Christchurch, New Zealand

Having decided upon taking a 7-day tour of New Zealand’s South Island with small group tour company Haka Tour, I set off on my journey from London Heathrow to Christchurch via short stops in Dubai, Bangkok and Sydney before finally landing 35 hours later. While I was not looking forward to such a long flight, I found it went a lot quicker than the longest flights I had previously taken to Australia, maybe helped by all the stops breaking the journey up; but I was still exhausted when we landed and the last thing I needed was to find my suitcase damaged and split open as it came round the conveyor belt at Christchurch airport!

The earthquake damaged Christchurch Cathedral

Customer services were very apologetic and offered to loan me a temporary case while mine was sent to be repaired but said that as it was a holiday weekend for ANZAC day, I would have to return to the airport in 2-3 days to collect it once it was fixed. I explained I was departing on a tour of the island and wouldn’t be in Christchurch then to be able to return to the airport and after a few calls, they agreed to give me a similar suitcase there and then.

A Christchurch tram passes by

It took me a while to repack and transfer everything from one case to the other and by the time I was ready to leave the airport, I’d abandoned all my plans to use public transport into the city and instead hopped straight into a taxi to take me directly to my Ibis hotel.

The temporary Re:Start Mall

It was afternoon when I arrived and with my room ready to check in straight away, I set my alarm for a quick nap before dragging myself out into the city. Finding my way to the Cathedral Square, I had my first glimpse of what was left of the cathedral, severely damaged in the 2011 earthquake.

An autumn stroll along the river

Hoping to find somewhere to eat in the city, I continued to wander through Christchurch but the city was like a ghost town with little about and failing to find anything I wanted to eat, I returned towards my hotel via a walk through Re:Start Mall, a temporary shopping area replacing stores damaged in the earthquake with stores in shipping containers, then along the river and once back, ordered room service before having an very early night to catch up on my missed sleep.

The Chalice sculpture in Cathedral Square

Having seen a leaflet advertising it in the reception of my hotel, I decided to take a walking tour of the city the next morning. There tour was free and there was no need to book, I just needed to be in Cathedral Square, by the Chalice sculpture, at 10am to meet the guide. 7 of us turned up for the tour, a mixture of solo travellers and couples and we were taken around the city hearing about it’s history and the ongoing repercussions of the 2011 quake.

The eerie, ghost town feel to the city made much more sense having heard the stories of the city’s struggles to rebuild and how many people and businesses had moved out to the suburbs to restart.

Above and below, art work covering up earthquake damage in Christchurch

There was still uncertainty about what would become of the damaged Cathedral and we were taken past the temporary ‘Cardboard Cathedral’ being used int he meantime as well as shown the 185 Chairs earthquake memorial with one chair standing for every life lost in the earthquake. The city was also covered in street art and murals trying to cover up the damage and we had plenty of examples pointed out to us.

Rebuilding, art work, car parks and empty space – Christchurch still recovering from a devastating earthquake

Mentioning to the guide that I had struggled to find anywhere to eat in the city with even cafes serving snacks and breakfast being thin on the ground, he took the group to the C1 Espresso, a cafe with a quick bites menu of sandwiches, fries etc., for lunch.

The cafe had an interesting way of serving fries to the tables sending them through pneumatic tubes rather than the serving staff bringing them over!

Above and below, autumn in the botanic gardens

After lunch, I said goodbye to the group and took a walk to the city’s Botanic Gardens then visited the Canterbury Museum before collecting my luggage from my hotel and moving to the nearby YHA to meet my Haka Tours group. Having arrived from completing their tour of the North Island, the group were just checking in to the YHA and the few of us joining just for the South Island leg of the tour were introduced before we all went out for food at a nearby Mexican restaurant.

Above and below, visiting the Canterbury Museum

The group was made up of mainly Brits, a few Canadians, an American and one Australian varying in age from early 20s to mid-30s and despite most of the group having already spent a week together travelling the North Islands, I felt immediately included and knew we were going to have a good week together exploring the South Island.

Glad to have upgraded to a private room for the trip, after dinner, I headed back to the YHA and my room to again catch up on my sleep before our early start the next morning to begin our South Island adventure starting with a visit to Lake Tekapo.

Alaska: Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park

Day 1 of our Alaskan Highlights Tour

After 2 underwhelming days spent in Anchorage, the day we had been waiting for had arrived – the start of our 10-day Grand American Adventures Alaskan Highlights tour.

On our tour van
Potters Marsh

Having got the introductions and paperwork out of the way at a welcome meeting the previous evening, it was straight to loading up the trailer with our luggage, hopping on and setting off. The tour was off to a precarious start when moments after leaving the hotel, a huge moose leapt out in front of us just as we had started picking up speed down a main road. Luckily, there was nothing in the lane next to us and we managed to swerve to avoid hitting it. Danger over, we were relieved and excited to have had our first Alaska wildlife spot!

Spotting a moose

Our guide explained to us that she had a tour ‘morning song’ – a song she played as the first song of the day on the bus each morning and which we’d all get to know and be able to sing along to by the end of the tour. The song was I Got a Name by Joe Croce. It wasn’t a song I was already familiar with but by the end of the tour, we did indeed all know and love it.

Views from Potters Marsh

Our first stop of the day was at Potter Marsh Wildlife Viewing Boardwalk just outside of Anchorage. We wandered the board walks and were rewarded as we looked out over the marsh with another moose appearance!

Aerial tramway up Alyeska Mountain
View from Alyeska Mountain

Back on the bus, we continued to Alyeska Mountain where we had the option of riding the aerial tramway to the top of the mountain. Never ones to turn down the opportunity to take a gondola ride, we got our tickets along with a few other members of our tour group and soon we were at the top taking in the beautiful views of the mountains and glaciers.

Trail to Byron Glacier

We next stopped at a section of the Byron Glacier Trail in the National Forest. We followed the short section of the trail down to the glacier viewing area then returned to the bus to continue on to Seward arriving early afternoon.

Byron Glacier

Dropping us off in downtown Seward, we visited a cafe for lunch before going to check in at the motel we’d be staying in for the next 2 nights.

In Seward
Visitor Center at Kenai Fjords National Park

While in Seward, we would mainly be exploring Kenai Fjords National Park and this afternoon we would be heading to the Exit Glacier part of the park.

We were dropped off at the Exit Glacier Visitor Center where most of us decided to take the guided ranger tour to the glacier. After taking a walk in the park ourselves while waiting for the guided walk to start, we made our way back to the visitor centre meeting point. It was quite an easy hike to the glacier with plenty of stops as the ranger talked to us about the park and explained how quickly the glacier is receding.

The Yukon Bar

Dollar bills on the roof of the bar

After our hike, we all boarded our tour bus again to be dropped back in Seward where we had a group meal after which a few of us decided to head to one of the local bars, the Yukon Bar, where it was open mic night then after a few drinks, we walked back to our motel.

Inside the Yukon Bar
On the boat

Day 2 in Seward we were taking an included full day cruise into Kenai Fjords National Park. After grabbing breakfast at a cafe in town, we met with the rest of the group at the marina, spotting an adorable sea otter playing in the bay as we waited. Our cruise was lead by a National Park Ranger who pointed out where to look to spot wildlife in the area – and there was certainly plenty of it to spot! We saw seals, puffins, bald eagles and goats on the cliffs we sailed past and eventually, our patience paid off when we saw a whale swimming ahead.

Becoming Explorer Rangers!

During the cruise, the park ranger announced that they were running an Explorer Ranger programme on board, jokingly suggesting that adults could get involved as well as children. So, of course, we requested booklets and completed them to earn our Explorer Ranger badges by the end of the cruise.

Once back on dry land, the evening was ours to spend as we wished. We decided to walk in the opposite direction from the town where we found Seward Lagoon. After having a quick walk along the boardwalk, we went for dinner at Red’s Burgers where you get to eat your food sat on an old converted school bus!

School bus diner

After dinner, we walked back into town taking more pictures around the seafront then returned to the Yukon Bar for drinks at the end of the evening.

Beautiful views from Seward

It had been a great start to the tour. Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park had been really fun places to explore and now, we were excited to head to Valdez for the next part of our tour!

Watch my vlog of my journey to Seward and visit to Exit Glacier here:

and my vlog of my Kenai Fjords cruise here:

Going it alone

Travelling solo for the first time.

After almost 10 years of fitting in city breaks around my teaching career, I finally took the plunge and quit my full time job in order to travel more extensively. Up until now, any trips I’d taken had been with friends, often fellow teacher also tied down to taking trips in the school holidays, and had mainly been short breaks with the odd 2-week trip when there was more time over the summer break. But now I was no longer tied down to travelling in the school holidays – which was great as it meant I could take advantage of the cheaper term time flight and accommodation prices – but it also meant that my teacher friends were not available to come with me and, with wanting to go away for longer than the standard week or fortnight, no one else was able, or willing, to get the time off work either. The choice was simple. Stay at home, taking the first long term supply teaching job I was offered and continue to make the odd trip at weekends and in the holidays, or really make use of the situation I had put myself in and go it alone.

I chose the latter and started to research solo travel. Having visited many of the main US cities over the last 10 years, America was a country I knew I felt comfortable in and wanted to see more of – specifically travelling outside of the cities – so that seemed like a good place to start. I’d been receiving brochures from the group travel company Trek America and it’s sister company, Grand American Adventures, for a few years after entering a competition to travel with them once and ending up on their mailing list and I had always flicked through them half-heartedly before throwing them in the recycling but now when the new brochures arrived, I paid a bit more attention and started doing some online research into the companies and their tours. I’d had a few friends do larger group tours with companies such as Contiki and was pretty sure this wasn’t for me but a small group tour sounded more appealing.

Trek America offered a wide range of tours In North America aimed at 18-38 year olds. The majority of the tours offered were camping based, which I knew I did not want to do! – but they also offered some of their tours as BLTs or Budget Lodging Tours which used a mixture of hostels, motels and cabins. I’d never stayed in a hostel in my life and it didn’t particularly appeal to me but if it was just for a few nights here and there between hotel/motel stops, I figured I could cope. The alternative was to choose a tour with another company such as Grand American Adventures which used hotels and motels only but these were a lot more expensive and were open-aged tours which worried me in case everyone else on the tour was a lot older than me. Being in my mid-30s at this point, there was always the risk that doing a Trek America tour would find me as the only ‘older’ traveller in a group of 18 year olds but I decided that choosing a BLT tour over a cheaper, more affordable camping tour plus the 21 years old drinking age in America, would minimise this risk and hopefully the tours would attract a slightly older age group.

Once I’d narrowed down which tour company to use, the next step was choosing which tour to do. There were about 6 BLT tours on offer, all varying in length and visiting different areas of the US. Having spent a lot of time in the obvious cities – at this point I had already visited New York, LA, Chicago, Boston, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Washington DC on city breaks – I wanted to find a tour that went to enough new places for me that it would make it worth while. A lot of the west coast trips mainly spent time in LA, Vegas and San Francisco and the North East BLT tour went to New York, Boston and Niagara Falls which I’d also seen before. Their Deep South BLT certainly looked a possibility as I’d always wanted to see New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville but it was only a one week tour and, not being a drinker, I did worry again about it attracting a partying, younger crowd. Also, I thought that if I was going to do this, maybe I should go all in and go for a longer amount of time rather than testing the waters on a one week tour.

The company’s most encompassing BLT tour was the Grand BLT, a 6 week trip travelling coast to coast from New York to LA through the Northern states before returning to New York travelling back through the Southern states. The trips for that year had already departed and didn’t start up again until the following summer but I was itching to get going sooner than that so I saw that the trip could be split. The company’s Southern BLT tour ran through the winter months as well as the summer months. Paired with the Northern BLT which ran just through the summer months, it creates the Grand BLT. Maybe I didn’t have to do the entire trip in one go but could split it into two 3-week trips, one now and one in the summer. That way, if it turned out it wasn’t for me, 3 weeks is less of a commitment than 6 and I just wouldn’t book onto the second leg.

The Southern BLT Tour route

So after a bit more inning and ahhing, talking it through with various friends and family members who all encouraged me to go for it, I booked myself onto the February departure of the Southern BLT tour, adding on a few days completely by myself in Santa Monica, LA before the trip and in New York after the trip – both cities familiar to me so a few days alone in both seemed manageable!

Trek America tour van

I’ll write about my experiences on the trip in a future post but suffice to say I loved it, it was without a doubt the best thing I have ever done. I did book myself onto the Northern BLT that summer and I have done numerous small group tours since with Trek America and various other companies.

So if you are thinking thinking of travelling solo but maybe don’t want to spend your time completely by yourself, definitely consider a group tour!

My first solo travel adventure