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:

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:

Chicago, Chicago

The US city to rival New York for things to do!

Lake Shore Drive

When considering a city break in America, many people think of New York but in my mind, Chicago definitely rivals it for atmosphere, World-class museums, tall buildings, history and sheer amount of things to do. And its setting on the shores of Lake Michigan, one of the Great Lakes, makes it one of the prettiest cities to visit too.

I first visited the city for 4 days at the end of a 2 week multi-city trip to the States which had also taken in New York and Washington DC. Of the 3 cities, Chicago was the one I knew least about and I was unsure what to expect but I fell in love with the city and have returned again and again since – I’m currently weighing in at 6 visits in total but expecting that to go up in the future.

So what is it about the city that keeps pulling me back and what is there to do?

The Lake

Paddling in Lake Michigan

Chicago lies on the west side of Lake Michigan, a lake so big that, looking out at it from the city, you could easily mistake it for the ocean! Lake Shore Drive runs north to south alongside the lake and is worth a stroll, jog, bike ride or even segway along.

Beaches sit on the lake’s edge and, whenever I’ve been in the summer months, are crowded with sunbathers and volleyball players and while I’ve never seen anyone taking a dip in the lake, people must do as lifeguard stands stood along the main beach!

View of the Chicago skyline from Lake Michigan

From Navy Pier, you can choose from a variety of boat trips out onto the lake and once out there you can enjoy unparalleled views of the Chicago city skyline.

Chicago River

Chicago River at night

The Chicago River runs through the city from Lake Michigan at Navy Pier. A river walk has been created which runs alongside, lined with shops, bars and restaurants or you can take the Chicago Architectural Tour, a boat ride along the river with a commentary about the multitude of architectural styles of buildings that make up the city’s skyline.

Navy Pier

This Chicago institution juts out over Lake Michigan and is an entertainment hub for the city. Entry onto the pier is free and once there you’ll find a huge food court and plenty of entertainment and shopping opportunities to keep everyone amused for hours.

Many of the boat trips onto Lake Michigan launch from here and you’ll also find a couple of museums – the Children’s Museum of Chicago and the Museum of Stained Glass.

One of the big draws of Navy Pier is it’s small amusement park. While it mainly offers rides aimed at young children, there’s also a carousel, flying chairs and, of course, the Chicago Ferris wheel offering views over the city and lake.

In the summer months, firework displays usually run twice weekly from the pier!

The Miracle Mile

Dylan’s Candy Bar on Michigan Ave

Chicago is a great place to shop. Michigan Avenue, also known as the ‘Miracle Mile’, runs down the centre of the city and here you’ll find a mix of high street stores and top fashion houses all on one long road!

The Wrigley and Tribune Buildings
Pieces of famous buildings built into the Chicago Tribune Building

Museums

Sue the T-Rex at the Field Museum

If museums are your thing then you’ll be spoilt for choice in Chicago. Down at Museum Campus, you’ll find the Field Museum – Chicago’s Natural History Museum – home to one of the largest collections of dinosaurs in the World including Sue the T-Rex who stands proudly in the museum entrance hall. Museum Campus is also home to the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium and even if you’re not planning on going to the museums, it’s worth a visit to the area for the views across Lake Michigan!

For art, head to the Art Institute of Chicago situated near Millennium Park. This museum houses some World renowned works of art including Grant Wood’s America Gothic and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks as well as impressive collections of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures and artefacts.

For something a bit more unusual, head upstairs at the city’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonalds” where you’ll find a small McDonalds’ museum with old advertising, Happy Meal toys and other merchandise!

President Lincoln’s bed at the Chicago History Museum

A bit more out of the way, in the North part of city at Lincoln Park, but definitely worth the trip, is the Chicago History Museum containing displays and exhibitions from the city’s past – and what an interesting past it is! From the Great Fire of Chicago to the city’s close links with President Abraham Lincoln, from its hosting of the World Fair in the late 1800s to it’s Prohibition era gangsta connections, there’s plenty here to learn about this great city.

Prohibition era Chicago

While on the subject of Chicago’s links to prohibition era mobsters, there are plenty of companies offering guided tours of the city talking about this. My favourite is the ‘Untouchable tour’ where you are driven around in a battered, bullet-hole covered mini-van as 2 actors dressed appropriately for the era recount the grisly stories of the city’s past and point out the scenes of the crimes in an informative but humorous way. Fascinating stuff!

The City Parks

Cloudgate at Millennium Park

The first place I like to head to on any visit to Chicago is Millennium Park to see my favourite outdoor works of art, Cloudgate and the Crown Fountain. Cloudgate, also known as the Silver Bean, is a huge silver bean-shaped sculpture which lies in a square in the centre of the park reflecting the city skyline and the many tourists who crowd around, and under, it! It’s great fun to stand facing the sculpture from different angles and see if you can spot yourself in it!

Crown Fountain

Not far from Cloudgate, also in Millennium Park, is the Crown Fountain which also has another more descriptive name – the spitting fountain! The fountain has a huge pillar at each end broadcasting the faces of actual Chicago city-dwellers who, once every 15 minutes or so, appear to spit water out of their mouths. I once made the mistake on a very hot day of thinking it would be a good idea to stand under the jet of water being spat out while wearing denim knee-length shorts. Despite the heat, it took forever to dry out again!!! Great fun for the kids though.

A short walk south from Millennium Park is Grant Park where you’ll find another famous Chicago Fountain, Buckingham Fountain. Try to visit on the hour as the water spouting from the fountain jumps impressively higher into the sky!!

Buckingham Fountain
Statue of President Lincoln in Lincoln Park

The city’s largest park is Lincoln Park, named after President Abraham Lincoln.

This park is situated on the Northern edge of Lake Michigan and is also home to the city’s zoo!

The Pizza

Chicago is famous for its Deep Dish Pizza and there are a few restaurants in the city all claiming to have the best. My personal favourite is Gino’s East. Expect to queue for a while outside it’s flagship restaurant on Superior and then to wait at least an hour for your pizza to be cooked and served but it’s definitely worth the wait.

The restaurant allows customers to graffiti its interior – any surface, the tables, chairs, walls, ceilings etc, can be scribbled on – so while waiting for your food to arrive, keep yourself amused by reading through the messages left by previous customers and leaving your own mark on the place!

The Tall Buildings

View from Willis Tower Skydeck

Chicago is home to many skyscrapers and there are two offering visitors a viewing deck on the upper floors. The most famous of these is at the building formerly known as the Sears Tower (many native Chicago dwellers still refuse to call it anything different to this, so synonymous with the city is the name), now known as Willis Tower.

The building was once the tallest in the World and it’s Skydeck, offering visitors the opportunity to stand on a glass floor above the city, is situated on the 103rd floor. On a clear day, it is possible to see 4 states from here!

Stood on the edge!

As it is situated closer to Lake Michigan, I personally prefer the views from the Chicago 360 observation deck in the city’s John Hancock Building from where you can look down at the beaches running alongside the lake. This observation deck also offers Tilt, a kind of Observation Deck thrill ride where you lie against windows that slowly tilt outwards over the Magnificent Mile!

All of my visits to Chicago so far have been in the summer months and I’d imagine it’s a very different city in the harsh winter months but it really is a wonderful city and if you get the chance, I definitely recommend a visit!

Viva Las Vegas

Spending time in the party capital when you don’t like to party!

Las Vegas was never high up on my list of places to visit. But visit I have – 4 times now – and I’m pretty sure I’ll return again at some point. My reason for booking my first trip out to Las Vegas was for my friend’s wedding. She had long been a huge fan of the city and had said she would one day get married there ever since I’d known her and long before she met her husband to be!

As our taxi drove out of McCarran airport and around the back of the Strip towards our Circus Circus hotel, I can’t say I was immediately impressed and I wondered how I was going to fill 3 full days in a city of casinos, bars and clubs when I don’t gamble or drink! But as I found out on that visit and subsequent visits, first impressions can be wrong and there’s a lot more to Vegas than that. So why go to the party capital of the World if you don’t like to party?!

The Hotels

It would be strange in any other city, but in Vegas, the themed hotels that line Las Vegas Boulevard, or ‘the Strip’ as it’s often referred to, are one of the city’s main attractions and you can easily spend days just wandering along the strip, exploring these. You can literally – as I’ve found out more than once – lose yourself in these huge complexes.

Take a trip around the World and see France, Italy, Egypt… without leaving the city. In the Venetian, you can visit replicas of the Sistine Chapel’s painted ceiling and a miniature version of the city of Venice where you can even ride a gondola along the canal; see replicas of classic Roman sculptures in Caesar’s Palace; walk through the streets of Manhattan at the New York New York hotel and see a mini-Sphinx at the Luxur. See flamingos hanging out in the gardens at the Flamingo hotel or clowns and acrobats performing at Circus Circus. And it doesn’t matter where you are staying – while I’d never just wander into a 4 or 5-star hotel I’m not staying at in any other city, in Vegas, all the hotel casinos, shops, food courts etc are open to all visitors, not just residents.

The Bright Lights

One of the main reasons I wasn’t immediately enamoured with Vegas was that my first sighting of the Strip was in daylight hours. Wandering down the busy strip in the 40 degree heat is not particularly fun. But after a few hours, when the sun had gone down, the lights had all come on and it had cooled down to a more bearable heat, it looked and felt like a different, much more magical, place and I started to enjoy it a lot more. The Strip at night is just one of those things that has to be seen to be appreciated but the whole atmosphere of the city shifts when the sun goes down!

The Views

For a birds eye view of the Strip, in daylight hours or all lit up at nights, there are a few options, the most expensive of which is to take a helicopter ride over the Strip while its all lit up. But if you’re not a fan of helicopters or your funds don’t quite run to that then another good bet is one of the Strip’s two observation decks. At Paris hotel, there is an observation deck at the top of its ‘Eiffel Tower’. It’s situated right in the middle of the Strip and across from the Bellagio meaning that if you time it right, it is possible to watch the Bellagio Fountain show from up there.

Further along the Strip is the tallest building in Vegas, the Stratosphere, with it’s indoor observation deck with floor to ceiling windows to look out of or the outdoor rooftop, also home to the thrill rides mentioned below.

The newest option for views over the Strip is the High Roller, a huge Ferris Wheel outside the Linq hotel. Here you ride in a pod with other visitors – or for a bit more money, you can hire a private pod with a bar – and enjoy the views as you slowly circle up to the top and back down to ground level.

Hint: It’s worth looking out for coupons and promo codes to cut the prices of all these attractions before going to the box office or booking on line!

The Big Shows

I never saw a show the first time I visited Vegas, there just wasn’t time any of the three nights I was there, but I was certainly aware of them with the huge billboards adorning the hotels everywhere. And I’ve made up for it since, seeing a Cirque du Soleil show, Britney’s Piece of Me show and the Backstreet Boys’ during their Planet Hollywood residency on my subsequent visits!

There’s always plenty to choose from and something for everyone from mind-boggling magic shows to the Cirque shows’ gasp-inducing acrobatic displays to chart-topping musicians or top class tribute acts. If you’re not too fussy, a lot of the show tickets can be bought at discounted prices on the day at TKTs booths and it’s even worth turning up at the box office for the show you have in mind and enquiring as we got our Britney tickets, to stand right in the front pit down by the stage, on the day of the gig for less than they’d have been in advance online seeing as we didn’t have to pay as much in processing/ delivery fees etc in person.

One of the Cirque du Soleil shows on the Strip

The Free Shows

If you’ve not got the time or the money to see one of the big shows then there’s plenty of free ‘shows’ along the strip that shouldn’t be missed. Head to the Mirage Hotel to see the huge volcano outside erupt every hour, pop to the shopping complex at Caesars Palace to see Atlantis, a moving statue show or go to the Bellagio for, probably the most well-known of these free shows, the Dancing Fountains.

If you’re downtown, the Fremont Street Experience offers free live music and a laser show most nights.

The Thrill Rides

Rides in Circus Circus hotel
The Rollercoaster running through New York New York hotel

If non-stop thrills are your thing, Vegas has plenty but they don’t come cheap! The New York New York hotel is home to one of my favourite roller coasters ever. You board inside the hotel but soon find yourself outside whizzing around the famous Manhattan skyline! If one roller coaster isn’t enough then head further up the Strip to Circus Circus hotel which is home to an amusement park with rollercoasters, family rides and other thrill rides. And if you’re feeling really brave, catch the elevator to the top of the Stratosphere Hotel to ride it’s three thrill rides 350m above the Strip!! Definitely not for the faint-hearted!!

The Shops

The Hershey’s store

Las Vegas is home to no end of shopping malls and outlets. Pretty much all the hotels have a shopping mall attached and if it’s too hot to walk along the Strip to your destination, many of these link up so you can walk from hotel to hotel without ever having to go outside! Most of the malls are home to a range of stores from well-known high street stores to mid-range stores to high end designer stores. Themed stores like the M&M’s store, the Hershey’s store and the Coca Cola store are always fun to look around and there’s no end of shops offering Vegas souvenirs. If you’re looking for a bargain then catch a bus or taxi to one of the Outlet Malls just outside of the main city.

The Museums

Few people would say the were heading to Vegas to check out it’s museums but actually, the city has some really great ones! The Neon Museum, or Neon Junkyard as it’s sometimes known, is one of y favourites. Situated near the downtown area of Vegas this museum is host to many of the retired signs from old Vegas hotels. Tours can be taken throughout the day but at night, some of the signs are switched on so you can see exactly how they once looked!

Another museum worth visiting in downtown Vegas is the Mob Museum. This museum tracks the rise and fall of the Mob in Las Vegas and its surrounds and is a really interesting way to spend a couple of hours.

If it’s art you’re after, then the Gallery of Fine Art at the Bellagio Hotel, right on the Strip is a good call. TheBellagio is not the only hotel to contain a museum, visit the Luxor to find an exhibition of artefacts from the ill-fated Titanic or The Venetian to find good old Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum.

The Old Town

While most visitors choose to stay in a hotel on the main Vegas Strip, staying Downtown in ‘Old’ Vegas can be a much cheaper option and even if you don’t stay there, it is definitely worth catching the Deuce bus there a few hours. As well as they already mentioned Mob and Neon Museum, downtown is home to some of Vegas’ most famous hotels such as the Golden Nugget as well as tourist attraction The Fremont Experience. Fremont Street is the main street that runs through the downtown area and most nights there’s live entertainment and a free laser show beamed hourly onto the street’s ‘roof’.

If you’re feeling adventurous then you can fly down Fremont Street on the SlotZilla Zipline!

The National Parks

While the city of Las Vegas itself offers plenty to keep you entertained, it’s also a great base to reach some of the USA’s top National Parks from. The most popular to visit from Vegas is the Grand Canyon and if you don’t want to hire a car and drive yourself there, tour companies offer plenty of options from all day coach trips to scenic flights there and back.

If you want somewhere a bit different or to explore a bit further then Utah’s Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks are also in easy reach along with Death Valley National Park in California. Again, there’s plenty of tour companies offering guided tours out to these parks if you don’t want to drive yourself.

Bryce Canyon National Park

If it’s the great outdoors you’re after, there’s many opportunities closer to Vegas – hiking at Red Rock Canyon or hiking, biking and boating at Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

There’s plenty of other entertainment opportunities in Las Vegas which I’ve not mentioned and if nothing else, the city is just one of those places that just has to be seen! So, even if partying and gambling is not your thing, the Vegas is definitely still worth a visit!

Trek America Northern BLT Days 20-21: California Coast

The end of the tour

Santa Cruz Boardwalk

It was the last full day of our trip and after beginning the day with a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, we started to make our way down the California coast towards our final destination of Los Angeles. Too far to travel in a day, we would be spending the night at a motel around the half way point in the city of San Luis Obispo and today’s drive would include plenty of stop offs along the way at various view points along the famous Pacific Coast Highway.

The Haunted House on Santa Cruz Boardwalk

Our first stop was for lunch at an In-N-Out Burger, a fast food chain which mainly exists in California and had been requested by some group members. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about!

Santa Cruz Beach

After we’d all eaten, we continued on to our main stop of the day at Santa Cruz Boardwalk. This was a really fun stop off and although we didn’t have time to queue for some of the bigger rides, some of us did have lots fun trying out the spooky walk-through Haunted House before spending the rest of our time in the many souvenir stores, amusement arcades and on the beautiful, sandy beach.

View from Santa Cruz Pier

Before leaving we all indulged in some of the many unhealthy snacks on offer – huge Texas doughnuts, funnel cake and various other fried or sugar-filled treats!

From Santa Cruz, we continued our drive down PCH stopping at various breathtakingly-pretty overlooks along the rugged Big Sur coastline.

Elephant seals

Our final stop before we reached San Luis Obispo was to see the Elephant Seals at a beach in San Simeon.

Once at our motel and settled in, it was off into San Luis Obispo town for dinner at a local BBQ/diner before returning to our motel for last night drinks.

Santa Barbara

Our adventure wasn’t over just yet and we began the final day of the tour with a stop at the upmarket coastal city of Santa Barbara. Here we spent some time walking along the pier, souvenir shopping and enjoying the views.

Santa Monica Beach

Continuing on to Los Angeles, we avoided the city itself and instead stopped at the beach city of Santa Monica, one of my favourite places in LA. After taking a walk along the beach and yet another pier, a group of us headed inland to Third Street Promenade for some last minute shopping.

Santa Monica Pier
Venice Beach

Short on time with some of the group having evening flights to make, our original plan to walk from Santa Monica to Venice had to be abandoned and instead we hopped back on the bus to be driven the short distance along the coast.

Venice is always a fun place to visit with it’s quirky shops and stalls lining the boardwalk, fun to watch street performers and the always busy skate park where skateboarded impress onlookers with an array of stunts. We maybe didn’t enjoy or make the most of our visit as much as we should have as the impending goodbyes at the end of our tour loomed over us and we all sat in silence on the van as we left the beach cities behind to make our way to the gateway hotel near LAX airport.

Once there, the tears soon started as the first few group members started to drift away, some making their way to the airport for flights home, some, like myself, off to hotels or AirBnBs elsewhere in the city while others were remaining at the gateway hotel for another night before going home or starting another tour through the Southern states. It had been one of those groups that just really gelled from the outset. We’d all had the time of our lives travelling together across the country and were devastated it was now over but at the same time immensely happy that it had happened to start with and we’d all be leaving with amazing memories to last a lifetime!