A Midwest Road Trip: Minnesota

Crossing the Mississippi River into Minnesota state

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

Arriving at the Mall of America

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

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

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

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

Almost in the city of St Paul

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

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

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

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

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

View from St Anthony Falls Visitor Centre

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

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

The Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture

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

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

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

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

Leaving St Paul for the town of Darwin MN

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

Arriving at the World’s Largest Twine Ball

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

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

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

It’s the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota!

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

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

A Midwest Road Trip: Wisconsin

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

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

Holding up the Leaning Tower of Niles!

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

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

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

Entering Wisconsin state

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

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

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

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

In the Jelly Belly gift store

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

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

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

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

At a Wisconsin Cheese gift store

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

The sun setting as we near Wisconsin Dells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lunch at the Cheesey Tomato Cafe

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

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

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

On the road again, travelling through Wisconsin

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

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

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

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

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

UFO sculpture in Elmwood, Wisconsin

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

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

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

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

A Midwest Road Trip: Chicago

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

At the airport waiting to board

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

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

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

Above, and below, views from Chicago 360

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

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

Walking along Lake Shore Drive

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

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

Navy Pier fun

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

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

Above, and below, having fun at the Cloudgate Sculpture

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

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

Crown Fountain

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

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

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

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

New York at Christmas

View of the Empire State Building from Herald Square

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

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

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

Off to Santaland in Macy’s

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

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

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

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

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

The Statueof Lierty

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

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

Store display in Little Italy

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

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

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

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

The famous Rockefeller Centre Christmas Tree

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

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

Bryant Park
Christmas Tree and market stalls in Bryant Park

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

Houses decorated for Christmas

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

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

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

Tiffany’s, 5th Ave

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

The Rockefeller Centre

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

St Patrick’s Cathedral opposite the Rockefeller Centre

Top of the Rock

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

Rockette costumes

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

Dinner at Dallas BBQ

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

The Rockefeller Tree at night

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

The Freedom Tower in Downtown Manhattan

Display at the 9/11 Museum

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

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

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

San Francisco

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

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

Where to stay

View from my room at the Mark Hopkins InterContinental Hotel

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

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

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

At the Top of the Mark martini bar

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

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

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

Union Square shops

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

Getting Around

San Francisco City Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting to board a cable car

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

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

The Golden Gate Bridge

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

Tour bus

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

At the Palace of Fine Arts

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

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

Looking out from the viewpoint actross the bridge

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

Bike

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking

Walking across the Golden Gate Bridge

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

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

Our catamaran heads under the Golden Gate Bridge

Boat

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

Self-drive

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

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

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

Alcatraz Island

Saining across to Alcatraz

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

Nearing Alctaraz Island, and below, touring Alcatraz

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

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

Fishermans Wharf

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

The Pier 39 Sealions

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

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

The Embarcadero Clock Tower, and below, Hyde Street Pier

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

A bust Ghirardelli Square

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

Lombard Street

Crowds watching the cars weave down Lombard Street

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

Segwaying down Lombard Street

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

Museums

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

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

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

Viewing the cablecar system mechanics at the Cable Car Museum

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

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

Golden Gate Park

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

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

Above, and below, exploring Golden Gate Park

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

Ocean Beach

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

San Francisco Hearts

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

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

Above, and below, heart-spotting in San Francisco

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

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

Exploring different areas of the city

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

Haight-Ashbury

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

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

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

The Painted Ladies houses in Alamo Sqaure

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

Chinatown

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

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

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

North Beach

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

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

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

Enjoying the sunshine in Washington Square

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

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

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

A pagoda in Japantown

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

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

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

Goodbye Trek America

My top 5 memories of travelling with Trek

Regular readers will know I’ve been a bit of a cheerleader for Trek America, a small group US tour company aimed at 18-38 year old solo travellers which I credit with changing my life by quashing my fears and doubts of travelling alone, instilling my love of small group tours and adventure travel in general and leading to me forming many lifelong friendships. So it was with great sadness that I met the news that the company had been disbanded, another casualty of the effects of Covid on the Worldwide travel industry. Trek America wasn’t a baby in the World of escorted touring having started offering its unique adventures across the Americas all the way back in 1972, but global travel restrictions along with the logistics of how to operate group tours which essentially consist of up to 15 individuals crammed together on a minibus for much of the time in a World of social distancing, eventually made the business unviable.

Message breaking the news on the company’s social media pages

At the grand old age of 34, I took the plunge and booked myself onto the 3-week Trek America Southern BLT tour, my first foray into solo travel and group tours and I loved it so much that I returned to the States just a few months later to join the company’s 3-week Northern BLT Trek. Since then, I have travelled with them through Alaska and introduced my sister-in-law the joys of small group travel when I won 2 places on their Deep South Tour. While I’m now more likely to plan my own self-driven road trips with some of the many friends I made on Trek and the news of the company’s demise came *just* as I was too old to join onto any more of their tours anyway, I still felt a huge loss at hearing its fate and especially thinking of all those who now won’t get to go through the experience of touring with them.

So to celebrate its existence rather than mourn its loss, here are my top 5 memories from the 4 tours I took with Trek America!

5. Partying in Vegas

Just three days into a 3 week trip, our stop in Vegas is mainly memorable because, unusually, it wasn’t how I’d ever spent my time in Vegas before.

The Bellagio dancing fountains

Playing drinking games in the hotel followed by piling onto a ‘party bus’ on which we spent our time on board hooking up our own ipod and singing and dancing along to the cheesiest of cheesy pop tunes. Then catching the last 2 shows at the Bellagio dancing fountains before karaoke at an off-Strip dive bar until the early hours.

And yet we were still up reasonably early the next day to make the most of everything else Vegas has to offer. Only on Trek.

4. Learning about Civil Rights in Memphis

At completely the other end of the spectrum to the time I spent in Vegas on the Southern BLT but equally unforgettable was the afternoon I spent in Memphis on the Deep South BLT at the National Civil Rights Museum.

At the National Civil Rights Museum housed in the Lorraine Hotel, Memphis

Compelling, humbling and thought-provoking, the museum took us on a journey through the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the US and Worldwide including a deeply moving look at the events leading up to the assassination of Martin Luther King before seeing the room where he died. A sobering experience.

Who knew Trek could be educational.

3. Monument Valley in the snow

A magical visit to Monument Valley a week into the Southern BLT. After an unexpected snow storm suddenly hit as we visited the Grand Canyon, it was on to Utah where we found the snow getting deeper and deeper.

Staring out at the vast beauty of a snow-covered Monument Valley

Despite the weather making it impossible to do the complete tour of the Navajo Tribal Park site, the snow made the visit even more special bringing a serene calm over the area. And underneath a clear blue sky with the sun shining on it, the famous red rocks poking up from the valley floor looked even more beautiful covered in the heavy, white snow.

Still the moment from the tour we talk about the most.

2. Seeing Mount Denali in Alaska

A glimpse of Mount Denali on a scenic flight over Denali National Park

Not strictly a Trek America memory as although I booked the tour of Alaska with them, I was transferred onto a tour with their sister company Grand American Adventures, but it still felt very much like Trek so I’m going to count it!

The highlight of a trip full of highlights, this expensive tour extra was worth every penny as we flew in a light aircraft over Denali National Park and finally caught sight of the until then elusive Mount Denali.

Only 30% of visitors to Denali National Park get to see Mount Denali and the weather had not been on our side while touring the park so having it suddenly come into view as we flew over the park was an amazing surprise and a strangely emotional experience.

Even without the appearance of Mount Denali, the scenic flight over glaciers and the Alaskan Range, followed by a glacial landing, was a wonderful, once in a lifetime, experience.

1. Wyoming & Yellowstone National Park

Rafting down Snake River, Wyoming and above, hiking in Grand Teton National Park and horse riding in Wyoming. Below, spending time in the epic Yellowstone National Park.

Despite it being a very National Park heavy tour, nothing could have prepared me for sheer beauty and spectacle of Yellowstone National Park. From bison and bear sightings to colourful canyons and of course, the famous geysers and geothermal activity, never has my jaw dropped so may time in such a short amount of times.

If it looks amazing in the photos, they don’t do it even the slightest justice. The park has to be seen to be believed. And as if that wasn’t enough, we continued from the park through its home state of Wyoming visiting the neighbouring Grand Teton National Park where we were met by more breath-taking scenery before spending the rest of our time in old west-style town of Jackson horse riding in the mountains and rafting through the rapids of Snake River. The one state on the tour I couldn’t wait to return to!

There are hundreds of other memories I could have mentioned from my Trek America trips – line dancing the night away in Nashville, listening to a jazz band play as we floated down the Mississippi on a New Orleans paddle boat, spending the day exploring the valley at Yosemite National Park, watching the sunset over Lake Tahoe, hiking in the amazing US National Parks, visiting the studios Elvis recorded at in Memphis… not to mention all the amazing food we ate, fun nights out we had and all the interesting places we stayed in.

Thanks for all the memories Trek America, you will be missed.

Find links to read about my adventures travelling across America with Trek here.

Pembrokeshire Coast National Park

While not a stop on my UK National Parks road trip this summer, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park is a park very close to my heart after visiting it at least once every year for the last 27 years. As a child and teenager, our annual summer holidays there were spent mainly on the beach at Tenby, only venturing further afield on rainy days where the beach was no longer an option.

Back then, our summers were mainly warm and sunny so these trips out of Tenby were rarities. Now our visits tend to be out of season, early September or late March and even on the occasions we do make it there at the height of the British summer, the weather is rarely nice enough to be able to sit on the beach for hours on end so instead, we’ve spent a lot more time getting out and exploring more of what the park has to offer. And what it has to offer is a lot. Enough to make it my favourite place in the World. Despite all the travelling I have done the last 10 years, I am yet to find anywhere that matches the beauty of Pembrokeshire.

I spent some time revisiting some of my favourite spots and at seeing some parts of the park I’d not been to before on a trip earlier this summer.

Tenby

Painted town houses in Tenby

In recent years, Tenby has been our base for most of our trips to Pembrokeshire National Park, usually hiring a static caravan at one of the Penally holiday parks. This year, due to demand for staycations and our trip being a bit of a last minute decision, we ended up staying inland near the market town of Narberth, right on the Pembrokeshire/Carmarthernshire county border but once settled in to our accommodation, Tenby was, as always, our first port of call on day 1 of our trip.

South Beach in Tenby

Parking up at Penally Station just outside of Tenby, we followed the coast path signs choosing to take the turning down to the beach at the Kiln Park junction rather than continuing along the path which runs behind the dunes.

Tenby South Beach and, below, views from a visit to Caldey Island

We walked along South Beach enjoying the views of Caldey Island which lies a few miles off the coast of Tenby. In a normal year, it is possible to take a day trip over to Caldey Island with boats regularly departing from Tenby Harbour – or Castle Beach at low tide – every day except Sunday. We last did this a couple of years ago and spent most of the day walking up to the lighthouse and along the island’s coastal paths enjoying spectacular views along the way.

The Arches, the entrance to the walled town of Tenby

From South Beach, we took the path off the beach and up to the Esplanade which offers more beautiful views of Caldey Island and also the much closer St Catherine’s Isle. St Catherine’s Isle has recently reopened to the public in the last few years although I’m yet to visit.

Tenby is a walled town and we entered at the Arches and wandered through to grab an ice cream from one of the many shops selling them. During the summer months, Tenby closes its centre off to traffic between 10 and 5 meaning the many cafes and restaurants can put their tables out in the street during these times.

After wandering through the town, we exited by Tenby’s North Beach. This huge sandy beach is my favourite of all the wonderful beaches on offer in Tenby. We stood at the viewpoint on the cliff and took in the view of the beach, the harbour and Tenby castle before following the path down to the golden sands.

Goscar Rock on North Beach

When the tide is out, it is possible to walk around from Tenby North Beach to Castle and South Beach but unfortunately this wasn’t the case today so instead we followed the path back off the beach and through the harbour.

From the harbour we walked up towards the remnants of Tenby castle upon the hill top for more spectacular views over the bay and a chance to visit Tenby’s lifeboat station, before returning to Castle Beach and walking back to Penally along South Beach.

Amroth, Wisemans Bidge and Saundersfoot

Walking the coast path from Wisemans Bridge to Saundersfoot

Day 2 and we returned to another old favourite – following the coastal path from Amroth to Saundersfoot and back. Parking up at the back of the small coastal town of Amroth, we walked to the end of the beach and turned up the road until we saw the acorn signpost pointing out the coast path.

We followed it up a steep hill through the woods until it opened out onto a field and past a caravan park before leading back down hill onto the road into Wisemans Bridge.

Wiseman’s Bridge Beach

Here we walked alongside the pebbly beach and then followed the sea wall path to Coppets Hall Beach on the outskirts of Saundersfoot. The tide was out enough to walk along the beach from here to the main beach in Saundersfoot where we grabbed tea and cake from a cafe in the small town and wandered around the harbour before retracing our steps back along the coast path to Wisemans Bridge and then Amroth.

Carew Castle

That evening, we had a ride out to Carew Castle and Tidal Mill to do a circular walk around it. Parking at the castle is free and from the car park, we walked back up to the main road, crossing it to follow signs to the small village of Carew Cheriton. Here, we stopped to look around St Mary’s Church, parts of which date back to the 1300s before following a riverside path from the village and across a wooden bridge which brought us back out at the main road across from the village of Milton. A public footpath across a field which took us back to Carew Castle where we followed the path looping up to the Tidal Mill and around the mill pond.

Carew Castle and millpond

When the tide is in, the walk looping Carew Castle offers beautiful views of it reflected in the mill pond and it looks especially pretty at sunset and we often do a shorter version of this walk just following the path around the castle and Tidal Mill without detouring to Carew Cheriton and Milton followed by drinks at the pub across the road!

Lydstep, Skrinkle Haven and Manorbier

Skrinkle Haven Beach

Day 3 and we drove a bit further up the coast past Tenby to Skrinkle Haven, a part of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path nestled between the more popular beaches of Lydstep Haven and Manorbier. Following the road signs to Skrinkle Haven, we drove past the YHA and up to the cliff top car park. From here there are amazing coastal views in both directions but the main attraction is the view of the beautiful Skrinkle Haven beach.

View of Skrinkle Haven

We picked up the coast path and wandered along it until we came to a set of steps leading down to the small Church Doors Cove, so called because of door-shaped caves carved into the cliffs by the sea. After climbing back up the steps from the rocky beach, we continued along the coast path a little further but came to Ministry of Defence land which the path seemed to detour around. While we had heard it is now possible to once again access Skrinkle Haven beach itself from the coast path after it was closed off for years, we couldn’t quite work out how so instead, decided to retrace our steps back to the car park.

Skrinkle Haven lies just down the coast path from the popular town of Manorbier with its castle and sandy beach. While we didn’t visit Manorbier on this trip, we have in the past and it’s definitley worth a stop, especially if you follow the coast path up from the beach in either direction for more beautiful views.

Lydstep Beach with Lydstep Haven Holiday Park behind

Instead of driving north to Manorbier today, we instead drove back towards Tenby stopping at Lydstep. Here there is a national trust car park and circular headland walk although it can be a little difficult to find and access as it is down a narrow one-track road with an unpaved section at the end a steep hill at the very end up to the cliff! It’s definitely worth it though.

Lydstep Beach

From the cliffs there are views across to Caldey Island and down to Lydstep Haven beach backed by the caravans on it’s upmarket holiday park. After walking a loop of the cliff, we returned to the car park and walked down the steep hill towards Lydstep Haven Beach. When the tide is out, it is possible to access sea caves from here but today, we just walked along the pebbly beach before climbing the hill back to the car park.

Freshwater East and Barafundle Bay

At Freshwater East

The beach that was always our rainy day ride out when we visited as kids, Freshwater East is a dog friendly, long sandy beach which is great to visit at low tide when the cliffs and caves at the far end of the beach become visible.

Freshwater East and, below, walking the coast path to Barafundle Beach from Stackpole Quay

After walking along the sands, we attempted to follow the circular ‘family walk’ along some of the coast path and up into the dunes which we remembered taking in the past but found that some of the arrows and numbered posts were missing. We managed to find our way around using a bit of guess work and from what we remembered from before and eventually found ourselves back at the car park.

Barafundle

After lunch on the beach, we continued along the coast to Stackpole Quay where we parked up at its National Trust car park to begin our walk across the coast path to Barafundle Beach. Often finding its way onto the ‘best beaches in the UK’ lists, Barafundle is a bit of a hidden gem. With no direct access, the only way to reach it is to hike across the headland to it.

Reaching Barafundle Beach

From Stackpole Quay, this is a relatively easy half mile hike from which you eventually follow a few steps down to the bay. As a child, it was always a beach I longed to visit and spend the day at playing on its golden sands and swimming in the sea, but with its isolated location and complete lack of facilities, I can now see why my parents were never as keen on the idea and we always stuck to Tenby’s North beach on sunny days!

On Barafundle Beach

Today however, I happily spent an hour or so sat on the beach and walking down to the sea front before walking back along the cliffs to the car park at Stackpole Quay.

Bosherton and Broad Haven South

We headed a bit further up the coast the next day to visit Bosherton Lily Ponds, another go to location on a rainy day when we were younger!

Broad Haven South Beach

Another National Trust Car Park from which we followed the path down to edge of the lily pond to begin our walk. We turned left, following the sign to Broad Haven South, to take the anti-clockwise route around. The walk was mainly flat and eventually brought us out at the junction with Broad Haven South, a large sandy beach home to Church Rock, a rock formation just off the coast.

Narrow bridge across the lily pond

After stopping for snacks, we returned to the path around the lily ponds continuing to follow it around and enjoying the views across the lily ponds. Whether or not the lillies are in bloom, this is a really pretty walk and a great place for spotting wildlife too. My favourite part of the walk is crossing a couple of long bridges across the pond.

The bridges are open on the one side and quite narrow which can make it a challenge if someone starts walking across from the opposite direction!!

St Govans

Above and below, views from the coast path at St Govans

After our walk around the lily pond, we took a short drive to the next point on the coast path, St Govans. St Govans is a small chapel built into the cliffs. From the car park, you can walk down some steps to the chapel and even go inside. I continued down the cliff from the chapel to the small bay beneath to enjoy the views before climbing back up to the car park.

From the car park, we followed the coast path along the cliffs to the point overlooking Broad Haven South beach. The views were again stunning.

Stack Rocks and the Green Bridge of Wales

The Green Bridge of Wales

Our final stop today was to see Pembrokeshire’s famous rock formations, The Green Bridge of Wales and the Stack Rocks. We followed the signposts to the Green Bridge down a long road towards the cliffs which lead past Ministry of Defence land and parked on the free car park.

A path from the car park split in 2 directions and we took the right fork towards the viewing platform for the Green Bridge.

Coast path views

After admiring the views and taking plenty of photos, we followed the coast path along the cliff to see the Stack Rocks, rock pillars lying just off the coast. We continued along the coast path for a while, enjoying the views before looping back to the car park and calling it a day.

Freshwater West and Angle

Looking down at Freshwater West Beach

It was off to one of my favourite Pembrokeshire beaches today, Freshwater West but first, after a wrong turn, we made a quick stop at the nearby West Angle Bay. This is a small beach, especially when the tide is is, but at low tide, it can be fun to walk to the rocks around the edges of the beach to explore the rock pools!

From Angle, we finally found our way back to Freshwater West and as usual, the first glimpse of the dramatic combination of cliffs, dunes, beach and crashing waves was breathtaking.

On the beach at Freshwater West

Freshwater West is known for its strong waves and surfers can often be seen bobbing around in the sea here. The beach is also famous for being used in one of the Harry Potter films – Shell House was built into the dunes here for the purpose of filming and although it has now been dismantled, the beach is often visited by fans of the films and books to see the site of Dobby’s grave. The 2010 Robin Hood film starring Russell Crowe was also filmed at Freshwater West!

Enjoying the view at Freshwater West

Today, we began our visit with a walk along the cliffs to a seaweed drying hut sat on top. From here there were beautiful views across the bay. We retraced out steps back down to the road and followed the path down to the beach taking a long walk along the sea front to the rocks and cliff at the far end before returning to the car. A great way to spend the day!

Heatherton

Adventure golf at Heatherton

We took a break from the coast today for a bit of family fun at Heatherton World of Activities, another favourite from family holidays of the past! The park is situated not far from Tenby by the village of St Florence. Currently, visitors have to pre-book passes for the activities so the park can keep attendance down and social distancing can be maintained. We opted for a 6 credit pass and used up our first 2 credits on a round of Adventure Golf then spent the rest of our credits on activities including pistol shooting, laser clay pigeon shooting and, our favourites, the bumper boats. A really fun day out!!

While we didn’t have chance on this trip, other fun family days out we have enjoyed on past visits to Pembrokeshire have included visits to Clerkenhill Adventure Farm for a round or two of Frisbee Golf and Oakwood Theme Park which we like to visit on an ‘After Dark’ day when the park and rides stays open until 10pm ending the day with a firework display.

Broad, Little and Sandy Haven

Broad Haven Beach

Today’s destination was Broad Haven. Not to be confused with Broad Haven South by Bosherton, this Broad Haven lies further up the coast and is a long sandy beach backed by a row of cafes and shops.

The tide was going out as we arrived meaning there was a huge expanse of sand leading down to the sea. We paddled along in the shallows and with the tide going out, were able to walk around into the next bay, Little Haven. On days when the tide is in, it’s still possible to walk between the two beaches but over the cliff top on the coast path instead.

Walking down to Sandy Haven

After a few hours, we left Broad Haven when, in typically Welsh fashion, the weather changed from glorious sunshine to cloudy with the threat of rain. With it still being early afternoon, we consulted our map on the back of the visitor magazine Coast to Coast and decided to visit Sandy Haven, an area we had not been to before.

Sandy Haven

Arriving just as the rain set in, we parked at a pull in just off the road and followed the coast path signs through a holiday park and out towards a rocky beach. This was a lovely, hidden away location, spoilt only by views of a power station off the coast in the distance. With the tide out, an array of rock pools were revealed and we had fun carefully scrambling over the rocks along the beach to find a way down to the sea.

St Davids

We began today with a ride out to the city of St Davids. As well as being the only city in Pembrokeshire, St Davids is also the smallest city in the UK!

We parked at the top of the town and walked down the main street towards the city’s cathedral. The Cathedral was open for visitors to look around. Next to the , is the medieval ruins of the Bishop’s Palace but as admission was by pre-booked ticket only, we couldn’t explore this any further.

Solva and Newgale

After grabbing a delicious ice cream in St Davids, we returned to the car and drove down the coast to the town of Solva, a place we had driven through many times but never stopped in.

Looking down at Solva from the coast path and below,
views from the coast path.

We parked by the pretty harbour and decided to follow the coast path signs to see where it took up. A quite steep, muddy track eventually opened out to give us amazing views over the harbour, and, as we continued further, we found ourselves on a cliff top with beautiful coastal views.

Rather than following the path any further, we returned the way we had come and instead, drove to the next bay, Newgale Beach. Like Freshwater West, Newgale is a popular surfing spot. The beach here is pebbly and we didn’t stop long before continuing our drive back to our accommodation making one last stop at the tiny bay of Nolton Haven along the way.

The Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon
View of the Blue Lagoon

Not to be confused with the Centre Parcs-style Pembrokeshire holiday park of the same name near Narberth, today we were visiting The Blue Lagoon, a former slate quarry in Abereiddy. The quarry has since flooded, the slate giving it the colour that gives it its name.

A visit to this area of Pembrokeshire had long been recommended to us but for some reason, we had yet to make it there until today.

Traeth Llyfn

Parking for the Blue Lagoon is behind the small beach of Abereiddy. From the car park, we followed the coast path a short distance to the Blue Lagoon viewpoint. Straight away we could see the contrast in the colour of the water here to the colour of the sea. There were some visitors swimming, kayaking and jumping into the lagoon but we stayed on land and decided to follow the coast path a bit further along up to the cliff top overlooking it.

Strolling along Traeth Llyfn

From here, we walked along the cliff top path, a small cove soon coming into view in the distance. We continued along until we reached a signpost at the top of some steps reading Traeth Llyfn, or Llyfn Beach. We took the steps down to the secluded beach where the tide was out enough to reveal a pretty sandy cove and the perfect place to sit down for a while, enjoy the beautiful scenery and have a snack.

After climbing the steps back up to the coast path, we walked back towards the Blue Lagoon and Abereiddy Beach where we sat and had lunch.

Strumble Head

Abermawr Beach

After a quick stop at another secluded beach, Abermawr, we continued up the coast for an afternoon visit to Strumble Head, another part of the park we had never visited before.

Here we walked down to get a closer look at the lighthouse before following the coast path south for a bit to get beautiful coastal views and views looking back towards the lighthouse.

Looking for wildlife off the coast of Strumble Head

After retracing our steps back towards the car park, we walked down to a wildlife viewing hut built onto the cliff, looking out to see if we could spot any of the birds, seals or sea creatures listed on the building’s wall.

Failing to spot anything other than a few noisy seagulls, we returned to the car to drive back.

As always, we had had an amazing time exploring the Pembrokeshire Coast and out walking along the coast path and it had been fun to visit some new places along the way as well as revisit lots of old favourites and I can’t wait to go back.

Exploring the North York Moors National Park

We were nearing the end of 2 weeks on the road visiting some of the National Parks of England. Concentrating on the North, we had so far spent time in the Peak District, the Yorkshire Moors, the Lake District and Northumberland National Parks and now it was back to Yorkshire to visit the second of its 2 National Parks, the North York Moors.

A flying visit to Whitley Bay en route to North York Moors National Park

Leaving Ashington, our base for Northumberland National Park, we travelled down the coast making an early morning stop north of the city of Newcastle at Whitley Bay where we took a brisk walk along the seafront. We then bypassed Newcastle City and crossed the Tyne Bridge and made a second stop, this time to see the famous Angel of the North sculpture up close (it was smaller than we thought it would be!).