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It was the final full day of our tour across America’s Deep South with Trek America. So far, we had spent time in New Orleans, Alabama, Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains, Nashville and Memphis and today we would be travelling to the state of Mississippi to visit the city of Natchez.
I had passed through the state of Mississippi once before on a previous road trip through the Southern States of America but that day, our only stop in the state had been at a Burger King so I was looking forward to spending just a bit more time and seeing a tiny bit of what the state has to offer.
We made one stop on the way from Memphis, for lunch at a roadside cafe/green grocers store called The Tomato Place which had a range of delicious sandwiches and toasties on offer. Then it was on into the historic centre of Natchez.
Our first port of call in Natchez was at the visitor centre for Natchez National Historic Park. Here, we spoke to the park rangers and looked at the displays and exhibits to learn about the history of Natchez, completing the complimentary Junior Ranger activity booklets to earn a Junior Ranger badge each!
We had some free time in the area next, to explore, during which some of us decided to take a tour of one of the historic houses to find out more about life in Natchez during the Antebellum era.
After our tour, we spent a bit of time in the park overlooking the river before going to check in at our motel for the evening right on the Mississippi/Louisiana border.
It was the last night of our group tour so in the evening we went out to a nice restaurant by the river for a final group meal, stopping to watch the sunset over the Mississippi River after. Then it was back to the motel for a few drinks around the pool, reminiscing about our adventures over the last week.
Tomorrow, we would be heading back to New Orleans where our tour would come to an end.
After leaving Natchez early, we arrived in New Orleans late morning, stopping at a roadside bar to pick up cocktails to drink as we toured the Garden District. My sister-in-law and I had visited the area during our pre-tour stay of New Orleans just a week earlier but it was nice to have a guided tour this time. We all felt a bit strange drinking cocktails from brightly coloured plastic glasses as we strolled through the Lafayette Cemetery #1 and past the mansions lining the streets but when in New Orleans…!
Our next stop was at Louis Armstrong Park, on the edge of the city’s French Quarter. We wandered through the park looking at some of the sculptures dotted around the area.
Then it was time to say goodbye to our tour guide as we were dropped back at the gateway hotel in the French Quarter. Most of the group would be staying on in New Orleans for a few extra days but as we had stayed before the tour, we would be flying out that evening.
Before waving goodbye to our new friends, we all took a walk into the French Quarter, revisiting the French market, looking inside St Louis Cathedral and strolling along the riverside. Then, after grabbing some Pizza fries for lunch at one of the nearby bars, it was time to say our goodbyes.
We’d had an incredible time exploring America’s Deep South region. We’d seen a lot, had a lot of fun and felt we had learnt a lot along the way too.
This would be my second time in ‘Music City’ after a stop there on a previous Trek America tour but as regular readers may know, last time, bad weather had prevented us arriving with time to do much exploring so this time I was hoping to actually get to visit one of the museums and spend a bit more time exploring the city!
The group was excited today because it was Hallowe’en and, from what we’d seen in the media, the USA celebrates Hallowe’en in a big way. We’d already seen buildings in New Orleans decked out in over-the-top decorations and revellers dressed up in all sorts of costumes wandering around Birmingham, Alabama on a Saturday night out as well as taking part in a spooky Hallowe’en themed night out at Sloss ‘Fright’ Furance that same night so we had high hopes for actual Hallowe’en night.
Many of the group had bought some kind of outfit or make-up to wear from a previous Walmart stop and, my sister-in-law being a professional face painter, was going to help us get made up for a night on the town!
A few of us in the group were fans of the TV show Nashville so we made a quick stop at The Bluebird Cafe, the famous country music venue often featured in the show. There wasn’t really a lot to see, especially as there was even a notice on the door requesting that visitors don’t peep through the windows but we at least took some photos outside it.
Then we made a lunch stop at Nashville Farmers Market. There were so many food outlets, it was difficult to decide where to grab some food from but with its food court seating area in the centre it did at least allow us all to get whatever took our fancy and meet back with our purchases rather than all having to decide on one place to all eat at.
Lunch done, we were dropped just off Broadway, Nashville’s main central street, and given a few hours of free time before reconvening to o and check in at our hostel. Some of the group decided to visit the Johnny Cash Museum, some to wander around Broadway and visit some of the live music venues while we decided to go to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
While I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a huge fan of country music, I’ve definitely become more familiar with a lot of popular country songs and artists since I started travelling in the US and there were enough exhibitions and displays relating to artists that were well known in the UK such as Shania Twain and Taylor Swift, that it made the visit worthwhile. We especially enjoyed the more interactive exhibits such as a recording booth where we sang a group version of a Taylor Swift hit!
With a bit of time still to spare after leaving the museum, we talk a walk along Broadway, browsing at some of the souvenir and gift stores and taking in the energetic atmosphere. As we wandered along, we even bumped into Country music star Kelly Pickler who I recognised from her American Idol days as she was filming for her daily chat show.
After walking along Broadway, we took a quick walk up to the Shelby Street Pedestrian bridge to get some photos of the city skyline and the Cumberland River before meeting back up with the rest of the group and going to check in at our hostel and getting ready for a Hallowe’en evening out.
We were beginning the evening at the Wild Horse Saloon, a music venue I had visited on my last visit to Nashville and had absolutely loved. Whereas my last visit had been on a weekend, it was now midweek and the venue was a lot quieter than it had been before and we were disappointed to find we were pretty much the only people there in costume, out tour guide explaining that most people would have had their costumed Hallowe’en night out at the weekend instead.
Despite the lack of customers putting a slight dampener on the atmosphere, we still had a fun time enjoying the live band playing some country music and taking part in the regular line dancing lessons while we waited for our food to be served. While I would have happily stayed and line-danced the night away, the drinks were on the dearer side so instead, we decided to move on to try some bars along Broadway. Here, the bars were a bit livelier and we hopped from one to the other including the famous Tootsies.
Not being a drinker or one for late nights, I left the rest of the group to it not long after midnight and retired to the hostel where us girls had a private en suite dorm.
The next morning, a few of us were up in time to take the short walk back into the city and grab some delicious breakfast waffles at Another Broken Egg, a cafe which our guide had recommended to us. Then it was time to climb back on the van and head for more Deep South adventures, this time at our next Tennessee destination, the city of Memphis.
I’d enjoyed my return to Nashville and was pleased that I’d had a bit more time to spend in the city this time around but there was still so much I’d like to see and do and I was definitely making plans to return soon.
Day 2 of our 8-day tour across the Deep South USA with Trek America and a pre-tour stay in New Orleans and an interesting start to the trip in Alabama, we were now driving through a corner of the state of Georgia and into Tennessee – the state where we’d actually be spending 5 of the 7 nights of our trip.
Keeping ourselves occupied on the van with a group game of Card Against Humanity and making a few stops along the way to stretch our legs (including one at a gas station in Georgia so we could all officially say we’d set foot in that state!), the time passed quickly and we were soon arriving in our first Tennessee destination of Gatlinburg.
Having not left Birmingham, Alabama until mid-afternoon, it was already dark as we pulled up to our hotel on the main Gatlinburg strip. We were given an hour to settle in before meeting in the lobby to head to dinner together.
We followed our tour guide to the Smoky Mountain Brewery for dinner where I had one of the nicest pizzas I’ve ever eaten! Some of the group sampled some of the the beers on offer and stayed on at the bar after but as we had an early start the next day, most of us headed back to the motel.
The following day would mainly be spent exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As a huge fan of the American National Parks, this was the day of the trip I was most looking forward to. After a pit stop at a local supermarket to grab sandwiches for lunch and snacks and drinks for hiking, we drove the short distance from Gatlinburg to the entrance of the park, jumping out the van for the traditional photo with the park sign.
The area had experienced its first snow of the season, just a light dusting over night but enough to linger on the trees this morning. As we drove further into the park we were all agape at just how beautiful it looked – the autumn colours of the trees mixed with the glistening snow. Our guide pulled over a few times so we could take pictures but they failed to capture the beauty before us in full.
Our first main stop in the park was at Sugarlands Visitor Centre to use the facilities and pick up any maps, leaflets and souvenirs we wanted. After meeting back up at the van, our guide told us that the weather meant the road leading to the area she was planning to take us hiking in was closed so we’d have to make alternative plans.
Instead, we spent well over an hour in the van driving through the park to go hiking in a different area.
The journey didn’t feel anywhere near as long as it was as we passed more stunning scenery – streams and waterfalls glistening through the trees alongside the road, endless woods showing their autumn colours and then wide open stretches of meadowland.
Once we reached our destination near the Cades Cove area of the park, we found the Abrams Falls Trailhead and followed the moderately easy, 5-mile roundtrip hiking trail alongside a river, through woods and rocky areas opening out to Abrams Falls itself – a pretty waterfall and lake.
Here, we sat for lunch, enjoying the view, scrambling over rocks in the lake and climbing up behind the waterfall before hiking back the way we came.
Being tired, what had seemed an easyish hike out, felt longer and more a chore heading back and most of the group slept on the van back to Gatlinburg afterwards!
We were back in Gatlinburg mid-afternoon and had the time to spend as we liked. Making arrangements to meet up with the rest of the group for dinner in the evening, my sister-in-law and I decided to go and explore the small mountain resort town.
As we had driven in the night before, my first impression had been that it was in a similar vein to the holiday towns of Wisconsin Dells and Branson, Missouri – a tourist trap full of souvenir shops and expensive attractions – but as we wondered down the main strip, downtown Gatlinburg endeared itself to me a lot more and seemed to have a lot more charm about it with its surrounding mountains, European mountain resort themed ‘Village Shoppes’ area and its breweries and distilleries dotted around.
Later, we met up with the rest of the group deciding on the Texas Roadhouse for dinner – my first visit to an American chain that is now one of my firm favourites! – before visiting the Ole Smoky Moonshine distillery.
Here, we took part in a Moonshine tasting session where for $5, we were provided with shots of Moonshine – various flavours and a range of strengths – to sample along with a hilarious commentary from our fast-talking host.
Many of the group bought bottles of Moonshine to take along for the rest of our tour after while the rest of us sat out in the courtyard rocking chairs enjoying a live band playing country music while we waited for them to make their purchases.
Not wanting the night to end just yet, we found ourselves in a small karaoke bar just off the strip and seemingly full of locals. I’m not sure what they made of us demonstrating our singing talents to a range of cheesy British pop hits by the likes of 5ive and Westlife. Hopefully they appreciated some of the groups’ attempts at some Dolly Parton country classics a bit more!!
Exploring Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains had been a really fun part of our trip and I was already making plans in my head to return to the area on a roadtrip I was mentally planning for the near future as there was so much more of the National Park to see. But for now, it was time for our Deep South adventure to continue and tomorrow morning we’d be leaving for Music City itself, Nashville!
Hailing from Birmingham in the UK myself, I found it quite amusing that the first stop on my tour of the Deep South would be in it’s namesake in the USA! It was the first day of our Trek America Deep South BLT tour and after completing the usual formalities at our New Orleans‘ hotel early this morning, we were hitting the road in our Trek van. As we left New Orleans and crossed the border into Mississippi (a state we’d be returning to later into our 7 days tour), we spent the time getting to know the rest of the guys in our group and sharing our excitement for our trip.
After making a few stops along the way for comfort breaks, giving us the chance to pick up a few snacks for the journey from the gas station then, later, lunch from a Walmart, we arrived in the state of Alabama, pulling over on the roadside to grab a photo with one of the famous ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ welcome signs.
Once in the city of Birmingham, we were dropped Kelly Ingram Park opposite the Civil Rights Institute and historic 16th Street Baptist Church and containing a range of civil rights monuments.
Given the choice of free time to explore the are or of visiting the Civil Rights Institute, we all chose the latter. The museum was a sobering but interesting experience, taking us through the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement including the Jim Crow laws and the protests and demonstrations of ’50s and ’60s America through a range of informative exhibitions and displays.
After spending a few hours exploring the museum, we were taken to check in at our motel before heading into the city for dinner. Our guide recommended Paramount Bar to us and we were happy to go along with her suggestion, especially once we got inside to find a collection of retro arcade machines filling the rooms! After taking it in turns playing Pac-Man and on the old pinball machines, we sat down to order off the bar menu of basket meals – burgers, sandwiches and the like all at reasonable prices. My burger was delicious and my sister-in-law’s grilled cheese was one of the biggest sandwiches I had ever seen!
Full up, we left the bar to head to our final destination of the evening, Sloss Furnaces.
Sloss Furnaces is actually a National Historic Landmark but every October, it is transformed for Sloss Fright Furnace. The furnace is said to be haunted after the mysterious death of one of its foremans many years ago and other strange goings on since and the organisers play on this creating a walk round experience through the property. After our tour guide had briefly explained this history to us, we were asked if any of us wanted to take part in a walk around the furnace. I love things like this and immediately volunteered along with the 4 others on our tour. One dropped out minutes before we entered leaving it to just me and the 3 boys to work our way around. We moved along dark, narrow corridors as people dressed in hideous outfits and make up jumped out at us or chased us along. It was great fun and I wasn’t scared at all, honest!!
The next morning was a Sunday and we were up early to check out of our motel and go to church! We put on our Sunday best to attend a service at the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The church is known for being the centre of a bombing attack by white supremacist groups in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s, resulting in the deaths of 4 young girls and it has since been designated a National Historic Landmark.
We were welcomed at the church by the friendly congregation and before the service began, were shown around. As our group was made up entirely of Britons, they were especially keen on showing us the beautiful stained glass window donated to the church by the people of Wales to honour the victims of the bombing.
The service itself was really uplifting and we all felt honoured to be attending and welcomed so generously. After it had finished we made the short trip back to the city centre where we called into another Alabama institution – Milo’s Hamburgers, a fast food chain that is exclusive to Alabama state. After grabbing burgers, chicken, crinkle cut fries and traditional Southern sweet tea, it was back on the van to say goodbye to Alabama and begin our journey towards Tennessee.
A couple of years ago I was ecstatic to win 2 places on Trek America’s Deep South Budget Lodging Tour (or Deep South BLT as it’s known for short). The 7 night tour would begin and end in New Orleans, taking in Birmingham, Alabama, Gatlinburg/Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee and Natchez, Mississippi along the way.
Having previously taken Trek America’s Southern BLT, I had visited New Orleans, Nashville and Memphis before so this probably wasn’t a tour I would have paid to take part in but, last time I visited Nashville and Memphis, things hadn’t exactly gone to plan (read all about it here!) thanks to the onset of wintry weather forcing us to abandon most of our plans so I was ecstatic to get a second chance to experience these cities, this time, hopefully, snow free!
Deciding to invite along my sister-in-law who had only ever been to New York and LA in the USA before, we added on a few extra days in New Orleans before the tour was to begin. Wanting her to get the most out of the experience, I borrowed heavily from my last experience of visiting the city in planning our itinerary for the 2 full days we had there.
So on day one, we walked from our hotel on the edge of the French quarter to Jackson Square where we would be meeting for a swamp tour. Last time, I had taken Dr Wagner’s Honey Island swamp tour which had been organised by our Trek leader. It was February, cold and wet and not alligator season. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the experience, I had a great time. But this time, I wanted to visit a different swamp so I booked us on a tour offered by Grayline. The weather was warm and sunny and it was, just, still alligator season.
We were taken by bus to the swamp, where we boarded our boats and headed out onto the bayou. Today, there were plenty of alligators to see as we glided through the water and past the lush, green scenery. While the commentary was sometimes difficult to hear over the conversations going on between passengers, it was still a really fun and exciting way to spend the morning.
Once back in New Orleans, we spent the afternoon exploring the French Quarter. It was Hallowe’en week and many of the buildings had been dressed up in preparation. We sampled some beignets from a local cafe and finished up with drinks on Bourbon Street.
That evening we took a ghost tour with Free Tours By Foot. This company allows you to sign up to its walking tours for free then at the end of the tour, you pay what you feel it was worth or what you can afford. On my previous visit to New Orleans I had taken a ghost tour with a company where you pay a set price up front and I have to say that of the two tours, the ‘free’ tour was much better.
The next day, we took a street car out to New Orleans’ Garden District. Rather than taking a guided tour like I had on my previous visit, this time I’d downloaded a self-guided walking tour which directed us around the area pointing out houses of interest along the way. The Garden District is a really pretty place to explore and with many celebrities living in the are, you never know who you might bump into!
That afternoon, we took another streetcar, this time, out to City Park, a large park on the edge of the city and a new experience for me. The park is home to a sculpture park which we explored before stumbling across a mini-golf course.
As it was Hallowe’en week, the course had been decorated with cobwebs and a range of spooky figures and as we played, we were regularly interrupted by witches cackling and skeleton dogs howling, livening up the game.
Back in the city, we walked towards the Mississippi River and watched the pipes play on the Natchez steamboat. We had booked an evening dinner cruise as I had enjoyed taking one on my previous visit to the the city. After enjoying the delicious buffet dinner, we sat out on the deck enjoying the sunset and city views and listening to the jazz band play.
It had been fun to return to New Orleans a few years on, revisiting some of the places I had seen before and reliving some of my previous experiences but now I was looking forward to beginning our tour of America’s Deep South, starting with a trip to Birmingham, Alabama!
How I made the most of my visits despite the weather
Brisbane, the largest city in Queensland and sandwiched between the Sunshine coast to the north and the Gold Coast to the south, famously receives an average of almost 300 days of sunshine a year. Yet typically, on both of my visits, one in early Autumn and one at the height of the Australian summer, I got to experience some of those 60 rare overcast, rainy days instead!
The weather can really impact how I end up feeling about a place. I think the reason I don’t look back too fondly on my visit to Toronto, Canada was because it mainly rained while I was there and that’s what I always think of now when I’m asked about that city and it was the same with Brisbane after my first visit.
But after my friends had visited and shared their photos of the sunshine drenched city and of themselves lazing on Streets Beach – the man made city beach and lagoon – I decided to give the city another chance and include a 2- night stop there while on a solo trip travelling down Australia’s east coast.
For most of my stay, it rained once again but I did decide I’d been too harsh on the city and rain or shine, it’s actually a great place to visit. So what is there to do in the River City?
On both of my visits to Brisbane, the first place I have headed each time has been the South Bank. A walk along the Brisbane River, with its views of the city skyline, is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. We took a ride on the Wheel of Brisbane to get a better look over the city.
Following the path along the South Bank will lead to the South Bank Parklands and the aforementioned Streets Beach. On both of my visits, it hasn’t really been the weather for staying very long but on a hot, sunny day, it would be the perfect place to relax and cool off.
On my first visit to Brisbane, we made plans to get out of the city on our 2 full days there, spending one day visiting the nearby Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary and the other taking a trip out to the Gold Coast and Springbrook Rainforest.
We organised our own visit to the koala sanctuary using a local bus to get there. We had planned on getting a boat back to the city but changed our minds when the rain started to come down pretty heavy. The sanctuary itself was definitely worth a visit with plenty of land to explore and mingle with a range of Australian critters.
No matter how many times I visit Australia, getting to hang out with kangaroos, wallabies and emus never gets old!
With a few hours to spare late afternoon, we took a walk in Brisbane city centre for some shopping before strolling back to the river, this time, the North side where the Brisbane Botanic Gardens lie.
We walked as far as a Story Bridge view point. Like Sydney Harbour Bridge, it is possible to do a guided bridge climb of Story Bridge. We stopped to see if we could see any groups climbing across then continued back towards the city, the gardens looking a bit sorry for themselves in the continuing rainfall.
For our Gold Coast and Rainforest day trip, we used a company offering small group organised tours. We were picked up by minibus from a prearranged meeting point in Brisbane city and driven out to Surfers Paradise, a city of skyscrapers, shops, clubs, bars and tourist attractions lying on a seemingly never ending stretch of a golden, sandy beach.
We were given a couple of hours of free time in the city and, as it wasn’t really the weather for spending that time lounging on the beach or swimming in the ocean, instead, I went exploring in the town and then caught the lift up to the Skypoint observation deck in one of the city’s tallest skyscrapers. The views up and down the coast from the top were stunning, especially as the weather started to clear up a bit. By the time I got down again, the sun had come out a bit so I spent the last few minutes of our visit on the beach.
After leaving Surfers Paradise, we were taken to the nearby Springbrook Rainforest. As we got there, it once again started to pour down but as we were hiking through a rainforest, this only added to the experience.
On my return trip to Brisbane a few years later, I was hoping for some sunshine, especially as I would be arriving on Australia Day and my hostel were running an afternoon rooftop BBQ.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. The BBQ was rained off so I spent the taking a walk down to the South Bank before a spot of shopping in the city.
Luckily the weather had dried up when I returned to the South Bank in time for the evening’s Australia Day firework display.
I had been hoping to spend a full day in the city taking a bike tour in the morning and hiking up to Mount Coot-Tha Summit Lookout in the afternoon. Unfortunately, when I went to book the bike tour, it turned out it wasn’t running on that particular day so instead, I took a boat down the Brisbane River to New Farm Park.
The park itself is nothing special but it was nice to take the boat along the river and once there, I took a walk along the riverside path and had a look around the old tram power station there, now interestingly converted into a theatre and art space called Brisbane Powerhouse. The park also offered good views of the Brisbane skyline in the distance.
With the rain getting heavier and heavier, I didn’t stay too long and was soon under cover back on the boat to the city.
From the South Bank, I took a umbrella covered walk into Brisbane’s trendy West End district, sheltering in a cafe while grabbing some lunch then, with no sign of the weather letting up, decided to spend the rest of the afternoon exploring some of Brisbane’s free museums.
I started with the Queensland Museum situated just off the South Bank with its exhibits on the state’s past then continued to the nearby Gallery of Modern Art, or GoMA, and Queensland Art Gallery where I found more contemporary art.
On the way back to the hostel, I took a detour past the Old Windmill, the oldest building in Brisbane. While not quite the day I had in mind, I enjoyed my dose of culture in Brisbane city and it was the perfect way to spend a rainy day in the city by myself.
The following day, I took a trip north from Brisbane to Australia Zoo. I had looked into a variety of ways of getting there without a car and decided that using the Greyhound bus service would be the most convenient. I booked a ticket that included my return travel and a ticket into the zoo and just had to be at the bus station on time in the morning then back outside the zoo at the end of the day in time for the departure back to Brisbane.
The zoo was definitely worth the visit and despite visiting alone and the overcast and often drizzly weather, I had a great day.
Despite the unfortunate weather, I definitely came away from my second trip to the city with a newfound appreciation for it. Not only is there plenty to see and do in the city itself, its a convenient gateway for trips out towards the Sunshine coast in the north and the Gold Coast in the south.
I hope to return one day and maybe this time the sun will finally shine on me in Brisbane.
As American Independence Day approaches, I thought it a good time to look back at my own experience of spending the 4th of July in the USA.
After booking a coast to coast tour of the USA finishing in Los Angeles at the very end of June, it seemed like the perfect excuse to stay a few extra days in order to experience the 4th of July celebrations in the USA. Seeing as I would be travelling alone, I wanted somewhere that would have plenty going on, preferably including a parade and fireworks.
I couldn’t find much information about things going on in Los Angeles itself other than an event at Hollywood Bowl, so I started to look elsewhere, researching the best places to spend the American holiday.
Eventually, I settled on the city of Huntington Beach, Orange County, just a couple of hours south of LA which seemed to have plenty going on over the holiday weekend.
Having decided where I wanted to spend the holiday, there were still a few hurdles to overcome. First of all, how to reach my destination without a car and secondly, where to stay seeing as even early on, hotels were either pretty booked out or had hiked prices to way out of my budget.
I would be staying at an AirBnB in Hollywood at the end of my tour, the first time I had used the service so I was unsure of how it would go but with hotel prices in Huntington Beach being so high, I decided that maybe this would be the best option, the only other affordable one really being a room at a Best Western a few miles out. In Hollywood, I would have my own private bedsit just off Hollywood Boulevard but I was struggling again to find anything similar in my price range for those dates in Huntington Beach so instead, I decided to look at people offering private rooms within their homes. After narrowing my search down, I eventually settled on staying with a retired teacher who lived in a gated community on the south edge of town, from where it was a 5-10 minute walk to the beach and a half hour walk along the board walk to the main part of the city. Having mentioned in my email that I had chosen Huntington Beach because I was looking for a traditional Fourth of July experience and had heard they had a parade and fireworks, my host told me that all the residences in the gated community held a party around the pool in the afternoon which I was welcome to attend while staying with her. An American pool party and BBQ?! – this completely sold it to me that this was the right choice of places to stay!
So with my accommodation sorted, I continued to look into transport options. While it would be less than an hour’s drive there, public transport wise, there were very few options available. Or at least, no straight forward ones as they all involved taking multiple subways and buses, not ideal when lugging a huge suitcase and bag along!
I eventually decided to get the FlyAway bus from Hollywood to LAX then a shared shuttle service straight to the door of my AirBnB accommodation, a bit pricier but worth it to save a lot of time and effort.
Everything ran according to plan and after leaving Hollywood, I arrived in Huntington Beach early afternoon on July 3rd. After meeting my AirBnB host and settling into my room, I took a walk down to the beach and into town. It was already busy and buzzing with an atmosphere of excitement.
Bikes decked out with American flags raced past along the boardwalk all honking their horns, ringing their bells and trailing red, white and blue ribbons. Crowds on the beach regularly broke out into chants of U-S-A, U-S-A, getting louder and louder as more and more people across the beach heard and joined in with them before they petered out again.
As I neared the Huntington Beach Pier, the beach got more crowded. From the Pier, I could see that a surfing competition was being held. Surfers rode the huge waves, scoreboards awarded them points, crowds cheered, TV cameras rolled. Surfing is a huge deal here, even earning Huntington Beach the nickname ‘Surf City’.
I stood and watched for a while before making my way along the pier through the crowds, taking in the atmosphere, browsing in the gift stores and stopping to take in the beautiful views along the coast.
Carrying on into town, I came across an outdoor market also set up for the Fourth of July weekend. I weaved my way around stopping to buy a corn on the cob from one of the stalls before walking away the from the beachfront to find Main Street. This is the liveliest street in Huntington Beach with its restaurants, bars and shops and it would also be the site of tomorrow’s parade.
Having checked out where I would need to head to in the morning, and after grabbing an ice cream!, I returned to the beach and began a slow walk back to my accommodation continuing to drink in the atmosphere around me.
The next day, I was greeted by my host with a ‘Happy Fourth’, the house decorated with red, white and blue decorations. After grabbing some breakfast, I headed back into town ready to watch the big parade.
Main Street was already extremely busy as everyone tried to grab a spot along the pavement. It was possible to book spaces on the bleachers for a price but as I was by myself, I figured it would be easy enough to squeeze in somewhere and sure enough, I soon found a spot right by a stone bollard to perch on when my feet became tired!
While the main parade wasn’t due to start for another 40 minutes, many of the decorated bikes I had witnessed riding back and forth along the boardwalk yesterday were now parading up and down Main Street in a pre-parade ritual. Eventually, they were cleared to make way for the main event.
As the parade began, so did the hollering and the flag waving, the patriotic cheers barely letting up as a seemingly never-ending line of marching bands, highly decorated floats and well-trained horses drifted past and getting noticeably louder at the sight of heroic firefighters and members of the armed forces. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement and goodwill.
As the parade began to come to an end, I ducked out early to beat the crowds and go and grab brunch at the IHOP then I made my way back along the boardwalk and to my accommodation. The earlier cloud had now cleared to be replaced with glorious sunshine – perfect weather for a pool party.
Everyone was really welcoming and it was great to experience an authentic typically American 4th of July celebration complete with hot dogs, burgers and home made potato salad!
That evening, I was already planning on heading to the beach to watch the fireworks but was invited by my AirBnb host to go with her and some friends rather than watch them alone. The beach was even busier than it had been during the day with everyone continuing their parties, singing the national anthem and once again breaking out into regular chants of “U-S-A!”
When the fireworks started they were breath-taking. Probably the most spectacular- and definitely the longest – display I have ever seen and, unlike in the UK where they’re greeted with traditional ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, they were greeted with rapturous cheers and applause.
Fireworks over, we packed away our blankets, food and drinks and returned home. I still had a few days left to spend in the OC before flying back to the UK but there was no way they were going to top today. Spending a traditional Fourth of July stateside had been an amazing experience and one I would definitely recommend!
Watch my vlog of my Fourth of July USA experience here:
As we left our overnight stop at Maclaren River, there was one topic of conversation on the bus – would we join the “30 per cent club” and get to see Mount Denali? We’d been told that the Alaskan Range is so often covered by cloud that few visitors to the park actually see Mount Denali itself but we were all hopeful that over the next 2 days, the weather would clear enough for us to get at least a glimpse!
Arriving in time for lunch, we went straight to Denali Village rather than stopping to check in at our cabin accommodation and had some time to grab a sandwich and look around the local stores before heading into the park itself.
Our first stop in the park was at one of the park’s visitor centres to look around and grab any information we wanted for the next few days. The park runs a series of shuttles to take visitors around the park and after a while, we met at the bus stop outside the centre to catch a shuttle to the Denali Kennels for a dog sled demonstration.
Before the demonstration begins, visitors are able to wander through the kennel area to meet the park’s sled dogs which, being a total dog person, I absolutely loved being able to do! Then we found spaces in the viewing area as the park rangers led the demonstration with a little help from their 4-legged friends.
Some of us had taken up the optional extra of a scenic flight over the Alaskan Range that evening with a glacial landing so after our visit to the kennel, we were dropped at the airfield where we were kitted out in some special boots to stop us slipping on the ice before boarding the third small aircraft of our trip so far.
Like our previous two scenic flights in Anchorage and Wrangell-St Elias National Park, this was not a cheap excursion but we knew we’d not get the chance to visit this part of the World again for a long time, if ever, so we saved hard in order to make the most of these experiences.
The saving paid off as this was without a doubt the absolute highlight of our entire trip to Alaska. The views as we flew over the mountains were absolutely beautiful and to top it all off, from above the clouds, we joined that 30% club and caught a glimpse of Mount Denali. It was strangely quite an emotional experience!
Landing on the glacier at the end of our flight was also an amazing experience. The air was so crisp and clear and we had a fun time letting our inner child out and playing in the icy snow in between taking photos and standing gaping in awe at the surrounding scenery.
After flying back, a shuttle bus took us to our accommodation of cabins just outside of the park and we met with the rest of the group at the Pizza Pub across the road to share our stories.
We began the next morning back in Denali Village to grab some breakfast then a quick stop at the park entrance to take pictures with the sign.
It was a miserable, wet day meaning there was little chance of catching another glimpse of the elusive mountain.
Today, we had tickets to ride the Denali shuttle. This 8-hour round trip was one of the included experiences in our Alaskan Highlights Tour. We had a bit of time to spare before the shuttle left so we spent some time hiking in the rain on the short trail out to Horseshoe Lake, keeping an eye out for beavers along the way.
Then we boarded the shuttle bus to see more of the park. We saw plenty of wildlife in the park from the very first few minutes of the trip but it was mainly caribou and moose.
The bus made a few stops on the way around giving us the chance to stretch our legs, take bathroom breaks or take a short hike.
We stopped at a viewpoint for the Teklanika River and then at Polychrome Pass where we walked to a Mount Denali viewpoint but the rain and low cloud meant all we could really see was the river below us.
The other main stop of the day was at the Toklat River Rest Area where there was an information area along with a gift shop then it was back on the bus to our final stop, Eielson Visitor Centre.
Here we took a short hike out to another viewpoint. Still no sign of Mount Denali but we did see a really cute arctic ground squirrel!!!
From Eielson, we boarded the bus again to return to where we started. The return trip was mainly uneventful except for when we finally spotted bears! It took us until our penultimate day in Alaska and they were pretty far in the distance but we were excited that we had at least ticked that off our Alaska bucketlist!
Once back at our cabin ground, it was time to get ready for our last group meal of the trip as tomorrow we’d be heading back to Anchorage. We went out to a local restaurant where we had an excellent 3 course meal and reminisced about our amazing trip.
Our final day on the Alaskan trip was quite low key. We stopped for lunch in the town of Talkeetna, famous for its mayor once being a cat called Stubbs! Then continued to former Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin’s home town of Wasilla looking to see if we could see Russia from there (we couldn’t!).
Then, with one last blast of our ‘morning song’, Joe Croce’s I Got a Name (despite it now being the afternoon, it had become out tour anthem!), we were back to where we started 10 days before. Some of the group were heading straight off that afternoon and, having already spent time exploring Anchorage before our tour started, we were off to the airport to fly out of Alaska that night but there was time for one last meal with some of the group so we walked downtown and went for a meal together at the Hard Rock Cafe.
It had been an amazing trip with so many highlights. Looking for bears at Lake Clark, wildlife spotting while cruising through Kenai Fjords National Park in Seward, kayaking out to see magnificent icebergs in Valdez, taking a scenic flight and hiking across a glacier at Wrangell-St Elias National Park, canoeing down the Maclaren River and joining the 33% club by actually laying eyes on Mount Denali! But now, it was time to say our final goodbyes to the group and it was back to Anchorage airport to wave goodbye to this beautiful State!
Saying goodbye to the historic town of McCarthy and the nearby Wrangell-St Elias National Park – for now at least – we were back on our Grand American Adventures minibus this morning to start the drive to the final National Park of our trip, Denali. The road to Denali was so long that we were having to break it up with a stop somewhere around the half way mark so today, we’d be travelling to a middle-of-nowhere town called Maclaren.
Our first stop today was back at the national park we had just left behind. Wrangell-St Elias is the largest National Park in the USA so despite being on the road for a while, we parked up to find we were in another part of the park giving anyone who hadn’t had the chance in Kennecott the day before to visit a park Visitor Center and pick up maps and souvenirs and giving us all the chance to experience more beautiful views across the park.
The rest of the drive was along another long, bumpy road. We made frequent stops to stretch our legs, see the views of the Alaskan Range and take photos and there was a bit of excitement when we saw a young caribou on the road.
We arrived at our overnight stop of Maclaren Lodge around lunch time. We’d be staying in, as the name suggested, lodge style accommodation with shared facilities. The main lodge area had a restaurant and communal area and after checking into our rooms, we went straight there for lunch.
After we had eaten, we had the opportunity to canoe down Maclaren River. Our arms just about recovered from our strenuous Kayaking experience in Valdez a few days earlier, we signed ourselves up and were soon being sped down the river on the lodge’s boat to the canoe rental hut.
Maclaren River is a braided river with some quite fast moving water and we had a great afternoon paddling along, especially when we accidentally got caught in a current and went took the opposite fork in the river to everyone else. We did of course all meet up again a few moments later when the 2 parts of the river once again blended into one ending our brief panic!
Our canoeing experience over, we returned to the lodge for an evening of socialising with the group culminating in a hilarious game of Cards Against Humanity. Then it was off to bed ready for an early start to get back on the road to Denali in the morning.
The next morning, after a delicious pancake breakfast at the lodge, it was back on the long, bumpy road. We made a few more stops at scenic spots to view the surrounding scenery of the Alaskan Range along the way and had reached Denali by lunch!
After an exhausting but amazing day kayaking out to an iceberg field in Valdez, it was back on the van today to set off for our next stop on our Alaskan Highlights tour of Alaska, the historic town of McCarthy from where we’d be exploring the largest US National Park, Wrangell-St Elias.
After a quick breakfast stop in Valdez, we began our long drive, stopping just outside of Valdez after spotting a bald eagle in the trees on the roadside and then again at an overlook for Lowe River.
We made more frequent stops at various viewpoints to stretch our legs along the way including one at Liberty Falls State Recreation Area to see the waterfall.
Our lunch stop today was in the small town of Chitina. As we’d once again made our own lunch up to keep costs down, we again bought a dessert to share at the cafe the group were eating at!
The road to McCarthy was long and bumpy and following yesterday’s exhausting full day’s kayaking excursion, after lunch, I did something I rarely do and fell asleep in the van!
I woke up just before our final stop before McCarthy at an overlook for the Copper River. We stopped at a long road bridge crossing the river from which there pretty views of the chalky river flowing through the canyon below. The road was so quiet, we sat on the bridge posing for photos – something we’d rarely be able to do on road bridges in the UK!
Once we reached the vicinity of McCarthy, we stopped and parked up near an old railroad bridge. We were told to retrieve our luggage from the trailer and to take it over the river bridge and once on the other side, we would be met by vans belonging to the guesthouse we were staying in who would take us the rest of the way into town as larger vehicles such as our tour van are not advised to drive the last stretch of the road.
We were staying at Ma Johnson’s Hotel, a historic guesthouse in the town. There was no wifi, no power points in our rooms – we had to use the few in the communal areas – and bathrooms were shared rather than being en suite but it had a real charm about it and the rooms were really lovely. The whole town was like something time had forgot with its swinging saloon doors and Wild West style fronts.
That afternoon, some of us had opted to take a scenic flight over Wrangell-St Elias National Park so, after a bit of time to settle in to our accommodation and look around the small town, we met at the front of the hotel to be shuttled down to the local airfield and board our small aircraft.
The flight was an amazing experience with stunning views of the park below. We flew over the braided Copper River, over the ghost town of Kennecott and then over mountains and glaciers, the scenery taking our breath away as our pilot told us about the history and geography of the area and answered any questions we had as we communicated with him through our headsets. We had saved furiously before the trip to be able to do these optional extras as we knew they would be what made the trip and while this was certainly not the cheapest optional extra on offer, it was absolutely worth every penny.
After our flight, we were dropped back in McCarthy town and all went for dinner at local diner, The Potato, where I had an amazing pulled pork sandwich. The group was really starting to gel now and the banter was in full flow as we were all on a high from our scenic flight experience.
Day 2 in McCarthy and we were off to Wrangell-St Elias National Park for a glacier hiking experience. Once again, we were picked up and shuttled out of McCarthy, this time to the old mining town of Kennecott, now a ghost town, where we met our guide for the day and got kitted out with special grips that fitted over our shoes enabling us to walk on the icy glacier.
Taking a short hike out to the glacier’s edge, we followed the glacier trail until the rocky path disappeared to be replaced by ice. It was surreal walking across the seemingly endless icy plain which we had been flying over the afternoon before. We came across huge walls of ice and deep crevices with no bottom in sight. We stopped for snacks and drinks sat out on the glacier and stopped to fill up our water bottles from the icy springs – the clearest, freshest water I’ve ever tasted!
After returning to Kennecott and handing back our equipment, the afternoon was free for us to either explore Kennecott or to return to McCarthy. We decided to stay in Kennecott, grabbing some lunch and visiting the national park visitor center before signing up for a tour of the old abandoned copper mine.
The tour was really interesting, taking us through the town of Kennecott hearing all about its history and then up into the remains of the old, red mill building. Although the building had been stabilised to allow visitors in, we had to wear hard hats in case of any falling debris!
After the tour, we caught the shuttle back to McCarthy taking another trip to the Potato Cafe for dinner and relaxing after a busy day.
The next morning, we had breakfast and spent some time down by the river before we were dropped back at our tour van ready to set off for our next destination, an overnight stop in Maclaren.
Watch my vlog of my visit to McCarthy and scenic flight over Wrangell-St Elias here:
Watch my vlog of my Wrangell-St Elias glacier hike and visit to Kennecott ghost town here: