Alaska: Exploring Anchorage

Part 2 of my Alaskan Adventure

Star the Reindeer

Having had a disappointing trip to Lake Clark on our first day in the state of Alaska, we figured things could only get better! This evening, we would be kicking off a 10-day Grand American Adventures tour of the state with a Welcome Meeting at our hotel and tomorrow we would be departing for Seward, the first stop on our Alaskan Highlights tour, but first, we had the whole day ahead of us to explore Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city.

It was about a 10 minute walk from our hotel to the main downtown strip where all the shops, bars and restaurants were. On the way, we passed famous Anchorage resident, Star the Reindeer.

In one of the many Anchorage gift stores

Once downtown, we grabbed some breakfast from Starbucks in the shopping mall then spent some time exploring the many souvenir stores, picking up a few last minute essentials for our upcoming tour. There was a good selection of stores, our favourite being the huge Polar Bear Gifts, claiming to be Alaska’s largest gift store!

All shopped out, we then found ourselves at the Anchorage Visitor Information Center where we saw a trolley tour of the city departing. Still having a few hours to kill before our Tour Welcome Meeting, we bought tickets for the next trolley tour.

Anchorage Trolley Tour

The trolley took us out of downtown, along to the Port of Anchorage and past the Captain Cook Monument then down past Westchester Lagoon and Earthquake Park where we were told how Anchorage had suffered a huge earthquake in the 1960s – the largest quake ever recorded in North America – and how it’s effects to the landscape can be seen in the park. Then, we headed back towards downtown Anchorage past Lake Hood and Lake Spenard. Here we saw lots of small aircraft and seaplanes and were told that it’s almost as common to have these to get around in as it is cars in Alaska!

Although there wasn’t really a lot to see on the tour, our tour guide was really interesting to listen to with lots of facts about the city. But it was a shame there wasn’t the opportunity to hop off at any of the places pointed out as it would have been nice to explore Earthquake Park but we were unsure how to get back to it, not to mention short on time, after.

With it now being way past lunchtime, we decided to make our way along one of the city’s many walking trails to a retro diner we had seen on the way to our hotel the other night. Unfortunately, when we got there, it was closed – one of the downfalls of not having internet access in other countries is not being able to check these things first! – but it had been a pleasant walk past Westchester Lagoon to get there. We made do with a Subway sandwich instead and also stopped by a Walgreens to stock up on some snacks for our tour so it wasn’t a complete waste of a walk!

Walking back to downtown Anchorage

By the time we got back it was time for our tour welcome meeting. We met the rest of our group, just 9 of us, ranging in age from 28 to a very active 75, and our tour guide who just happened to be an Alaskan native! With the introductions and paperwork all done, we walked back into downtown to grab some pizza for dinner.

Our Alaskan adventure had been a bit underwhelming so far. We found that Anchorage didn’t really have a lot to offer and was really just a gateway city for tourists beginning or ending Alaskan tours or cruises but we were still excited to see what the state had to offer away from its largest city were eager to get on the road the next day.

Watch my vlog on my day in Anchorage here:

Alaska: A bear spotting trip to Lake Clark from Anchorage

My Alaskan Adventure Part 1

Having ticked off over 20 states on my Trek America Southern and Northern BLT tours along with a few I’d already ticked off on a few previous trips to the US, it suddenly became my aim to tick off all 50 states. So why not start with one of the most difficult?

Alaska had first crossed my mind while sat on the Trek America van the summer. A few of us were browsing a brochure that was lying around in there and all agreed the Alaskan BLT looked amazing. We jokingly agreed to all meet up again to take the tour the following year and for 2 of us, that joke became reality.

Alaska bound!

Planning the trip wasn’t all smooth-running. We added in a few days in Vancouver, Seattle and Portland before flying to Alaska and a trip to Denver after the tour, all carefully planned around the start and end date of the tour as soon as it was confirmed as running. The problems began when we were contacted by Trek America to say they had accidentally confirmed the tour and actually, we were the only 2 who had signed up for it so they’d rather not run it. We could, however, upgrade to a similar tour offered by their sister company Grand American Adventures instead.

The benefits of this would be that we’d be getting a more expensive tour with better accommodation than on our originally booked tour. The downside being that 1) it started a day later – and therefore finished a day later – meaning it didn’t fit in with the flight to Denver we’d already booked, 2) the itinerary was ever so slightly different, it didn’t go to Homer and we really wanted to do the ‘Bear tour’ – an optional extra for Homer on the original trip where we’d fly somewhere and go bear spotting, and, 3) Grand American Adventures tours are open age unlike Trek America who have an 18-38 age restriction. We were worried the trip would attract an older clientele and the social side of it wouldn’t be what we’d come to expect from Trek America tours.

Arriving at the airfield for our bear spotting trip

With the airline agreeing to change our Denver bound flight and the hotels also accommodating changes to our plans, we eventually agreed to swap tours. As the ‘bear tours’ also ran out of Anchorage, we decided to use the extra day we’d now have there to do that to make up for the opportunity not being on the new itinerary. And so, after a few days spent in Portland, we flew to Anchorage.

Despite landing at around 11pm, it was still light there and we were pleased to find blackout blinds on our hotel room windows so it at least felt like nighttime in there!

Off to Lake Clark

Trek America had organised for us to the ‘bear tour’ on our first day in the city through a company they had recommended after we expressed our disappointment at it not being an optional extra on the Grand American Adventures tour and so we were up and waiting for our pick up outside our hotel the next morning. We waited. And waited. And waited. Tour anxiety is not unusual whenever we book these type of tours but usually, just as you think you’ve been forgotten, the minibus turns up. But not today. We managed to get in touch with Grand American Adventures to find out what was happening and later found out they had accidentally booked us on the tour for that date but a month earlier! A different tour was running that afternoon which was still to view bears in the wild so as there were places left on it, we were quickly booked onto that!

No sign of any bears

So after grabbing some lunch, we again waited outside the hotel for our pick up. This time it arrived on time. As we headed to the airfield, we noticed the weather was changing and there was some talk about whether our tour would go ahead but soon we were boarding a small aircraft and taking off for Lake Clark National Park. The bad weather continued forcing the pilot to fly low beneath the worst of it but eventually, we arrived safely at our destination.

Waiting patiently…

After being kitted out with binoculars, we took a short drive and an even shorter hike out to an open field where we stood hidden in the trees waiting for a bear to hopefully make an appearance. It was absolutely pouring down at this point and as the weather got worse and worse, we knew that the chances of actually seeing anything out there was getting less and less. After an hour or so, we were forced to call it a day. Deflated, cold and wet, we returned to the airfield and were lead into a small cabin where a lunch – and delicious brownie dessert! – had been laid on for us before we flew back to Anchorage.

Cheering ourselves up with some cake!

The weather now clearing, it was a much more pleasant flight than the one up to Lake Clark. Unlike the company we would have used in Homer which refunded you of you didn’t see bears, the Anchorage company had no such policy in place so it had pretty much been a waste of a day and money. We knew there was a chance of this from the start but were mainly annoyed because we knew plenty of bears had been spotted on the morning tour which we should have been on if it wasn’t for the mix up.

Not the best start to our Alaskan adventure but we had at least enjoyed the scenic flight to Lake Clark and back and we were hopeful that we would get the opportunity to see bears in the wild elsewhere on our trip!

Watch my vlog of my trip to Lake Clark here:

Visiting TV and movie sets around the World

It’s not just the USA where you’ll find filming locations.

While America is a great place to see locations from all your favourite TV shows and movies, there are plenty of opportunities elsewhere in the World.  Here’s some I’ve come across on my travels!

‘Storybrooke’

While spending a few days in Vancouver, Canada, we caught a bus out to the small town of Stevenson, otherwise known as ‘Storybrooke’ in the TV show Once Upon a Time.  Like in Covington, Georgia (Mystic Falls in The Vampire Diaries), the town plays up to it’s connection to the show with some stores permanently changing their name to what they were in the show and the information office providing a free map of filming locations and Once Upon a Time merchandise.  Plenty of other shows film in and around Vancouver including most of DC’s superhero shows such as The Flash and Supergirl.  You can look up locations around the city to visit to see some of the buildings used in the shows and also look out for signs stuck to trees and lampposts indicating that filming will shortly be going on in that area.

Matera, Italy

View across the ‘Sassi’ in Matera

While taking a tour of the beautiful city of Matera in Southern Italy, filming locations for Wonder Woman and The Passion of Christ were pointed out and some of the upcoming James Bond film No Time To Die was also shot here.

Harry Potter locations in Scotland

The ‘Hogwarts Express’ at Glenfinnan Viaduct

On a recent trip to Scotland, I visited the Glenfinnan Viaduct to watch the ‘Hogwarts Express’ from the Harry Potter films zoom across and you’ll find plenty of other Harry Potter filming locations in Scottish capital, Edinburgh.

Australian soap operas

If you’re a fan of Australian soap operas and are on a trip down under then why not visit Home and Away’s ‘Summer Bay’, actually the town of Palm Beach in Sydney’s North Beach area or Neighbours’ Ramsay Street, actually Pin Oak Court, a cul de sac in a Melbourne suburb!

Game of Thrones in Malta

The Mdina Gate is een in season 1 of Game of Thrones

I’d not watched any of Game of Thrones when I visited Malta a few years ago but when I did start to watch, I instantly recognised some of the places I’d visited on the islands of Malta and Gozo, in the first series of the show.  It’s possible to take a Game of Thrones themed tour in Malta or you can look up locations on the internet and visit the locations yourself!

A square in Mdina also used in Game of Thrones

Lord of the Rings

Lord of the Rings fans should head straight to New Zealand where filming of the original three films and of The Hobbit took place.  I took a locations tour from Queenstown on the South Island and you can also visit the Hobbiton set near Rotorua on the North Island, hike the Tongariro crossing near Taupo to see ‘Mount Doom’ or visit the Weta Workshop in Wellington to see props and costumes from the films.

Read about the filming locations I’ve visited in the USA here.

Have you visited any filming locations around the World? Let me know!

America – One great big film set!

Visiting the sets of some of my favourite movies and shows

When I’m not off travelling, I watch quite a lot of TV and am a regular at my local cinema and one of the things I love about visiting the USA is that I never seem to be far from places I recognise from my favourite movies and shows.

Here’s some of my favourite sites that I’ve visited and where I found them!

The Friends apartment block

The Friends apartment block

Although Friends was actually filmed on sound stage at Warner Brothers’ Studios in LA, between scenes, shots of New York fill the screen including one of a building supposed to be the apartment block where Rachel and Monica’s apartment is. This footage is actually of a building in the Greenwich Village area of Manhattan, on the corner of Bedford Street and Grove Street, just a short walk from Christopher Street subway station. I must admit to taking a few wrong turnings the first couple of times I visited but once you’re there, the building is instantly recognisable and Greenwich Village is a great area to wander around before or after your visit!

At Chuck Bass’ hotel!

New York City in general is a great place for finding TV and movie locations. They’re absolutely everywhere, in fact, it’s like one giant movie site, and there’s plenty of websites with lists of them all. Some of my other favourites there include the Empire Hotel in the Upper West side – the one owned by Chuck Bass in Gossip Girl – with its neon red rooftop sign, rooftop bar and Gossip Girl and Sex and the City themed cocktails; the Central Park boating lake, Bow Bridge and Bethesda Fountain, recognisable from seemingly hundreds of movies including Sex and the City, Enchanted and Elf; and Katz’s Deli in the Lower East side from When Harry Met Sally.

The Vampire Diaries’ town

The familiar town square in Covington aka Mystic Falls

Having just binge-watched all 8 seasons of The Vampire Diaries, I just had to insist on taking a slight detour while travelling through Georgia en route to Atlanta a couple of years ago. The town of Covington, Georgia doubled (and still doubles in spin-off, Legacies) as Mystic Falls in the hit show and has embraced it’s connections to all-thing Vampire to bring in the tourists. Although it was possible to take a guided Vampire Diaries locations tour, it didn’t run on the day we were passing through and our schedule didn’t allow for us to return another day but it was still fun wandering around and seeing the instantly recognisable town square and the Mystic Grill restaurant. We called into the information centre to pick up a free walking tour map which pointed out some of the locations from the show including Elena’s house as well as locations from other shows and movies filmed in the area. The state of Georgia is well known as a filming location for many popular TV shows and movies and it’s possible do self-guided visits – or pick up guided tours from Atlanta – to see locations from other popular shows filmed in the area such as The Walking Dead.

Layfayette Cemetery #1

A cemetery might seem like an odd filming location suggestion but this New Orleans’ cemetery in the city’s Garden District is one of the most filmed. In fact, anytime you see a New Orleans’ set show with a cemetery scene in, it’s more than likely it was shot here. As a fan of The Vampire Diaries, the cemetery was instantly recognisable to me from scenes featuring Klaus and his siblings and from their spin off show The Originals but since visiting, I have spotted it in many other TV shows and movies.

‘East High’

When I saw someone post a photo on social media of their Trek America tour stopping at the High School Musical high school building for the group to get photos, I had to look up where it was and was delighted to find out it was in Salt Lake City, a city we just happened to be visiting on a roadtrip that summer. While I was looking up the address for the school, I stumbled across a notice that the school was actually open for self-guided tours outside of school hours. As we’d be passing through during the summer holidays, this meant we could visit at pretty much any time during the day although if you are visiting while school is in session, it’s still possible to go and look around late afternoon once school is out for the day.

In the halls of East High

When we got there we were quite suprised that we could just walk into the school, no questions asked – we expected that we would have to maybe check in at the office and say why we were visiting but instead the doors were unlocked, we walked uin and pinned to the wall were leaflets outlining a self-guided walking tour of the school.

Having watched the films many times, it was quite surreal seeing the dining area where a lot of the big musical numbers took place – and yes, I did hop up on a table and have a dance when no one was looking, it just had to be done! The leaflet was a very comprehensive guide pointing out every classroom used in the movie and although a lot of these were locked, we did get to see the characters’ lockers, including Sharpay’s which was still bright pink, the gymnasium and the auditorium! Definitely worth a visit if you’re a fan and in the area!!!

Los Pollos Hermanos

Travelling through New Mexico on a Trek America tour, I’d never seen an episode of Breaking Bad so when we stopped at a fast food restaurant called ‘Twisters’ near Albequerque, it’s significance was completely lost on me. It was, of course, the restaurant that doubles as Los Pollos Hermanos in the hit TV show and having now binge-watched the series, I know exactly why the other members of my tour group were so excited by the stop. The restaurant had the Los Pollos Hermanos logo on one of it’s walls and a poster up proudly declaring that Breaking Bad was shot there and pointing out the table Walt sat at in the show. There’s plenty of other Breaking Bad filming locations you can visit in the Albuquerque area with many websites listing exactly where these are for a self-guided tour as well as organised tour being offered.

Nashville

Just before my second visit to ‘music city’, I’d started to watch the TV show, Nashville, starring Connie Britton. I was visiting Nashville as part of a Trek America group tour and as a few of us on the tour watched the show, we asked if we could stop at the Bluebird Cafe, one of the live music venues often visited by the characters in the show which is also a real life live country music venue. We visited in daylight hours en route to the city and to be honest, it was a little disappointing, just a small building amongst other buildings in a seemingly run down area and it even had a note tacked on the window telling tourists no peeking in! Still, we took a quick photo outside and continued on to the city where we could see other venues used in the show including and the Ryman Auditorium and the Wild Horse Saloon. It is possible to get tickets to see live bands play at the Bluebird Cafe but you have to book way in advance as it’s such a popular, and a relatively small, venue. The more famous Grand Ole Opry which also featured in the show is a bit out of the city centre but well worth a visit and tour and at the time I went, had an exhibition of costumes and props from the show and it’s also possible to take a guided tour of locations from the city to see the houses etc used in the show!

Monument Valley

If you’re a fan of the old Western movies, you’d struggle to find a better place to visit than Monument Valley with its iconic landscape that’s appeared in hundreds of shows and films. (Even if you’re not a Western fan, I thoroughly recommend a visit to this amazing place!) Head to popular lookout, John Ford Point, named after the director of many of the westerns filmed there for views of some of the most recognisable scenery in the Navajo Tribal Park. Another popular film scene shot at Monument Valley was the end of Forrest Gump’s run across America on a road in the town of Mexican Hat, Utah with Monument Valley as a backdrop! The park was covered in snow when I visited making it look a little differen t to how it looks on film but just as spectacular!

The Forrest Gump bench

If you’re looking for other Forrest Gump locations, then try Savannah where you’ll find Chippewa Square, the small park where Forrest sat on the bench to tell his story from in the film. The bench itself isn’t actually there – it was never part of the square and was just put in for the purpose of the film – but you can find a replica of it in the Savannah History Museum. For the real thing you’ll have to head to Paramount Studios in LA where you can sit and pose on it for a photo!

The Forrest Gump Bench at Paramount Studios, Hollywood

Utah’s Little Hollywood

Marker on Kanab’s Walk of Fame

Another one for fans of old cowboy films is the town of Kanab, Utah, sometimes dubbed ‘Utah’s Little Hollywood’ and where over 100 movies and TV shows have been filmed. I only discovered this town when we made a brief stop there en route to Bryce Canyon National Park on a guided day tour from Las Vegas. Visit the free Little Hollywood Museum to see a Western town reconstructed from buildings once used in movie sets there as well as plenty of props and photos from its movie-making heyday.

The Mrs Doubtfire House

The Steiner Street house

San Francisco is another large city where you’ll find buildings and areas familiar to you from a large number of shows and movies – the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island etc have all been featured in plenty of movies – but we were looking for a specific location – the Mrs Doubtfire house. We used public transport to head to Steiner Street in the Pacific Heights area and quickly found the Victorian-style mansion. While on a sightseeing bus tour of San Francisco, we also had the house from the original TV show Charmed pointed out to us. Having never watched the show, I didn’t pay much attention but might be worth a visit if you are a fan!

Punxsutawney Phil

Off to peer in at Punxsutawney Phil

After re-watching Groundhog Day a few weeks before embarking on a US roadtrip that would bypass Pittsburgh en route to Philadelphia, I just had to look up the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to see if it was a real place. It was and we managed to slightly detour to fit in a stop and visit Punxsutawney Phil, the weather predicting groundhog, himself and the amusingly named Gobblers Knob, site of the annual Groundhog Day ceremony! While Punxsutawney is a fun place to visit, the film wasn’t actually shot there. It was actually filmed in the town of Woodstock, Illinois, a place which I’ve yet to visit, but I’ve been told that there is a bronze footprint-shaped marker there showing the place where Bill Murray repeatedly stepped in – or over – a puddle throughout the film.

Site of the Groundhog Day ceremony

Sunset Beach

As a huge fan of late ’90s cult US daytime soap opera, Sunset Beach, I was extremely excited about the prospect of visiting the Orange County town it was set in while staying for a few days at the neighbouring Huntington Beach. Despite there being a beach town named Sunset Beach just down the road, the show was actually filmed at Seal Beach. I looked up the addresses of the houses used as exteriors for the some of my favourite characters as well as the locations of bars and cafes from the show and, of course, took a stroll along the iconic pier!

The Shining Hotel

While on a Columbia River Gorge day tour out of Portland, we called in at Timberline Lodge to see Mount Hood. This lodge is famously the one used for exterior shots of the Overlook Hotel in 1980 horror film The Shining. As we arrived, out tour guide told us that, playing on it’s connection to the film, the hotel keeps an axe at reception which visitors can request to hold and pose for photos with. Well there was no way we were leaving there without asking for that opportunity! The axe was handed straight over to us as soon as we asked. It had the famous quote from the film “Here’s Johnny” emblazoned on it and we were allowed to stand around the lodge with it taking photos.

Seattle

Another city used as a backdrop for a lot of TV shows and movies. I was excited to have the houseboat where Tom Hanks’ character lives in Sleepless In Seattle pointed out while on a DUCK Tour in the city but the best place for movie fans to head to in this city is the Museum of Popular Culture. Not a movie set, but instead you will find plenty of movie memorabilia, hundreds of props and costumes from classic movies! Great fun to explore!!

LA Studio Tours

Griffith Observatory, LA
The Rodeo Drive store visited by Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman

Of course, the best place to visit if you’re looking for movie sets if the movie capital of the World, Hollywood. Head up to Griffith Observatory to relive the famous dance scene from LA LA Land or to Century City to find Die Hard‘s Nakatomi Tower, actually the Fox Plaza building. You can walk in Julia Roberts’ Pretty Woman footsteps on Rodeo Drive or while in Beverly Hills, see the police from the Beverly Hills Cop films – actually Beverly Hills City Hall!

Film set on the Paramount Studios backlot

The S Club 7 apartment in Venice Beach

As a fan of 90s/00s British pop group S Club 7, I was excited to find locations used in their LA 7 and Hollywood 7 TV shows down in Santa Monica and Venice Beach including the apartment block the band supposedly stayed at in the latter.

But the film studio tours are without a doubt, the best places to go if you want to stand on a TV or movie set. Choose from a trip to Universal Studios or take the Warner Brothers Studios, Paramount Studios or Sony Studios tours. You can read about my experiences taking all of these tours here!

Have you visited any filming locations in the USA? Let me know!

Read about filming locations I’ve visited while travelling elsewhere in the World here.

Portland, Oregon

A 3-day break in Portland and it’s surrounding area

With a trip to Alaska booked for the main part of our trip, we decided to first spend some time in the Pacific Northwest. After flying to Vancouver on the West coast of Canada and spending a few days exploring there, we had caught the train south into the USA and Seattle for a 4 day visit and now we were back on the Amtrak heading South again, this time to the city of Portland in the state of Oregon.

Jim Dandy Diner

Although Portland would be our base, we had heard that Oregon state was really beautiful so had made plans to get out of the city too and explore some of the surrounding area.

With the Alaska portion of our trip being so expensive we had been trying to budget elsewhere so like in Seattle, we would be staying slightly outside of the city center to cut costs. Arriving at Portland’s Union Station from Seattle late afternoon, we found our way to the correct light rail stop and successfully made our way out to the suburbs to find our motel.

Deciding it too late to head back into the city that night, we instead called into the old diner across the road. Jim Dandy’s Drive In is a Portland landmark. Having opened in 1937, it is one of Oregon’s oldest drive-ins. We enjoyed a traditional burger and fries meal followed by one on the largest soft-serve ice creams I had ever seen!

Timberline Lodge
Posing with an axe at The Shining hotel

Our first full day in Oregon, we had booked a one day tour with America’s Hub World Tours through Viator to Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge. We were picked up by our minibus transportation for day bright and early from our motel heading away from the city to our first stop of the day, Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood.

Timberline Lodge is famously the lodge used for exterior shots in classic horror film The Shining and as we approached, our guide told us that you could ask at reception for an axe to hold and pose for photos with it. Half thinking he was joking – who would hand over an axe to strangers in a hotel full of people?! – we thought we’d at least ask and see what they said and sure enough, we were immediately handed over a rather heavy axe, no questions asked and allowed to wander the immediate are of the hotel with it posing for photos!

The Bridge of Gods

After handing the axe back, we had a look around the common areas of the lodge and stopped by the small hotel store for some tax-free souvenirs before heading outside the back to take in the excellent views of Mount Hood. We then waited out the front of the lodge, taking in more epic views, this time of Mount Jefferson in the distance, until it was time to re-board the minibus and head to our next stop.

Stop number 2 was for lunch in the small city of Hood River. We had time to wander along the High Street before deciding on a nice cafe bar for lunch and even had time to grab an ice cream before being back on the minibus!

Mural at the Bridge of Gods
Multnomah Falls

Our next stop was down by the Columbia River at a place called Cascade Locks to see The Bridge of Gods, a bridge which connects Oregon state to Washington state. As well as enjoying the river views, we admired the mural painted on one of the bridge supports depicting the Native American ‘Bridge of Gods’ legend which the bridge is named after.

Then it was onto the main stop of the day, a visit to Multnomah Falls, part of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. On the way into the park, we stopped at a few other waterfalls including Horseshoe Falls and then we were dropped near the Visitor Center from where we could walk to viewing points for the falls. We took the short hike up to Benson Bridge for a closer look at the falls before returning to the visitor center for some souvenirs!

Vista House at Crown Point

On the way out of the park, we stopped at one more waterfall, Latourell Falls, hopping out of the minbus briefly to grab some photos, then it was on to our last stop of the day, Vista House, a Columbia River Gorge observatory at Crown Point. It was a fantastically, sunny day with hardly a cloud in the sky and the views across the river were absolutely beautiful.

From here, it was back to Portland where we chose to leave the tour rather than being dropped back at our out-of-city accommodation. We spent some time walking through the city to Pioneer Square and then down to the Willamette River, strolling a along the waterfront.

Union Station, Portland

The next day was to be another day spent exploring the state of Oregon rather in Portland city itself. We were once again up early, catching the lightrail into the city then finding our way to the bus station where we’d be picking up a service to the Oregon Coast.

Sculpture at Cannon Beach

Although small group day tours were available from Portland to this area of Oregon, we decided to save a bit of money by using public transport. It took a couple of hours to get to our first destination of the day, Cannon Beach. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t on our side today but it didn’t stop us heading to the beach and walking to Haystack Rock, famously seen in cult ’80s film The Goonies.

Mural at Seaside

After our stroll along the beach, we took a walk along the main street calling in some of the many galleries and gift stores before catching the local bus to the neighbouring town of Seaside. Seaside was a huge contrast to the laid back calm of Cannon Beach, instead aimed at a younger crown with its arcades, amusement rides and tacky souvenir stores. Like Cannon Beach, it did still have a beautiful stretch of golden sand. After spending a bit of time having a look around, we went to a local restaurant for pizza before catching the bus back to Portland.

We had one more day in Oregon before flying to Alaska and we had allocated that day to finally explore the city of Portland properly! We began the day with a segway tour of the city. This was our first time riding segways, something we had always wanted to try and it was great fun! It didn’t take long to get used to riding them and we were soon zooming around the city!

Food truck

The tour took us down alongside the Willamette River then into the city to see some its highlights including the Portlandia sculpture, the Portland Theatre and, my personal favourite, Mills End Park, the World’s Smallest Park!

After the tour, it was time for lunch. Portland is famous for its food trucks so we went in search of some deciding on a sandwich from The Grilled Cheese Grill!

About to board the aerial tram

Next up was a trip on the Portland Aerial Tram. Although the tram’s main purpose is to carry commuters to the Oregon Health and Science University, we had heard it was a great -and cheap -way of seeing views across the city. We enjoyed our return ride, it was a fun and unusual way of seeing the city!

Portland Market

We spent the next few hours walking along the riverside towards the city’s Pearl District. Along the way we came across Portland’s Saturday Market and had a browse around the stalls. We also passed the Voodoo Doughnut store in the Old Town area. We would have loved to have sampled one its famous doughnuts but there was a huge queue outside and unfortunately, we didn’t have time to wait.

Instead we continued to the quirky Pearl District where we explored Powell’s City of Books store, the World’s largest used and independent bookstore and browsed in some of the other boutique and independent stores in the area. Then it was back to our motel to collect our luggage before heading to the airport for our flight.

Watch my vlog of my Portland trip here:

Mount Rainier National Park

Taking a one day tour to Mount Rainier National Park from Seattle.

Washington state is home to a number of National Parks and while on a 5 night city break in Seattle, we were hoping to get to see some of them. Trouble was, at this point, we had never driven in the USA and didn’t feel confident to hire a rental and take self-guided trip to these places and public transport wasn’t an option. So instead, we booked ourselves on a group tour offered by the company Tours of Seattle* to Mount Rainier National Park.

Arriving at Mount Rainier National Park

Having already taken a small group tour to Olympic National Park a few days earlier, we knew the drill as we waited outside our airport hotel for our transport for the day to arrive. Today’s minibus was more like a minicoach, much bigger than the one we had travelled to Olympic National Park on meaning a bigger tour group too but not too many with numbers hovering around the 20-25 mark. Our guide was fantastic and kept the day running smoothly while still offering the group various options on where we could go and what we could do.

No sign of the mountain peak – stopping at a viewpoint on the way up

Our first stop of the day was for 10 minutes at a supermarket for anyone that wanted to grab lunch or snacks for the day and then we were on our way to the park.

Looking for Mount Rainier

Unfortunately, this morning, the weather was not on our side and our guide explained that on cloudy or overcast days, Mount Rainier itself often became hidden from sight. But she said the weather was supposed to clear a bit later so there was a chance we would get a glimpse of the mountain then.

We entered the park at the Paradise entrance station and began to make our way up a steep, winding road through the park. Our guide pulled over on request at a couple of viewing points so we could get out, take photos and take in the scenery and talked to us about the park and its history as we continued on again.

The Henry M Jackson Memorial Visitor Center in Paradise
The closest we came to seeing the peak of Mount Rainier it peaks out behind a cloud!

Eventually, we came to the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center where we were to have our lunch and be set free to explore for a while. We spent some time looking at the exhibits in the visitor center before setting off on a circular hike on the Skyline Trail to Myrtle Falls. While the sun had now come out, Mount Rainier was still shielded from our view behind a large low cloud gathered around it but the views across the park from the trail were still really pretty.

Narada Falls

As we drove back down, we pulled over at a few more view points then stopped to see Narada Falls. The sun was hitting the cascading water at the right angle to create a beautiful rainbow glistening above the falls!

A rainbow!
Longmire Suspension Bridge

Disappointed that the weather hadn’t clearer enough for us to see the elusive mountain yet, our guide said she had one more place she could take us from where the mountain was sometimes visible even on days when it wasn’t visible from the visitor center. We were told that stopping there would mean a bit less time at our last stop if the day but as we all wanted to maximise our chances of seeing the mountain, we agreed to give it a try.

So we were taken to Longmire Bridge, a suspension bridge over the Nisqually River. Disappointingly, Mount Rainier still wasn’t visible to us but it was a really picturesque spot to stop off at anyway!

Tall trees in the ancient forest

The last stop of the day was in the park’s lowlands at one of the ancient old growth forests where we spent some time walking through the Douglas firs, cedars and hemlocks then it was back to Seattle where we were dropped off back at our airport hotel.

A walk in the ancient old growth forest

Although we’d not been lucky enough to see Mount Rainier itself, we had had a fun day at the park and having seen the highlights, are planning on returning on a self-guided tour on our next visit to the area!

Watch my vlog of my trip to Mount Rainier National Park:

You can read about the rest of my trip to Seattle here and my day trip to another Washington state National Park from Seattle, Olympic National Park, here.

*Although we were guests of Tour of Seattle on this trip, all thoughts and opinions are my own.

Visiting Olympic National Park

A day trip from Seattle to this stunning National Park

The National Parks of America are my favourite places to visit there so while on a 5 night city break to Seattle, we really wanted to fit in a visit to Washington states’ highly recommended Olympic National Park. Having never driven in the US at this point, we didn’t feel confident hiring a car and finding our own way there so instead we looked up day trips leaving from Seattle. We’d taken these types of tours before such as to the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas so expected them to be plentiful but instead when we came to booking a trip, we struggled to find any operating. Eventually, we paid more than we would have liked to take a tour with Evergreen Escapes.

Bainbridge Island Ferry

On the ferry to Bainbridge Island

On the day of our tour, we were instructed to meet bright and early at a central hotel in Seattle. Right on time, our guide picked us up and we boarded a small minibus with 2 other groups, a family and a couple. From the hotel, we were driven the short distance to the waterfront where we boarded a car ferry to Bainbridge Island. Once on the ferry we were given a meeting point to wait at but could go and wander around the boat, buy snacks from the onboard cafe or go out on the deck. It was a chilly morning but we braved it outside for a while enjoying the views of the Seattle skyline.

Leaving Seattle in the distance

Back on the minibus, we continued our journey to Olympic National Park, briefly stopping once just outside of the city of Port Angeles for a comfort break.

Hurricane Ridge

The Olympic Mountains shrouded in cloud

Our first stop in the park would be at Hurricane Ridge. The minibus drove up the steep, winding road into the park and we were greeted at the top with beautiful views of the Olympic mountains ahead of us, pretty as a picture. From the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center, the breathtaking views became clearer – snow capped mountains under the blue sky with the lush green forest below.

View from Hurricane Ridge

We had free time to look around the Visitor Center and take in the epic surrounding scenery before reconvening for an included mid-morning snack of tea and scones. We then took a short group hike around the area before reluctantly re-boarding the minibus and beginning our descent back down the long winding road. On the way down we made a couple if stops to take photos at various viewpoints, each time, the scenery taking our breath away.

In search of a waterfall

Stopping at a view point on the way down from Hurricane Ridge

From Hurricane Ridge, we continued west towards a waterfall stop but our guide got lost on the way (it was his first day leading a tour by himself!) and with time drifting by, the plan to stop there had to be abandoned for now. We were told we might have time on the way back. Instead we carried on to a stop at Lake Crescent. Our guide told us we’d be having our included picnic lunch here and gave us some free time to walk down to the lake while he set up.

Time for lunch

Ready for lunch

With the sun shining, the crystal clear waters of the lake against the backdrop of the lush green forest looked stunning. After walking along the lake edge, we made our way back to the minibus to find a picnic table had been set up with table cloths, place mats, plates and cutlery all laid out for us! Meat was barbecuing on a grill and there was plenty of salad and bread to help ourselves to. We all sat around the table for our forest feast and discussed the plans for the afternoon.

Lake Crescent

The Lodge on the bank of Lake Crescent

After lunch, we took a hike through the forest down to Lake Crescent Lodge, our guide talking to us about all the different trees and plants we were seeing. Once at the lodge we had more free time which we spent looking inside the lodge and walking at the lake edge. Meanwhile, our guide had gone to fetch the minibus and bring it closer ready to pick us up.

Back to Seattle

We were still hopeful we could fit in the waterfall stop we had missed earlier but due to a rush hour traffic alert, we instead had to continue on so we could make our ferry back to Seattle.

Seattle bound on the ferry

It had been a fun day and Olympic National Park was just as beautiful as we’d hoped. We’d only had chance to see a small part of the extensive park so having since conquered our fear of driving in the US, we are planning on taking a self-guided trip there on our next trip state-side so we can spend a bit more time at the places we visited before and make it to the parts we have yet to see!

Watch my vlog of my trip to Olympic National Park here:

Visiting Seattle

How I spent 2 days in Seattle

While in the US for a trip to Alaska, we decided to first spend some time in the Pacific Northwest.

Dinner at Denny’s

It was our first time visiting the state of Washington. We arrived at Seattle’s King Street Station early evening having travelled on the Amtrak from our first trip destination, Vancouver. Finding city center prices skyhigh in July, we instead had to stay at a hotel out at SeaTac airport. We easily found our way from King’s Street Station to the Light Rail station and it was about a 20 minute connection to the airport. Our hotel was walkable from the station but as it was already getting late at this point, we decided it wasn’t worth going back into the city that evening. Instead there were plenty of chain restaurants in the area so we headed to a nearby Denny’s for dinner.

Seattle waterfront
Queue outside the Original Starbucks

The next day we were up early and after breakfast at the hotel, walked back to the station to catch the Light Rail back into the city and start exploring.

Walking down towards the waterfront, we were shocked to realise just how hilly the city is. We spent some time taking a walk along Seattle’s picturesque waterfront, stopping to shop in some of the many souvenir stores and passing Pier 57 and the Seattle Great Wheel then made our way to Pike Place Market and the Original Starbucks store. Though neither of us drink coffee, Starbucks is always a frequently visited place for us on any of our trips to the US as it’s one of the few places where we can get a proper cup of hot English Breakfast tea!! So we just had to visit the Pike Place Store!

With my Starbucks’ purchase

There was quite a queue to enter the store but we willingly joined it. Staff members handed out laminates showing some of the souvenir items that could be purchased inside and if you didn’t want to purchase a drink, it was possible to go in without queuing just to see these and look inside! Once inside we got our cups of tea and had a look around before carrying on with our day.

Next up was Pike Place Market itself with it’s iconic red sign and clock face. We had a quick walk around the stalls there, soaking up the atmosphere.

Gum Alley

After looking around the market, we walked to the nearby Gum Alley. This odd, and pretty disgusting!, tourist attraction is exactly what it sounds like, a dark alley leading away from the market where the walls are absolutely covered in discarded chewing gum. We had come prepared, buying a packet of bubble gum from a nearby news store earlier that day, and added our own piece of chewed gum to one of the few spaces left! Then, as it was lunch time, we headed back to Pike Place Market and bought a corn on the cob each as a snack.

From the market, we walked back towards the station and the Westlake Center, a huge mall, for a bit of shopping and a post lunchtime snack of Mrs Field’s cookies. Then we caught the light rail back a stop to the Pioneer Square area where we walked to Occidental Square, strolled through the Waterfall Garden Park, past Smith Tower – the oldest skyscraper in the city – and visited the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park Museum.

Our DUCK Vehicle

With still plenty of our day left, we signed up for a Seattle DUCK Tour. Our crazy tour guide took us around the city telling us facts about it between blaring out a variety of pop tunes and making us quack on our duck quackers everytime we passed a Starbucks – there was a lot of quacking! Then, our vehicle became a boat as we took a trip across Lake Union before returning to dry land again.

The iconic Seattle Space Needle

That evening, we were hoping to take a trip up Seattle’s famous Space Needle so after our DUCK tour, we caught the monorail to Seattle Center. When we got there, we found a big food festival event was on bringing huge crowds to the area and tickets to the observation deck were sold out for the day. Disappointed, we booked a slot for a few days later but thought we might as well have a walk around the food festival and sample a few freebies while we were there!

Visiting Olympic National Park from our Seattle base

As the sun was starting to set, we caught the train back towards the airport and walked back to our motel. The next day we would have a very early start as we’d be taking a tour to Olympic National Park so we decided against a late night in the city! You can read about my trip to Olympic National Park here.

Day 3 of our Seattle and after a fun day trip to Olympic National Park, today we’d be spending another day in Seattle city. We began the day with a Seattle Underground Tour. This tour had come highly recommended to us as a ‘must do’ city experience but we were left disappointed as there was little to see and our guide’s humour repeatedly fell flat. Still it was at least interesting to hear some of the city’s history.

At the Crumpet Shop

After our tour, we returned briefly to the Pike Place Market area to have lunch at a cafe we had spotted a couple of days before – The Crumpet Shop! As Brits, Crumpets are a staple of our breakfast but we had never seen them in the US so it was nice to find an unexpected home comfort in the middle of Seattle. The cafe offered a huge menu of both sweet and savory toppings on their homemade crumpets and although it was a difficult decision, I went for a savoury butter and cheese topping with, of course, a nice cup of tea!

At the Museum of Pop Culture
Interactive exhibit at the museum

Lunch done, we caught the monorail back to Seattle Center and went to visit the Museum of Popular Culture. This museum was right up my street with a collection of music and film memorabilia. I loved the Fantasy Films exhibition with the original costumes from classic films such as The Wizard of Oz and The Princess Bride and seeing props from Star Wars in the Sci-Fi exhibition. They even had Gizmo from Gremlins and the saw from the original Saw film in the Horror area! Many of the exhibitions were interactive so as big kids, the museum kept us entertained for hours. A highlight was making our own music video, pretending to play instruments and rock out to I Love Rock n Roll!

Monorail to Seattle Center

By the time we had finished at the museum, it was almost time for our pre-booked time slot for the Seattle Space Needle Observation Deck. We grabbed a quick bite to eat at MOD pizza in the Seattle Center food court then went to check in with our observation deck tickets.

Enjoying the view

We’d picked a good time to go up to the viewing deck as the sun was just starting to go down over the city. The earlier cloud and rain had cleared leaving a beautiful evening to take in the views over the city from the iconic building.

From Seattle Center, we headed back towards the airport and our hotel for another early night in preparation for another early morning and national park trip the next day. For our final day in Seattle, we would be taking a tour out to Mount Rainier National Park.

Visiting Mount Rainier National Park from our Seattle base

You can read about my trip to Mount Rainier National Park here.

On our final day in the city, we’d be catching an late morning train to the city of Portland so after breakfast it was back to Kings Street Station to check in for our journey.

It had been a fun few days in the city and I’d definitely like to visit again in the future!

Watch my vlog of my trip to Seattle here:

3 days in Vancouver

Meeting a cuddly moose!

Flying to Alaska from the UK involved a stop to change planes somewhere along the west coast of North America so we decided to use this as an excuse to extend our trip a bit more starting with flying to the West coast of Canada for 3 days in Vancouver.

Arriving in the evening, we navigated our way from the airport to the city on public transport. With the train dropping us at a central station while it was still daylight, it was a short walk to our budget hotel accommodation just a short walk from all the main attractions.

We were up bright and early on our first day in the city and headed straight out to explore. Following our noses, we found our way down to the waterfront with its harbour and Canada Place Convention Center and then into Gastown, the city’s oldest neighbourhood with its steam clock, Victorian-style buildings and statue of it’s founder ‘Gassy’ Jack.

Looping back round to our hotel, we decided to spend the afternoon in Stanley Park hiring bikes and following the sea wall around the park. There were plenty of bike hire shops near the park all offering rentals at similar, competitive prices. We used vouchers we had found on hotel leaflets to get a slight discount.

Riding along the sea wall in Stanley Park we came across the famous park Totems, Brockton Point Lighthouse and Lions Gate Bridge on the first half of our bike ride. The second half took us past various beaches including one covered in an array of precariously balanced stacked rocks. Eventually, we had completed a full circle of the park and returned our bikes before heading off to find somewhere to have dinner.

On the suspension bridge

Day 2 in Vancouver, we headed slightly out of the city centre to Capilano Suspension Bridge Park. A free shuttle bus runs regularly each day from near Vancouver waterfront to the park. Once there we bravely crossed the 140m long bridge as it wobbled 70m above the Capilano River. Once across, we followed the arrows to the Treetops walk, making our way across footbridges in the trees, up to 110m above the forest floor. It was then another deep breath as we walked back across the suspension bridge and tried out the gravity defying Cliffwalk. Not a place to visit if you’re scared of heights!!

We finished off our visit with lunch at the cafe while a live country band played.

On the Skyride up Grouse Mountain

Next up was a trip to Grouse Mountain. We caught a bus here from Capilano Suspension Bridge Park then took the Skyride – an aerial tramway up to the top of the mountain.

Views from Grouse Mountain

Once at the top, we took the included trip on the chairlift up to the peak of the mountain for more views over Vancouver, watched a Lumberjack show, saw some Grizzly Bears in the bear habitat and tried a ‘Beaver Tail’ pastry before catching the skyride back down and hopping back on the bus to Vancouver.

That evening, we walked back to Stanley Park. We had booked tickets to see Beauty and the Beast at the annual Theatre Under the Stars’ summer show there and luckily the weather stayed dry for it!

Storybrooke sign in the town of Steveston

We were leaving the city late the next day so still had plenty of time for sightseeing. Today we were again heading out of the city, this time catching a local bus to the town of Steveston. Steveston was the town used as ‘Storybrooke’ in the TV show Once Upon a Time and as a big fan of the show, I was excited to visit some of the locations used there. Our first stop was at the information office where we were provided with a map pointing out some of the locations used.

Whle sculpture by the Convention Centre

We then spent a bit of time wandering around and taking photos before catching a bus back to Vancouver and spending a few hours walking along the waterfront before it was time to say goodbye.

There were a few things we didn’t get chance to do on our trip to Vancouver such as taking a trip to Granville Island or visiting some of the many museums and galleries. Guess I’ll just have to plan another visit to the city some day!

You can watch my trip to Vancouver here:

Things I Wish I’d Known Before Embarking On A Group Tour

Day 1, group photo 1

When I quit my full time teaching position to travel more, I knew this would have to be solo as most of my friends were also teachers and were stuck with having to travel in school holidays. I’d done plenty of city breaks in the past but wanted to see more of certain countries than the obvious. Having never travelled solo before, I wasn’t confident to organise or take this kind of trip alone. I wasn’t a confident driver and had never driven abroad before but many of the places I wanted to see such as the National Parks, weren’t particularly accessible by public transport.

So after a lot of research, I decided joining a group tour was the best way forward. I’m not good with large crowds so I narrowed it down to a few small group tour providers and I didn’t want to be camping for 3 weeks so that narrowed down my search a bit more. Eventually, I booked a coast to coast tour with Trek America, the Southern BLT (Budget Lodging Tour).

As excited as I was to get on the road, in the days leading up to my tour, there were a few things I was nervous about. Luckily, it more than worked out but here’s some things I wish I’d known…

I didn’t need to worry about being a solo traveller

Maybe it goes without saying when you’re doing a group tour like Trek America but I still worried that everyone else would be there as a couple or with a friend. As it turned out, my first group tour with Trek was mainly made up with solo travellers and just one pair of friends and it was everyone’s first time doing such a tour which instantly gave us something in common!

I didn’t need to have to worried about taking too much luggage long

This was something I had looked to the internet for advice on before travelling – how much luggage was it alright to take? Would everyone else have backpacks, should I try and squash everything into a small suitcase? On my first Trek, I went for a medium sized suitcase in the end and squashed as much as possible in but I needn’t have worried. Only one person in our group had a backpack for their luggage, everyone else had a case and those cases were all a lot bigger than mine! So on subsequent tours, I have taken my larger case instead and packed more. Apart from my main case, I also took a small backpack to take on the van on a daily basis which I could put my drink and snacks in, and other essentials like my camera and portable phone chargers.

Age wouldn’t be an issue

This was quite a big one for me in choosing a group tour. I was approaching my mid-30s and was worried everyone else would be late-teens/early 20s. As it turned out, the group was a mixture of ages ranging from 20 to myself. I think choosing a budget lodging tour over a camping tour possibly lends itself to the older demographic of Trek but it was still a worry for me. Yes, I was the oldest, and on this tour (although not subsequent tours), I was the only one in my 30s but did it make a difference? Absolutely not. Again, everyone was there for the same reason, for the same shared experience and in fact, one of the group members I got on best with, and am still good friends with to this day, was one of the youngest in the group!

It wouldn’t be all partying

Night out in Birmingham, Alabama
Birthday night out in Austin, Texas

Another quite big worry for me, and kinda tied in with the age issue. I don’t really drink, I don’t like late nights out partying at bars and clubs very often so I was anxious that my fellow travellers would be heavy drinkers, out partying all the time and that this might even be encouraged on the tour (I’d read nightmare reviews of Contiki tours and the like and was worried this could be similar). Again, my worries were unfounded. If you do like to drink and party (and there were a couple of group members that did) then yes, there was plenty of opportunity for this but again, everyone had signed up for this tour for a similar reason – to travel and see new places and while socialising was a part of this (else we’d have travelled completely solo), you don’t feel up to much or want to throw yourselves into some of the amazing activities offered over the 3 weeks if you are constantly hung over so any partying was done in moderation.

Line dancing in Nashville
At the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar in Jackson, Wyoming

And for those of us that like to stick to our diet Cokes and our early nights, it was never frowned upon by anyone else in the group. That’s not to say I didn’t have any late nights out – an extremely late night out for my birthday in Austin, a fun night out on Bourbon Street in New Orleans and hitting the country music bars on Broadway in Nashville were all huge highlights of the trip and I was extremely thankful for van time the next day!!

Being a fussy eater is fine

Group meal in San Diego
BBQ food at The Salt Lick in Texas

Another worry for me was my eating habits. I’m pretty fussy. I don’t eat fish, I don’t like spicy food, I don’t like a lot of sauces, I don’t eat Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Indian… I know, I’m ridiculous but that’s the way it is, I have very plain tastes and I was worried this would be a hindrance on a tour where I expected at least, we’d be taken to a restaurant and told that’s where we’re eating today and I’d have to make do and find something I liked. Luckily, this wasn’t quite how it worked and, as it turned out, I wasn’t the only fussy eater on any of my tours.

Interesting food options at New Orleans’ French Market
Group meal on the Mississippi Steamboat

My tours have all worked differently. On the first tour I did, our tour leader favoured group meals where she’d book somewhere, or we’d just turn up somewhere, and we’d all eat together at that place. But we’d be told in advance the place she had in mind and occasionally, like when a fresh fish restaurant was suggested in San Diego, if we didn’t like the sound of the idea, we’d say so and go to an alternative restaurant instead. Being America, most of the places we went to offered something that I ate even if it was a basic pasta dish, a burger or a grilled cheese. On my New Zealand tour there was a couple of times when the group chose places I knew I wouldn’t find anything I liked at and each time, I opted to eat elsewhere – something I’d have happily done alone but each time, another group member offered to come along with me to keep me company. On one of my Trek America tours, we had someone in our group with a severe peanut allergy and everyone in the group was really accommodating and supportive. That tour, we tended to be dropped in a town with multiple eating options where we could all go off and find something suitable in small groups rather than all eating together at one place every day. Occasionally on cabin stay days, we’d cook around the campfire, again making sure that when we shopped, food was bought that suited everyone. Either way, my eating habits were never a problem on any of the group tours I’ve taken!

Van time would be fine

The only 2 awake on the van
Playing a round of Cards Against Humanity on the van

That last section brings me nicely onto ‘van time’. With a huge distance to cover on a cross-country trip in a relatively short amount of time, I was worried we’d spend most of the trip sat on a bus and not doing much else. And yes, a lot of the journey’s between each overnight stop were long but we were often grateful for those journeys. They were a chance to catch up on much needed sleep after late nights out, noisy hostel nights or early mornings. They were a chance to chat and get to know each other better and on most of my tours, the group would make an effort to switch around where we sat each day so we could spend time with different people. They were a chance for banter and silly games.

Van selfie

On one tour I did, someone had brought Cards Against Humanity with them and we played a group game while driving through the state of Georgia. And they were a time to listen to each other’s music collection and sing along to some classic tunes at the top of our voices with each group member taking it in turns to sit ‘shotgun’ and control the music for that day.

Van life

There’d be a range of weather along the way

An unexpected Grand Canyon Rim hike through the snow
Trying to keep warm around the camp fire at a KOA park in New Mexico

When I booked my first Trek America trip, 3 weeks travelling coast to coast through the Southern states in February and March, I assumed that being down south would mean mild weather. I knew from previous experience that New York would still be cold at that time so packed a couple of jumpers, hat and gloves and a big coat for the last few days of the tour travelling from Washington DC – Philadelphia – New York, but otherwise, I packed mainly summery clothes.

Pre-snowball fight on Beale Street in Memphis

Last minute, I threw in a couple of long sleeved t-shirts that I could layer under t-shirts in case it became chillier in the evenings. And it’s a good job I did because from the moment we left Las Vegas on day 5 of our trip until the end of our trip over 2 weeks later in New York, with the exception of a couple of gloriously warm days in New Orleans, we had nothing but what could be described as wintry weather. Cold, rain, SNOW! There were a few group members even less prepared than I was – some of the Australians in the group had never even seen snow before – and many of us ended up buying cheap hoodies etc from souvenir stores or Walmart stops. I certainly learnt my lesson to be prepared for all sorts of weather and now always check temperatures for all the stops along the way before going on any type of roadtrip!!

Things Might Go Wrong – anything can, and probably will, happen (but it doesn’t matter and you’ll still have a great time!)

Leading on from weather issues, this was the main cause of anything that went wrong on my first Trek trip. Not enough warm clothes was a minor issue and when the snow first fell, it was actually quite a nice surprise – who else can say they saw the Grand Canyon covered in heavy snow?! Not many people – I didn’t even know that ever happened there! But wintry weather can become tiresome after a week or so, especially when it interferes with your plans.

Making the most of the bad weather – taking in the beautiful views of snow-covered Monument Valley

Van journey’s taking twice the time and arriving in places a lot later than expected with less sightseeing time because of road closures was annoying enough but when planned activities have to dropped because of safety fears and snow closures, it’s downright disappointing. So there was no hiking down into the Grand Canyon and, worse still, no helicopter ride over it. Instead we watched a film about the Grand Canyon at the IMAX in Grand Canyon Village. And there was no visit to Graceland (or anywhere else really) after Memphis completely shut down after more heavy snowfall.

Yes, this was all disappointing – the helicopter over the Grand Canyon and the visit to Graceland were both things I was really excited for when I booked the trip – but seeing Monument Valley covered in snow, something so rare that even the Navajo were taking photos was not just one of the highlights of the trip, but a highlight of my life. A group snowball fight on Beale Street in Memphis a week or so later, a stop at a small town diner in the middle of nowhere Texas for pancakes where all the staff were fascinated to have a motley crew of Brits, Australians, Swiss and Swedes suddenly invade the premises followed by the joy of randomly finding a British store next door selling Cadbury chocolate bars – all things we look fondly back on that wouldn’t have otherwise happened!

It would be easy to keep in touch with everyone back home

Why spend group meals chatting when there’s free wifi to use?

With the extra days I had booked in LA and New York at either side of the Trek America tour, I was going to be away for 4 weeks on my first trip and I was worried that with a busy itinerary, stops in the middle of nowhere and being on the van travelling so much that it might be difficult to find time – or wifi – to be able to keep in touch with everyone back home and, at the very least, let my parents know I was ok on a regular basis. This was not a problem though. Our Trek van was equipped with wifi – this was unlimited on our first trip and although it only allowed 5 people on at time, most of the group were pretty good at limiting the time they spent online so that everyone could get on at some point.

The message we all dreaded seeing – too many already on the van wifi!

On my second trip, our group leader told us the wifi was supposed to be limited to a set amount per trip and somehow, our group managed to use up most of this allowance within the first few days.

But we were still all able to easy get online to keep in touch with those back home. Wifi is easy to come across in the US and we were usually able to find it at service stations, bars and restaurants, some tourist attractions and in motels, hostels and cabin parks!

There will be (many) ups and (occasional) downs

A rock concert plays backing onto our room at our Alouisiana accommodation

I’ve loved all my Trek America – and other group tour – experiences, I really have, but there’s always the occasional time when you feel a bit down. The first low point for me on my first Trek came just after my birthday. We were staying in my nightmare of a hostel in Austin – we’d been used to mainly staying in small dorms where it would just be us group members in a room but here we were in a huge, noisy co-ed dorm and didn’t get a lot of sleep.

Experiences along the way make it all worthwhile!

The next night, we were staying in a motel that had seen better days – filthy, stank of cigarettes and we worried for our safety after a huge argument erupted right outside our room and sirens and flashing lights started going off. A night later, we were staying at a B&B in Louisiana where a rock concert was being hosted and our room backed onto the stage area, with the room shaking so much that pictures fell off the wall, it meant another night of little sleep. We laugh about it now but at the time, we were pretty fed up. This was all forgotten about a day later when we arrived at our New Orleans’ accommodation to find we were in an actual hotel with proper rooms and beds but that feeling came back briefly again in Washington DC when we were told our hotel dorms would be similar to the huge co-ed Austin dorms and a few of us almost burst into tears and started looking up prices of local hotels!

As it turned out, we were in 6-bed dorms with each other and it was all fine and we carried on with our trip happy as anything again!

Hostel Life would be ok

Arriving at our Nashville hostel

I’d never stayed in hostels before doing group tours and going into my first trip, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like them much. But on the whole, I had a better experience staying in them than I imagined and even booked hostel accommodation for myself travelling solo in Australia a year later – a pair of ear plugs, an eye mask and a pair of flip flops to wear in hostel showers and its fine!!

Hostel life – down in the common area

For the most part, Trek and any other group tour companies I’ve used, will book dorms where you will just be sharing with those on your tour but depending on the group numbers, this doesn’t always work out. So for example, on my first group tour, there were only 4 girls so if we were in a 6-bed dorm, the other 2 beds would sometimes be given to independent travellers booking into the hostel rather than going to waste. This kinda thing almost caused an embarrassing incident in our San Francisco hostel when our group of 7 girls had to split into a 3 and a 4 across two 4-bed dorm rooms. I was in the group of 3 and as it was late, we assumed no one would be taking that last bed, sprawled our stuff out everywhere and started really making ourselves at home only to have a random late arriving guy walk in on us to take up bed 4!! I was in the shower down the hall at the time and one of my dorm mates was banging on the door to tell me about our unexpected guest. It’s a good job they did or I’d have probably waltzed back into our dorm in just a towel!

We’d see some amazing places and have some amazing experiences

Fireworks after our evening bike tour of Chicago
At the rodeo in Cody, Wyoming

Maybe this goes without saying, after all, it was the reason for travelling, for taking this trip but I don’t think anything prepared me for how amazing this element of the trip would be. I’d been to a lot of the main cities of America before and specifically wanted a tour which would take me to those harder to reach places and it delivered. The National Parks in America especially are absolutely breath-taking and I’d say to anyone, if you get the chance to visit Yellowstone National Park in your lifetime, take it, you won’t regret it! You’ll see some amazing places and you will want to go back to them in the future!

The amazing Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone National Park
White water rafting on Snake River, Wyoming

Even the cities I’d been to previously, I experienced in new way I would never had done on a city break with a friend – taking a ‘party bus’ along the Vegas Strip where we put our own music on and danced along to the Spice Girls and 5ive, cycling down a busy main road in Chicago on a nighttime tour, sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge on a catamaran in San Francisco.

Kayaking out to view icebergs in Valdez, Alaska
Stopping at the Vegas sign during our party bus ride along the Strip

And then there were the outdoor adventurous activities, the long hikes in the National Parks to spectacular view points, horse riding though the hills of Wyoming, white water rafting – something I’d never have seen myself doing! – kayaking out to iceburgs in Alaska, hurtling down over a huge canyon on a ‘Flying Fox’ zipline and black water rafting through a glowworm-filled cave in New Zealand…

A lot of these experiences are optional extras but they’re often what makes the tour so take the opportunity and do something you wouldn’t usually do, get out of your comfort zone, it’s what its all about!

I’d learn a lot

Yes, group tours can be educational! I learnt a lot about geography, about the history of the countries and cities I visited on the tour and about the cultures and people there. But it’s often the little things that stick with me like even now, if I’m back in the States visiting a National Park, or out taking extended walks anywhere else, the advice our Trek America guide gave us about hiking, tips on snacks to take, hiking at higher altitudes etc etc, always comes back to me!

I learnt a bit about myself too – that I can do without 8 or more hours of sleep a night, that I can adapt to situations and people around me, that I can hike for hours on end and enjoy it and that I can get on with different people of all ages and from all backgrounds.

I’d bond with the group quickly

One of the main reasons for choosing a group tour was for companionship while travelling. I’m not the kind of person that can walk into a bar or restaurant and strike up a conversation with someone so I knew if I travelled completely solo for 3 weeks, I’d probably not speak to anyone other than to buy/order something! I figured that in a group tour of 10 plus people there would hopefully be at least one person I’d get on with and company is better than no company but what I didn’t expect was how quickly you get to know these people and how you become firm friends fast. When you’re on the road for 3 weeks, you are around each other pretty much 24/7. I probably spent more time with my tour mates in those 3 weeks than I had with some of my ‘real life’ friends in 3 years! You’re in this little bubble with each other, pretty much switched off from what is happening in the outside World and after the first few days discussing with each other you ‘story’ – where you’re from, what you do for a living, why you’re here, now – you just start to be yourself around each other, the banter starts and it’s like you’ve all known each other for years. That’s not to say you won’t get on with some group members more than others and that there won’t be days when you want some alone time away from the group – and there are some opportunities for this on free days. But these people become your family for the length of the tour and when it comes to an end and you have to say goodbye, it can be horrendous. I’ve always found that the longer the tour, the harder saying goodbye has been and there’s been a couple of times when there’s been tears!

Final group photo of the trip in New Zealand

I’d make friends for life

On most of the group tours I’ve done, we’ve had a WhatsApp or Facebook group active during the tour where we can exchange photos of the group or each other, arrange where to meet if we’ve split up on free days etc etc. In the days after a tour finishes, this group is always at it’s most active as we miss each other and want to continue that group banter and reminisce. But a lot of my tour group chat groups are still active months and years on, even if its just a ‘Happy Christmas’ message that starts the conversation off once a year, we’re all still in touch and very much a part of each other’s lives.

Not only that but some of my very best friends now are people I’ve met on a group tour. There’s group members I regularly meet up with and those I talk to on a weekly basis. I’ve been on holiday with these people, we’ve since been travelling together on our own roadtrips across the US and Australia, I’ve been to their weddings, gone to concerts and on nights out with them, celebrated landmark birthdays together.

Our shared experiences on the group tour is a huge part of why we still communicate now but we have more than that in common and are now real life friends and will be for a long time to come.

I’d want to talk constantly about my experiences…

but most people just won’t want to listen. It’s one of those things that will forever be a milestone in your life, a real highlight but only those people who were there with you, who had that shared experience, will really ever understand and that’s why you will be forever bonded with them. A lot of my friends took a leaf out of my book and have joined group tours over the last few years and now they understand a bit more but with anyone else it can be frustrating when you get back and it’s all you can think or talk about and no one else in interested. But that’s what the group’s Whatsapp chat is for!

It’s addictive

I really wish I’d known how addictive group travel would be. Within days of returning from my first tour, I’d booked another and then another. Few of the tours I’ve done have quite lived up to those first couple but everyone has been special and exciting and amazing in it’s own way. And even now when I tend to plan my own travel with friends I met on group tours, we use our group tour experiences to guide trips, planning huge road trips full of unusual activities and experiences along the way in the style of Trek America and sometimes revisiting places we loved on our group tour.

It would be the best thing I’d ever do

So if you’re thinking of taking a group tour with Trek America or another company*, my advice is to stop thinking about it and just book it. It really will be the best thing you’ll ever do!

*While I have been a customer of small group tour companies including Trek America, Grand American Adventures, Haka Tours and Macbackpackers, all the opinions expressed here are my own.

Have you ever been on a group tour with Trek America or any other companies? Let me know about your own experiences!