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!

Trek America Northern BLT Days 16-17: Yosemite National Park

Arriving at Yosemite National Park

Day 2 in California, the last state we’d be visiting on our tour, and we would be leaving the shores of Lake Tahoe to travel to the last National Park of our trip, Yosemite.

Making a few stops along the way at Bridgetown to pick up a few snacks and then Lee Vining for a delicious diner lunch, we still made it to the park for early afternoon. Our first stop was going to be at the highest altitude alpine lake in the park, Tenaya Lake. Some of the group had their swimming suits handy so they could take a dip while the rest of us strolled along its shores enjoying the beautiful views across the lake.

Views along Tioga Pass Road

From here, we drove along Tioga Pass, the road winding across the east side of the park, stopping every now and then to enjoy the sweeping views across the park. Our next stop was at Tuolumne Grove where we followed the trail to hike down and see the impressive giant sequoias.

Riding through Yosemite Valley

From here we drove out of the park towards our KOA in Mariposa, stopping at a lodge along the way to grab some dinner. Once at our cabins, we were provided with Yosemite National Park maps and the options for the next day were outlined for us. We had the choice of various longer hikes in the park or of spending time in Yosemite Valley where a shuttle bus ran to take us to different points of the park and there were a few shorter hikes available. Deciding to sleep on the decision we all took ourselves back to our cabins.

Views in Yosemite Valley

The next morning, we were up early to get into Yosemite Valley before all the parking spaces disappeared. The group had all decided on different activities for in the park, some had decided to do a long hike up to a waterfall, one had decided to go even further and do a longer, more strenuous hike and the rest of us had decided to have a more relaxing day in the valley area.

After enjoying our horse riding trail so much in Wyoming a few days earlier, a few of us caught the free shuttle bus to the Valley stables to see if there were any slots available that day. Unsuprisingly, they were all booked out so instead we hired bikes and followed the cycle path around the valley area. This was a great way to see the valley area of the park quickly although with temperatures reaching over 40 degrees, we had to make a lot of stops along the way!

We parked our bikes up and met up with the rest of the group who had chosen to stay in the valley to hike out to Mirror Lakes, one of the short, easy hikes available in the area but with it being summer, the lakes had pretty much dried up so the mirror effect wasn’t really visible.

After lunch at Yosemite Village and some souvenir shopping at the visitor centre, some of us decided to cool down on the river so after returning our bikes, hired a raft to spend our afternoon floating along. This was a really fun way to spend time in the valley! Once we reached the end of the float, we were returned to the starting point by a shuttle bus and we met up with the rest of the group including those who had spent the day hiking.

Floating down the river

Next we grabbed some pizza in Curry Village before making our way back to the Trek van in time to head to a park view point for sunset then returning to our KOA site.

We’d all really enjoyed our time exploring Yosemite National Park and I definitely hoped to return some day in the future.

Trek America Northern BLT Days 18-20: San Francisco

Driving into San Francisco
Entrance to Pier 39

This morning, after a stop for a pancake breakfast in a Mariposa diner, it was off to San Francisco, a city I had visited twice before and is one of my favourite cities in the USA.

City views from the pier

We arrived early afternoon and were dropped in Fisherman’s Wharf and given a couple of hours to explore. Most of us walked down to the busy Pier 39 where we looked around the many souvenir and gift stores before walking down to the end of the pier to see the famous Pier 39 sealions which gather on the decks floating in the bay. Unfortunately there were only a few there compared to the hundreds I’d seen gathered there on my previous visits but it was still fun to watch them jump on and off the wooden decks and scramble around each other before lazing in the sun.

After grabbing snacks and ice creams we spend the rest of the time walking around the Fisherman’s Wharf area visiting more souvenir stores and soaking in the atmosphere before reconvening with the rest of the group ready to head to our Union Square accommodation. For the next 2 nights, we would be staying in a hostel located a short walk from Union Square. As hostels go, it wasn’t too bad and once we were settled in our dorms, we headed back out and down the hill to the Union Square cable car turnaround.

San Francisco Cable Cars

It was early evening by now and the huge queues which gather earlier in the day for the cable cars and gone down leaving just a handful of people. 10 minutes of waiting and watching the cable car operators push the cable cars around on the turntables and it was time for us to board.

View from the cable car

The more adventurous of us in the group, including me, took our places on the outside of the cable cars, stood on the narrow steps and clinging to the bars as the cable cars climbed and descended the famous hills of San Francisco. We managed to survive and got off at the stop at the top of Lombard Street. Lombard Street is known as the ‘crookedest street in the World’ and cars line up to drive down it’s twisty turny section of road. We walked down stopping to watch the cars manoeuvre its tight turns and posing for photos from the bottom of the road from where you can see the wiggly road more clearly.

View of Telegraph Hill from Lombard St
Lombard Street

From Lombard Street, we walked towards the Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, passing Washington Square Park and the church of Sts Peter and Paul – famous from many movies set in the city and as the church where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMagio posed for photos outside after they married.

Church of Sts Peter & Paul in Washington Square
The Coit Tower

It was dusk by the time we reached Telegraph Hill and the Coit Tower was bathed in blue light. The city around it was lighting up and we spent some time taking in the views and taking photos before walking back down the hill towards the North Beach area of the city. North Beach is the city’s Italian quarter and we ended the night with a delicious meal in one of the many small Italian restaurants in the vicinity before catching an Uber back to the hostel.

Looking back at the city from the Alcatraz ferry

The next morning, we were dropped at the Embarcedero area of the city to catch the ferry across to Alcatraz Island. I’d toured Alcatraz on both of my previous visits to San Francisco but as this was another included extra on our tour, meaning we didn’t have to pay any extra for it, I was more than happy to return!

Nearing Alcatraz Island
On Alcatraz

Upon arrival at the prison, visitors are handed audio guides which give instructions on where to walk around the prison while talking about what it is you are seeing. It’s a really interesting place to visit, especially as many of the audio clips are narrated by previous Alcatraz workers and inmates.

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Alcatraz
The Painted Ladies

After catching the boat back to the mainland, we were taken back to Union Square where the group split up to spend the rest of the day in different ways. Some went shopping in and around the Union Square while some of us went sightseeing.

In Haight-Ashbury

As I was already familiar with the city, I took some of the group out towards Haight-Ashbury. We used public transport and took the bus to Alamo Square to see the Painted Ladies houses then walked from here along to Haight-Ashbury to explore the quirky shops, cafes and see the many wall murals.

The Mrs Doubtfire House

From here we took a local bus to the Mrs Doubtfire house before heading back towards Union Square. We still had a few hours to kill before we had to meet with the rest of the group so we decided to visit the Cable Car Museum, a free museum near Chinatown before catching a streetcar to Fisherman’s Wharf for dinner at the Rainforest Cafe.

On the boat under the Golden Gate Bridge

That evening, the whole group was booked on a sunset cruise on the Bay. We could tell as soon as we arrived at the pier that we would not be seeing much of a sunset and as we cruised around, the Golden Gate Bridge repeatedly appeared and disappeared under a cloud of fog!

Sunset Catamaran trip
Dessert at the Hard Rock Cafe

It was still a fun, if a little chilly, way to spend the evening though and after, a few of us rounded the evening off with drinks and dessert at Hard Rock Cafe at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Abou to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge

On our final morning in San Francisco, and our last full day of the tour, we had breakfast at the hostel before checking out and driving to the Golden Gate Bridge. We were dropped off on the city side and told to walk across where the van would meet us at the other end.

Crossing the bridge

As I had crossed the bridge by bus and then bike on my previous 2 visits to the city, it was nice to get a different perspective by walking across this time but like the previous night, the fog kept rolling in hampering the views slightly.

Once at across the bridge, we were jumped back on the bus ready to continue our journey down the Californian coast.

Trek America Northern BLT Days 14-15: Idaho, Nevada and Lake Tahoe

Entering the state of Idaho

After our early morning horse ride though the hills of Jackson, it was time to wave a sad goodbye to the beautiful state of Wyoming as we continued on our adventure. It was nearing te end of our epic journey now and tomorrow we would be reaching the final state of our trip, California. But first, we had a long drive day to our overnight stop at Elko, Nevada, the halfway point between our current location and tomorrow’s destination of Lake Tahoe.

Driving past some large horned cows!

After leaving our KOA, we crossed the border from Wyoming into Idaho. We’d just be clipping a corner of this state without really having time to see anything but straight away I could tell it would be a state worth returning to at some point in the future as we passed more beautiful mountainous scenery.

We made a stop just off the highway in the city of Idaho Falls for lunch at an Applebees and then another quick stop at an Idaho tourist centre so those of us collecting souvenirs at each state could grab a magnet/pin or some other Idaho-emblazened item then continued on towards the state of Nevada.

Driving through Nevada

The day was pretty uneventful as we chatted and sang along to cheesy pop and Disney songs in the van, occasionally pulling over for a rest stop. Eventually we reached our motel in the city of Elko. After causing numerous problems for the receptionist after checking in to find we’d been allocated smoking rooms or in some cases, rooms without enough beds and therefore asking to move rooms, we eventually got ourselves settled and met back up to go out for a group dinner.

Travelling through Nevada

We ate at a family dining restaurant which basically means you individually order your main item – steak, chops etc – but the sides such as potatoes, vegetables, bread etc are placed in huge portions on the table for the group to share. When the biggest pork chop I’ve ever seen arrived in front of me, I wished I’d got one of those to share too but managed to plough through it.

On the beach at South Lake Tahoe

The next morning was an early start to ensure we had plenty of time at Lake Tahoe. We made a quick stop at a neighbouring casino (when in Nevada…!) to grab breakfast at its Starbucks before continuing on our way.

Off to get on the boat

It was a beautiful day so when we arrived at California’s South Lake Tahoe in the early afternoon, we were dropped off straight at the beach and spent the afternoon walking along the shore, swimming in the crystal clear waters and generally relaxing on the beach.

Boat trip on Lake Tahoe

After the previous night’s not-so-great accommodation, we were delighted to find we were staying in a lovely little B&B that night. We made a quick stop off to drop off our luggage and get showered and changed before catching a shuttle bus to Zephyr Cove, back on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe where we had all signed up for a sunset cruise on the lake.

Sunsetting across Lake Tahoe

The cruise included unlimited drinks – champagne or soft drinks and plenty of nibbles and we all had a really fantastic evening hanging out together watching the sun go down over the lake.

After the cruise, we were dropped back in South Lake Tahoe where the town is split across the states of Nevada and California. We wandered through the casino on the Nevada side before crossing the road into California and finding a bar with live music which was still serving food. Pizza’s ordered and eaten, we took the short walk back to our motel to enjoy a night of relative luxury before the next 2 nights in a hostel!

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

My first small group tour travel experience – Part 1

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

Getting ready for the Oscars – red carpet lining Hollywood Blvd

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

Oscar preparations outside the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood

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

The Hollywood sign
Paddling in the sea on Mission Beach

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

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

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

Watch my Trek America adventures in Hollywood and San Diego
Our seemingly luxurious hotel room at Bally’s!

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

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

Downtown Vegas

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

The Bellagio Founains

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

Britney!

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

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

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

Watch my Trek America adventures in Las Vegas

My Trek America Experience Part 2

My first solo travel adventure

Going it alone

My first solo travel adventure

Coast to coast with Trek America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alone on Santa Monica Beach

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

Sunset over Santa Monica Pier

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

Breakfast feast for one at Denny’s

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

Sony Studios Tour

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

Walking to Venice Beach

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

Exploring the canals at Venice
On a tour to Malibu

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

Malibu Beach
After cycling to Marina del Rey

Watch my Vlog of my time spent in Santa Monica before the tour here:

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

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

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

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

My first Small Group Tour travel experience Part 1

Going it alone

Going it alone

Travelling solo for the first time.

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

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

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

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

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

The Southern BLT Tour route

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

Trek America tour van

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

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

My first solo travel adventure

The Hollywood Sign

As mentioned in my post on Hollywood, it’s possible to see the famous Hollywood sign clearly from the walkways across the arch at the Hollywood Highland Centre and if you take a Star Homes Tour into the Hollywood Hills, you will most likely stop at the Mulholland Lookout Point. But while both of these places give you good views of the sign and enable you to get a photo of the sign if you zoom in on your camera, they are not great if you want a clear photo with the sign as it looks tiny in the background from here.

Vire of the Hollywood Sign from the scenic point on Mulholland.

If you want to get closer, you are going to need to take a hike!

Along with the Walk of Fame, the Hollywood sign will probably be a must-see on any first time visit to LA. As I’ve mentioned previously, you don’t need to leave Hollywood Boulevard to see the sign with it being visible from the arch at the Hollywood Highland Centre and other viewpoints include the stop along Mulholland included in most of the Star Homes Tours or from Griffith Observatory. But if you want to get closer and get a good photo of yourself with the sign, then you really need put on your walking shoes!

View of the sign from the road

Both times I’ve got a bit closer to the sign, I’ve taken a DASH bus from the intersection of Hollywood and Vine – by the Capitol Records Building – towards Beachwood Canyon. The first time I went looking for a good viewpoint, we got a little lost and ended up climbing Deronda Drive where we accidentally stumbled upon a great view of the sign in a residential district.

It did mean standing in the road in between cars passing by to get a photo with it though – probably not the best or safest idea!

Warning signs hiking through the Hollywood Hills

The next time I went looking for the sign, I followed a set of instructions found on line which took me onto the Hollyridge Trail via a pathway by Sunset Ranch. I followed the trail – and other hikers – to a trail that eventually lead me to a path that climbed up behind the Hollywood sign. Unfortunately, access to this trail at Sunset Ranch has now been closed but that doesn’t mean you can no longer hike to the sign.

Hiking to Mount Lee, view from behind the Hollywood sign

You can now pick the trail up at the ‘Deronda Gate’, further along Deronda Drive at it’s intersection with Mulholland. It’s about a 1 mile walk from where the DASH bus drops you in Beachwood Canyon but the path is steep making it a difficult walk especially in the LA heat. If you don’t have a car, you can get a taxi or Uber to the gate then hike the trail from there. Although the main trail takes you behind the sign, there are great views of the front of it too, close enough for you to get a photo with it, or you can turn off the main path to get a bit closer before retracing your steps and hiking back.

Getting closer to the sign

If you’re unsure of finding the sign yourself and think you might end up lost in the Hollywood Hills, there are a few companies offering guided hikes. This year, I’ve booked a sunset tour with Bikes and Hikes LA. While I’m not expecting to get as close to the sign, I’m looking forward to hiking into the hills from Griffith Park and hearing a bit about the area and the history of the sign from the tour’s guide as well as getting a few photos from a different angle.

Another different way of visiting the sign is by horse back. Sunset Ranch in Beachwood Canyon offer various guided horse trail rides into the Hollywood Hills and past the sign throughout the day.

LA Overview

Hollywood and Beverly Hills

Downtown LA

Beach Cities

LA Studio Tours

Los Angeles Studio Tours

I’m a huge movie buff and cult TV viewer and I love a good movie tour and LA currently offers 4 of them. For some reason, I never got around to doing any of these tours on my first few visits to the city but I’ve since made up for it doing 2 of these tours on my 3rd visit and the others on my 2 subsequent visits. While I did have a favourite – the Warner Brother’s Studio Tour – they all had their merits and are worth doing if you are a film and TV fan.

Warner Brothers Studio Experience

Our WB Studios Tour was included on our Go LA pass but we wanted to book in advance to guarantee a spot at the time we wanted. This wasn’t a problem as we’d booked our pass well in advance so it was just a case of emailing the studios with our Go Card reference number to get our time slot scheduled in. Getting to the studios required a bus journey from Hollywood, the first time I’d ever used a public transport bus in the city and typically, the next stop announcer wasn’t working. Luckily, we got a friendly driver who took pity on us now knowing where on earth we were going, gave us a shout once we were at the stop we needed!

Anyway, the tour itself was great – we were taken around the studios on a little golf-buggy type vehicle passing exteriors used in shows including Friends – I’ve never been so excited to see a patch of grass but it was the patch of grass that Phoebe ran on!! We also had time to explore the Studio’s museum, one of which had a collection of Batman memorabilia from various shows and films over the years, another a Harry Potter exhibition with many props and costumes and one with a collection of vehicles used in WB films and shows including the Batmobile – as a complete geek who love Harry Potter and any comic book shows, I was in heaven! Next, we got taken to some of the studios’ sound stages seeing inside the studio where the Ellen Show is filmed and another where a comedy show was shot in front of a live audience. Then we saw an outdoor area which, at the time, was set up as ‘Bluebell, Alabama’ in the series ‘Hart of Dixie’ but also doubled as the town in Pretty Little Liars amongst other things. As I watched Hart of Dixie at the time, I was very excited to see the familiar shop fronts from ‘Bluebelle’ and well as walk into the church set used in the show and then see the sound stage where the interior shots are filmed!

The final part of the Warner Brothers Studio Experience, and probably a big selling point for many, is a visit to the Central Perk set from Friends, now recreated in unused studio where you can sit and pose for photos on the couch!

The recreated Central Perk set at WB

Universal Studios Hollywood

Universal City Walk

The day after we visited the WB Studios, we spent the day at Universal Studios not far from Hollywood. To tour the studios here, you need entry into the park. Getting there was an easy ride on the metro from Hollywood/Highland Station followed by jumping on the free shuttle bus up the hill to the Universal City Walk. The City Walk is a vibrant entertainment district with shops and restaurants with the Studios complex itself at the end of it. Despite it being the start of August, the Studios weren’t too busy and we managed to go on most of the rides without too much of a queue. We also enjoyed all the shows on offer.

The Simpsons Ride at Universal

The actual Studio Tour can be taken at any time during your visit. After queuing, we boarded a bus which then rode around the studios while our guide commentated on what we were seeing. Unlike the WB Tour, there was no opportunity to stop and get off the bus on the way around – in fact it moved constantly – and, for the most part, sets were much more in the distance than at Warner Brothers. The tour also felt a bit more like a ride as special effects were timed to go off as we drove past. The highlight for me was seeing ‘Wisteria Lane’ where Desperate Housewives was filmed!

Sony Pictures Studio Tour

I toured the Sony Pictures Studios on a flying visit to the city during which I was staying at Santa Monica. From there, I had to catch a bus to Culver City – part of LA I really enjoyed strolling through and felt had a really nice feel to it! – then walk to the Studio Building where the tours went from. The directions on the confirmation email were not great and I struggled to find the building at first but luckily I’d left plenty of time and thanks to some helpful studio employees giving me directions, I eventually found it. The building housed some props and costumes from various films which we were encouraged to look at while we waited for our tour to be called.

No bus or golf buggy this time – instead we toured the studios on foot. The studios are most famous for being where classic film The Wizard of Oz was filmed and as you enter, a huge rainbow looms over you and can be seen from most points of the tour! I found this tour a lot more informative on the workings of the studios and film and TV production in general than the other tours which made it one of my favourites as I found it really interesting. We were taken to rooms where various stages of post-production take place such as where the sound effects are added and – one of the tour’s highlights – we got to stand in the music studio where Judy Garland recorded Somewhere Over the Rainbow! Sticking with the Wizard of Oz theme, we got to glance into the sound studio where the movie was filmed – obviously set up for a completely different production now. Like in the Warner Brother’s Tour, we got to see inside a current set although this time, I wasn’t lucky enough for it to be for a show I watched.

Paramount Studios

The final tour offered in LA is of Paramount Studios, just outside of Hollywood. I took an easy bus ride followed by a short walk to get there. After photos in front of the famous studio gates, we again boarded a golf buggy type vehicle to be driven around the back lot. I feel we got to spend a bit more time out of the vehicle walking around the back lot than we did on the WB Tour but there were less-recognisable things to see than at Warner – to me at least! I was excited to get to stand inside the ‘McKinley High’ set from Glee which luckily had yet to be dismantled despite the last ever episode being filmed there recently!

At the end of this tour, I really enjoyed seeing the room where a lot of old props and costumes are stored!

While I really enjoyed all of these tours and seeing a bit behind the scenes of some of my favourite films and shows, just a warning that doing a tour will completely ruin your illusions when watching in the future. There are so many times now that I’m watching TV shows or films and I recognise sets from one of the studios and am able to pinpoint which studio it was filmed at, it can take me away from what’s happening on screen a bit! I the same way, the first few films I saw after doing the Sony Tour, I spent the whole time thinking about what we’d been told about sound effects every time there was a background sound or door creak. But if you’re ok with this, then I definitely recommend booking a tour if you’re in LA!

LA Overview

Hollywood and Beverly Hills

The Hollywood Sign

Downtown LA

Beach Cities

Santa Monica and Venice Beach

I really love the beach cities of LA, such a chilled out relaxed vibe! I’ve made Santa Monica my base for 2 of my trips to the Los Angeles and make a point of visiting here and Venice Beach on every trip I make to the city.

Watching the sunset over Santa Monica Hills from the beach
Statue of St Monica in Pacific Palisades Park

If you’re not staying in the area and haven’t hired a car, getting to Santa Monica has recently been made slightly easier with the opening of a new metro line running there from downtown LA. If you’re staying in Hollywood, just catch the red line downtown and transfer to the new line! If you’re staying where you can’t easily access the metro then Santa Monica is served by a variety of bus routes including a direct bus from Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills. The Hop on/off sightseeing buses also have routes which include stops in Santa Monica.

The Beach

The main attraction at Santa Monica is it’s vast beach and if you’re so inclined, it’s easy to spend a day just relaxing here in the hot Californian sun. The beach is peppered with the famous ‘Baywatch-style’ lifeguard huts (the show was actually shot on site at the north side of the pier!) and in peak times, lifeguards are present keeping an eye on bathers and surfers.

Having paddled in the ocean here, I can say there are strong current and big waves so just be careful! We bought a cheap body board from a beach side stall and had great fun riding the waves in but if you fancy a go at proper surfing, there are quite a few Surf Schools offering beginners lessons in the area. There’s also plenty of beach hire stores at the back of the boardwalk hiring and selling beach chairs, mats, parasols etc. As we were once visiting in August, the sand was red hot making it unbearable to walk on without something on our feet and meaning something to sit on and to shelter us from the powerful sun was a necessity!

View of Santa Monica Beach from the end of the Pier

At the back of the beach, just off the promenade and south of the pier, you will find the area known as the Original Muscle Beach (there’s another Muscle Beach further along in Venice). As well as training equipment for any fitness fanatics there’s also a few swings to sit and play on!

The beach is often at it’s busiest at sunset and I definitely recommend hanging around until the sun goes down if you can. While LA doesn’t have the reputation for the best sunsets in California due to the smog often filling the air, I’ve definitely never had any complaints about it!

Santa Monica Pier

The iconic Santa Monica Pier is always a fun place to wander along. Here you’ll find plenty of restaurants, fast food outlets, arcades, and amusement park and even a trapeze school! The pier is also the end of the iconic Route 66 and you’ll find a sign marks the exact spot.

If you walk to the far end of the pier and look back, you’ll see sweeping views of beach and beyond.

Pacific Park is the pier’s small amusement park. There’s a (not very exciting) roller coaster, pirate ship and, of course, the much photographed Ferris Wheel, amongst other smaller rides. Tickets to ride can be bought individually or on an all-day pass. The pier and Pacific Park are open throughout the day but, in my opinion, really come alive at night.

Looking down at Pacific Park from the Ferris Wheel

3rd St Promenade

If shopping is more your thing then Santa Monica offers plenty of opportunities for that too. Third Street Promenade is a pedestrianised shopping street and entertainment district where you’ll find department stores and familiar high street brands such as Levi, and Barnes and Noble. Even if shopping isn’t your thing then it’s worth wandering along Third Street Promenade to see it’s public art displays – topiary dinosaurs!

For higher end stores, try the Santa Monica Place Mall or for something a bit different, Main Street is just a short walk away where you’ll find more boutique and independent stores. If you’re after food then I highly recommend Third Street Promenade’s Barney’s Beanery with it’s extensive menu and reasonable prices but wherever you are you’re never far from a cafe or restaurant so you definitely won’t go hungry!

Boardwalk

Whenever I think of LA’s Beach Cities, images of people cycling, skating or jogging along the beaches’ boardwalk always come to mind and it is exactly as you would imagine it to be!

If you fancy joining them, there are plenty of stores hiring bikes around the Pier. It doesn’t take very long at all to cycle south along the boardwalk from the pier to Venice Beach. I remember someone once asking me how they’ll know when they’ve left Santa Monica and entered Venice – trust me, you’ll just know when you get there!! If you fancy cycling a bit further, the cycle path cuts away from the boardwalk and onto the road before turning right onto a back road that leads to Marina del Rey. Once there you can explore the harbour area or find a bar or restaurant for something to eat or drink before cycling back.

Venice Beach

Venice Beach is like Santa Monica’s cooler, quirkier sibling. The area has a very bohemian vibe which I like to compare to Camden, but by the beach, for those of you familiar with the popular area in London, England. While the long, sandy beach is still beautiful and palm trees still line the boardwalk, it certainly has a different feel about it to Santa Monica. A 30 minute or so stroll, or a 10 minute bike ride, from Santa Monica Pier, as soon as you reach Venice, you’ll probably find music playing, bustling market stalls lining the promenade, funky shops and stalls and street performers greeting you.

Spend some time watching the skateboarders whizzing around the huge concrete skate-park, people working out at Muscle Beach or drink in the atmosphere from one of the cool beach cafes.

Entering Venice Beach

To escape the hustle of Venice Beach, turn off the promenade and follow a sign to Venice’s canals. In complete contrast to the craziness of Venice Beach, the canals are a peaceful and serene area to wander around but equally photogenic!

Malibu

Cycle or drive north of Santa Monica Pier and you’ll eventually find yourself in Malibu. My one and only trip into this area was part of a Starline Star Homes Malibu Tour where, similar to the Star Homes Tours I’d taken through the Hollywood and Beverly Hills, we drove through Malibu in an open topped van while our guide pointed out houses supposedly belonging to various celebrities. We made a brief stop at the beach where the rules of the ‘private’ beaches in front of the huge beach mansions were explained to us before driving back to Santa Monica past Malibu Pier.

This year, we’re hiring a car and driving north up the Pacific Coast Highway so a slightly longer stop in Malibu is definitely on the itinerary!

LA Overview

Hollywood & Beverly Hills

The Hollywood Sign

Downtown LA

LA Studio Tours