Northern BLT Day 4-5: Chicago

Day 4 of our coast to coast Trek America tour and we were up early to leave our Ohio KOA cabins and begin our journey to Chicago.

Horse and cart on the streets of Shipshewana
Exploring Shipshewana

Our first stop to day was just across the border of Indiana state in the Amish town of Shipshewana. I’m not exactly sure what I expected but it wasn’t what we got. Shipshewana was in many ways a typical American town like any other I’d visited. Except for the occasional horse and cart rolling down the streets and the odd person in traditional Amish dress passing by. With it’s Amish market selling handmade food and crafts and the opportunity to take a ride on the traditional horse and carts, it felt like a very touristy look at Amish life rather than getting an accurate snapshot but we enjoyed wandering around and especially enjoyed the homemade ice cream we purchased before leaving to continue our journey.

Shipshewana, Indiana

We had one more stop before arriving in Chicago, Illinois – at the childhood home of Michael Jackson in the town of Gary, Indiana. The house had become something of a shrine with fan messages and gifts covering the gates around the house.

Then it was on to Chicago where we were staying at the HI Hostel in the Loop area. It was late afternoon by the time we arrived so as we got ourselves settles into our rooms – it was a really nice hostel and us girls had our own en suite dorm! – deep dish pizza was ordered in from a nearby Gino’s East area which we ate down in the common area. Having had Gino’s deep dish fresh at the main restaurant in the past, I didn’t enjoy the take out pizza as much and many of the others in the group were unimpressed.

At Bobby’s Bike Hire in Chicago

That evening most of us had taken up the option to take a bike tour of Chicago, something I’d not done on my previous 2 visits to the city. Short on time, we caught taxis uptown to the headquarters of Bobby’s Bikes where we were each provided with hi-vis jackets, helmets and a bike before setting off to follow our tour guide. Our first stop was on the shore of Lake Michigan but unfortunately the fog had moved in over the city obscuring any views we should have had. Then we rode uptown to see some of the huge mansions including the original Playboy mansion.

The Cloudgate sculpture in Millennium Park

We were all a bit nervous when told we’d be riding on the main road alongside all the Chicago traffic for the next section of our tour but it was less scary than it sounded and we paused for photos down by the Chicago river before cycling back lakeside and down to Millennium Park to see the amazing Cloudgate sculpture then further south past Grant Park to the museum campus where, completely coincidentally, fireworks started going off at an event being held there just as we arrived.

Fireworks at the end of our tour

Bike tour over, we walked to the Hancock Tower where the rest of the group were having drinks in the sky bar. We joined them for a drink but left shortly after as the cloud meant there was zero visibility and it was an expensive place for drinks when there was no view! Instead, we walked back to the hostel and spent the rest of the evening in the common room playing table tennis and pool.

Chicago River
Willis Tower

The next day we had a full day in Chicago to do what we liked. Most of us decided to use it to try and see as much of the city as we could in a day and as I’d been before and vaguely knew my way around, I lead the way. We started at Willis Tower, formerly Sears Tower, once the tallest building in the World. The queues for the viewing platform weren’t too long so we bought tickets to go up and spent some time enjoying the views over the city.

Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park

Next, we walked back towards the lake and visited Grant Park to see Buckingham Fountain. There was a food festival going on in the park so we stopped for a few free samples as we walk through towards Millennium Park. At Millennium Park, we stopped to see Crown Fountain, also known as the ‘spitting’ fountain as digital faces each end appear to spit water out at regular intervals. Then we walked back to the Cloudgate Sculpture which we’d seen on our bike tour the previous night but is always a fun place to visit in the city as you can see yourself reflected in it!

Next up was Navy Pier where we had lunch at the huge food court before taking a boat cruise on Lake Michigan. The pier has a few fair rides so as lunch had gone down, we took a ride on the flying chairs.

Ride on Navy Pier

From Navy Pier, we walked back alongside the Chicago River to Michigan Avenue, also known as the Miracle Mile. Similar to New York’s Fifth Avenue, this is where all the big stores are and we spent a while browsing in the shops as we went past.

Beach on Lake Michigan
Gino’s East

Getting hungry again, some of the group decided to go to the Cheesecake Factory in the Hancock Tower for food while two of us decided to give deep dish pizza another go, this time at Gino’s East restaurant. Eating the pizza at the restaurant made a huge difference and this time, it was just as good as I had remembered!

It was evening by the time we all met up again and the sunshine had disappeared and been replaced by big, black clouds. As we walked back down Michigan Avenue, it started to pour down with rain causing us to decide to call it a day and run back to the hostel to shelter. But we’d had a fun day sightseeing in the city and managed to fit a lot in in a short time.

Northern BLT Day 3: Ohio

Sandusky and Cedar Point Amusement Park

Entering the state of Ohio

After breakfast at the local Dunkin’ Donuts in Buffalo, it was back on the road to drive towards the state of Ohio. Once there, we’d be visiting Cedar Point Amusement Park near Cleveland, an activity I was really looking forward too!

Stops along the way we’re kept to a minimum today as we wanted to make sure we got as much time as possible in the park. We did take a slight detour to drop the American member of our group in Cleveland itself as he wanted to visit the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame there rather than visit Cedar Point.

Our cabins at the KOA park

Our base in Ohio was Sandusky where we’d be staying at the first of many KOA sites this trip. As this was a BLT (Budget Lodging Tour) rather than camping, we were staying in cabins. We checked in and dropped our luggage off and then jumped back on the van to be taken to Cedar Point.

Roller Coasters in the distance as we drive towards Cedar Point

Cedar Point is sat right on a peninsula by Lake Erie. It has some of the biggest roller coasters in the World and as we approached it we could see the tangled, colourful structures twisting and weaving through the sky ahead of us.

Arriving just after 2pm, we qualified for a reduced entry rate. The park was open til 11pm so we still had plenty of time to spend there. Not being familiar with the site, once inside, we headed straight to the nearest coasters which we’d seen from the car park, which were great but I wish we’d looked at a map and realised just how huge the park was and how many coasters were on offer rather than spending so much time in the front area riding not just the few coasters in that area but the smaller rides like the carousel.

The Gatekeeper coaster

Once we had delved deeper into the park, we were amazed by the sheer volume of coasters on offer – huge wooden coasters, the former World’s longest coaster, the former World’s tallest coast, steepest coaster…looping coasters, racing coasters, pretty much every kind of roller coaster imaginable! Thankfully the queues weren’t too long and we got to go on most of what we wanted. Highlights were the Raptor ride where you sit hanging from the track like on Alton Tower’s Nemesis and Millennium Force, once the World’s tallest, fastest coaster.

The Dragster

Throughout the day we’d been eyeing up a terrifying looking coaster called Dragster, debating whether or not to ride it. The ride shoots off reaching 120mph in under 4 seconds before climbing a 90 degree incline, twisting over the top and shooting straight back down the other side. The queue for it started to die down early evening so 5 of us decided to pluck up the courage to give it a go. A few minutes into the queue, one of the cars failed to make it up and over the top, causing the coaster to close for a while so we left the queue and went elsewhere. An hour before we had to leave, we decided to join the queue again and again, the coaster broke down. We were told it would only be a short closure so deciding we didn’t have time to go elsewhere we stuck it out and this time made it to the front of the queue, extra nervous about riding after witnessing the coaster fail a couple of times! We need not have worried as our car made it up and over without problem and it was an amazing exhilarating ride, totally worth the wait!

Rides at Cedar Point

All roller-coastered out and exhausted from traipsing around the park all afternoon, at the end of the evening, we went to meet with the rest of the group choosing unanimously to go straight back to the KOA site and sleep rather than wait for the end of night firework display. Cedar Point was one of the best amusement parks I’d ever visited and I definitely wanted to return someday.

Northern BLT Day 1-2: New York State

Finger Lakes, Niagara Falls and Buffalo

After spending the last few days getting to know each other in New York, we were all up early on the day of departure for our tour to meet the last 2 members of the group who hadn’t managed to make it into the city to meet up and our tour guide.

Our Trek van awaits

Our guide seemed bemused when he started a ‘get to know each other’ game only to find out that despite us being 11 solo travellers from all over the UK (plus one American!), we already knew each other pretty well! After the usual form-filling and trip rules talk, we loaded our luggage into the trailer and jumped into our home for the next 3 weeks – our Trek America van!

Passing through Pennsylvania state

Advertised in the itinerary as ‘The Finger Lakes’, today was a bit of a low key day to start the tour on but the lack of exciting attractions at least gave the group time to bond further as we journeyed through New York State.

Taughannock Falls

That’s not to say there weren’t any scheduled stops today. As well as the usual fuel and snack gas station stops (which are always great fun, it’s amazing what you can find to buy at these places!!), we made prolonged stops at both a winery and a waterfall!

Arriving at Taughannock State Park, on the west shore of Cayuga Lake, we took a short hike out to Taughannock Falls. The miserable weather only added to making the waterfall look and sound more dramatic and we took our first group photo of the trip in front of the cascading water.

Next up was the Crystal Lake Cafe at the Americana Vineyards. Not being a wine drinker, the highlight of the winery for me was the adorable dog enjoying all the fuss he was obviously used to receiving in the gift shop!!

We made one more stop to take photos of one of the Finger Lakes before continuing to our overnight stop at a Super 8 in Auburn, New York State where we ate dinner at a local bar.

At the Finger Lakes

The next morning, those of us up early enough walked to a local diner for a delicious pancake dinner before we departed for Buffalo.

A bit wet after a boat trip to the falls

Today, we’d be visiting the American side of Niagara Falls. After a Walmart stop to get food for a picnic, we arrived at the Falls in time for lunch. Picnic over, we took a trip of Maid of the Mist, a boat that takes you up close to the falls. This was an included extra on our trip meaning we didn’t have to pay any extra. The boat trip was amazing and we were all glad for the fetching blue ponchos that’s had been handed out as we boarded as we’d have got soaked by the spray from the falls without them!

Views of the falls

How we spent the rest of our time at the falls was up to us with some members of the group walking to nearby viewing points to take photos and one even opting to walk across the bridge to Canada just to say he’d been! A few of us decided to visit the Caves of the Wind attraction where, after getting appropriately dressed in yet another provided poncho (bright yellow this time!) and provided water sandals, both of which we got to keep after, we followed a path which lead us alongside the falls, once again soaking us in the spray! This was great fun and well worth the extra cost!!

From Niagara Falls, we continued to the city of Buffalo where we checked into our hostel for the night then it was off out to a local bar for dinner. This bar wasn’t just any bar but the Anchor Bar where Buffalo Wings were supposedly invented in the 1960s! A couple of the group opted to take on the wings challenge ordering a plate of 50 wings between them and attempting (but failing!) to eat them all!

We stayed at the bar til late before taking the short walk back to the hostel and trying to get some sleep in our sweltering room. It had been a great start to the trip and we couldn’t wait to continue our adventure!

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