After a long day cruising along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah, we were now heading east to Washington DC for 2 nights in the capital city. It would not be my first visit to DC. It had actually been the second US city I’d ever visited after a few trips to New York in my early days of travelling. That time, I had spent 5 days there fitting in as much sight seeing as possible and I had returned for a 2-night visit as part of my coast to coast Southern States tour with Trek America, filling in some of the gaps by visiting a few museums and monuments that I’d not made it to before.
This time, it was more of a ‘revisiting a favourite city’ type trip where we hoped to return to some city highlights and explore a bit further.
Leaving Shenandoah late afternoon meant we arrived in DC just as the main brunt of rush hour traffic started to ease but it was still busy and navigating our way from the interstate into Arlington where our motel was located, was a pretty nerve-wracking experience! As night was falling, we settled into our room and went for a pizza dinner at a local restaurant before calling it a night.
The next morning, we were up early to walk to Rosslyn metro station, catching the subway across the Potomac into Washington DC and along to the first stop of the day, Washington Zoo. I had visited the zoo here before on my first trip to the city but my travel buddy hadn’t and wanted to see one of the pandas having never seen one in the flesh before. As one of the Smithsonian-run attractions in the city, entrance to the zoo is free meaning we didn’t feel like we had to spend a lot of time there getting our money’s worth. The plan was to get there, find a panda and leave!
Of course, we ended up staying there a bit longer than planned as we got distracted by some of the other animals on our way to the panda enclosure and then by the gift store after. We also spent a lot more time than planned watching the pandas as they played with plastic crates in their indoor areas or just lolled around looking cute!
Back in the centre of the city by the Mall, we walked to the White House to take photos and then to the National Monument. Normally, we would have applied for the free tickets to go up to the viewing platform at the top but on this visit, the monument was closed for repairs.
Instead, we walked along the Mall towards some of the many museums. Across my visits to the city, I have visited many of the Smithsonian Museums including the Air and Space Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Natural History Museum but my favourite is the National Museum of American History with its popular culture displays which, in the past, have included the Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz film and various muppet characters.
While I was disappointed to find the Ruby Slippers weren’t currently on display, we still found plenty to keep us interested for a while.
Next, we walked back to the White House Visitor Centre which contains exhibits about, and artefacts from, the White House itself. Here, we requested Junior Ranger booklets from one of the park rangers and spent some time exploring and filling our booklets in before returning our booklets to earn not just one, but two Junior Ranger badges!!
We had booked a segway tour of the monuments for the evening so, realising it was getting late, we decided to head in the direction of the meeting point for our tour and to look for somewhere nearby to have dinner. We caught the subway up towards the Dupont Circle area. Struggling to really find any suitable restaurants, we settled for a gourmet burger diner. Finding ourselves ahead of schedule, we then walked down to the Lincoln Memorial.
We assumed we would pass this again later as part of our tour but thought it would be good to take photos while it was daylight as it would be dark by the time we returned.
We then returned to the segway company headquarters in time to check in for our evening tour. After checking in and filling out the various forms, we had a quick practise session on our segways. We had both ridden segways previously on a visit to Portland, Oregon and then in the city of Minneapolis on previous trips and this time, we felt like old pros settling into it straight away.
The tour was good fun and a really great way of seeing some of the city’s many monuments and memorials in a relatively short time. As I’d found out on previous visits to the city, from the National Monument the Lincoln Memorial – or in the other direction to the Capitol Building – is a LOT further than it looks but whizzing along on our segways, we were there in no time!
We began the tour with a stop at the White House for photos outside just as the sun started to set then continued along the mall past some of the museums and monuments and along to the Capitol Building.
Heading back to the National Monument, we then passed the World War II Memorial before finishing off back at the Lincoln Memorial. While we had been to most of the places we stopped at before, it was nice to see the buildings, monuments and memorials all lit up at night and our guide had plenty of interesting facts and stories to keep us entertained along the way.
Our tour over, we walked back to the nearest subway station to catch the metro back across to Virginia state and walked back to our motel.
The next morning, after checking out of our motel, we drove the short distance to Arlington National Cemetery, paying our respects at the many military graves there as well as visiting the grave of President John F. Kennedy and watching the ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Then, after our short but busy visit to the city, it was time to say goodbye as we began our drive into Maryland to visit the city of Baltimore.
A road trip through North Carolina and Virginia states
After a busy few days in Tennessee visiting the always fun city of Nashville followed by the Great Smoky Mountains, we were driving – in a bit of a hurry – to the next state to tick off on our road trip, North Carolina. Our rush, was due to a bear causing a delay on the one-way Cades Cove loop road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park meaning we’d made it out of the park slightly later than planned and now needed to reach Hartford, just before the North Caroline border, in time for a white water rafting session along the Pigeon River.
Having already missed a dolphin-watching excursion in Savannah earlier along our road trip, we had no desire to repeat our disappointment – or lose more money – by missing out on this! Luckily, we had a traffic and road-works free run and made it with time to spare.
We had both white water rafted before – on the Snake River in Wyoming on our Trek America tour through the Northern states of the USA and then in Oklahoma at a man-made facility in Oklahoma City during another of our self-planned road trips. Both times, and when I’d rafted in Australia, it had been great fun and we were looking forward to doing it again.
With their being just 2 of us, we knew we’d have to team up with other people to make up the numbers in our raft. What we didn’t bank on was there being a huge group of summer camp teenagers booked in for this afternoon’s slot. Climbing onto an old yellow school bus full of raucous excited teenagers was not our idea of fun and we were more than a little relieved when the bus pulled up at the launch point alongside the Pigeon River. Things got better once we were allocated our rafting guide and split up into groups to board our 6-berth rafts – now we only had 4 excited teenagers to contend with!!
The actual rafting trip was, once again, great fun as we tackled a range of fast flowing water rapids dotted along the river and after our initial reservations having seen the rest of the group, we were glad we had booked it.
Dripping wet (the queue for the changing rooms was way too long!) and exhausted from a busy day, we found plastic bags to sit on in the car and started our short drive across the border into North Carolina and our roadside motel for the evening on the outskirts of Asheville.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast at the IHOP, we drove to the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Centre, towards the south end of the famous road, near Asheville. Here, we looked around some of the centre’s exhibits, shopped for souvenirs and picked up junior ranger booklets to fill in along the way and hopefully ear ourselves another Junior Ranger badge!
Then we began our drive along the park way, initially stopping every mile or so to jump out and take photos of yet another beautiful view! Soon realising that our photos were al starting to look similar and that of we carried on like this we’d take forever to reach today’s overnight destination of Wytheville, Virginia, we started to be a bit more choosy about our stops, pulling over at the craggy Gardens Visitor Centre then veering off the parkway slightly into the town of Little Switzerland for lunch. This cute town had buildings in the style of Swiss chalets and the Switzerland Cafe offered tasty home-cooked food and delicious hot chocolate!
After lunch, it was back onto the Blue Ridge Parkway to continue our scenic drive until our next stop at Linville Falls Visitor Centre. From here, we took the short walk to see the upper and lower falls before continuing on to our last stop of the day, at Linn Cove Viaduct Visitor Centre where we exchanged our now filled in Junior Ranger booklets for Junior Ranger badges!
Leaving the Blue Ridge Parkway, we still had a bit of a drive ahead of us into the state of Virginia where we’d be staying at a motel in Wytheville for the night. After a long day of driving, we were exhausted by the time we got there so we had dinner at one of the nearby restaurants before a well-deserved early night.
The next day, after a Walmart stop for lunch and snack supplies, we drove towards the southern entrance to Shenandoah National Park.
The park is really a continuation of the Blue Ridge Parkway, with just one road, the Skyline Drive, running through the park. We soon found that the drive, and the views along the way, were very similar to what we’d experienced the previous day.
After a few stops at view points, we nervously ate lunch in a picnic area, slightly worried from reading the abundance of signs in the area that a bear might appear at any moment! Although we didn’t spot any bears after our lunch, we spotted one soon after on the roadside, climbing it’s way into the overgrowth.
We made a few more stops along the Skyline Drive including one in a pretty flower-filled meadow where we watched brightly coloured butterflies dance from flower to flower and then parked up at the Harry F Byrd Snr Visitor Centre.
Here, we picked up a Junior Ranger booklet then explored the exhibits filling in some of the booklet’s pages.
From the centre, we followed the short circular Story of the Forest trail through a pretty wooded area and out onto the meadows across from the Visitor Centre before returning with our completed booklets to receive our Junior Ranger badges.
From here, we continued along the Skyline Drive to the Thornton Gap Entrance station, spotting another bear on the roadside right before we exited the park!
It had been a long couple of days driving and by the end of it, the views of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains were all starting to blend into one! If I was going to plan it again, I’d definitely plan to spend more than one day in Shenandoah National Park and would look more into where to stop along the Skyline Drive to get out and hike in the park rather than just driving and pulling over at viewpoints as I’m sure the park has a lot more to offer than we saw.
For now, it was time for a drive east across Virginia to our next stop, America’s capital city, Washington DC!
Leaving our Orangeburg SC roadside motel early morning, we began our drive West, crossing the border back into Georgia about 90 minutes later. Only stopping for gas and snacks, it took just over 3 hours to reach our first destination of the day, the city of Covington.
Having recently binge-watched all 8 seasons of the TV show The Vampire Diaries, this stop was a late request to be added to the itinerary by me as the city doubles as the town of Mystic Falls in the show. The show was shot all around the surrounding area and it is possible to take guided tours of some of the filming sites but unfortunately these only ran on certain days of the week and didn’t fit with our schedule.
So I made do with a stop in the main town square, its clock tower instantly recognisable from the show and the Mystic Grill restaurant keeping its name to draw in tourists. We headed straight to the Tourist Information Office where we picked up free maps outlining some of the nearby filming locations from The Vampire Diaries and also some other films and shows shot in the area. Outside, stands the Mystic Falls welcome sign from the show and there was a display of some costumes and memorabilia from the show inside.
The Vampire Stalkers Gift Store selling themed merchandise and wooden – stakes for anybody worried about running into real life vampires – was fun to walk around and we walked down to see “Elena’s house” on a residential street just outside of the main square. Since the Mystic Grill‘s menu was a bit out of our price range, we then sat on a bench in the square to eat the snacks we had brought with us before continuing on to the nearby city of Atlanta.
The Vampire Diaries is not the only show or movie shot in or around Atlanta. Georgia has a thriving entertainment industry with almost as many film studios as Hollywood and with it being cheaper to film there, its a location used more and more often. There are a few companies offering guided tours of filming locations from the city of Atlanta, The Walking Dead location tours being particularly popular, and if I’d had more time or was travelling by myself or with someone else who watched some of these shows, I’d have definitely spent some time and money either searching out some more of these locations or taking some of these tours.
Instead, we arrived in Atlanta mid-afternoon and after checking into our city hotel, went straight out to explore.
While we found downtown area of the city to be rather generic and not particularly inviting or safe-feeling, the greener areas around the Olympic Park and World of Coca Cola were a bit more welcoming.
We had tickets booked for World of Coca Cola the next day but decided to visit the gift store now to save time the next day. The huge store sold every Coca Cola-themed product imaginable and was fun to explore.
We then walked through Centennial Olympic Park with its large open green spaces, many sculptures and Olympic-themed Fountain of Rings before taking a ride of the nearby Skyview Ferris Wheel. The ride gave us great views over the city along with a commentary on what we could see and some of the history of the city.
We then walked back towards the Peachtree Centre area visiting the mall before having dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe there.
The next morning, we checked out of our hotel after breakfast and walked back to the World of Coca Cola to take our pre-booked tour. The museum took us around various rooms explaining the history of Coca Cola.
Along the way we got to see the vault that holds the drink’s secret formula, meet the Coca Cola Polar Bear, sample different versions of the product from around the World and see memorabilia and old advertising from the brand.
Then, it was back on the road. We’d be spending the next night in a roadside motel in a corner of Alabama we were passing through but we still had a couple of more stops along the road in Georgia to make along the way!
First up, another silly roadside attraction in the form of a giant chair stood in a field in the middle of nowhere. Pulling up on the side of the road, we took photos of the chair before clambering up to sit on it.
Then our main stop of the day, Babyland General Hospital,home of the Cabbage Patch Kids. My travel buddy was a big fan of the brand of dolls and couldn’t contain her excitement as we pulled up to the large white building.
Inside, was a huge store full of Cabbage Patch Kids dolls and merchandise but also a doll hospital for any Cabbage Patch Dolls that needed a bit of restoring and a Cabbage Patch are under a Magic Crystal Tree where you can see Cabbage Patch Dolls being ‘born’ in a rather surreal ceremony! I found the whole thing a bit bizarre but my friend loved it so a great place to go if you are a fan and in the area!
A quick stop at a nearby Dairy Queen for lunch and ice cream and it was time to leave Georgia behind as we crossed the state line into Alabama, pulling over to grab quick photos with a famous ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ state welcome sign. Next up, a welcome return to Nashville, Tennessee!
Visiting Charleston, its surrounds and Congaree National Park
We’d been in the USA just over a week so far, already having visited Miami and spent a few days in Walt Disney World and now, after 2 nights in the beautiful city of Savannah, we were back on the road to drive further north to the historic city of Charleston in the state of South Carolina.
With it being just a short (for us!) 2-hour drive between the 2 cities, we had, as always, planned a few stops along the way at some fun road side attractions!
Our first stop wasn’t far across the state line in the town of Bluffton, home of the World’s Largest Boiled Peanut! The peanut sculpture, built for a boiled peanut festival was outside a market store in the middle of nowhere and we almost drove past it and missed out on getting photos with it!
We were even more excited for our next stop – The Kazoobie Kazoo Factory and Museum in Beaufort, SC! Here, after watching a film on the history of Kazoos, we toured the factory to see them being made before getting to build our own kazoo to keep as a souvenir! The tour ended with a chance to tour the small museum containing all sorts of kazoo products and memorabilia. It was a really fun stop.
Despite our busy morning, we were in the city of Charleston just after lunch so, after checking into our hotel, made the most of our afternoon exploring.
After visiting the Charleston City Market and browsing the many stalls, we took a stroll down to the Waterfront Park with its Pineapple Fountain and pretty views. Walking back through the city, we passed Rainbow Row – a row of brightly painted houses – and some of Charleston’s many churches before walking along King Street in the historic district with its high end boutique stores.
We returned to our hotel in time for it’s late afternoon complimentary cheese and wine happy hour. This gave us a chance to mix with some of the other residents and swap itinerary ideas.
That evening ,we went for some South Carolina BBQ for dinner before joining a Ghost Walk of the city. This was a really fun way to see the city and hear some stories from its past.
We only had one night in the city itself but planned to spend most of the next day in the area so the next morning, we were up early to check out of our hotel and drive to McLeod Plantation. There are a variety of plantations to tour around Charleston and we were unsure which one to choose but McLeod Planation was recommended to us by our tour guide at Owen House in Savannah a few days earlier.
Arriving early, we bought tickets and had just a short wait until our tour was called. A guide took us around the grounds explaining the property’s chequered past and we were then left to continue exploring the house and grounds ourselves. It was a really interesting morning and definitely worth a visit.
Seeing as we’d made such an early start to the day, we still had plenty of time to spare so decided to take a ride out to the coast,and more specifically, Folly Beach. As we neared the beach town though, we hit traffic jams and warnings that the cars parks were all already full. Having not researched alternative places to park or if there were any park and ride schemes, and not planning on spending a huge amount of time there anyway, we decided it wasn’t worth the wait or the cost of parking and turned around deciding to make alternative plans.
While talking to other residents at our hotel the previous afternoon, some of them had mentioned visiting a huge and very old Oak Tree, the Angel Oak. We had looked up the tree and where to find it in case we had time to see it and as the sat nav was telling us it wasn’t too far away, we decided to make a lunch stop there. Said to be the largest Oak Tree east of the Mississippi, the tree, estimated to be over 300 years old, was definitely an impressive site.
Running out of things to do around Charleston, we decided to hit the road and try to make it to Congaree National Park today instead of visiting the next day like we’d originally planned. We estimated we could be there between 2pm and 3pm giving us a couple of hours to explore before driving to our nearby roadside motel for the night.
Sure enough, we made it to the park in just a couple of hours. Once there, we stopped at the Harry Hampton Visitor Centre, picking up Junior Ranger booklets to fill in before taking a circular walk through the park along the board walks leading from the centre.
The park had a weirdly tropical rainforest feel to it made more intense by the extreme humidity that afternoon and the increasingly loud rumbles of thunder echoing in the distance. We made it back to the visitor centre just as the first few large drops of rain began dripping through the canopy of trees above us and onto the boardwalk.
After completing our Junior Ranger booklets back in the shelter of the visitor centre and earning our Junior Ranger badges, we hit the road again just as the storm began to pass over.
From the park, it was just a 30-minute drive to our roadside motel in Orangeburg, close to which we found our first Cracker Barrel of the trip to visit for dinner that evening.
Fitting in Congaree National Park that day meant we could now wave South Carolina state goodbye and make an early start towards Atlanta, Georgia the following day. It had been a brief first visit to the state of Carolina and we knew that the state had a lot more to offer but we’d fit plenty in and had really enjoyed our time there.
With neither of us having any experience at driving something which seemed pretty huge to us (but seems a pretty standard car size in the US!), we were a bit wary at first but were soon cruising along the freeway towards our final destination of the day, Savannah, Georgia.
As with our previous US road trip, we had tried to plan regular stops along the way on each drive day at road side attractions and sites of interest. Today’s first stop was in the Floridian town of Christmas which, as well as having a Christmas tree on display all year round, is also home to Swampy, the World’s Largest Alligator (sculpture!). The huge sculpture sits outside the Jungle Adventures Animal Park and while we didn’t visit the park itself, it was fun to pose alongside – and in the mouth of – the sculpture!
Already running late on our rough schedule after delays picking up our hire car and our first stop, we soon hot roadworks causing us to divert. Finding ourselves in St Augustine, we stopped to grab lunch and supplies at a Walmart then followed signposts to Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth, deciding it might be a good place to sit and eat lunch at.
If we’d had more time, it would have been fun to pay the entrance fee and actually see the fountain but after eating and stretching our legs, it was time to get back on the road again and cross the border into the state of Georgia.
We had booked a dolphin-watching sunset boat trip out of Tybee Island, on the outskirts of Savannah for that evening thinking we’d have plenty of time to make it but as we were till running late and hit more diversions around roadworks, it was looking less and less likely we would. Not having any access to the internet or being able to ring the company with the cost of calls from our UK phones, we had to make a decision whether to see if could make it or just give up and head straight to our Savannah accommodation. It could have gone either way so we decided to continue to Tybee Island and hope for the best.
Arriving at the departure point right around the time of departure, we quickly found a parking space and ran to the dock only to see the boat pull away and sail down the river without us.
Disappointed but not surprised, we drove into Savannah and checked into the hotel we’d be staying at for the next couple of nights, briefly venturing into the city to grab a snack before returning to our room.
The next morning,we were up early to get out and explore the city. Being early August, it was a hot and humid day as we wandered along the streets and through the pretty squares. We stopped at Chippewa Square, famous for being where the Forrest Gump bench scene was set. The bench he sat on in the film isn’t actually in the Square, it was a prop but the Square itself is very recognisable.
After passing some other Savannah landmarks including the historic Savannah Theatre and the huge Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist, we found ourselves in Forsyth Park with its canopy of oak trees leading to its pretty fountain.
Next, deciding we needed to get out the heat and into some aircon, we walked to the Savannah History Museum to learn a bit more about the southern city.
We bought a combo ticket which also gave us access to the Jepson Centre, a contemporary art museum, which we made our next stop, and Owen House, one of the city’s historic homes.
Our tour of the large house was really interesting and our guide even gave us some recommendations for our upcoming stay in Charleston, SC.
Following our tour of the historic home, we walked down to the waterfront, strolling along the banks of the Savannah River and visiting some of the shops there.
We then walked through the busy City Market area with its many shops and restaurants before returning to our hotel to once again cool off in some air-con!
That evening, we returned to the waterfront, visiting one of the River Street restaurant bars for dinner.
While the heat had taken some getting used to, Savannah had been a really beautiful city to spend a day exploring! We’d be briefly leaving he state of Georgia the next day to visit Charleston in South Carolina but we were looking forward to returning later in our trip to spend some time in and around the city of Atlanta.
I am a huge Disney fan, always have been after growing up on a diet of pretty much nothing but classic Disney animations but as a child, Walt Disney World was always somewhere unaffordable and out of reach. We had won a family weekend to Disneyland Paris in the late ’90s and I’d loved every second of it but the huge Florida attraction with its multiple parks was always the dream and now, finally, in my late 30s, I was finally getting to visit!
Along with a couple of friends, I had an epic road trip along America’s East Coast planned. Starting in Miami, over almost 5 weeks we would be working our way up to the state of Maine before looping our way round to our final destination of Boston, MA and as we’d be passing Orlando on the way, it seemed the perfect excuse to finally visit Walt Disney World. While many UK visitors often spend 2-3 weeks at Disney World taking their time to get the most out of the experience, we planned to spend just 6 nights there working out that it would give us enough time to visit all of the parks providing we planned carefully and made good use of all our time.
One of my travel buddies had been on numerous visits to the park before and therefore knew the sites well and all the tricks to make the most out of our visit so we were more than happy to let her arrange an itinerary for us. We booked 6 nights on site at one of Disney’s ‘budget’ hotels, Art of Animation Resort, and got memory makers and fast passes included. A few weeks before arriving, we were able to use the park’s website to pre-book fast passes for some of the rides so it was important to plan out which park we’d be in on which day in advance rather than just decide once we were there.
Unfortunately, with it being the height of the summer season at the parks, there were no offers on Disney dining to take advantage on and we knew that food was going to be one of the main expenses of our stay.
After spending the first couple of nights of our trip in Miami, we had hired a car for the day to drive to Orlando airport. Once there, we dropped the car off and caught our pre-booked Disney ‘Magic Express’ bus to our resort. Just as we arrived, an afternoon thunder storm hit as is often the case in the summer there. It seemed to be easing off so we decided to start making our way from the check-in counter to our room in the Little Mermaid themed block. It turned out it was quite a walk and half way there, the rain suddenly got harder – much harder. Out in the open in the torrential rain with nowhere to shelter, we just had to keep going as quick as we could, our luggage getting heavier and heavier as it soaked up the water!
We finally made it to our block looking like 3 drowned rats and had to spend the next hour wringing out our clothes and finding places to try and hang up the clothes on top of our cases which were soaked through!
Our room was basically the same as what you’d expect at a budget chain such as Econo Lodge, Days Inn or a Super 8 but at a hiked up price because of the Disney decor. It was fine for what we needed – we’d be spending minimal time in there – and I especially like the ‘magic mirror’ on the wall which made me look considerable lighter than I was!!
Within an hour, the rain finally stopped and with it still being late afternoon, we decided to stick to our proposed itinerary and head into one of the parks. The hotel offered free transfers into all the parks on regular bus services leaving from just outside the reception area so, after first popping to the hotel gift store to buy Disney ponchos, we caught the bus to the Hollywood Studios Park.
Arriving in time to use our fast passes we had booked for a few of the rides, we spent the rest of the evening in the park, grabbing a burger meal from one of the many food outlets for dinner. I really loved the park’s thrill rides, Rock n Roll Coaster and the Hollywood Towers and, even though I was rubbish at it, the shoot out ride Toy Story Mania!
All of the parks have a show running at the end of the night but, tired from a busy day, we decided to save Hollywood Studio’s Fantasmic show for another day we had planned at this park and returned to our hotel early instead.
For our first full day at the resort, we had planned to visit EPCOT. We were up early and walked to the hotel’s dining area to get some breakfast before heading into the park. We found that the children’s breakfast deals were available to anyone of any age and were more than enough for what we wanted including pancakes, fruit and a drink so ordering these kept the cost of breakfast down a bit. Then we queued for the EPCOT bound bus, arriving just before the gates to the park opened. The queues into the park were well organised and it didn’t take long to clear security and the entrance gates.
After taking the obligatory photos with the famous huge golf-ball-esque structure at the park’s entrance, we spent the first half of the day in the area just beyond that using our fast passes to ride the excellent Soarin’ ride and queueing for some of the other attractions and shows on offer. We split up and used the solo rider to queue to save time and ride Test Track then went for lunch at the Garden Grill Cafe, again eating off the children’s menu to save a bit of money.
In the afternoon, we started to walk around the park’s lake to visit all the various areas themed on different countries, fitting in a meet and greet with Frozen’s Elsa and Anna in ‘Norway’ after riding Frozen Ever After.
At the end of the day, we found a spot to watch the IllumiNations fireworks show over the lake before catching the bus back to our resort.
After an exhausting first full day at Disney, we were up early again the next day, once again grabbing a children’s breakfast from the hotel diner before queuing for a transfer bus. This morning’s destination was one of the 2 waterparks on site, Typhoon Lagoon. We planned to spend the morning here, returning to the hotel briefly to freshen up and change before spending the afternoon and evening in the Magic Kingdom.
The waterpark was pretty busy meaning we didn’t get on a lot of water slides in the short time we were there but we still had lots of fun in the wave pool and riding the lazy river. We sat poolside at one of the bars eating a delicious Disney pizza for lunch before catching the bus back to the hotel.
That afternoon, the rain started to pour just as we arrived at the Magic Kingdom. We huddled under the bus shelters until the worst of it passed over then, ponchos on, made our way past security and through the gates onto Main Street.
Despite the dreary weather, I was still so excited to get my first glimpse of the Disney Castle!!
Our first fast pass for the afternoon was for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train but we arrived to find it had closed due to the weather. This at least meant our fast passes were now open to join the queue at any time that day once the ride reopened. Over the course of the afternoon we managed to get through a few of the park’s shows and rides, including it’s 3 mountains – Splash, Space and Big Thunder – and that evening stayed to watch the incredible light and firework show over the castle.
The next day we were off to Animal Kingdom again making use of the fast pass system to ride some of the more popular attractions and then using the interactive map on the Disney app to see what queue times were for everything else.
This park quickly became one of my favourites. I loved the theming, enjoyed the shows including Finding Nemo and the Lion King and rides like Dinosaur, Expedition Everest and the Kali River Rapids and the Kilimanjaro Safari attraction was amazing!
We spent the entire day in the park from when it opened til closing, attending the spectacular River of Light show at the end of the evening, a show specially designed not to include any fireworks so as not to upset the park’s many animals.
The following day, we returned to the Hollywood Studios park, this time planning to spend the entire day there. As well as getting to ride some of our favourites like the Tower of Terror over and over again, it also gave us the opportunity to ride some of the rides we’d not had time to go on the other evening including the Slinky Dog Coaster in Toy Story Land, a ride so popular it was one of the few we couldn’t fast pass and the only ride across all the parks we had to queue over an hour for.
We also enjoyed attending some of the park’s Disney movie-based shows like the Little Mermaid show, the Frozen singalong and Beauty and the Beast.
We hadn’t met many of the Disney characters at this point but Hollywood Studios provides plenty of opportunities for this so we got photos with Pluto, Minnie and, of course, Mickey Mouse.
At the end of the day, we watched Fantasmic, Hollywood Studio’s large scale end of the day show starring a whole host of Disney favourites.
Our final day at Disney World just had to be spent back in the Magic Kingdom! As the sun was shining, we took some time to retake our photos in front of the Disney Castle then spent the rest of the day riding anything we hadn’t already been on, returning to a few of our favourites and watching some of the shows.
Highlight of the day was the afternoon character parade. Despite it being so hot and humid I thought I might pass out at one point, it was great fun to wave at the Disney characters as they rode floats or marched along the street. We also got to meet some of our favourite Disney Princesses in the Princess Pavilion and The Little Mermaid’s Grotto.
With lots of packing to do back at our hotel and an early start ahead of us, we left the Magic Kingdom behind before the firework show began, the It’s a Small World song stuck in our heads as we made our way back to our room.
The next morning we’d be picking up our hire car and driving north to the state of Georgia. I had really enjoyed my stay at Disney and it had definitely been worth the wait. Trying to fit it all into less than a week’s stay was exhausting and we hadn’t wasted a minute. While it was definitely doable, especially with the use of fast passes to maximise our time, I would definitely like to plan for longer and take my time a bit more if I ever return. And I really hope I do get to return one day!!
Starting our East coast road trip with one day in Miami
After spending months planning another adventure driving through the USA, it was finally time to set off. We’d be catching a morning flight from Heathrow that would have us in Miami mid-afternoon. Once through passport control at Miami airport, we followed signs to the station to catch a bus into the city. We’d researched which number bus to catch and which stop to get off at for our South Beach motel and as the stops flashed up on the screens inside the bus, it was a pretty straightforward – and cheap – way to get to our destination.
Once checked in, we went out for a walk. Our motel was conveniently located across the road from the famous South Beach so after heading north along Washington Avenue finding somewhere to grab a snack and popping into the few souvenir stores we passed along the way, we walked east along Lincoln Road Mall, a shopping and entertainment district and looped around to South Beach following the path that runs behind the beach south, parallel to Ocean Drive with all its art deco buildings.
The sun was setting by the time we reached our motel so being jet-lagged from travelling, we called it a night making sure we got plenty of sleep for the busy day we had planned for the next day.
Having just one full day in the city, we had decided to take a combo tour which would include a visit to the Everglades, a city tour and a sightseeing cruise on Biscayne Bay. From the reading on the booking site, we were expecting this to be one long day tour run by a single company where we’d be with the same group all day but we soon realised this was not the case but instead, 3 different tours run by 3 different companies tenuously linked together in a rather disorganised way!
After checking in for the tour at a Lincoln Road Mall tourist information centre, we were told we had some time to kill before our scheduled departure so we walked along to South Beach to get some photos with its colourful beach huts. Then, back at the tour company office, we were eventually shepherded onto a double decker bus to be ferried out to the Everglades.
After being dropped at the head quarters for boat trips in the Everglades, we were given a number depending on the type of boat trip we had opted to take.
Having taken a private airboat trip along the Platte River in Nebraska the year before, we had opted to take a standard boat trip this time. Once our number was called, we queued up to board a larger airboat and this took us through the swamps to spot some ‘gators. As we cruised through the Everglades, we made regular stops so our guide could talk to us about what we were seeing.
It was great fun speeding through the swamp land and we managed to spot a few alligators hiding in the lilies and reeds along the way.
After our boat trip, we were given the opportunity to watch a presentation about the alligators and to meet one then we were provided with a sandwich lunch before boarding the bus again to return to Miami.
Once back in Miami, we were expecting to begin our city tour straight away but instead arrived back to chaos as various groups of people all booked onto different combo tours etc were gathered trying to find out where to go. We were eventually told by harassed staff that the buses lining the road were not the ones we needed to catch and that our bus was running late so we used the opportunity to go get cold drinks to cool down from the heat returning just as our bus pulled in.
Our city tour turned out to be similar to a hop on/off tour bus. The bus had a live guide who gave a commentary as we travelled through the city along Ocean Drive, Will Smith’s Miami blaring out, and out towards the downtown financial area. We sat on the outside upper deck of the bus and typically, as we drove towards our first stop in Little Havana, it started to rain heavily. Luckily, it was just a short, sharp shower!
Once in Little Havana, we were lead immediately into a Cigar shop to try and entice some group members into buying something from there. After a quick look at the staff rolling the cigars, we made a swift exit and instead wandered down to ‘Domino Park’ where locals famously sit and play dominoes and chess. The heavens opening again, we found shelter looking around some of the local store then under a shop parapet until it was time to board the bus again.
Leaving our first stop in Little Havana, the rain stopped again but we were instead harassed by an alarming number of low hanging branches on some of the residential roads! It was lucky that there wasn’t really anything to see at this point as we all spent most of the ride ducking down between the bus seats to avoid being smacked by a branch! While we all laughed about it, it wasn’t the safest I’d ever felt on one of these sightseeing tours!
The tour continued towards downtown Miami but we found that there was still very little of interest to see along the way, or at least on the route we were taken.
We were dropped off downtown at the marina a couple of hours before our Biscayne Bay Cruise was ready to leave by Bayside, a large shopping and entertainment mall by the marina, so we spent some time looking around and having dinner at pizzeria there until it was time to board.
While we had enjoyed visiting the Everglades, the organisation once we returned to Miami and the city tour being a bit of a disappointment had put a slight dampener on our day but I was looking forward to our cruise and it didn’t disappoint. The views were beautiful, especially once the weather started to clear and the dark clouds dispelled and I enjoyed the commentary as we sailed pointing out some of the celebrity homes we passed as well as Miami landmarks.
By the time the cruise finished, we were exhausted by what had been a long and busy day. We once again boarded the city tour bus and were dropped back by Lincoln Road Mall from where we once again walked the short distance along Ocean Drive back to our motel.
Trying to see Miami in what was effectively one day was probably not the best idea in hindsight and I would have liked to have been able to take more really exploring the different districts and just to have spent more time around South Beach enjoying the atmosphere and relaxing. But the next day, we had to be up early to get to the airport and pick up our one-day hire car to drive to Orlando for a few days of Disney fun. I really hope I get to return to Miami sometime in the future and give it the time I feel it deserves.
We’d learnt a few lessons from our first trip – mainly, not to plan quite so much!! Many of the more random road side stops we had down on our itinerary the first time around ended up being kicked to the kerb after we realised we were adding up to 3 hours onto our travel time estimates due to little things like supermarket stops, petrol stops, comfort breaks, food stops and, of course, unpredictable traffic and roadworks!
So this time, the idea was not only to plan less for each day, but to keep our drive times down to an estimated 4-5 hours at most, less if we only had a one night stop between.
We’d found that some of the most fun stops last time had been the random roadside attractions so we were still planning to use some of the same road side attraction websites we had used to plan our Midwest trip in the hope we’d find some more “World’s largest…” etc sites to jump out and grab a photo with and we again wanted to include a mixture of cities and National Parks along the way.
Looking at the map, there were a range of states from Maine at the northern tip of the east coast, right down to Florida and the most southern tip that at least one of us hadn’t visited before so we wanted to try and cover the entire coast in 3-4 weeks as well as heading inland slightly revisit one of our favourite cities from our Trek trips – Nashville – and head to Great Smoky Mountains National Park while we were in Tennessee state.
Deciding to travel South to North, we plotted out a route starting with a couple of nights in Miami then, following a few days at Walt Disney World, continuing into the states of Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina ,Virginia and Maryland. Then, after a few nights in New York, we’d head into New England stopping in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, looping round from Boston through Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont and back to Boston, MA before flying home.
It was going to be a long trip and it took a lot of hour looking at google maps and investigating what there was to see and where the best place was for overnight stops along the way but once we had a rough idea of what was going to work, we were ready to book our outbound flights to Miami and our inbound ones from Boston and start looking at each day in more detail.
Walt Disney World was our next priority and we decided to stay on site for 6 nights at their Little Mermaid themed motel as booking this direct through Disney got us ‘memory makers’ with fast pass access and photo passes included. As this meant we didn’t need a car for this part of our trip, we decided to make 2 car hire bookings – day hire to get us from Miami to Orlando then the main long term car hire from Orlando to Boston for the rest of our road trip.
For our accommodation, we decided to stick to a similar formula to last time and mainly have a mixture of one and 2-night stops. For many of our one-night stops we looked for roadside chain motels along our route with free parking and breakfast included and for city stops, tried to find budget hotels with reasonable parking charges.
New York City was the big challenge here. Neither of us really wanted to drive in the city so somewhere outside of Manhattan but with good transport links into the city was what we were looking for. We eventually settled on a Jersey City hotel right by the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel and walking distance from a metro station with connections to both midtown’s Penn Station and downtown’s World Trade Centre.
Some of our our original plans changed slightly as our research revealed attractions and even National Parks we didn’t know about (Congaree in South Carolina?!) that weren’t far from our original route and therefore just had to be added into our itinerary but mainly, our final itinerary resembled our original plan.
And as the summer approached, we couldn’t wait to get back to the State and on the road again!!!
Boston is one of my favourite cities to visit in the USA and one I take every opportunity to return to. Here’s my guide to this charming New England city!
Where to stay
My first trip to the city, we had very little idea about the best area to stay in and left it to fate winning a 4* hotel on Priceline’s Name You Own Price feature near the Old Statehouse. The location turned out to be perfect, close to the Freedom Trail and nearby shops, in walking distance of the waterfront and Boston Common. When returning to the city a few years later, I booked a more budget hotel in a similar area only to be contacted by the travel company a few weeks before our departure to say they’d double booked and cancelling our reservation. We were offered a similar priced hotel but it was on the outskirts of the city with very little in the way of transport connections nearby and therefore not at all convenient to our needs. With it being Easter weekend, Patriots Day and the Boston Marathon while we were there, we struggled to find any available rooms in our price range, eventually grabbing a last minute cancellation just slightly above our budget in Boston’s South End. While not quite as conveniently located as our original choice of hotel, the area still made for a good base to explore the city and in walking distance of many of the city’s attractions. On my last visit to the city, I stayed close to Boston Common, again putting us in walking distance of many of the city’s attractions and the ‘T’, Boston’s metro system.
Having twice found ourselves trying to navigate our way through or around the city of Boston in a car, I really do not recommend it! The city is extremely walkable and the ‘T’ subway system is easy to navigate if you’re heading to anywhere slightly outside of the city centre.
I’ve mainly used taxi’s to get to and from the airport, only once attempting to use public transport, using the airport link bus to the main station in the city and the subway from there to the hotel. While doable, it wasn’t the easiest way to get our luggage across the city and with us arriving at rush hour, we spent a lot of time stuck in traffic.
On my first visit to the city, we made use of the city’s hop on/off trolley to do some sightseeing, mainly as it was included in the Go Boston sightseeing card we had purchased. This was a good way to get our bearings in an unfamiliar city and to learn about about the city as well as meaning we could mainly avoid using the subway system.
Boston Common and Public Gardens
Boston Common is a great place to start any trip to Boston. As well as being at the start of the historic Freedom Trail, it provides easy access to other areas of the city including Beacon Hill and Newbury Street. The common is right next to the beautiful Boston Public Gardens where as well as wandering past the colourful flower beds, for a few dollars you can take a ride on one of the famous swan boats around the lake.
The Freedom Trail
The Freedom Trail, a 2.5 mile marked trail around historic places around the city of Boston, was top of my to do list on my first visit to the city. Seeing a walking tour of the start of the trail included on our Go Boston tourist card, we booked a space, meeting our historically-dressed guide in Boston Common. The tour took us past the Park Street Church and into the adjacent burial ground and then down towards the Old South Meeting House and the Old Statehouse where, after hearing the story of the 1770 Boston Massacre, we were left to continue the trail ourselves.
We opted to visit the Old South Meeting House and then the museum at the Old Statehouse before following the trail down to Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market. After using our Go Boston passes to take a narrated harbour boat-tour, we continued to follow the waymarkers to follow the Freedom Trail through Boston’s North End.
Here, we used our passes to visit the Paul Revere House and then made our way to Old North Church.
As it was already early evening, we turned around and made our way back to our hotel at that point and it wasn’t until my next visit to the city that I completed the Freedom Trail, taking a tour of City Hall whose golden dome looms over Boston Common before revisiting some of the sites along the trail and continuing on past the Old North Church to see the USS Constitution, an old warship, and then walking to the Bunker Hill Monument where we climbed the almost 300 steps to the top to see the views over the city.
Following the Freedom Trail is a really great way to see the city of Boston and learn about America’s history!
If you can make it to the end of the Freedom Trail and have enough energy left to climb the hill to the base and then the 294 steps to the top, then the Bunker Hill Monument offers pretty views of the city in the distance.
For more close up views of the city, the Skywalk Observatory on the 50th floor of the Prudential Tower is situated close to Copley Place, right in the centre of the city and offers sweeping views in every direction. It was a beautiful, clear day when we visited and the views over the Charles River in one direction and across South Boston and Cape Cod Bay in the other direction were amazing.
With Boston being one of America’s most historically rich cities, there are plenty of museums offering opportunities to learn about its past.
Many of the museums are housed in buildings of historical importance such as the Old South Meeting House and Old State House, both on the Freedom Trail and contain a variety of artefacts and interactive exhibits to explore.
Down on the waterfront, as well as the Boston Aquarium and the Children’s Museum, is the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, an interactive exhibition where you get to board a full-size replica of an 18th century vessel and throw ‘tea’ into the harbour like its 1773. While I found the interactive elements of the museum aimed more at children, it was still interesting to learn about such a famous event and the tea-throwing was especially fun.
Boston is also home to the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Slightly out of the city in the Dorchester neighbourhood, the museum is easily reachable via the ‘T’ subway system and a courtesy bus from the UMass station.
The museum has exhibits on the life of Kennedy, his presidency, assassination and legacy and we spent a good few hours exploring its collections. Situated right on the waterfront, the museum grounds also offers beautiful views over the bay.
As well as history museums, Boston is also the home of a range of art galleries including the Museum of Fine Arts
Beacon Hill is one of the most picturesque neighbourhoods of Boston to walk through with its cobbled streets and red brick buildings.
On the northside of Boston Common, the area is great place to visit if you’re looking for boutique shops, small art galleries and antiques stores. It is also home to the famous, and now only, ‘Cheers’ bar in Boston. Formally, there was a themed bar based on the layout of the bar in the popular 80s US sitcom in Quincy Market, but now this has closed leaving just the Beacon Hill bar. While the interior of this bar is not very reminiscent of the bar in the show, the outside, with the steps leading down to the entrance, is instantly recognisable. As well as serving food and drinks, the bar has a store selling Cheers themed merchandise.
As well as being home to some of the stops along Boston’s Freedom Trail, the North End – Boston’s Italian district – is also worth a stroll through to visit one of its many Italian bakeries where you can grab a delicious cannoli. If you’re looking for somewhere to eat out in the evening, you’ll also find plenty of options here with some top class Italian and seafood restaurants.
Fenway Park is the baseball stadium famously home to the Boston Red Sox team and the oldest baseball stadium in the US that’s currently still in use.
I decided to take a tour of the grounds when it was included on my Go Boston tourist card during my first visit to the city and, while not a baseball fan at all, or a fan of any sports for that matter, I still found it to be really interesting finding out about the ground’s – and team’s – history.
On my next visit to the city, I found out the Red Sox would be playing against New York’s equally famous Yankees team while I was in the city so I couldn’t resist going one step further and booking tickets to actually watch a game at Fenway Park one evening. It was certainly an experience and while it was fun for a while, mainly before the game started with the crowd atmosphere and mass singalongs, I had no idea what was going on once the game started and found it to be very stop start and left way before it drew to a close!
There are plenty of ways to get out on the water in Boston from the Codzilla speed boat to the more sedate dinner cruises and even a tea party cruise on a tall ship.
I took a historic harbour cruise and over the 90-minutes on board, a commentary told us about some of the areas history while we looked out across beautiful views of the city’s skyline in the distance.
Another really fun way to get out on the water is to take a whale watching cruise.
This was a really amazing experience as we sailed out to sea, watching the city views fade into nothing before witnessing the amazing sight of huge whales basking on the surface of the water and swimming past us just under the surface.
We swapped the habour for the Charles River on a Boston Duck Tour.
Starting on land with a madcap commentary as we toured the city, we then set sail along the Charles River for some beautiful views of the city.
Across the river, in the district of Cambridge, lies the World famous Harvard University. We took the ‘T’ subway out to have a look around, taking a student-lead tour of the campus. While it is possible to just wander around the grounds without a taking a tour, we found it interesting to learn a bit of the university’s history and the tour also gave us access to a couple of buildings we wouldn’t have otherwise gone inside!
There are plenty of opportunities to shop in Boston, with something for everyone from the high street stores of Downtown Crossing – they even have a Primark! – to the more exclusive boutique stores of Beacon Hill and the eclectic stalls of Quincy market.
Newbury Street is probably the most well known of Boston’s shopping districts. Running along 8 blocks from the west side of the Public Gardens, it is home to a mixture of both internationally renowned designer boutiques, high street brands and local one of a kind boutique stores, all housed in huge Victorian red-brick buildings.
For more high street stores as well as large department stores and more high end fashion houses, the Prudential Centre and Copley Place are also great places to shop in the city.
Venturing out of the city
There are plenty of opportunities to get out of the city of Boston and visit the surrounding area.
We took a train north to the town of Salem, infamous for the 17th century Salem Witch Trials. There were plenty of museums and attractions on offer here to find out about the history of the town and the witch trials but we found many of them to be on the tacky side, the ‘museum’ we chose to visit, consisting of being lead around a series of crude wax figures by a guide dressed up in as a 17th century Salemite retelling the story of what happened and another giving us the opportunity to sit through a reenactment of one of the trials.
Other trips out we have taken have included a drive out to the town of Plymouth to see the Plymouth Rock and out to Cape Cod and the town of Hyannis.
It is possible to take a fast from Boston Harbour out to Cape Cod for a day trip as well as to the Boston Habor Islands State and National Park.
A trip to Boston, Massachusetts is always worthwhile and I look forward to the day I can return to this historic city.
After spending the morning at Hershey’s Chocolate World, we were now making our way to Philadelphia airport to hand back our rental before making our way into the city for one last night in a hotel.
Our route to the airport briefly took us into Delaware, a state which we had travelled through before on a Trek America tour but not stopped in so we had made plans to divert slightly to the city of Wilmington. We had left it to the last minute to look up where to aim for in the city but after a bit of googling in our motel the night before, had found a National Park Service site there so decided to stop there.
Pulling up at Fort Christina Park, the National Historic Site on the banks of the Christina River, we walked down to the monument which stood there. Unsure at what we were really looking at, we were pleased when a Park Ranger came down to chat with us, answering some of our questions and explaining that the site was like the ‘Plymouth Rock of Delaware’, being where the first Swedish and Finnish settlers had arrived in the USA.
Just down the river from the monument, was a replica of the ship they sailed on, the Kalmar Nyckel.
After leaving Fort Christina Park, we continued to the airport, saying a fond farewell to our rental car then catching the train into the city of Philadelphia.
We arrived at the end of a horrendous thunderstorm and made our way to the Sheraton hotel having decided to spend our last night in a bit of luxury after 4 weeks of roadside motels.
That evening, we walked the short distance to the One Liberty Place building to visit its 57th floor observation deck. The rain had cleared and the sun was starting to set which made for some pretty views across the city.
The next day, we had a late night flight back to the UK so we could spend the day exploring the city. We had visited Philadelphia before on our Trek America tour but it had been a short, one hour visit so we hadn’t seen anything in any detail. This time, we had booked tickets to tour Independence Hall in the morning.
We arrived a bit earlier than our ticket time so we could first visit the nearby Independence Visitor Centre and pick up Junior Ranger booklets to fill in.
The tour was interesting and we especially enjoyed seeing printings of the Articles of Confederation, the American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence in the Great Essentials Exhibition.
After our tour, we joined the lengthy but quick-moving queue to see the Liberty Bell before returning to the Independence Visitor Centre to hand over our Junior Ranger booklets to earn our badges.
After a Philly Cheesesteak lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, we decided to get tickets for the hop on/off city tour bus in order to see as much of the city as we could in a short amount of time.
We first hopped off the bus at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, not to visit the museum itself, but to see the building’s famous ‘Rocky steps’. The steps to the museum feature in the Rocky film where Sylvester Stallone runs up and down them to train and we decided to also attempt to run all the way from the bottom to the top.
We spent the rest of the afternoon completing the bus tour loop, hopping off again at Elfreth’s Alley, America’s oldest residential street and also walking to see Betsy Ross’ house, supposedly the place Betsy Ross lived in when she sewed the first American flag.
Then it was time to collect our luggage from the hotel and catch the train back to Philadelphia airport. After more than 4 exciting weeks travelling across 16 states of the USA, it was finally time to return to the UK.