My first solo travel adventure

Coast to coast with Trek America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alone on Santa Monica Beach

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

Sunset over Santa Monica Pier

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

Breakfast feast for one at Denny’s

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

Sony Studios Tour

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

Walking to Venice Beach

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

Exploring the canals at Venice
On a tour to Malibu

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

Malibu Beach
After cycling to Marina del Rey

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

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

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

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

My first Small Group Tour travel experience Part 1

Going it alone

Santa Monica and Venice Beach

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

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

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

The Beach

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

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

View of Santa Monica Beach from the end of the Pier

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

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

Santa Monica Pier

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

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

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

Looking down at Pacific Park from the Ferris Wheel

3rd St Promenade

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

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

Boardwalk

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

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

Venice Beach

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

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

Entering Venice Beach

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

Malibu

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

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

LA Overview

Hollywood & Beverly Hills

The Hollywood Sign

Downtown LA

LA Studio Tours