A road trip through New Hampshire and Vermont

We were on the last few days of another epic US road trip and after following the New England east coastline north into Maine to visit Acadia National Park, we were now looping round back to Boston via stops in New Hampshire and Vermont.

We had been on the road for almost 5 weeks at this point and the start of our journey in Florida seemed like a very long time ago.

Looking down at the ski lift terminus fromthe summit of Cannon Mountain

Travelling from Miami to Walt Disney World then north to Savannah, Georgia and into South Carolina, we’d then ventured away from the East Coast heading towards Atlanta, Georgia, up to Nashville and the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and then driving north through the Blue Ridge Mountains and back to the East Coast to visit Washington DC, Baltimore in Maryland and New York City. The final leg of our trip had been through the New England states, so far making stops in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and briefly passing through New Hampshire to reach Maine.

Leaving this state behind early this morning, we were now heading back into New Hampshire to visit the White Mountains.

Above, and below, views from Cannon Mountain

Our first stop was at Cannon Mountain, part of Franconia Notch State Park. Arriving mid-afternoon, we took the aerial tramway up the mountain to enjoy views over the New Hampshire and the White Mountains, the surrounding states of Maine and Vermont and, on a clear day, even Canada. Unfortunately, today was not the clearest of days and it was cold and windy on the viewing platforms at the top of Cannon Mountain but the views over the White Mountains were still pretty. After spending some time on the observation decks and hiking along the summit rim trail, we hopped back onto the aerial tramway to begin our descent.

Following the Flume Gorge Trail at Franconia Notch State Park

From here, we continued to another part of Franconia Notch State Park, Flume Gorge. Here, we followed the 2-mile loop trail which takes visitors past the natural gorge at the bottom of Mount Liberty.

There was lots to see along the trail, including waterfalls, pretty streams and pools and the oldest covered bridge in New Hampshire state.

After completing our hike, we continued to the town of Lincoln where we’d be staying overnight, grabbing a pizza dinner from one of the local restaurants.

Above, the oldest covered bridge in New Hampshire state, and below, following the Flume Gorge Trail

The next morning, we had booked a White Mountains Alpine Ziplining Adventure just outside of Lincoln town. After checking in and getting our equipment, we were taken along a series of bridges and up to platforms from which we ziplined across the trees. A really fun and exhilarating way to enjoy the mountain views!

We then began our drive to the state of Vermont. Making good time, we decided to take a detour to Danville after spotting an advert for a corn maze there during our lunch stop. We thought it sounded like a fun way to spend a bit of time.

Above, and below, having fun lost in a giant corn maze in Vermont

What we didn’t bank on was the maze being so huge and what we thought would be an hour’s activity took us the rest of the afternoon as we got more and more lost inside the complicated corn labyrinth! We had a really great, if sometimes frustrating, time trying to find our way out and were elated to finally ring the bell at the maze exit about 3 hours later!!

Above, off for some cheese sampling at Cabot Visitors Centre, and below, sampling different strengths of Maple Syrup at Morse Farm

Despite it being late afternoon, we still managed to fit a few more of our planned stops en route to our overnight stop in Stowe including a visit to the Cabot Cheese Visitors Centre where we sampled some of the products and at Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks in Montpelier to try some maple syrup products but unfortunately, spending all that extra time trapped in a corn maze meant an evening arrival in Stowe, too late to spend any time exploring the town and visit Sunset Rock or hike the Pinnacle Trail as we’d planned.

We did make a quick trip into Stowe’s pretty town centre the next morning, having a quick look in some of stores along the main street but we had a long drive to Boston ahead of us to return our hire car so couldn’t extend our visit any more.

Ingredients for ice cream at the Ben & Jerry’s Factory

We still had a few more stops in Vermont to make along the way, the first of which was just outside of Stowe at the Ben & Jerry’s Factory where you can take a tour of the premises. The tour was short but interesting and we grabbed some ice cream before we left. Next up was the nearby Cold Hollow Cider Mill where we tried the famous Cider Donuts.

We had a few more food related stops at other farm shops in Vermont but unfortunately made a wrong turn onto the highway and had to drive an hour out of our way before we could turn around and return in the direction we needed to be travelling in. This put us too far behind schedule to allow anymore stops if we were going to make our deadline to return our hire car to the depot at Boston Airport that afternoon.

Enjoying an ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s after our tour

Making up a bit of time, we made one stop for a late lunch at a road side Cracker Barrel before finally reaching Boston on schedule late afternoon.

It had been a long road from Miami, Florida to our final destination of Boston, Massachusetts but we’d had a lot of fun along the way. Now, we had just over another 24 hours of our trip left before returning back to the UK late the next day and we were determined to make the most of it!

An East Coast USA Road Trip: Acadia National Park

Briefly passing through the state of New Hampshire en route to Maine

I was nearing the end of my 5 week USA road trip and after spending time in Miami, Orlando, Savannah, Charleston, Atlanta, Nashville and Gatlinburg, we’d driven through the Blue Ridge Mountains and across to Washington DC, visited Baltimore and New York City. The last leg of our trip was a loop of the New England states and after ticking off Connecticut and Rhode Island and driving through Massachusetts, today we’d be leaving our motel on the outskirts of Boston to drive north towards Acadia National Park in Maine.

Driving north from Massachusetts to Maine meant briefly crossing in to the state of New Hampshire. We’d be spending more time in this state on the way back towards Boston after our visit to Acadia but for now, always on the lookout for interesting or fun roadside attractions, we made a quick stop in New Castle at Great Island Common, a small coastal park that’s home to a giant picture frame you can pose inside.

It was fun and pretty early morning stop although probably not worth the cost of parking is you’re not staying for long!

From New Castle, NH, we crossed the state border into Maine where we had a few more fun stops planned to break up our journey to Bar Harbor, where we’d be staying for the next few nights.

Lenny, the chocolate moose at Len Libbies Candies

First up, was a giant arm chair just randomly sat on a grassy area by a furniture store in the town of Kittery. After clambering on to try it out, we continued Scarborough where we visited the roadside store Len Libbies Candies to see it’s giant chocolate moose sculpture and buy some sweet treats for our journey.

Next up, was a stop at a business park in Yarmouth to peer in at ‘Eartha’, the World’s Largest Rotating Globe, rotating so slowly, we weren’t actually sure it was moving at all at first!

Our lunch time stop was in the town of Freeport where, after grabbing a Subway sandwich, we took photos with a giant L.L. Bean Boot car. We were also very excited to find a British shop in the town selling the UK made Cadbury’s chocolate we’d recently found ourselves craving!

The welcome sign at Acadia National Park

It was a long drive from Freeport to our motel on the outskirts of Bar Harbor. With time getting on, we made one last stop at a Denny’s along the highway for dinner, finally arriving at our accommodation early evening. Finding an ice cream and desserts shop near to our motel while out walking that evening, we grabbed a delicious crepe stuffed with Nutella and strawberries to eat before settling down for the night, ready for an early start the next day.

The following morning, we enjoyed a pancake breakfast at a local restaurant before driving towards Acadia National Park. We began our day at the Hulls Cove Visitor Centre to pick up park brochures and, of course, a Junior Ranger booklet to fill in along the way!

Above, and below, views from Cadillac Mountain

We had planned to drive along the park’s loop road, stopping off at some of the park’s highlights along the way. We’d been warned that the park often got busy and parking could be difficult to find at some of the main sites after mid-morning so had made sure to get up and out as early as we could.

Our first stop was at Cadillac Mountain where, luckily, there were still plenty of parking spaces available. Walking up the the viewpoint from the car park, we then spent almost an hour hiking over the rocks and enjoying the beautiful views.

At Schooner Head Outlook

Back in the car, we entered the one-way section of the loop road. We diverted off briefly to drive down to the Schooner Head Outlook, parking up and hiking down along the Schooner Head Trail for a bit to get a better look.

Above, and below, our lunch spot overlooking Thunder Hole

Next, we had hoped to stop at Sand Beach but found the area to be overrun with visitors, the car park full and no spaces anywhere along the road either. A bit further along the loop road, we did eventually manage to find a space to pull in and park at to walk down to the coast path and see Thunder Hole, so called because it is said to sound like a clap of thunder when the water hits the rocks at certain times of the day.

Scrambling further along the rocky coast path, we found somewhere to sit to have lunch with a view before returning to the car and continuing along the loop road a bit further to Otter Point.

At Otter Point

After enjoying more beautiful views, we followed the loop road inland towards Jordan Pond. As well as the picturesque lake, this part of the park is also home to restaurants, gift stores and conveniences and is therefore a popular spot on the loop road. With it being mid-afternoon, everyone seemed to have arrived at the same time and despite multiple loops on the car park, we could not find a space.

An Eagle Lake overlook

As this part of the park lay just off the one-way section of the loop road, we decided to drive on and return later when we hoped it would be a bit quieter. Instead, we continued our loop of the park, stopping briefly at a viewpoint for Eagle Lake and then exiting the park back by the Hulls Cove Visitor Centre to drive into Bar Harbor instead.

With our motel lying on the outskirts of Bar Harbor, this was our first visit to the main town. After wandering around looking in some of the stores, we walked down to the pretty harbour and along the sea front.

The marina at Bar Harbor

After spending a bit of time in the town, we decided to return to Acadia and make another attempt at finding a car parking space at Jordan Pond. The couple of hours that had passed since our last visit had made a huge difference and this time we had a choice of spaces!

Above, and below, back in Acadia National Park at Jordan Pond

We visited Jordan Pond House first looking around the gift store and enjoying the views overlooking the lake in the distance then walked down to the lake front following the path along the shore for a while. The views across Jordan Pond with the two hills of South and North Bubble behind it were really pretty and we were glad we made the effort to return and spend some time here.

Ice cream!

That evening, we returned to our motel grabbing dinner at a neighbouring restaurant then returning to the dessert store for ice cream before spending some time completing our Junior Ranger booklets.

The next morning, after checking out, we returned to the Hulls Cove Visitor Centre to hand our booklets in and earn our souvenir Junior Ranger badges before setting off for New Hampshire and the White Mountains.

We had one more stop to make in Maine, at a roadside attraction in the town of Bryant Pond – the World’s Largest telephone!

Then it was time to wave goodbye to this pretty state and continue with the last few days of our adventure.

Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park

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!

Gatlinburg, Dollywood and Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Continuing my road trip through Tennessee

It had been less than a year since I had visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the first time as part of a Trek America group tour of the Deep South. Then, it was mid-Autumn and we’d arrived as the the first snow of the season had fallen, the park a sea of browns, oranges and red as the trees got ready to shed their leaves. This time, it was the height of summer so I expected a rather different experience. I’d planned to spend a bit more time in the park for this visit having only got to spend one morning hiking to Abrams Falls last time so was excited to return and get the chance to see more of this huge National Park.

Meeting Ellie,the Pink Elephant, in Cookeville, TN

We were visiting the park as part of an extensive road trip mainly taking in the east coast states of the US. Having begun out trip in Florida visiting Miami and Walt Disney World, Orlando, we had since spent time in Savannah, Georgia and driving through South Carolina state before briefly heading inland to visit Atlanta, Georgia and Nashville, Tennessee. We were now driving back east towards ours next state of North Carolina, giving us the perfect opportunity to make a stop at the Smokies.

Once again, I’d be using the nearby town of Gatlinburg as a base having enjoyed its ‘Swiss mountain village’ theming on my last visit. Leaving Nashville after a fun couple of days, we made our first stop of the day literally on the roadside in Cookeville to see Ellie the Pink Elephant. This roadside attraction is known for being dressed in various props and costumes throughout the year and when we stopped, was wearing a huge pair of sunglasses!

It was then on towards Gatlinburg.

Arriving late morning, we drove straight into Great Smoky Mountains National Park taking the obligatory photos with the National Park sign at the park’s border. After a quick stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Centre to pick up park maps and buy a Junior Rangers activity booklet to fill in, we began our drive further into the park towards Clingmans Dome viewpoint. Along the way, we stopped at a picnic site alongside the Little Pigeon River, taking a short hike along a self-guided trail up into the woods nearby before returning to eat lunch by the river.

Enjoying the view on the way to Clingman’s Dome Observation Tower

Continuing our drive along the gradually ascending road, we pulled over at a few viewpoints along the way and were very excited when we spotted a family of black bears on the roadside in the distance.

Pulling over at a safe distance, we watched as they crossed the road in front of us before disappearing into the trees.

After that bit of excitement, we continued our drive, stopping at a few more view points before arriving at the start of the trail for Clingman’s Dome Observation Tower.

Above, another pretty view as we climbed the road towards Clingman’s Dome, and below, at the Observation Tower enjoying the views

We then followed the trail from the car park towards the large concrete structure. The observation tower lies just across the North Carolina border and on a clear day you can see 7 states from it.

Even on this slightly cloudy day, the views were pretty spectacular although we found the observation tower itself to be a bit of an eyesore!

Having spent some time enjoying the views, we returned to our car and drove back down through the park and into Gatlinburg to check into our motel, an Econo Lodge just off the main strip. That evening, we took a stroll along the strip before a pizza dinner at the Smoky Mountain Brewery.

The next day, instead of returning to the National Park, we visited Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s iconic theme park!

Above, the Dollywood Express running through the park, and below, a fun day at Dollywood

Parking in nearby Pigeon Ford, we used the park’s park and ride service to get to the gates. Once inside, we spent the day riding the park’s various coasters and amusement rides and watching some of the shows.

Dolly Parton’s tour bus

Highlights included taking multiple rides on the huge Wild Eagle coaster, getting soaked on the Smoky Mountain River Rampage rapids, visiting the on site Dolly Museum, full of Dolly Parton costumes and memorabilia and getting to steps inside Dolly Parton’s tour bus!

After a fun but tiring day at the park, we caught the park bus back to the Pigeon Forge car park and drove back to our Gatlinburg accommodation taking another stroll into town that evening to have dinner at the Texas Roadhouse.

We were saying goodbye to Gatlinburg – and Tennessee – the next day to continue on our road trip but first, we were heading back into Great Smoky Mountains National Park to spend most of the day exploring further. After parking at the Sugarlands Visitor Centre, we followed the nearby trail through the woods and out to Cataract Falls.

John Ownby Cabin

Then, we returned towards the Visitor Centre and picked up the Fighting Creek Nature Trail, a short looped trail out past the historic John Ownby Cabin.

Returning to the Visitor Centre, we handed in our now completed Junior Ranger booklets and took our pledge to received our Great Smoky Mountains National Park Junior Ranger badges!

With plenty of the park still to see, we then began our drive out to the Cades Cove loop road, an 11-mile one way road past some of the park’s highlights. Allowing ourselves what we thought was ample time to make regular stops along the road and get out and hike, we soon found ourselves hitting slow moving traffic and began to panic that we wouldn’t make it around the loop road and out of the park in time to make our pre-booked early evening white water rafting trip en route to Asheville in North Carolina!

Pulling over along the Cades Cove loop road

Seeing crowds of people gathered around a tree in the distance and realising that whatever they were looking was the reason for the hold up as cars either slowed to see or backed in and out of whatever parking spaces they could find nearby, we joked that maybe there was a bear up the tree only to discover that there actually was! Managing to find somewhere to park, we pulled over to have a look for ourselves and there, sat up high in a tree eating berries was a huge black bear!

Spotting a bear up a tree!

It was amazing to see the bear sat up there, casually eating his lunch, seemingly oblivious to the fuss he was causing around him!

Back in the car, we continued around the trail, unfortunately with no time left to pull over, stop and explore anywhere. It had taken us twice as long as we expected to get around but we made it out of the park with just enough time to get to our next destination on time.

It had been lovely to return to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, see a bit more and experience it in different season and we felt lucky to have had a couple of encounters with black bears along the way but there is still plenty of the park let to see and I hope to have the chance to go back some time in the future.

Going to Miami

Starting our East coast road trip with one day in Miami

Early evening on South Beach

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.

On South Beach with Ocean Drive in the background, and below following the path behind South Beach past some colouful beach huts

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.

Early morning on South Beach – a colourful Miami beach hut

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!

Cruising through the Everglades

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.

Above, and below, taking an airboat trip through the Everglades

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.

Back in South Beach – art deco buildings

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.

On the tour bus through Miami

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.

Continuing our tour through Miami

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.

Above, almost at the marina, and below, at Bayside waiting for our cruise

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.

Above, and below, ending a long day with a boat tour of Biscayne Bay

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.

Planning a second USA road trip

After a pretty successful first attempt at a self-drive road trip through America’s Midwest states and beyond, we decided to plan another trip, this time aiming to tick off some of the East coast states missing from our lists.

One of lorida’s roadside attractions

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.

Visiting another National Park

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.

A trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway

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.

Revisiting Washington DC

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.

Back in New York City, and below, making stops in Connecticut and Rhode Island

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.

Pretty-as-a-picture scenery in New Hampshire

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.

Arriving to a beautiful evening in Boston

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!!!

Scottish Highlands: Oban and the Inner Hebrides

On the ferry from the Isle of Skye back to the mainland

I was coming to the end of a one week tour of the Scottish Highlands. Following a trip to the Orkney Islands, I’d flew back to the mainland to begin the tour in Edinburgh. Travelling minibus with a small group of other, mainly solo, international travellers, we had so far visited Loch Ness, the Isle of Lewis and Harris and the Isle of Skye and today I was briefly waving the Scottish Isles goodbye as we took a ferry from Armadale on Skye to Mallaig on the mainland.

Heading back to the Scottish mainland

It was the shortest of the ferry crossings so far at just 45 minutes but also the most exciting as we saw porpoises swimming nearby from the deck.

Once on the other side, it was back on the bus to make our way to Glenfinnan.

Above, and below, the train crossing the viaduct

The Harry Potter fans amongst us were very excited as here, we’d be going to see the Glenfinnan Viaduct in time to watch the ‘Hogwarts Express’ cross it. The steam train and viaduct are the ones seen in the film and it is possible to purchase tickets to take a ride on it. While we didn’t have time for this, it was fun to see the steam train race across the viaduct from the crowded viewing point.

The Glenfinnan Monument

Glenfinnan is also home to the Glenfinnan Monument and there was a visitor centre with a store and cafe by the car park which we had some time to visit after watching the train go by.

From here, we drove towards Fort William where we’d be stopping for lunch, making a quick stop at a viewpoint of Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain. Once in Fort William, we had some free time to wander through the town, looking in some of the local stores and having lunch at one of the many cafe’s along the high street.

Stopping to take in the view of Ben Nevis, and below, hiking at Glencoe

Our main stop today would be at Glencoe where we’d be hiking to the Lost Valley.

Above, and below, hiking to the Lost Valley at Glencoe

The 2 mile hike was challenging in parts as we followed a path that was steeps and rocky in parts, crossed a river by either paddling through or hopping over rough stepping stones, scrambled up loose rocks and over fallen trees and climbed boulders masquerading as steps!

It was all worth it though as we were surrounded by pretty scenery throughout the walk and the views in the valley itself were amazing.

After taking photos and sitting down for a while to consume our snacks and drinks, we followed the same track to return to the car park rewarding ourselves after with food and drinks at a nearby pub before continuing on our journey to Oban.

McCaigs Tower in Oban, and below, views from the tower

We’d be spending the next 2 nights in the town of Oban, staying in a busy hostel where the group was split between 2 dorms. The next day was a free day for us to spend as we wished and after grabbing dinner from the local chippie, we sat down to discuss the options on offer. Activities on offer included a trip across to some of the nearby Inner Hebrides islands, kayaking in the bay, cycle hire, distillery tours or just having a relaxing day exploring the town.

After dinner, some of us walked up to McCaigs Tower, sat on top of a steep hill in Oban, taking in the views across the town and its bay.

On the ferry to the Isle of Mullfrom Oban

With two of us deciding to spend our free day on the island-hopping tour, I had an early night as it meant foregoing the planned lie in.

On the boat to the Isle of Mull

The next morning, I was up early to get breakfast and the two of us then made our way down to the marina. We had purchased our tour tickets on line the night before so just needed to check in before catching our first ferry of the day.

This ferry took us from Oban across to the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides.

On the Isle of Mull, and below, arriving on the Isle of Iona

Upon arrival in Mull, we were met by a coach which we boarded to drive us across the island. Our coach driver pointed out anything of interest along the way but it was difficult to see through the not-as-clean-as-they-could-be windows and we didn’t make any stops until we reached the marina to catch the ferry across to the Isle of Iona.

Fingal’s Cave

Once on Iona, we had the rest of the day free until we had to catch the ferry back to Mull at the end of the day. Our day ticket included a return ferry to the nearby Isle of Staffa and although we could catch this across at any point of the day, we decided to do it immediately so we wouldn’t be rushing to fit it in later in the day.

Peering into the cave

The uninhabited island of Staffa is famous for two things – Fingal’s Cave and its abundance of wildlife, especially it’s puffins! Fingal’s Cave is at the Scottish end of the Giant’s Causeway and is formed from hexagonal lava flow. While we couldn’t go inside the cave, as we approached the island by boat, we sailed as close to it as we could to get photos from the sea and once on the island, were able to walk down and along the rocks to peer inside.

Puffins on Staffa Island, and below, exploring the island

We then walked across the island and along the cliffs to see some of the puffins gathered around the rocks. Obviously used to being stared at by visitors to the island, I was surprised at how close we were able to get to the small sea birds.

After spending some time watching the colourful birds, we made our way back along the cliff tops and down to the boat to make our way back to the Isle of Iona.

Once back on Iona, we spent a few hours exploring, wandering around the ruins of the Isle of Iona Nunnery and paying the small fee to visit Iona Abbey.

Above, and below, visitng Iona Abbey

Then it was time to board the boat back to the Isle of Mull where the coach was waiting to transport us back across the island to the ferry terminal.

We caught the ferry back to Oban having dinner at a pub by the marina before returning to the hostel.

That evening, after meeting back up with the rest of the group and swapping stories from our day, it was time to make sure everything was packed and ready for the last day of our tour. Tomorrow, we would be boarding the minibus for one last day on the road as we returned to Edinburgh where I’d be saying goodbye to the rest of the group and spending a couple of days exploring Scotland’s capital city by myself!

Scottish Highlands: Journey to Loch Ness

The Scott Monument in Edinburgh

Having travelled all the way north to the island of Orkney for a wedding weekend, I was now in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city, from where I would be departing the next day on a tour of the Scottish Highlands with small group tour company, Macbackpackers.

Arriving into Edinburgh early evening, I got the airport bus straight into the city and found my way to my city centre Travelodge accommodation for the night. All checked in, I headed out into the city to grab some food and find the meeting point for my tour the next day so I wouldn’t be panicking looking for it in the morning then it was back to my room to catch up on some sleep before the early start the next day.

Crossing into the Scottish Highlands

After getting breakfast from a nearby cafe the next morning, I checked out of my hotel and dragged my luggage through Edinburgh’s cobbled and steep streets to the hostel my tour would be departing from.

There were a few Macbackpackers tour leaving that morning and we all gathered in the hostel’s common room where we could help ourselves to drinks while we waited for our tour to be called. Gradually working out who else would be on the same tour as me, we started to bundle together, starting the introductions.

Our tour finally called and our names ticked off, we didn’t waste any time loading the minibus with our luggage and climbing aboard. I was pleased to see I wasn’t the only one bringing a medium-sized case along rather than a backpack – always a worry of mine when I join a group tour!!

After formal introductions on board, we were off out of the city, across the Forth Bridge and heading towards the Highlands. We made our first stop of the day at the side of the road by the Scottish Highlands welcome sign taking pictures with it and tasting the occasion with a shot of Scottish Whiskey!

An old blackhouse at the Highland Folk Museum

Our next stop was in the pretty town of Pitlochry where we all piled into one of the cafes recommended by our tour guide for lunch then we continued on to Newtonmore to visit the Highland Folk Museum. The open air museum recreates Highland life from the past and we attended an old ‘school’ where the school mistress sternly watched over us as we practised our handwriting before exploring the old working croft with its traditional blackhouses, old farm machinery and chickens milling around.

Chickens roaming freely at the Highland Folk Museum, and below, at Culloden Battlefield

The museum was used as a location in TV series Outlander which excited some members of the group who were fans of the show.

From the Highland Folk Museum, we continued north to Culloden Battlefield, our guide detailing the story of the Jacobite Rising in the 1700s, culminating in the Battle of Culloden. We had the option of buying a ticket to the museum or just exploring the grounds, most of the group opting for the latter.

Outside the visitor centre, we also had our first encounter with some ‘hairy coos’, or Highland Cattle, the famous long-haired and large-horned cows which we were all very excited about!

Spotting some ‘hairy coos’

We made one more stop at a supermarket just outside of Inverness to buy supplies for dinner which we’d decided would be a communal effort at the hostel then continued on to our Loch Ness-side accommodation pulling over once more for a quick photo opportunity at a viewpoint overlooking Urquhart Castle and the Loch. There was no sign of the Loch Ness Monster yet so with that, we went and checked into our accommodation where we were staying in dorms for one night.

View of Urquhart Castle overlooking Loch Ness and below, on the banks of Loch Ness

The hostel lay right on the banks of Loch Ness and after we’d made and eaten dinner, we fought through the mosquitos to walk down to the Loch, some of us paddling our feet while braver members of the group even took a quick dip in its freezing waters!

We spent the rest of the evening in the hostel common room continuing to get to know each other before retiring to our dorms, most of us getting an early night before the next day’s early start.

It had been a fun first day and we’d packed a lot in. Tomorrow we’d be taking a ferry across to the first island of our trip and we were all excited to continue our Scottish adventure!

Planning a trip to Scotland

About to board a Loganair flight to Scotland

I’ve spent a lot of time travelling in the USA, ticking off 49 of the 50 States so far, and travelling in Australia and New Zealand. I’ve taken plenty of city breaks in Europe too, travelling for concert breaks or just for fun. But I always feel I should spend more time exploring the UK. The events of the last year have given me some opportunity to do this and I had a great time visiting some of England’s National Parks last summer as well as making my regular annual visit to Pembrokeshire National Park in Wales but Scotland is a country I’d never spent much time in.

Travelling to the Scottish Highlands

When a Scottish friend from one of the Trek America tours I had done got engaged and invited all of the group to her wedding, it seemed like the perfect excuse to see some of this beautiful country. You see, my friend lived in Orkney, one of the northernmost islands of Scotland, and travelling there was going to cost a small fortune!

As much as I wanted to go, it almost didn’t seem worth it for just 2 nights. So I decided to extend my trip and take a solo tour of the Scottish Highlands while I was there.

Rather than taking a tour completely solo, I decided I’d rather join an escorted tour.

Some ‘hairy coos’

While I’d taken a few of these elsewhere – while travelling in the USA, Australia and new Zealand – I wasn’t at all familiar with any companies that operated in the UK. After researching the tours and companies on offer for a solo traveller on a budget, I decided to book with Macbackpackers on their 7-day Best of the West tour. The company aims it small group tours at the 18-40 age group and got excellent reviews and while I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of staying in hostels again, I felt I’d be able to cope for 6 nights if it meant saving some money!

To save a bit more money, I booked the tour through Touradar during one of their sales using credits I had with them from previous bookings to bring the cost down even further!

Ancient standing stones on Orkney Island

The tour left from Edinburgh on Mondays so I decided to join the one that left after the weekend of the wedding meaning I’d fly to Orkney on Friday, leave for Edinburgh on Sunday evening and start the tour on the Monday morning, arriving back in Edinburgh where I’d spend a few more days, a week later.

Deciding I’d need a break from hostels along the way, I booked a city centre Travelodge in Edinburgh for the nights either side of the tour within walking distance of the hostel the tour departed from. The hostels used along the tour were pre-booked through the company although the price wasn’t included in the cost of the tour, we had to pay cash upon arrival at each one.

With our accommodation in Kirkwall on Orkney Island sorted for us by our friend, I was excited for the trip, ready to explore somewhere new and ready for adventure!

Back in Sydney for 24 hours

Back in Sydney

I was at the end of my 5 week trip to Australia’s east coast and having spent an amazing week in Sydney for New Year at the start of my adventure, I was excited to return for 24 hours, even if I would be there by myself this time rather than with a group of my best friends.

It had been a long day, spending 12 hours sat on the Loka minibus travelling from Byron Bay and we finally arrived in Sydney early evening.

After being dropped at Central Station, I said goodbye to the few passengers that had been on the bus with me and set off for my hotel near Museum Station.

That evening, I took a stroll up to Circular Quay.

View of Sydney Harbour Bridge

It was a lot quieter than it had been on my last visit and as I approached the Opera House, I couldn’t help but think about the Opera Bar New Year Party I’d attended there just weeks earlier. Since then I’d seen and done so much, visiting Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands and then Townsville and Magnetic Island on the way north to Cairns with one of my friends and then travelling southbound on my solo adventures passing through Tully Gorge National Park, back to Airlie Beach and stopping at Emu Park, Fraser Island, Noosa, Brisbane and Byron Bay.

It really had been the trip of a lifetime!

Off to catch the ferry to Watsons Bay

And it wasn’t over yet. With my flight back to the UK not leaving until late evening, I was planning to make the most of every last minute of my day in Sydney. Wanting to see part of Sydney I hadn’t seen before, after grabbing some breakfast, I walked to Circular Quay and took a boat across to Watsons Bay.

Above, arriving at Watsons Bay, and below, on the coastal walk

Once there, I followed the path from Marine Parade behind Watsons Head Beach and along to a viewpoint overlooking the bay of Camp Cove from where there were great views of Sydney in the distance. Walking past another small bay, Lady Bay Beach, I then picked up the South Head Heritage Trail, a looped path which took me past Hornby Lighthouse and more beautiful coastal views.

At the Gap Park

After completing the looped track, I returned to where I’d started by the ferry wharf and then walked in the other direction up to the ocean cliffs known as The Gap for more amazing views. Continuing my walk along the cliff tops through Gap Park, I made it as far as Macquarie Lighthouse before returning to the ferry wharf.

Walking to Macquarie Lighthouse

Back by Watsons Bay Beach, I spent some time sat in Robertson Park people watching and enjoying the views before deciding to use my transport day pass to return to Sydney CBD by bus. Along the way, I hopped off at another of Sydney’s coastal suburbs, Rose Bay.

After wandering along its main street, I found my way to the beach and sat there relaxing, soaking up the last few rays of Australian sunshine before the end of my trip.

Taking a stroll around Darling Harbour

Arriving back in the city with a bit of time still to spare, I took a final stroll around Darling Harbour before returning to my hotel to pick up my luggage and make my way to the airport. It had been an amazing trip, one I’d never forget but for now, it was time to wave Australia a fond goodbye.