I’d been a fan of Nashville ever since our brief stop in Nashville on mycoast to coast Trek America Southern States tour. That time, a winter storm had delayed our arrival in the city giving us just a couple of hours to explore before line dancing the night away.
My second visit, also part of a Trek America tour, this time of the Deep South, had given me a bit more time in the city – enough to briefly stop by the famous Blue Bird Cafe, visit Nashville’s Farmer’s Market and spend the afternoon at the Country Music Hall of Fame before our night out on Broadway but one night was again not long enough and there were still things I wanted to do and see there.
Leaving our overnight motel in Alabama state, we crossed the border into the state of Tennessee and drove towards our first stop of the day in the city of Lynchburg, home of the Jack Daniels Distillery.
The distillery offers various tours all offering slightly different extras depending on how much time you have to spend, how much you want to pay and how much you like Jack Daniels!!
We opted for the most basic option, a guided tour which took about an hour. The tour talked through the history of the drink and the factory and gave us an insight into the distillery process.
After our tour, we walked the short distance to Lynchburg Square, having dinner at one of the diners before continuing our journey to Nashville.
Our stay in the city happened to fall on a busy event weekend meaning many of the city hotels were sold out or out of our price range.
We had been forced to split our stay across 2 hotels, spending our first night at the Clarion, just outside of the main city but with a free regular shuttle service offered to Broadway and back. After arriving late afternoon, we got ready for a night out before catching the shuttle into the city and heading straight to our favourite Nashville venue, The Wild Horse Saloon.
Here, we had dinner while enjoying the live country music then line-danced the night away, not leaving until the early hours. As the hotel shuttle was no longer running by the time we left the venue, we had to get an Uber back to the hotel but we managed to find some wifi and order one without too many problems.
The next morning, we checked out of the Clarion ready to move to our second hotel near the Grand Old Opry, but first, we planned to spend a bit more time in the city and after catching the shuttle back in, we took a walk along the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge, enjoying the views over the Cumberland River and the city.
Then, we strolled along Broadway before taking a self-guided tour of the Ryman Auditorium, a famous country music venue.
While my knowledge of country music is basic at best, it is a genre I’ve become a lot more familiar with the more I’ve travelled in the USA and as I’d recently watched the Nashville TV show, it was interesting to look around one of the venues frequently mentioned featured in the show.
After our tour, we had a bit of time to spare before the next shuttle back to our hotel left so we decided to pay a fleeting visit back to the Wild Horse Saloon as it was open for line-dancing all afternoon and free to enter.
We went straight to the floor to line dance to a couple of songs one last time then left to get back to our hotel and pick up our luggage, driving out towards the Grand Ole Opry for our second night in the city.
We had a tour of the iconic country music venue booked for that afternoon so after checking in to our motel, we took a stroll across to the grounds. Situated on a large entertainment complex with a mall, cinema, restaurants and a huge nearby luxury hotel, it took a while to find where we needed to be to check in for our tour. After exchanging our confirmation emails for timed entry tickets, we took photos in the ground while we waited for our group to be called and were then taken through the backstage corridors and rooms of the theatre before walking out into the auditorium where the weekly Grand Ole Opry Show takes place.
Despite being just a casual country music fan and not even recognising the names of some of the many artists mentioned along the way, the tour was still interesting and I was glad to finally tick it off my Nashville ‘to do’ list!
After our tour, we wandered back to our motel, later walking to the nearby Cracker Barrel for dinner.
It had been another fun trip to Nashville. The city has a great atmosphere about it and I always leave wanting more. But the next morning it was time to move on once again as we got back on the road to our next stop in Tennessee state, Gatlinburg for a trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
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!!!
Venice was an Italian city I’d been curious about visiting for a while having heard mixed reviews about it from various friends. After spending some time in Tuscany visiting Florence and some of its nearby cities, we had caught the train north for a few nights in Bologna, a city we had found a nice contrast being less touristy and more authentically Italian and we were now travelling to the last city on our Italian adventure, Venice.
Arriving into the city by train, we had not thought at all about how we were going to find our way to our hotel. Normally, if the hotel wasn’t close to the station or easily accessible by public transport, we’d hop in a taxi to take us there and as we were both travelling with hefty luggage, this would have been the ideal situation today. But, of course, there’s no traffic allowed in Venice and public transport in by the waterways only.
After seeking advice from the information office at the station, we realised we would need to take a water taxi along the Grand Canal to the stop closest our hotel and then walk the rest of the way. The first part of this was relatively easy. We were quickly able to purchase water taxi tickets and were soon loading ourselves and our luggage onto a boat.
The stops were well signposted making it easy to see where to disembark. Things got a little trickier at this point as we had to cross lots of small bridges over the canals and drag our luggage down a maze of narrow roads to try and navigate our way to the hotel.
We eventually made it there and breathed a sign of relief – that was until we found out the hotel was on the third floor of a building without a lift and we’d have to carry our luggage all the way up the stairs!
It was a beautiful, sunny day so, that little adventure over, we spent a bit of time settling into our room before venturing out into the city for the afternoon.
Our hotel was in a pretty good location – in a quieter, less touristy area but only a 5-10 minute walk from the Rialto Bridge and many of the other tourist attractions.
Armed with our map, we made our way along the narrow cobbled streets. As we neared the main area of Venice, the streets became noticeably busier. We soon discovered that every street looked the same and we seemed to be going around in circles getting nowhere fast when suddenly we found ourselves at the Grand Canal with the Rialto Bridge ahead of us!
Nearby we found a small market going on so had a quick look around the stalls before walking back to the canal and crossing the bridge.
Here, we found a cafe to sit out at and had drinks in the sunshine watching the people, boats and gondolas go past.
Deciding you can’t go to Venice and not have a gondola ride, we began to investigate the cost. Prices seemed to be per boat so it was more for a private gondola ride and there were extra charges to get the gondolier to sing. We hovered around the canal banks wondering if we could find another group to share a gondola with and before long, a family of 4 asked if we wanted to split the cost with them.
Jumping in, we were able to sit at opposite ends of the gondola so sharing didn’t spoil the experience and the family even offered to switch places with us half way around so we could sit up the other end of the boat for a while. It also meant we could take photos for each other so they were able to get a family photo together on the gondola then take one of the 2 of us.
The gondola ride took us out on the Grand Canal and under the Rialto Bridge then down some of the narrower canals leading off it. It was a really fun experience and we got a decent amount of time on the water for the price we paid.
After our gondola ride, we continued to walk down the narrow streets, eventually finding ourselves out in St Mark’s Square. The square was busy but as there was only a short queue to go into St Mark’s Basilica, we joined the queue and soon found ourselves inside.
We spent some time looking around the grandly decorated cathedral then started to find our way back to our hotel. That evening, we ate at a restaurant we found near to where we were staying to avoid the inflated prices in the more touristy areas, walking back to the Grand Canal after.
The next day, we made our way back to St Mark’s Square and bought tickets to visit Doge’s Palace.
Our tour was self-guided and it was interesting to see the ornate decor and artwork inside the impressive building.
From the palace, you can also peep into the Bridge of Sighs, so called because it lead from the palace to the prison across the canal. Those who crossed it were mainly prisoners who were said to sigh as they lost their freedom.
After exploring the Palace, we walked around the outside of the building to see the Bridge of Sighs from the outside.
Returning to St Mark’s Square, we watched the clock in St Mark’s Clock Tower chime on the hour, its two bronze figures appearing to strike a bell, before walking away from the square to find somewhere cheaper to have some lunch.
With the already dull weather turning to rain that afternoon, we took the opportunity to visit some museums starting with the National Archaeological Museum of Venice and then moving on to Museo Correr, an art museum overlooking St Mark’s Square.
That evening, we walked back to St Mark’s Square. The weather had now cleared and the square was busy once again.
Street performers and opera singers filled the Square and we stayed to watch for a bit although decided against taking a seat at any of the bars and restaurants overlooking the Square having heard stories of extortionate prices being charged just to sit before even ordering anything!
We had one more full day left in the city of Venice and still plenty to explore. We began our morning with a stroll to the tucked away Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo, a building known for its beautiful external spiral staircase.
Then we walked through the city’s maze of streets to Ponte dell’Accademia, a huge bridge and one of only four to cross the Grand Canal.
Crossing the bridge, we then walked to the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, a domed Roman Catholic church which stands imposingly on the canal side. Looking across the water from there, you can see the bell tower in St Mark’s Square in the distance.
Walking back towards St Mark’s Square afterwards, we explored some of the streets leading away from it visiting some of the more tucked away churches we came across as we wandered.
Later finding ourselves passing Teatro La Fenice, a famous Venetian opera house, we decided to go inside and take a tour. We were given audio guides with our tickets telling us about each room we went into and finishing with a look into the auditorium and the tour also included a special exhibition on opera singer Maria Callas who began her career at La Fenice. While visiting the theatre wasn’t something on our Venice ‘to do’ list, we found the visit really interesting.
With a late afternoon flight booked out of Venice the next day, we still had some time that morning for last minute sightseeing. Once again finding ourselves back in St Mark’s Square we took some last minute photos and enjoyed the atmosphere before my friend had to leave to catch her flight home. With a bit more time to spare and the sun finally shining, I made a spur of the moment decision to go up St Mark’s Campanile, the Square’s famous bell tower.
There was quite a queue but it seemed to be moving so I thought I had more than enough time.
Unfortunately, the queue slowed down and by the time I was finally admitted into the bell tower, I was getting short on time an couldn’t spend quite as long up there as I would have liked to. It was still worth the money and the wait though as the views over the city were really pretty.
After my flying visit to the Campanile, it was time to wave goodbye to St Mark’s Square one last time and to make my way back to the hotel to collect my luggage. From the hotel, I caught the airport water taxi from a nearby stop across the the airport.
I was glad I had finally got around to visiting Venice. The city is a really pretty city to wander around once you get your head around its maze of narrow streets and realise they all eventually seem to lead to St Mark’s Square. I had found the city to be extremely busy, touristy and over-priced but I had gone expecting all those things and it hadn’t ruined my stay too much. There was certainly plenty to do and see and I’d love to return there one day.
I was in Italy, one of my favourite European countries, and after spending a few days in the Tuscan city of Florence and its surrounds, it was time to move on to our second destination, Bologna in the Emilia-Romagna region of North Italy.
Arriving from Florence by train, we took a taxi to our hotel. It was late afternoon and once settled in, we grabbed a map of the city from the hotel reception and headed straight out to familiarise ourselves with our surroundings.
A short distance from where we were staying, we found ourselves in Piazza Maggiore, the city’s main square.
The square is surrounded by some of Bologna’s most important buildings including Biblioteca Salaborsa- a historic library – and the Basilica di San Pietro and in the centre of the square lies the Fountain of Neptune.
From Piazza Maggiore, we walked along Via d’Azeglio, a pedestrianised street lined with high street stores and cafes before looping back around to the main square again.
That evening, we walked north of the square finding ourselves in a maze of narrow streets and choosing a small Trattoria to have dinner at before walking back to our hotel.
With one full day left to explore the city, we found a self-guided walking tour online to follow around the city.
Returning to Piazza Maggiore, we visited the Basilica di San Pietro and then Biblioteca Salaborsa. While this is the main public library in the city, the main reason for visiting actually lies beneath the building. Through the floor in the centre of the library, it is possible to see the ruins of an ancient building underneath.
We walked down to the basement level of the building where for a small fee, it was possible to get a bit closer to the ruins, viewing them from an open walkway that has been built above.
Next, we crossed the square to visit Palazzo Communale. Formerly a palace, it now houses some of the city’s administrative offices but is also home to the Civic Art Collection.
We wandered through the building looking at some of the art on display and enjoying the views over Piazza Maggiore from the building’s windows.
From Piazza Maggiore, we walked the short distance to the Archaeological Civic Museum.
The museum is worth visiting for its building alone, being housed in a 15th century Palazzo, and it contains exhibitions which include Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts.
After spending an hour or so looking around, we continued our self-guided tour of the city walking down to the Basilica of San Domenico, a historic church known for its multitude of priceless works of art.
We then walked back on ourselves and along Via Rizzoli towards Two Towers Piazza with the St Petronius statue stood in front of the tall, imposing structures.
After stopping for gelato from Gelateria Gianni, we walked through the Quadrilatero area to Basilica di Santa Stefano, a maze of 4 (originally there were 7) connecting churches.
For our final stop on our sightseeing tour, we walked back to Piazza Maggiore and then headed north to find Finestrella di Via Piella. Here you can peer through a window in a wall to see one of the remaining sections of one of Bologna’s historic canals, Canale delle Moline. Taking a picture through the window, it could easily have been a photo taken of the more famous canals of Venice!
Feet aching from walking all over the city, we returned to the narrow streets of the Quadrilatero, an old medieval market area just east of Piazza Maggiore. Here, we sat out at one of the many bars for Aperitivo, enjoying a selection of breads, cheeses and meats over drinks.
Returning to our hotel for a bit to rest, we then ventured out once more that evening, again finding a small tucked away Trattoria just north of the main touristy areas of the city for a late dinner.
I’d enjoyed my visit to the city of Bologna, less touristy and busy than Florence had been but still with plenty to see and do. Next up, Venice!
A city break visiting Florence, Lucca, Pisa and Siena
With one of my friends studying at a language school in Florence, it wasn’t long before I arranged a trip out there to coincide with her course finishing so we could spend some time travelling in our favourite European country, Italy.
We planned that I would spend a few days in Florence during which my friend would show me around the city she had been living in the last few months and from where we could also take day trips out to nearby towns and cities then we’d travel by train up to Bologna for a few days, a city which neither of us had previously visited and finally, catch the train to Venice where we would end our trip.
Not being able to find any reasonably priced flights into Florence itself, I instead planned to fly to Milan, then catch a train to complete my journey. Being used to just being able to buy a ticket and hop onto a train in the UK, I assumed that the same could be done in Italy, my friend suggesting that this was the case too, but upon arrival in Milan and making my way from the airport to the Central Station, I found that all tickets on the intercity trains had to be pre-booked and as that weekend was a public holiday, most of the train leaving in the next few hours were fully booked!
Luckily, I had taken an early flight into Italy and it was still morning so, managing to get myself on a train leaving late afternoon, I checked my case into the station’s Left Luggage for a few euros and had a wander into central Milan, a city I was vaguely familiar with from a previous visit. After spending a few hours window shopping and gasping in awe once again at the breath-taking Duomo, I grabbed some lunch and walked back to the station ready to finally catch my train to Florence!
Arriving in the city early evening, I managed to navigate my way to the centrally located AirBnB apartment we had booked to finally meet up with my friend and once I’d settled in, we went out for drinks followed by a pizza dinner at one of the local restaurants and gelato for dessert.
The next day, a day we had designated for sightseeing in the city, we awoke to heavy rain. Not letting the weather deter us, my friend took me round the city past its impressive Basilica, The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and up to Piazza della Signoria, the city’s main square, overlooked by Palazzo Vecchio. The square is home to a variety of sculptures including a copy of Michelangelo’s David.
The square was extremely busy with it being both a weekend and public holiday and looking out across the square from the steps of the Loggia dei Lanzi sculpture gallery, there was nothing but a sea of umbrellas in front of us!
From Piazza della Signoria, we walked to the Uffizi Gallery, a huge museum which houses famous works of art including Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.
Unfortunately, with the city being so busy over the holiday weekend, there was a 2 hours wait to get into the gallery for anyone who hadn’t pre-booked tickets so, as my friend had visited previously, I decided to give it a miss!
Instead, we continued on towards the River Arno to cross the Ponte Vecchio, the famous stone bridge lined with jewellery stores before walking up past Pitti Palace and along to Piazzale Michelangelo walking through the pretty Rose Garden along the way.
The panoramic views over Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo were really beautiful.
In the square itself, as well as finding yet another copy of the artist’s David sculpture, we also found a gelato festival going on! Investigating further, we discovered that for a set price, it was possible to get a sample of gelato from each of the stands, exchanging your final ticket for a second sample of the flavour you liked most.
We didn’t need much convincing to take part and were soon parting with our money in exchange for a stamp card.
After spending the afternoon going from stall to stall enjoying the gelato on offer, we were unanimous in our decision that the Nutella gelato was our favourite and both went back for seconds!
Full up on gelato, we waddled our way back across the River Arno and walked to the Basilica of Santa Croce, spending some time exploring inside the beautiful church.
Next,we walked back to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore where, seeing that the crowds from earlier had disappeared, we joined the short queue to go inside and see the amazing dome interior painted with a representation of The Last Judgement.
Finally, walking back to our apartment, we stopped at the Basilica of St Lorenzo, one of Florence’s largest and oldest churches.
The next day, we had made plans to travel out of Florence to the city of Lucca. Catching the train from the main station in Florence, we arrived in Lucca mid-morning.
After exploring the city and some of its churches, we had lunch in one of the pretty squares before visiting the Puccini Museum – Lucca is the city the famous Opera composer was born in.
Then, after visiting its impressive Cathedral, Duomo di San Martino, there was just enough time for spot of shopping before returning by train back to Florence.
We took another trip away from the city of Florence the next day, this time to the walled city of Siena.
We spent the day wandering through the city, having lunch in the beautiful Piazza del Campo – the city’s main square – before walking to its Cathedral, the striking Duomo di Siena, with its distinctive stripey decor!
I was up early the next day, our last full day in Florence before moving on to Bologna. We planned to spend the day out of the city again, this time travelling to Pisa, but first, I wanted to visit the Accademia Gallery, home to Michelangelo’s David sculpture.
I arrived at the gallery about half hour before it opened so I was one of the first in the queue and was through the doors within a few minutes of it opening. The museum was pretty quiet at that time of day meaning I could take my time admiring the many works of art that were housed there.
After visiting the Accademia Gallery, it was back to the central station to catch a train out of the city to Pisa. From the station we walked through the more modern part of the city grabbing some lunch at a bakery before reaching Piazza dei Miracoli.
The large, walled square is home to a collection of buildings including Pisa Cathedral but more famously, and the reason we were there, it is also where the Leaning Tower of Pisa stands!
We spent some time trying to get the standard photo of us holding up the leaning tower before visiting the other buildings. Then I decided to buy a ticket to actually go up the Leaning Tower, an odd experience as you try to walk on the slanted floors but worth it for the views from the top!
Then, it was back to Florence for our last evening in the city. After a pizza dinner, we went out for drinks, stopping to take photos of the Duomo lit up at night.
The next morning, we wandered through the city of Florence one last time, stopping to take a few more photos of the Duomo seeing as the weather was finally a bit better! Then it was back to the station, this time to leave Tuscany behind and catch the train to our next destination, the city of Bologna.