Texas is a huge state which I often forget I’ve even been to despite spending a few days of our trip travelling through it. After our entry to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico was delayed, we continued to make slow progress to the night’s stop in the Texas city of Lubbock, finally arriving to a snow covered car park in the dark.
Our first impressions of Texas didn’t get off to the best start when the motel was less than ideal – our room had seen better days to say the least. Walls were cracked with small holes in the bathroom making us uneasy, food was visibly crumbled into the carpet and, despite it being a non-smoking room, the air was thick with smoke. We didn’t have long to dwell on it as we had 5 minutes to drop our bags and cases before meeting back at the van to go for dinner before everywhere closed but we mentioned it to our tour guide on the way out.
Dinner was at a lovely Italian diner a short drive away and when we returned to the motel, our guide came into reception with us to complain about our room. The receptionist seemed annoyed and offered us a bottle of air freshener. When we pointed out this only (partly) dealt with one of the issues, she begrudgingly gave us a different room. This one was slightly better and we decided we could manage for one night but just after we settled to bed, we were disturbed by an almighty argument going on seemingly directly outside our room which ended in sirens and flashing lights appearing in the car park! We were more than a little relieved to leave Lubbock the next day!
Today was my birthday! More snow had fallen overnight and not long into our journey, we hit a roadblock due to an accident caused by the snow and were forced to take a long diversion. With lunch time approaching, our guide looked for somewhere to stop only to find most places closed due to the bad weather! We eventually found ourselves in the town of Abilene where the Flippin’ Egg diner was open and the staff were more than a little excited to have international visitors! After a delicious pancake brunch, and a visit to the British Shoppe a few doors down to stock up on some Dairy Milk chocolate, we were back on the snow-covered road to Austin, Texas.
Again, with the weather causing us to arrive later than we’d hoped, there was little time for sightseeing. Instead, we went straight to our out-of-town hostel and checked in. We were more than a little dismayed to find ourselves in a huge communal co-ed dorm of 20 but we’d not be spending a lot of time here. We had half an hour to get ready before we’d be heading out to dinner followed by a night out in the city.
Dinner was at the Salt Lick BBQ restaurant, a place that our guide had been raving about since the trip started and it certainly didn’t disappoint. After, we were driven into central Austin where we headed straight to the bars on 6th Street where we stayed until 2am.
Before leaving Austin the next day, we stopped at South Congress Street and walked around some of the quirky stores. We then continued our dive through Texas with one last stop in the state, Buc-ee’s, the biggest truck stop I have ever seen. Souvenirs, snacks and even lunch all bought, it was time to say goodbye to Texas and hello to the next state on our trip, Louisiana.
The highs and lows of a 3 week road tripacrossthe USA.
I was 4 days into a 3 week group tour across America and so far, things were going great. My first experience of hostel life was actually ok, the group were all bonding well, I’d already become firm friends with my roommate and I’d go as far as to say, I was having the time of my life!! But I should have known with this kind of trip to expect the unexpected!
LA, San Diego and Las Vegas already done, next up was 2 nights at the Grand Canyon. So far, we’d enjoyed glorious warm sunshine but as we boarded the bus outside our Vegas hotel the next morning, there was definitely a chill in the air. Time to pull out the hoodie!! As our guide told us much colder weather had been forecast for the next few days, an Australian member of our group admitted he’d only brought shorts with him, assuming that the Southern states were going to be mainly warm!
Our first stop of the day was at Hoover Dam and then at the ‘historic’ Route 66 town of Seligman, Arizona. We’d been told that in the summer months, it was hard to move in this town with all the tourists but on a cool February day, it was more like a ghost town and we were warmly welcomed in every souvenir store we entered as it would seem they get very little business this time of year!
The town, dubbed ‘the birthplace of Route 66’, was fun to wander round and was like something stuck in the past with all of its brightly painted buildings and Route 66 memorabilia. We had one more stop, for lunch at a Subway, before continuing the long drive to Grand Canyon National Park.
Arriving later than expected after being rerouted around road closures (we kept ourselves amused in the bus playing ‘Guess the song from the introduction’!), we were given an hour to get settled into our motel accommodation before regrouping for a pizza dinner at a local restaurant. While there, our tour guide outlined the options for the next few days – we could get up early to see the sunrise over the Grand Canyon if enough of us were interested, we could hike down into the canyon, book a helicopter flight over the canyon and there were also options to watch a film about the Grand Canyon at the IMAX in the village or do shorter, less strenuous walks at the canyon rim. All the group were up for seeing the sunrise and hiking down into the canyon and lots of us signed up to take a helicopter ride too. With that decided and dinner done, we were let loose for the evening, all deciding to meet for a game of bowling at a nearby hotel after getting our hiking supplies in for the following day.
Things took an unexpected turn as my roommate and I left the bowling alley to get an earlyish night to discover that snow was falling. And seeing as the ground was covered, it had been falling a while! Assuming that it wouldn’t be much, we set our 4am alarms and went to bed.
We awoke the next morning to find that the snow had certainly not stopped but continued to fall heavily throughout the night! Despite guessing that seeing the sunrise was now unlikely to be possible, we got ready and met with the group anyway and seeing as we were all up, our guide managed to drive us into the National Park anyway.
As expected, all we could see was cloud and snow but we amused ourselves by building a snowman and throwing snowballs into the Canyon – not something I ever expected to do!! For some of the Australians in the group, this was the first time they’d actually seen real snow so despite our disappointment at the sunrise not being visible, there was still plenty of fun to be had.
After breakfast back in the village, we were advised by our guide that the helicopter tours would not be running today and that the trails down into the Canyon were closed. It was possible there would be an opportunity for both activities the next morning depending on the weather but we’d have to find other ways to spend our full day at the Canyon. Seeing as the rim trail between Mather Point and Angel Point was open, we all wrapped up warm (the Australian with just shorts packed had purchased some long trousers, gloves and a scarf!) and headed out for a walk in the snow!
To be honest, I had never even realised the Grand Canyon got snow before. Luckily, unlike many of the group, I had visited this part of the National Park before and seen the Grand Canyon under clear, blue skies and sunshine and there was actually something really special about seeing it under snowfall – not that we could see much of the canyon itself! Cold and wet, we warmed up with lunch at Angel Point Hotel before returning to the village for the rest of the afternoon.
With nothing else to really do, a few of us went to watch the IMAX film, so we could at least see what the Grand Canyon usually looks like, and spent some time souvenir shopping before we met for a group meal at a nearby Steakhouse. A few of us then congregated in our motel room with snacks to watch the evening’s Oscars Ceremony!
Unfortunately, we awoke the next morning to yet more heavy snowfall, dashing any remaining hopes of getting to do the helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon or hiking down into the canyon so instead we set off for today’s destination, Monument Valley, stopping first at a watchtower in the Grand Canyon Park. There wasn’t really much of a view from the tower, just more snow, so we didn’t spend long there but as we drove out towards Utah state, conditions did seem to be clearing slightly.
Our first stop in Utah was at a Navajo trading post in Cameron and we were pleased to not have to wade through any snow to get from the van to the store. We weren’t as lucky when we reached our lunch stop, a Burger King, which doubled as a Museum on Navajo Code Talkers, a couple of hours later. Here the snow had really fallen and we wondered if our destination of Monument Valley would be open for our tour to go ahead.
Luckily, despite the heavy snowfall, the site had remained open although we were told that the jeeps used for the tours could only access a smaller part of the area and therefore we would receive a discount.
If anything, the snow only added to this amazing experience. We were told that snow of any kind rarely falls at Monument Valley, nevermind a blanket of it, and even our Navajo guides were stopping to take photographs of the beautiful scenery as they showed us around. We spent most of the tour stood marvelling at the beautiful snow-covered scenery, enjoying the peacefulness that had descended over the area.
Our visit to Monument Valley ended with a traditional burrito meal before we drove to our motel in the amusingly named town of Mexican Hat. We awoke the next morning to find the snow was starting to melt.
We made one more Monument Valley stop, on the road at the point where Forrest Gump stops running in the Oscar-winning film, before heading off towards the next state on our itinerary – the hopefully less snowy New Mexico!
My first small group tour travel experience – Part 1
The start of a 3-week road trip across America with 10 strangers!
Within minutes of meeting my companions for the next 3 weeks You can read my previous blog on this here), we were all climbing into our mini-bus and being driven by our tour guide across the city to our first stop – Hollywood. Conversations in the bus at this point mainly consisted of the “What’s your name again?”, “Where did you say you’re from again?” kind and when we were dropped off and given an hour to wander around Hollywood Boulevard, we drifted into smaller groups – the 2 Swedish girls sticking together, the 20-something guys grouping up and then those of us that didn’t fit any other group wandering off together too. Hollywood was setting up for the weekend’s big Oscar Ceremony which, having been to the Walk of Fame many times before, made the stop a bit more exciting for me as we saw the preparations going on and watched through the fence as reporters broadcast from the red carpet already running down the middle of the road to the Kodak Theater.
Once we were all back at the bus, we made one more quick hop off and on stop nearby to get a photo of the Hollywood sign from Beachwood Canyon before settling in for the 2 hour drive to San Diego. Lunch was at a truck stop just outside the city with a choice of fast food options (most of us tried Wendy’s!) and then it was off to drop our things at our hostel in the Gaslamp District. Like me, this was to be the first hostel experience for most of the group. We were allocated two 6-bed dorms to share between us, there were plenty of bathrooms along the corridor and breakfast was provided in the morning. Our room overlooked the main street in the Gaslamp Quarter, where all the bars were so we had loud music pumping through the walls until the early hours of the morning but it was only for 2 nights and our next stop would be a hotel in Vegas.
After we had settled, we met back at the bus and were taken to Mission Beach for the afternoon. Despite it being February, the weather was a balmy 20 degrees and we wandered along the sands chatting and getting to know each other a bit more before returning to the city for our first group dinner at Bepe di Bucco’s family dining restaurant. That night, we split into those who wanted to go partying and those who didn’t with some of us opting instead to keep out of the bars and get frozen yoghurt instead as we planned to be up early the next day for a trip to the zoo.
What we did on our free day was completely up to us but with the suggestions being SeaWorld or San Diego Zoo, most of the group was keen on going to the zoo so our tour guide offered to drive us there and then we could make our own way back. Only 2 of the group – the two Swedish girls who were mainly keeping themselves to themselves at this point – decided to stay in the city and do their own bit of sightseeing. The zoo was huge, so much so that we lost one group member at one point which was a good point to decide we should all swap numbers and start a Whatsapp group! After spending most for the day there, we walked through Balboa Park and back to the hostel. Our tour guide suggested a seafood place for dinner but with none of the group too keen in that idea, we ended up in Hooters which, if nothing else, was cheaper!
It was a very early start the next morning to begin our drive to Las Vegas and most of us slept in the bus. Lunch was at a bizarre Greek-style diner in Baker, California, opposite the World’s Largest Thermometer(!) before continuing to our destination.
After 2 nights in a hostel, our room at Bally’s Casino seemed like luxury and I was surprised we were in a hotel on the Strip and in such a good location, expecting to be Downtown from reading other Trekkers’ experiences online. With hotel rooms being for 2, the two Swedish girls shared a room, I shared with the other solo girl (we’d already become good friends at this point – 2 days can seem a lot longer when you’re spending all that time in someone’s company!) and then the guys paired up, taking it in turns to have a room to themselves with there being an odd number of them.
We had the rest of the afternoon as free time but were to be back early evening for our included Party Bus activity. As my roommate and I had decided we’d like to see Britney play the following night, we headed straight to the Planet Hollywood box office to acquire some tickets before joining the others strolling through some of the hotels on the strip. Then it was all round to our tour guide’s room for some group-bonding drinking games and Chinese food before we piled onto our private Vegas Party bus. The bus drives up and down the strip while music blasts out and the inside is like a mini-dance club.
Unimpressed by the very clubby music, one of the group asked if he could instead plug in his iPhone and we instead sang and danced along to cheesy 90s pop tracks from the Spice Girls and 5ive and tunes from Disney’s Frozen. The bus made a stop Downtown in time for us to catch the hourly laser show at Fremont Street and then at the Welcome to Vegas sign for us to get photos before dropping us off at the Bellagio to watch the penultimate dancing fountain show of the night. We loved this so much we decided to wait 15 minutes to watch the final show of the night too before following our tour guide to her favourite karaoke bar at Ellis Island Casino just behind Bally’s.
The next morning we split into 2 groups – those of us who had returned to our hotel at a reasonable time and were up to spend the day exploring Vegas, and those who were sleeping it off! By the time we met with the rest of the group later that afternoon, we had already had a huge Denny’s breakfast, took a gondola ride at the Venetian hotel, and got lost in Circus Circus. We were joined by a few more group members at the top of the Stratosphere where we screamed our way through the 3 rides sat on top of the tallest building in the Strip.
That evening, we all went off to see various shows and for me that meant the chance to see Britney’s Piece Of Me show, something I’d wanted to do since it was announced so I was ecstatic to discover she was playing on our free evening in the city. We’d managed to get our hands on pit tickets so were up close, especially when Britney came out along the catwalk and the show was every bit as amazing as I’d hoped. After, we met up with a few other group members for a late night ride on the High Roller Ferris Wheel to see the bright lights of Vegas from above.
I’d been to Vegas a few times before this trip but never experienced it quite like this. Being in a group tour situation was already taking me out of my comfort zone – drinking games, party buses, late night karaoke bars, none of these things were how I’d usually spend my time on holiday – and yet I was loving every minute and really enjoying the company of this eclectic band of individuals.
4 days in and things were going great but I should know by now to expect the unexpected…