trip. I assumed the studio would be linked to Elvis Presley in some way but didn’t know what to expect further than this.

After waiting in the gift store/cafe entrance for our tour group to be called, we were lead by our very enthusiastic guide up some stairs to a room housing displays of pop and rock memorabilia from the birth of rock n roll.

Our guide gave us a brief history of the studios and explained that a whole host of well known artists had recorded there including Elvis Presley. After being given time to look at the displays, we descended down another set of stairs to the studio itself, set up with various musical instruments and recording equipment like it would have been in the ‘50s and ‘60s. At the end of our tour we were allowed to take a picture with a replica of the microphone used by Elvis. The tour was extremely interesting and standing in a room where so many rock legends have stood and recorded songs we now hear all the time was a magical experience. I’d definitely recommend taking the tour if you are in Memphis.

Beale Street, Memphis
Beale Street, Memphis

As we left the studios, the staff there told our guide there was a weather warning in place for the evening and businesses were being advised to close up early so that staff could get home before the storm came in. We left and checked into our Econo Lodge accommodation in Memphis centre. It was late evening by now but there was still no sign of the bad weather everyone was telling us about. Since we left Texas, our guide had been promising to take us to another great BBQ place once we got to Memphis so once settled into our rooms, we all met up and walked down to Beale Street for dinner.

Beale Street is known as being the Memphis equivalent of New Orlean’s Bourbon Street, a lively entertainment destination lined with bars, clubs and restaurants, but tonight, it was eerily quiet. Most of the restaurants, including the BBQ one we had hoped to visit, had closed on the advice of weather forecasters along with some of the bars. Our choices limited, we ended up at Hard Rock Cafe for dinner. We emerged to find even more bars closed. Most of us decided to walk back to our motel while those who stayed were back within half an hour after the snow did indeed start to fall and the bar they had visited decided to close early too!

The next day, we awoke to a city covered in snow – and not just a bit of snow, a blanket of snow and it was still falling. This morning we were planning on visiting Graceland, something I had been excited for all trip, but at breakfast, we were disappointed to see it listed as one of the many attractions in the city that had decided to close because of the weather.

Our guide telling us not to worry, the attractions could open later in the day and if not, we could visit Graceland before departing for Nashville tomorrow, we instead wrapped up warm and walked into town while she tried to find out what was happening and what our other options for the day were. We spent the next hour building snowmen outside the baseball stadium and having a snowball fight on Beale Street before warming ourselves up with hot drinks at Starbucks – the only place we found open – where our guide told us that Graceland had now confirmed they would be closed for the entire day. Our alternative options were few but the Museum of Rock ‘n’ Soul which was just across the road from us had just opened so most of us decided to go and take a look at that.

The museum contained memorabilia from the birth of Rock n Roll through to the present day (I was most excited to see some *nsync costumes on display!) and being in no rush, we took our time going around the displays, listening to the commentaries on our included audio guide handsets.

The Peabody Hotel foyer, Memphis
At the Peabody Hotel

Meeting up with the rest of the group, some of us decided to go to the Peabody Hotel to watch the famous March of the Peabody Ducks. The Peabody Hotel is a Memphis landmark which again, has links to the city’s Rock ‘n’ Roll history and Elvis Presley who signed one of his record contracts there. Now, the hotel is home to a group of mallard ducks who live in their own duck penthouse-paradise at the top of the hotel. Each day, at 11am, a ceremony is held during which the ducks descend in an elevator, walk across a red-carpet laid down in the foyer and hop into the central fountain where stay happily swimming around, until 5pm.

At 5pm, the ducks hop back out of the fountain, march back along the red carpet and into the elevator to return back to their penthouse suite! It’s just as bizarre as it sounds and we loved the pomp and ceremony of it all with the ducks being treated like little celebrities! Definitely one of those things that needs to be seen to be believed!

Back at the Peabody Hotel waiting for the ducks to leave the fountain

After watching the Peabody Ducks, we were given the option of being driven out to a nearby mall for the afternoon or just staying in the city. Those of us who decided to stay went in search of somewhere for lunch ending up at the Rum Boogie Bar, where the service was less than amazing but I’ll put that down to it being busy with it being the only place we had found open! We then spent a while walking around in the snow before deciding to go back to the motel for a bit.

The Peabody Ducks
Celebrity ducks posing for photos on the red carpet

Not long after getting back, the rest of the group arrived back after finding that the mall they’d visited had also closed with the snow. Some of us decided to return to the Peabody Hotel to watch the ducks march back to their room and then we wandered up to the river just as the sun started to set.

With the snow continuing to fall, dinner that evening was at Hooters, one of the few places open and was followed by an evening spent socialising back at the motel seeing as Beale Street was closed for business.

Entrance to our Nashville Hostel
The Batman Building, Nashville
The ‘Batman’ building in Nashville

Unfortunately, the conditions had not improved the following morning and the tourist attractions including Graceland and the Civil Rights Museum remained closed. Even breakfast at a local restaurant, which we’d been promised had the best waffles, had to be cancelled when again, nowhere opened up. Disappointed, we set off for Nashville, making do with a Waffle House stop along the way. The journey took a lot longer than it should with road closures and diversions around the snow but as we neared Nashville, the snow seemed to be disappearing and we were pleased to see it had mainly disappeared in the city itself.

On Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge

Our accommodation at Nashville was a hostel but it was definitely the nicest hostel of the tour and we were pleased to find ourselves in a quad room with just us 4 girls from our Trek. Having just over an hour to explore before we had to meet for dinner, there was no time to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame or any of the other activities recommended on the Trek itinerary so instead we walked along Broadway, souvenir shopping then walked up to Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge for views over the river before heading back to the hostel to get ready for our evening out.

Concentrating in a line-dancing lesson

Tonight was one of the night outs I had most been looking forward to as we were going line dancing. We had a table booked at the Wild Horse Saloon, a country music live venue and restaurant. Over the course of the evening, a variety of live country music bands played interspersed with hourly line-dancing lessons which anyone could join in. The whole group got up and had a go at the dancing. There was a lot of bumping into each other at first but we soon got into it and was a really fun evening. The BBQ style food wasn’t bad either but, like the drinks, a bit overpriced and after a while we decided to move on to some of the bars along Broadway where the drinks would be cheaper.

Nashville at night
City view from the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge

We walked back to the hostel at the end of the night via another walk across the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge to take photos of the Nashville skyline all lit up before spending some time in the hostel common room playing pool and just chilling out.

I’d really liked Nashville and it was shame the weather had stopped us from spending a little more time there. I definitely planned on returning there at some point in the future along with Memphis to visit all the places we’d missed out on.

Going It Alone

My first solo travel experience

My first small group tour travel experience Part 1

My first small group tour travel experience Part 2

My first Trek America Experience Part 3

My first Trek America Experience Part 4

My first Trek America Experience Part 5

Southern BLT Day 12-14: 36 hours in New Orleans

My first Trek America adventure – Part 5

Entering the Deep South

Our Layfayette accommodation

Snow and freezing cold weather.

Since our stay in Vegas – which now felt like a long time ago – this cold snap seemed to have been following us on our trip. But despite awaking to another cold morning in Texas, as we pulled over at a rest stop just across the state line of Louisiana, we couldn’t believe the change in the weather. Gone were the freezing cold air and snow spattered roads and instead there was a balmy heat!

Band playing at our guesthouse

Tonight we’d be stopping in Lafayette, just a pit stop to break up the journey between Austin and New Orleans, and our accommodation would be at the Blue Moon Saloon, a small quirky guest house. As usual, we waited in the van as our guide went to check in and we could tell as she returned that something wasn’t quite right – they’d got the booking wrong and there weren’t quite enough rooms and beds for us all. After some jiggling about and compromise – my roommate and I offered to share a double bed with another group member taking the couch in our en-suite room, another 2 members of the group had to make do with a makeshift bed in the corridor! – we were checked in and sorted. We went for dinner at a local bar down the road and then returned to the guesthouse. After been kept awake in Lubbock by the commotion outside and our late night out in Austin, many of us just wanted an early night tonight but that wasn’t to be. A band was playing at the guesthouse that night and their stage and speakers happened to back right onto the wall of our room! The room was shaking so much from the noise that a picture fell off the wall. It was the last thing we wanted but there was nothing we could do but sit it out until the music stopped at 1am!

At the Waffle House

Exhausted from 3 nights with little sleep, we dragged ourselves up and made the 7am departure time the next day. First stop was a Waffle House for breakfast before we reached the check in point for our Louisiana Swamp Tour.

It was a rainy day and as our boat picked up speed down the river, we got drenched but this turned out to be a really fun experience. Being February, we were told it was unlikely we’d see any alligators – we did as it turned out see one baby ‘gator sat on a log! – but there was plenty of other wildlife to be spotted including birds, snakes, wild hogs and a very friendly marshmallow-loving raccoon! We also found out about the history of the swamp and heard tales about the devastating effect of Storm Katrina.

A nice hotel at last!!

Our tour over, we continued on to New Orleans where we were absolutely delighted to find our accommodation for the next two nights would be in a beautiful 4 star hotel! Arriving more or less to schedule for the first time in days, we settled in then regrouped for our guide to give us a tour of the French Quarter.

After handing us all some New Orleans beads to wear, we wandered through the French market where some of the group sampled ‘gator meat at one of the food stands (I played it safe and stuck to a grilled cheese sandwich!), walked down to catch our first glimpse of the Mississippi River, tried what our guide told us was the best praline in the city – it really was melt-in-the-mouth delicious! – and, of course, visited a few bars including the oldest bar in the city and a few along the World famous Bourbon Street.

After our busy afternoon, we had dinner at Oceana restaurant which specialised in fish along with traditional Cajun dishes before taking a ghost tour of the area – not particularly scary but actually really interesting and great fun!

Bourbon Street

Tour over, it was back to Bourbon Street where we found ourselves in a dueling piano bar – or at least those of us over the legal drinking age did, the remaining members of the group forced to stand outside and communicate with us through an open window!

A delicious doughnut from District

Not wanting to waste our upcoming free day in the city recovering from the night before, a few of us chose to leave Bourbon Street a little after midnight and return to our hotel rather than staying out partying to the early hours. The next morning, just the 4 of us made it to breakfast at which we made the decision to get tickets for the hop on/off tour bus as our best option to see as much as the city as possible in a relatively short time and we definitely felt we packed a lot in. The bus took us out of the French Quarter, through the CBD and into the Garden District where we hopped off to take an included walking tour of the area, taking time to look in some of the local boutique stores and grab a delicious doughnut at the local District cafe while we waited for the tour to start.

The Garden District was a complete contrast to the French District of the city with its huge mansions along the tree lined streets. Our guide pointed out some of the celebrity homes in the area as well as discussing the area’s history and briefly taking us into its Lafayette Cemetery. We then hopped onto the next tour bus to continue our tour, eventually returning to the French Quarter.

Po’ Boy lunch

For lunch, we decided to try some more of the local cuisine and opted for a cute but touristy cafe in the centre of the French Quarter where a live jazz band was keeping the patrons entertained. We had a leisurely lunch of Po’ Boy sandwiches, the braver of us sampling the ‘gator filling while I again stuck with cheese, enjoying the warm sunshine and the music playing before wandering through the streets of the French Quarter visiting some of the many art galleries we passed.

Jackson Square

Before heading back to the hotel to get ready for our evening out, we had one more ‘must do’ item to tick off our list – trying some beignets from Cafe du Monde. Beignets are sugary pastries, similar to doughnuts, sold at many cafes in the French Quarter but Cafe du Monde is the most famous place to get them from and they’re supposed to have the best beignets in the city. Customers often queue around the block in the morning to get their beignets and coffee but being late afternoon, the queue was only short so we bought a bag of the pastries to share between us. The sugary treats were indeed delicious but after all the food we had already consumed that day, we struggled to finish them and took some back to the hotel with us to share with the rest of the group.

This evening, the whole group would be taking a dinner cruise on a steamboat along the Mississippi River. We walked up towards the river, all sharing stories of our day – some of the group hadn’t seen any more of New Orleans than the hotel’s laundry room, others had ventured out into the city to explore a bit like us. Once we arrived at the river, we waited as our guide went to pick up our tickets and watched as the steamboat played a tune on it’s steam pipe organ before boarding and taking our table in the restaurant. The food, served buffet style, was better than I had expected it to be – being a fussy eater, I was worried I wouldn’t find anything to my tastes but it was standard fare with enough options to keep everyone happy. After dinner, we were free to wander around the boat as we pleased. The New Orleans’ skyline isn’t the prettiest so there wasn’t much in the way of views and, being February, it had already gone dark with a bit of a chill in the air so we mainly chose to stay indoors. A jazz band played on one of the decks and we sat and listened for a while and it was also possible to go down to the boat’s engine room to take a look.

After the cruise, some of the group decided to head back to the bars on Bourbon Street and the rest of us decided to take a look at the other main ‘entertainment’ street in the city, Frenchman Street. A bit more laid back than the partying atmosphere of Bourbon, Frenchman Street offered a series of live music venue and we settled on a small bar where a jazz band played indiscreetly in corner allowing us to chat over drinks while still listening to the music and soaking up the atmosphere.

Out on Frenchman Street

After another late night, we strolled back to our hotel, making the most of having a nice hotel room for the last time for a while and getting a few hours sleep before our early start. We’d all enjoyed our time in New Orleans and I definitely hoped to return and explore more in the future but for now, it was time for our adventure to continue elsewhere!

Going It Alone

My first solo travel experience

My first small group tour travel experience Part 1

My first small group tour travel experience Part 2

My first Trek America Experience Part 3

My first Trek America Experience Part 4

Southern BLT Day 10 -12: Travelling through Texas state

My first Trek America Experience Part 4

Lubbock and Austin

Texas is a huge state which I often forget I’ve even been to despite spending a few days of our trip travelling through it. After our entry to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico was delayed, we continued to make slow progress to the night’s stop in the Texas city of Lubbock, finally arriving to a snow covered car park in the dark.

Our first impressions of Texas didn’t get off to the best start when the motel was less than ideal – our room had seen better days to say the least. Walls were cracked with small holes in the bathroom making us uneasy, food was visibly crumbled into the carpet and, despite it being a non-smoking room, the air was thick with smoke. We didn’t have long to dwell on it as we had 5 minutes to drop our bags and cases before meeting back at the van to go for dinner before everywhere closed but we mentioned it to our tour guide on the way out.

Dinner in Lubbock

Dinner was at a lovely Italian diner a short drive away and when we returned to the motel, our guide came into reception with us to complain about our room. The receptionist seemed annoyed and offered us a bottle of air freshener. When we pointed out this only (partly) dealt with one of the issues, she begrudgingly gave us a different room. This one was slightly better and we decided we could manage for one night but just after we settled to bed, we were disturbed by an almighty argument going on seemingly directly outside our room which ended in sirens and flashing lights appearing in the car park! We were more than a little relieved to leave Lubbock the next day!

Our Brunch stop

Today was my birthday! More snow had fallen overnight and not long into our journey, we hit a roadblock due to an accident caused by the snow and were forced to take a long diversion. With lunch time approaching, our guide looked for somewhere to stop only to find most places closed due to the bad weather! We eventually found ourselves in the town of Abilene where the Flippin’ Egg diner was open and the staff were more than a little excited to have international visitors! After a delicious pancake brunch, and a visit to the British Shoppe a few doors down to stock up on some Dairy Milk chocolate, we were back on the snow-covered road to Austin, Texas.

Again, with the weather causing us to arrive later than we’d hoped, there was little time for sightseeing. Instead, we went straight to our out-of-town hostel and checked in. We were more than a little dismayed to find ourselves in a huge communal co-ed dorm of 20 but we’d not be spending a lot of time here. We had half an hour to get ready before we’d be heading out to dinner followed by a night out in the city.

Dinner was at the Salt Lick BBQ restaurant, a place that our guide had been raving about since the trip started and it certainly didn’t disappoint. After, we were driven into central Austin where we headed straight to the bars on 6th Street where we stayed until 2am.

Visiting South Congress Avenue

Before leaving Austin the next day, we stopped at South Congress Street and walked around some of the quirky stores. We then continued our dive through Texas with one last stop in the state, Buc-ee’s, the biggest truck stop I have ever seen. Souvenirs, snacks and even lunch all bought, it was time to say goodbye to Texas and hello to the next state on our trip, Louisiana.

Going It Alone

My first solo travel adventure

Hollywood, San Diego & Las Vegas – My first Small Group Tour Travel Experience Part 1

Grand Canyon and Utah – My first Trek America Experience Part 2

New Mexico – My first Trek America Experience Part 3

Southern BLT Day 8 – 10: Journeying through New Mexico

My first Trek America experience – Part 3

Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Roswell and Carlsbad Caverns National Park

A dusting of snow as we enter New Mexico State

After the unexpected heavy snowfall of the last few days, we were pleased to see little sign of the white stuff as we crossed into the state of New Mexico. We were heading to the city of Santa Fe but would, as usual, be making a few stops along the way to stretch our legs.

Today’s journey once again took us along part of the famous Route 66 highway and the first stop of the day was at a Route 66 Historic Hotel, the El Rancho, in Gallop, once the temporary home to various film stars in its heyday. The hotel has been restored to its former glory and is now a National Historic site. It was interesting to wander around the lobby with its traditional Wild West decor.

A stop on the outskirts of Albuquerque was next where we visited a fast food restaurant used in the popular TV show, Breaking Bad. As I’d never watched the show, this was a bit over my head but other members of the group who were favs of the series were very excited to sit in the booth where characters from the show are seen sitting!

Unfortunately, our motel for the evening wasn’t in central Santa Fe so after checking in, we had to be driven into the city by our guide. We had an hour of free time to wander around before meeting for a group dinner at a lovely Tex Mex restaurant. Just as we piled out of the van, snow once again started to fall but thankfully, only a light dusting this time. The city, the oldest capital in the US, was exactly as our guide had described it – 50 shades of brown! As it was already early evening, there was little open other than the touristy stores on the main square but as well as some souvenir shopping we did find time to wander into the city’s Cathedral before dinner.

Santa Fe Square

The next morning we returned to the city and were given a bit more time to look around. Unfortunately the ‘oldest house’ in the city was closed to visitors while we were there but it was interesting wandering down the oldest street and seeing the old buildings. We spent the rest of our free time in the city visiting the many churches as well as some of the small art galleries and boutique stores before departing for our next overnight stay in New Mexico State, Carlsbad just as the snow started to fall again.

Even the Walmart window plays on the Roswell UFO link!

Our journey today was broken up with an unexpected stop at the infamous town of Roswell! With traffic and diversions due to the snowy weather, we reached there later than expected and by the time we’d stopped at Walmart to shop for tonight’s camp, it was late afternoon.

Alien themed mural in Roswell

We were given some free time to look around the town and all headed straight to the UFO museum only to be told it would be closing soon. We all wanted to go inside anyway and the staff kindly waived the entrance fee as we’d not be able to see the entire museum in such a short time. The museum was fun in a tacky, tourist-pleasing way and after it had closed we looked around the neighbouring stores all selling UFO themed souvenirs!

From here, it was off to our only cabin stay of the tour at Carlsbad KOA site. The cabins were basic – we had to bring our own sleeping bags & pillows on the trip just for this one night – but comfortable enough and luckily, with the weather as it was, did have some kind of heating system.

It was already dark as we arrived and absolutely freezing cold, so much so that we struggled to cook the evening’s meal on the camping equipment, eventually settling for food somewhere between luke warm and still frozen!! We spent the evening sat around the campfire, wrapped in our blankets and sleeping bags trying desperately to keep warm, our guide attempting to keep up morale by playing guitar and leading sing songs. This was definitely one of the more character building evenings of the trip!

The next day, we awoke to another icy cold morning and a dusting of more snow and after breakfast, set off towards Carlsbad Caverns National Park. As we reached the park, we could see more snow had fallen in the area than we had had at our cabins causing our guide to pull over and check the park’s website – it was currently closed as they tried to clear the snow to allow access. After ringing the park and speaking to a ranger, our guide reported back that the park hoped to have a limited section of the Caverns open to the public within the next couple of hours and decided we should stick around and wait so we drove to a nearby cafe and settled down to hot chocolates and a group game of Cards Against Humanity as we waited for updates.

Luckily, the park did manage to open although as expected, only part of the trail through the Caverns would be accessible. It was bizarre to see frozen cactii lining the road as we drove to the car park and walked across to the cave entrance but at least once inside, we were out of the snow for a while! The caverns were really beautiful and worth sticking around to see. After following the self-guided loop trail, we returned to the gift shop for some souvenir shopping before finding a sheltered picnic bench to sit and have a late lunch on – leftovers from last night’s camp dinner!

Then it was on towards Texas to see what adventures awaited us next!

Going it alone

My first solo travel adventure

My first Small Group Tour travel experience Part 1

My first Trek America Experience Part 2

Southern BLT Day 5-7: Arizona, the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, Utah

My Trek America Experience – Part 2

The highs and lows of a 3 week road trip across the USA.

I was 4 days into a 3 week group tour across America and so far, things were going great. My first experience of hostel life was actually ok, the group were all bonding well, I’d already become firm friends with my roommate and I’d go as far as to say, I was having the time of my life!! But I should have known with this kind of trip to expect the unexpected!

LA, San Diego and Las Vegas already done, next up was 2 nights at the Grand Canyon. So far, we’d enjoyed glorious warm sunshine but as we boarded the bus outside our Vegas hotel the next morning, there was definitely a chill in the air. Time to pull out the hoodie!! As our guide told us much colder weather had been forecast for the next few days, an Australian member of our group admitted he’d only brought shorts with him, assuming that the Southern states were going to be mainly warm!

Our first stop of the day was at Hoover Dam and then at the ‘historic’ Route 66 town of Seligman, Arizona. We’d been told that in the summer months, it was hard to move in this town with all the tourists but on a cool February day, it was more like a ghost town and we were warmly welcomed in every souvenir store we entered as it would seem they get very little business this time of year!

Mural at Seligman AZ, a Route 66 town

The town, dubbed ‘the birthplace of Route 66’, was fun to wander round and was like something stuck in the past with all of its brightly painted buildings and Route 66 memorabilia. We had one more stop, for lunch at a Subway, before continuing the long drive to Grand Canyon National Park.

Arriving later than expected after being rerouted around road closures (we kept ourselves amused in the bus playing ‘Guess the song from the introduction’!), we were given an hour to get settled into our motel accommodation before regrouping for a pizza dinner at a local restaurant. While there, our tour guide outlined the options for the next few days – we could get up early to see the sunrise over the Grand Canyon if enough of us were interested, we could hike down into the canyon, book a helicopter flight over the canyon and there were also options to watch a film about the Grand Canyon at the IMAX in the village or do shorter, less strenuous walks at the canyon rim. All the group were up for seeing the sunrise and hiking down into the canyon and lots of us signed up to take a helicopter ride too. With that decided and dinner done, we were let loose for the evening, all deciding to meet for a game of bowling at a nearby hotel after getting our hiking supplies in for the following day.

Heavy snowfall on our Trek America van

Things took an unexpected turn as my roommate and I left the bowling alley to get an earlyish night to discover that snow was falling. And seeing as the ground was covered, it had been falling a while! Assuming that it wouldn’t be much, we set our 4am alarms and went to bed.

Arriving for sunrise at a snowy Grand Canyon National Park

We awoke the next morning to find that the snow had certainly not stopped but continued to fall heavily throughout the night! Despite guessing that seeing the sunrise was now unlikely to be possible, we got ready and met with the group anyway and seeing as we were all up, our guide managed to drive us into the National Park anyway.

As expected, all we could see was cloud and snow but we amused ourselves by building a snowman and throwing snowballs into the Canyon – not something I ever expected to do!! For some of the Australians in the group, this was the first time they’d actually seen real snow so despite our disappointment at the sunrise not being visible, there was still plenty of fun to be had.

After breakfast back in the village, we were advised by our guide that the helicopter tours would not be running today and that the trails down into the Canyon were closed. It was possible there would be an opportunity for both activities the next morning depending on the weather but we’d have to find other ways to spend our full day at the Canyon. Seeing as the rim trail between Mather Point and Angel Point was open, we all wrapped up warm (the Australian with just shorts packed had purchased some long trousers, gloves and a scarf!) and headed out for a walk in the snow!

Looking out at the Grand Canyon

To be honest, I had never even realised the Grand Canyon got snow before. Luckily, unlike many of the group, I had visited this part of the National Park before and seen the Grand Canyon under clear, blue skies and sunshine and there was actually something really special about seeing it under snowfall – not that we could see much of the canyon itself! Cold and wet, we warmed up with lunch at Angel Point Hotel before returning to the village for the rest of the afternoon.

With nothing else to really do, a few of us went to watch the IMAX film, so we could at least see what the Grand Canyon usually looks like, and spent some time souvenir shopping before we met for a group meal at a nearby Steakhouse. A few of us then congregated in our motel room with snacks to watch the evening’s Oscars Ceremony!

Unfortunately, we awoke the next morning to yet more heavy snowfall, dashing any remaining hopes of getting to do the helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon or hiking down into the canyon so instead we set off for today’s destination, Monument Valley, stopping first at a watchtower in the Grand Canyon Park. There wasn’t really much of a view from the tower, just more snow, so we didn’t spend long there but as we drove out towards Utah state, conditions did seem to be clearing slightly.

Our first stop in Utah was at a Navajo trading post in Cameron and we were pleased to not have to wade through any snow to get from the van to the store. We weren’t as lucky when we reached our lunch stop, a Burger King, which doubled as a Museum on Navajo Code Talkers, a couple of hours later. Here the snow had really fallen and we wondered if our destination of Monument Valley would be open for our tour to go ahead.

Luckily, despite the heavy snowfall, the site had remained open although we were told that the jeeps used for the tours could only access a smaller part of the area and therefore we would receive a discount.

If anything, the snow only added to this amazing experience. We were told that snow of any kind rarely falls at Monument Valley, nevermind a blanket of it, and even our Navajo guides were stopping to take photographs of the beautiful scenery as they showed us around. We spent most of the tour stood marvelling at the beautiful snow-covered scenery, enjoying the peacefulness that had descended over the area.

Our Burrito dinner

Our visit to Monument Valley ended with a traditional burrito meal before we drove to our motel in the amusingly named town of Mexican Hat. We awoke the next morning to find the snow was starting to melt.

We made one more Monument Valley stop, on the road at the point where Forrest Gump stops running in the Oscar-winning film, before heading off towards the next state on our itinerary – the hopefully less snowy New Mexico!

Going it alone

My first travel adventure

My first small group tour travel experience Part 1

Southern BLT Day 1-4: Hollywood, San Diego and Las Vegas

My first small group tour travel experience – Part 1

The start of a 3-week road trip across America with 10 strangers!

Getting ready for the Oscars – red carpet lining Hollywood Blvd

Within minutes of meeting my companions for the next 3 weeks You can read my previous blog on this here), we were all climbing into our mini-bus and being driven by our tour guide across the city to our first stop – Hollywood. Conversations in the bus at this point mainly consisted of the “What’s your name again?”, “Where did you say you’re from again?” kind and when we were dropped off and given an hour to wander around Hollywood Boulevard, we drifted into smaller groups – the 2 Swedish girls sticking together, the 20-something guys grouping up and then those of us that didn’t fit any other group wandering off together too. Hollywood was setting up for the weekend’s big Oscar Ceremony which, having been to the Walk of Fame many times before, made the stop a bit more exciting for me as we saw the preparations going on and watched through the fence as reporters broadcast from the red carpet already running down the middle of the road to the Kodak Theater.

Oscar preparations outside the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood

Once we were all back at the bus, we made one more quick hop off and on stop nearby to get a photo of the Hollywood sign from Beachwood Canyon before settling in for the 2 hour drive to San Diego. Lunch was at a truck stop just outside the city with a choice of fast food options (most of us tried Wendy’s!) and then it was off to drop our things at our hostel in the Gaslamp District. Like me, this was to be the first hostel experience for most of the group. We were allocated two 6-bed dorms to share between us, there were plenty of bathrooms along the corridor and breakfast was provided in the morning. Our room overlooked the main street in the Gaslamp Quarter, where all the bars were so we had loud music pumping through the walls until the early hours of the morning but it was only for 2 nights and our next stop would be a hotel in Vegas.

The Hollywood sign
Paddling in the sea on Mission Beach

After we had settled, we met back at the bus and were taken to Mission Beach for the afternoon. Despite it being February, the weather was a balmy 20 degrees and we wandered along the sands chatting and getting to know each other a bit more before returning to the city for our first group dinner at Bepe di Bucco’s family dining restaurant. That night, we split into those who wanted to go partying and those who didn’t with some of us opting instead to keep out of the bars and get frozen yoghurt instead as we planned to be up early the next day for a trip to the zoo.

What we did on our free day was completely up to us but with the suggestions being SeaWorld or San Diego Zoo, most of the group was keen on going to the zoo so our tour guide offered to drive us there and then we could make our own way back. Only 2 of the group – the two Swedish girls who were mainly keeping themselves to themselves at this point – decided to stay in the city and do their own bit of sightseeing. The zoo was huge, so much so that we lost one group member at one point which was a good point to decide we should all swap numbers and start a Whatsapp group! After spending most for the day there, we walked through Balboa Park and back to the hostel. Our tour guide suggested a seafood place for dinner but with none of the group too keen in that idea, we ended up in Hooters which, if nothing else, was cheaper!

It was a very early start the next morning to begin our drive to Las Vegas and most of us slept in the bus. Lunch was at a bizarre Greek-style diner in Baker, California, opposite the World’s Largest Thermometer(!) before continuing to our destination.

Our seemingly luxurious hotel room at Bally’s!

After 2 nights in a hostel, our room at Bally’s Casino seemed like luxury and I was surprised we were in a hotel on the Strip and in such a good location, expecting to be Downtown from reading other Trekkers’ experiences online. With hotel rooms being for 2, the two Swedish girls shared a room, I shared with the other solo girl (we’d already become good friends at this point – 2 days can seem a lot longer when you’re spending all that time in someone’s company!) and then the guys paired up, taking it in turns to have a room to themselves with there being an odd number of them.

We had the rest of the afternoon as free time but were to be back early evening for our included Party Bus activity. As my roommate and I had decided we’d like to see Britney play the following night, we headed straight to the Planet Hollywood box office to acquire some tickets before joining the others strolling through some of the hotels on the strip. Then it was all round to our tour guide’s room for some group-bonding drinking games and Chinese food before we piled onto our private Vegas Party bus. The bus drives up and down the strip while music blasts out and the inside is like a mini-dance club.

Downtown Vegas

Unimpressed by the very clubby music, one of the group asked if he could instead plug in his iPhone and we instead sang and danced along to cheesy 90s pop tracks from the Spice Girls and 5ive and tunes from Disney’s Frozen. The bus made a stop Downtown in time for us to catch the hourly laser show at Fremont Street and then at the Welcome to Vegas sign for us to get photos before dropping us off at the Bellagio to watch the penultimate dancing fountain show of the night. We loved this so much we decided to wait 15 minutes to watch the final show of the night too before following our tour guide to her favourite karaoke bar at Ellis Island Casino just behind Bally’s.

The Bellagio Founains

The next morning we split into 2 groups – those of us who had returned to our hotel at a reasonable time and were up to spend the day exploring Vegas, and those who were sleeping it off! By the time we met with the rest of the group later that afternoon, we had already had a huge Denny’s breakfast, took a gondola ride at the Venetian hotel, and got lost in Circus Circus. We were joined by a few more group members at the top of the Stratosphere where we screamed our way through the 3 rides sat on top of the tallest building in the Strip.

Britney!

That evening, we all went off to see various shows and for me that meant the chance to see Britney’s Piece Of Me show, something I’d wanted to do since it was announced so I was ecstatic to discover she was playing on our free evening in the city. We’d managed to get our hands on pit tickets so were up close, especially when Britney came out along the catwalk and the show was every bit as amazing as I’d hoped. After, we met up with a few other group members for a late night ride on the High Roller Ferris Wheel to see the bright lights of Vegas from above.

I’d been to Vegas a few times before this trip but never experienced it quite like this. Being in a group tour situation was already taking me out of my comfort zone – drinking games, party buses, late night karaoke bars, none of these things were how I’d usually spend my time on holiday – and yet I was loving every minute and really enjoying the company of this eclectic band of individuals.

4 days in and things were going great but I should know by now to expect the unexpected…

My Trek America Experience Part 2

My first solo travel adventure

Going it alone

My first solo travel adventure

Coast to coast with Trek America

If you’ve read my previous post about my decision to travel solo for the first time, you’ll know that rather than spending my entire trip completely by myself, I opted to join a small group tour. Specifically, the Southern BLT Tour with the established small group tour company, Trek America.

I booked the tour through the touradar website in their Christmas sale and the tour was to begin mid-February meaning I didn’t have too much time to dwell on my decision. With the extra nights I had added in LA and New York either side of the 3-week tour, I would be away for 4 weeks in total, the longest I had ever been away from home before.

As the departure date approached I decided to take up Trek America’s offer of a free FairFX prepaid currency card rather than just taking cash as I would on a shorter trip. This came with access to an app which I could use to top up the card with dollars if I was getting low at any point as long as I had internet access and as the tour was advertised as having on-bus WiFi and I knew from previous visits stateside that WiFi was easy to find, finding internet access shouldn’t be a problem.

The tour required us to take a sleeping bag for the night spent in a cabin and I also went out and bought a pair of special walking trainers from Sports Direct for any hiking we’d do, a quick-drying travel towel for use at the hostels and various other bits and bobs that I wouldn’t ordinarily take on holiday but I thought I might need in a trip like this!

My biggest worry was what size case to take. Or whether to take a case at all as I figured a lot of the passengers might be serious backpackers with, well, a backpack. For just a 2 week holiday, I would usually take my large case but I knew luggage was to be stored in our minibus as we travelled and would have to be dragged in and out of our accommodation every day or so (we had no more than 2 nights in any one place on the tour) so maybe a large case was too much. But would there be chance to do laundry or would I have to take enough clothes to last the entire trip?!

What to pack in itself was another problem. I’d assumed when I booked the tour that travelling through the Southern states meant that even in February/March, it’d mainly be warm although I did realise once we reached Washington DC and New York it would be chillier. But after googling the weather for some of our stops, I realised it was likely to be cool in quite a few places along the way so layers, a few jumpers, hoodies and even my winter coat might be necessary!

I eventually opted to take my medium-sized case, squashing as much as possible in and deciding if there was no opportunity for laundry, I could probably get a couple of wears out of most tops!!

Alone on Santa Monica Beach

So with lots of excitement, and some trepidation, I headed to the airport a few days before the start of the tour to begin my trip. I had booked 2 nights by myself in Santa Monica at a motel I had stayed at with my family a couple of years before and would then spend the third night staying at Trek America’s “gateway” hotel – the one the tour departed from – the night before the tour began.

Sunset over Santa Monica Pier

Whereas I would usually share a taxi with my travel buddies to get us to our hotel quickly and easily after a long flight, it was a lot of money to spend for just one person so I had researched how to get to Santa Monica on public transport. So after arriving at LAX, I went to wait for the Airbus service hoping to save a bit of money. But after waiting and waiting and seeing numerous buses come and go for Hollywood, Downtown, Anaheim and various other districts of Los Angeles but none for Santa Monica, I gave up and, just wanting to get there, ended up in a cab!

Breakfast feast for one at Denny’s

It was odd finding myself alone in a city I had visited many times before with family and friends and needing food, I was unsure what to do. Not being brave enough just yet to go to a restaurant alone, I instead opted for the food court in Santa Monica Place shopping mall before heading down to the beach to watch the sunset.

Sony Studios Tour

To keep myself busy over the next few days, I’d planned plenty of activities, again extensively researching how to reach places on public transport. After breakfast at Denny’s (eating alone wasn’t actually that bad!), my first stop was Sony Studios for a backlot tour. Using public transport ran smoother than it had the previous day and after asking for directions just once when I got off the bus, I found my way to the tour check in point with plenty of time to spare.

Walking to Venice Beach

After the tour, I wandered around the nearby area of Culver City before catching the bus back towards Santa Monica. I spent the afternoon in Venice following a self-guided walk around the canals which I had downloaded before my trip, another part of the city I had not seen before.

Exploring the canals at Venice
On a tour to Malibu

The following day, I had booked onto another tour to see the Star Homes in Malibu and then, after lunch alone at Barney’s Beanery – my favourite Santa Monica eatery – I hired a bike and rode to Marina del Rey, again ticking off a few more places I’d not been to before. In all honesty, I kept myself too busy to even notice I was by myself and I actually enjoyed not having to compromise on anything and being able to do what I liked and at my own pace.

Malibu Beach
After cycling to Marina del Rey

That evening, it was time to move from my cosy Santa Monica B&B to my Trek’s departure hotel, the Custom Hotel bear LAX. Wanting to avoid paying out for another taxi, I had again looked up how to get there on public transport. One direct bus which would drop me outside my new hotel seemed doable although I hadn’t factored in travelling in rush hour with a case and bag!

6 weeks before your Trek America tour departs, participants are given access to an online group where you can ‘meet’ other members of your tour group. This only works, of course, if other members are active in the group and no one seemed to be using it for the tour I had booked. Undeterred, and curious as to whom I would be spending 3 weeks travelling with, I instead, left a message on the Trek America forums asking if anyone else was going to be on the Southern BLT tour departing that week. By the time I had left for LA, there had been no replies but a few days later, 2 people had answered saying they too would be on the tour.

So the evening before the tour departed, once settled in at the ‘gateway’ hotel, I made my way up to the hotel’s rooftop bar where I had arranged to meet 3 of my fellow travelling companions. Everyone seemed nice – we were all solo travellers who were travelling solo for the first time and it put my mind at ease slightly about the next few weeks. After a few drinks and some small talk, it was off for an early-ish night ready to start my 3-week cross-country adventure the following morning.

It was an early start the next day where I met the rest of the group in the hotel lobby. 11 of us in total, 7 guys, 4 girls, aged 20-34 from the UK, Australia, Sweden and Switzerland. After brief introductions, some form-filling and a talk from our American tour guide, it was time to load our luggage on to the trailer and board our minibus ready to get on the road!

My first Small Group Tour travel experience Part 1

Going it alone

Going it alone

Travelling solo for the first time.

After almost 10 years of fitting in city breaks around my teaching career, I finally took the plunge and quit my full time job in order to travel more extensively. Up until now, any trips I’d taken had been with friends, often fellow teacher also tied down to taking trips in the school holidays, and had mainly been short breaks with the odd 2-week trip when there was more time over the summer break. But now I was no longer tied down to travelling in the school holidays – which was great as it meant I could take advantage of the cheaper term time flight and accommodation prices – but it also meant that my teacher friends were not available to come with me and, with wanting to go away for longer than the standard week or fortnight, no one else was able, or willing, to get the time off work either. The choice was simple. Stay at home, taking the first long term supply teaching job I was offered and continue to make the odd trip at weekends and in the holidays, or really make use of the situation I had put myself in and go it alone.

I chose the latter and started to research solo travel. Having visited many of the main US cities over the last 10 years, America was a country I knew I felt comfortable in and wanted to see more of – specifically travelling outside of the cities – so that seemed like a good place to start. I’d been receiving brochures from the group travel company Trek America and it’s sister company, Grand American Adventures, for a few years after entering a competition to travel with them once and ending up on their mailing list and I had always flicked through them half-heartedly before throwing them in the recycling but now when the new brochures arrived, I paid a bit more attention and started doing some online research into the companies and their tours. I’d had a few friends do larger group tours with companies such as Contiki and was pretty sure this wasn’t for me but a small group tour sounded more appealing.

Trek America offered a wide range of tours In North America aimed at 18-38 year olds. The majority of the tours offered were camping based, which I knew I did not want to do! – but they also offered some of their tours as BLTs or Budget Lodging Tours which used a mixture of hostels, motels and cabins. I’d never stayed in a hostel in my life and it didn’t particularly appeal to me but if it was just for a few nights here and there between hotel/motel stops, I figured I could cope. The alternative was to choose a tour with another company such as Grand American Adventures which used hotels and motels only but these were a lot more expensive and were open-aged tours which worried me in case everyone else on the tour was a lot older than me. Being in my mid-30s at this point, there was always the risk that doing a Trek America tour would find me as the only ‘older’ traveller in a group of 18 year olds but I decided that choosing a BLT tour over a cheaper, more affordable camping tour plus the 21 years old drinking age in America, would minimise this risk and hopefully the tours would attract a slightly older age group.

Once I’d narrowed down which tour company to use, the next step was choosing which tour to do. There were about 6 BLT tours on offer, all varying in length and visiting different areas of the US. Having spent a lot of time in the obvious cities – at this point I had already visited New York, LA, Chicago, Boston, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Washington DC on city breaks – I wanted to find a tour that went to enough new places for me that it would make it worth while. A lot of the west coast trips mainly spent time in LA, Vegas and San Francisco and the North East BLT tour went to New York, Boston and Niagara Falls which I’d also seen before. Their Deep South BLT certainly looked a possibility as I’d always wanted to see New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville but it was only a one week tour and, not being a drinker, I did worry again about it attracting a partying, younger crowd. Also, I thought that if I was going to do this, maybe I should go all in and go for a longer amount of time rather than testing the waters on a one week tour.

The company’s most encompassing BLT tour was the Grand BLT, a 6 week trip travelling coast to coast from New York to LA through the Northern states before returning to New York travelling back through the Southern states. The trips for that year had already departed and didn’t start up again until the following summer but I was itching to get going sooner than that so I saw that the trip could be split. The company’s Southern BLT tour ran through the winter months as well as the summer months. Paired with the Northern BLT which ran just through the summer months, it creates the Grand BLT. Maybe I didn’t have to do the entire trip in one go but could split it into two 3-week trips, one now and one in the summer. That way, if it turned out it wasn’t for me, 3 weeks is less of a commitment than 6 and I just wouldn’t book onto the second leg.

The Southern BLT Tour route

So after a bit more inning and ahhing, talking it through with various friends and family members who all encouraged me to go for it, I booked myself onto the February departure of the Southern BLT tour, adding on a few days completely by myself in Santa Monica, LA before the trip and in New York after the trip – both cities familiar to me so a few days alone in both seemed manageable!

Trek America tour van

I’ll write about my experiences on the trip in a future post but suffice to say I loved it, it was without a doubt the best thing I have ever done. I did book myself onto the Northern BLT that summer and I have done numerous small group tours since with Trek America and various other companies.

So if you are thinking thinking of travelling solo but maybe don’t want to spend your time completely by yourself, definitely consider a group tour!

My first solo travel adventure

Melbourne

I’ve been lucky enough to make a few visits ‘down under’ and 4 of my 5 trips to Australia have included a stop in the city of Melbourne, Victoria. Partly because a good friend of mine moved to the suburbs of the city 10 years ago so whenever I’m in Australia, I like to try and visit but also because, it’s a great city and a good base to explore the surrounding area.

Flinder Street Station

The city of Melbourne and the surrounding area certainly has plenty to offer visitors.

If it’s shopping you’re after then Melbourne won’t disappoint. As well as department stores and shopping malls aplenty, you’ll find great souvenir shopping at Victoria Market, outlet stores at the relatively new Dockside area and boutique stores hidden down narrow lanes. In need of a coffee after? Melbourne is famous for its cafe culture and you’ll find independent coffee shops around every corner!

Flinders Street

Melbourne’s CBD area is easy to get around, it’s layout borrowing heavily from the American grid system. The city offers a free trolley service which loops around the outside of the CBD, passing Federation Square, the Dockside area, Victoria Market and Melbourne Museum amongst other places of interest and even includes a recorded commentary for tourists! Another free bus service runs along the river Yarra towards Melbourne’s Cricket Ground and back. These services are mainly used by tourists and can get busy, especially the circle line trolley.

Federation Square is a good place to start exploring Melbourne from. The Square is a busy meeting place in the city with large open spaces often hosting events and exhibitions and here, you’ll find the city’s tourist information centre.

The Crown Casino Complex

One of my favourite places to stroll in Melbourne is its Southbank area. From here you’ll find great views of the city looking across to Flinders Street Station across the River Yarra. Street entertainers often line the pavement and there’s the huge Crown Casino complex alongside the Southbank with its many shops and restaurants to explore too. Boat trips are offered along the River Yarra from various companies along the riverside, some offering roundtrips with a commentary, others taking you out at sunset or ferrying you to nearby Williamstown.

Eureka Tower and, below, views from the top

Looming over the Southbank, you can’t help but notice the Eureka Tower, the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere. The tower has an observation deck at the top with 360 degree views across the city and Victoria state.

The Shrine of Remembrance

A short walk off the Southbank you’ll find Alexandra Park and the neighbouring Royal Botanic Gardens. The parks are definitely worth a stroll through and you can walk down to the Shine of Remembrance at the south end of the park.

View of Melbourne skyline from St Kilda Pier

Just outside of Melbourne city, and easily reachable by tram, is the beach suburb of St Kilda. St Kilda is a lovely place to stroll around, grab a coffee and cake on Acland Street, walk along the pier from which you can make out Melbourne City skyline on a clear day, visit it’s Sunday flea market or for a bit more excitement, visit Luna Park, it’s amusement park with its huge clown-face gates!

On ‘Ramsay Street’

Fans of the long-running Australian soap opera Neighbours can pay a visit to ‘Ramsay Street’ or Pinot Court as it’s actually called in the suburbs of Melbourne. While it is possible to drive out to the street yourself, tours are available daily from the Neighbours store in Melbourne’s CBD. These tours are great fun with clips from the show being played on the bus as you drive out and locations such as the school being pointed out along the way. On weekends, tours of the set are also offered so you can have photos with the exteriors of Lassiters, Harold’s General Store etc as well as the houses on Ramsay Street. While the infamous ‘Neighbours Night’ (a weekly club night attended by various cast members) is no longer offered, sometimes cast members do pop along to greet tour buses and have photos!

At the Nobbies, Phillip Island and, below, photos from a day tour to Phillip Island

Like I mentioned before, Melbourne is a great base for exploring more of Victoria from. If you don’t have access to a car, there are plenty of companies offering day tours out of the city. My favourite tour to take is to Phillip Island to see the Little Penguins.

This tour can be done as a full day trip or as a half day afternoon trip, depending on how much you want to see along the way and at Phillip Island itself. Most tour companies offer a stop at a wildlife park along the way where you can hang out with the kangaroos and other Australian animals before crossing into the beautiful Phillip Island. Full day tours will usually give you time to explore beaches and coastal walks at various parts of the island while even afternoon-only tours will usually stop at the Nobbies where you can follow the boardwalk for amazing coastal views. Whichever tour you take, the final stop will be at the Penguin Parade where you will sit on the beach and watch as the Little Penguins swim in and run across the sand to their burrows. It really is incredible to watch!

The Twelve Apostles

Another popular trip out from Melbourne is Great Ocean Road. Running along the coast all the way from Melbourne to Adelaide, the distance is too far for one day but you can at least make it as far as the famous Twelve Apostles rock formations and back although it’s a long day!!!

Apollo Bay

I first travelled Great Ocean Road using public transport, catching a train to Geelong then picking up a bus which stopped at Apollo Bay then at the Twelve Apostles and other rock formations, giving us enough time at each stop to get off and take photos before dropping us at a station to catch a train all the way back to Melbourne. It was a cheap way of doing it and we saw what we wanted to see but without a tour guide to provide a commentary or the social aspect of a small group tour, the day felt even longer than it was.

I have since taken a guided small group one day tour of Great Ocean Road and while this was also a long trip, especially the drive back to Melbourne at the end of the day, and we didn’t make it to as many of the rock formations as on the independent trip, I found this to be a much more enjoyable option. We made many stops along the way to break up the journey at pretty bays and towns, at a rainforest boardwalk, a lighthouse and even somewhere to see koalas in their natural habitat before stopping at the Twelve Apostles and Loch Ard Gorge rock formations.

Trips to Mornington Peninsula and the Yarra Valley wineries are other popular options for easily reachable days out from the city.

Overall, Melbourne is a great place to visit but make sure you take the opportunity to get out of the city itself as Victoria has a lot more than Melbourne city to offer!