Wellington, New Zealand

Completing my tour of New Zealand’s North Island

It was the final few days of my week-long tour of New Zealand’s North Island with small group adventure tour company Haka Tours.  I’d joined the tour after spending some time travelling solo to the Bay of Islands and Auckland and so far, we’d spent time on the Coromandel, in Waitomo and Rotorua.  Now, we were about to leave a 2-night stay in Taupo behind us.

Looking back at Tongariro National Park from the road

Still exhausted and aching all over from completing an almost 20km hike across Tongariro National Park the day before, we checked out of our hostel, loaded up the bus with our luggage and hit the road.  Today, we’d be heading to our final North Island destination, New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington.

At the National Army Museum

Along the way, we made a couple of stops.  First up was a roadside stop to enjoy the stunning views of Tongariro National Park and then a stop at the a National Army Museum.  While none of the group decided to pay to go into the museum, we used the opportunity to stretch our legs, use the conveniences and pose for photos with the tanks outside!

Gumboot sculpture in Taihape

Our second stop was on the outskirts of the town of Taihape where the town’s boundary was marked with a sculpture of a giant ‘gumboot’ or Wellington boot as we’d call it in the UK.  Taihape is the gumboot throwing capital of New Zealand. 

Competitions in this unusual sport are held regularly here on a purpose built court and after we posed for photos with the giant boot, that’s exactly where we headed next for our own bit of friendly competition throwing gumboots!

Armed with a boot each, we stepped up in pairs to throw it as far as we could, winner staying on to compete again.  I somehow won my first couple of rounds, luck more than anything, but it certainly wasn’t third time lucky for me as I crashed out in the next round!!

Game over, we walked to a nearby café for a well-deserved cup of tea and some lunch before our next stop at Gravity Canyon.

Trying out the Flying Fox at Gravity Canyon

Here, we had the option of trying out a Flying Fox – a kind of zip line over a canyon where you fly down head first like Superman! I’d ziplined many time before and didn’t see how this could be any scarier than that so seeing as I’d not signed up for any of the other more adventurous activities like bungee jumping or skydiving, I decided to give this one a go!

Three of us were strapped into the holster next to each other before a cord was pulled sending us hurtling down over the canyon below. It was great fun and I was glad I decided to do it.

From here, we continued on towards Wellington. Just outside of the city, we stopped once more to stretch our legs at a park, letting out our inner kids to play on the swings etc.  Traffic was already heavy into the city and our rush hour arrival made it worse so by the time we arrived at our YHA hostel accommodation, there wasn’t a lot of the day left.

We made plans to all meet for dinner after a bit of downtime.

With most of the group deciding on an Asian Fusion restaurant recommended by our tour guide for dinner, a couple of us who were not keen on this cuisine made plans to either eat elsewhere or cook our own food at the hostel before meeting back with the others at the Asian Fusion bar after for drinks.

Still tired from the previous day’s hike, most of us went straight back to our hostel dorms afterwards for an earlyish night.

Wellington waterfront

The next day was the final day of our week-long North Island tour. Tomorrow, some of the group would be continuing on to complete the South Island leg of the tour while I would be staying a few more days in Wellington alone before flying home.

Walking along the waterfront

Today, we had the full day in Wellington to spend as we wished.  Our guide was offering to take us on a tour of the city in the morning or we could make our own plans.  A few of the Lord of the Rings fans in the group wanted to visit the Weta Workshop, where many of the props for the films were made, for a tour.

As a big film fan, I decided to go along too so rather than join our guide’s city tour, we instead walked to the tourist information office to book a place on a tour later that morning.

Arriving at Weta Cave for our Weta Workshop tour

We had an hour to kill before our tour was due to leave so we had a walk along the water front and got drinks and a snack from a nearby café before returning to catch our mini bus.

The bus took us out to Weta Workshops where we were taken on a guided tour of the premises. We were shown props and costumes from the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films as well as other films made in New Zealand – unfortunately we were not allowed to take any photos during the tour – and I was surprised to learn what a big part Wellington played in the film industry.

Part of our food order

After our tour, we had some time to spend in the gift store/museum before our minibus arrived to take us back to the city centre where we met up with a few more of our group who were now back from their city tour. We spent some time exploring the city – grabbing tea and cake from yet another cafe! – before heading back to the waterfront where we sat out at a riverside bar ordering pretty much everything off its menu between us for dinner!

Above, and below, walking along Oriental Parade

That evening, the entire group went out for final night drinks at a bar we found with a 60s cover band playing.  We had fun dancing the night away before returning to the hostel and, as those continuing the tour had a very early start the next day, said our goodbyes.

Looking back at the view as I made my way up to Mount Victoria

The next morning, I moved out of my now empty dorm room and into a private room at the YHA then set out alone to explore more of the city.

First up, was a hike up to Mount Victoria.  It was a beautiful, sunny day and I’d found instructions for a self-guided route which took me along Oriental Parade past the city’s pretty sea front and then up a steep path until I reached the viewpoint at the top.

Relaxing on the beach after my hike, and below, catching the Wellington Cable Car

After spending some time enjoying the views from the top, I walked back down to sea level stopping to relax on the beach, enjoying the sunshine and even taking a dip in the sea.

Above, and below, at the Cable Car Museum

Following a quick change back at the hostel, I walked to the terminus of the Wellington Cable Car catching it uphill to the viewpoint at the top. Once at the top, I had a quick look around the small cable car museum then walked back down to the city through the Botanic Gardens.

As one of the girls from my tour group was also still in Wellington, we met for dinner then went for drinks. It was Chinese New Year and there were celebrations going on at the waterfront ending in a firework display so we watched them from outside the bar – a great way to spend my last night in the city – and New Zealand!

My flight home via Sydney wasn’t leaving until late afternoon the next day so after checking out of the hostel, I went for a hearty breakfast at a café then spent the morning visiting some of Wellington’s museums.  I started off at the Te Papa, the city’s Museum of New Zealand .

After spending a few hours looking around the various exhibitions, I still had some time to spare so walked along the waterfront to the Wellington Museum, a much smaller, but equally interesting museum tracking the history of the city.

At the Wellington Museum

Eventually, it was time to say goodbye to the beautiful city of Wellington and to New Zealand and begin my long journey back to the UK.  I’d loved my time in the city and exploring New Zealand’s North Island, in fact, despite everyone telling me I’d be disappointed after first visiting South Island and that South Island was the best of the two islands to visit, I think if I had to pick, I actually preferred visiting North Island.

I loved the island’s areas of geothermal activity and volcanic landscapes, found learning about Maori culture fascinating, loved the vibrant cities of Auckland and Wellington and visiting the coastal areas of the Northlands and the Coromandel and while the scenery may not have been as constantly dramatic as South Island’s, it’s just as beautiful in its own way.

I was definitely sad to be leaving New Zealand and hoped to return some day.

Taupo, New Zealand

I was nearing the end of a second solo trip to New Zealand. Having visited South Island previously, this time, I was exploring North Island. After spending time alone in the Bay of Islands and Auckland, I had joined a one-week small group tour with Haka Tours which had so far taken in the Coromandel, Waitomo and Rotorua and we were now en route to our first 2-night stop of the trip, Taupo.

Leaving Rotorua mid-afternoon after a morning visit to Hobbiton and a stop off at Wai O Tapu Thermal Wonderland, it was only an hour’s drive so we still arrived at our Haka Lodge accommodation with some of the afternoon to spare. After checking into our dorms, we were taken to the nearby Spa Park. Here, there was a natural thermal hot spring which we spent the next hour or so relaxing in.

Once back at the hostel, it was time for some shopping. Most of the group would be taking on the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing the next day, a 19km hike, so supplies were needed to sustain us along the way. Hiking supplies bought, we then grabbed some food from the rather interesting Taupo McDonalds – a converted airplane! – before getting an early night.

We were up at 4am the next day to be picked up and taken to the start point of the crossing. Before starting the hike, I had little idea of what exactly it entailed other than the length of it but I had been told by members of my South Island tour group who had completed it, that although tiring, it was must do on the North Island tour and that had been my main reason for signing up.

After being dropped off, we made our way along the first part of the track. It was pretty flat and easy going and markers along the way tracked how far we had walked and how far we still had to go. We soon realised we’d been lulled into a false sense of security as we reached the infamous Devil’s Staircase part of the trek an hour or so later.

A long, uphill section with a mixture of steep pathways and stairs to climb causing us to take plenty of stops to ‘take some photos’ of the views!

The path then evened out again as we passed through the barren volcanic landscape of a crater before climbing steeply again, culminating in a tricky section where we had to use a rope attached to the rocks to scramble up a sharp ridge!

At the highest point of the trek now, Red Crater Summit, and also around the halfway point, we stopped to eat lunch. The weather so far had been very changeable and out of nowhere as we reached the summit, a huge cloud had descended around us masking the view.

Undeterred, we were soon ready to begin our descent down the other side of Red Crater. Glad there was some respite from walking uphill for the foreseeable future, we were surprised to find that this would actually turn out to be the most difficult part of the entire hike!

The path down was not only extremely steep but the surface was made up of loose lava fragments, like gravel, making it difficult to get a firm grip. We all lost our footing at some point, some sliding down the track before managing to steady ourselves again and the sheer incline at either side of us made the path even more precarious.

As we carefully made our way down, the cloud around us started to clear revealing the Emerald Lakes in the distance below.

Eventually we reached the lakes and looking back at where we just were and the hikers behind us looking tiny as they came down the steep path, we couldn’t believe we’d ever even managed to get to that point!

We continued on to Blue Lake where we stopped for snacks and to take in the beautiful scenery around us.

Next, there was another uphill section but the climb was much gentler than the previous climbs and the views along the way were stunning. From this point, the scenery started to change, becoming greener and less barren. Soon, we could see Ketetahi shelter in the distance – the first public conveniences since the first part of the track – but the winding track to get there seemed never ending!

Finally reaching Ketetahi shelter, some of the group were starting to flag but after a quick pit stop, I just wanted to get the last section of the trek done so edging ahead of the rest of the group, I started to pick up the pace as the path started to wind downhill. Again, the scenery began to noticeably change until I was walking through a forest of lush green plants and past a stream small waterfall before finally opening out into a car park.

Exhausted but also feeling a sense of achievement, I found somewhere to slump down as I waited for the rest of the group. Once on the coach we all fell asleep pretty much immediately on the journey back to our hostel.

We arrived back to find the few members of the group who hadn’t joined us on our hike looking a lot livelier than us after they’d spent the day exploring Taupo. They excitedly told us our tour guide had organised for us to go on a sunset cruise on the lake that evening. Struggling to muster up the energy to be excited for the prospect of doing anything other than sleep that evening, I retreated to my bed for a nap to recover from the day’s exertions.

After my nap and a shower, I still felt exhausted and ached all over but despite some of my fellow hikers deciding to give the cruise a miss, I decided I didn’t want to miss out so managed to drag myself out of my room and down to the meeting point just in time to be dropped down at the marina.

Here, we found a sail boat waiting for us along with crates of drinks in a cooler and a delivery of pizza’s for everyone. The cruise turned out to be just what I needed as I sat relaxing, wrapped up in the blankets that had been provided enjoying the good food, good company and pretty views.

The boat took us out to the Mine Bay Maori Rock Carving and then back to Taupo as the darkness began to descend. It had been a really fun evening and I was really glad I made the effort to go along but I was also very happy to get back to my bed and slept very well that night!

It had been a fun but exhausting couple of days in Taupo and I wished we had another day there to spend some more time exploring the town and relaxing down by the lake but for now, it was on to the last stop of the North Island tour, the capital city of New Zealand, Wellington.

Rotorua and Hobbiton, New Zealand

Having spent an exciting morning black water rafting through the glow worm caves of Waitomo, it was on to our next destination in New Zealand’s North Island. I was visiting New Zealand as a solo traveller and so far, I had visited the Bay of Islands and explored Auckland alone before visiting the Coromandel and Waitomo as part of an escorted tour with adventure travel company, Haka Tours and today we were off to Rotorua.

The journey from Waitomo to Rotorua took under 2 hours and once there, we made our first stop at Agrodome, a farm and adventure park just outside of Rotorua.

Riding the Agrojet boat

After cooing over the cute goats and emus, we were given the opportunity to have a go on some of the park’s activities including the high-speed Agrojet boat. After watching some other group members taking a spin on it, I decided it looked like fun and before I knew it I was strapped in and being whizzed around the water track at full speed! The boat was great fun!!

At OGO Rotorua

After grabbing some lunch from the cafe, it was on to our next stop just down the road, OGO Rotorua, where some group members tried their hands at Zorbing – rolling down a grassy slope in a large, inflatable ball. While I decided not to have a go myself, we all had lots of fun giggling at the others as we watched them attempt to stay upright inside!

It was off to check in at our accommodation for the night next – the Rotorua YHA where we’d be in dorms for the night.

Our meal being cooked, and below, traditional entertainment before dinner

This evening, we’d be going out for dinner at a traditional Maori Hangi. After getting ready, we were dropped at the Mitai Maori Village. Here, we were shown our dinner being cooked traditionally in a pit before seeing a ‘Waka’, or ceremonial war canoe being sailed down the river then watching a traditional Maori cultural performance and Haka.

Dinner was then served to us followed by a guided bush walk to finish the evening with.

Arriving at the Hobbiton Movie Set

The next morning, we had the choice of white water rafting, visiting Hobbiton or exploring Rotorua. Although ideally, I’d have liked to have had time for all 3 options, as a huge movie fan who loves to visit movie sets and studios (read about some of the other movie sites I’ve visited on my travels here!), I had signed up to visit Hobbiton along with the majority of the group.

Hobbiton

We were picked up from a Lord of the Rings-themed store near to our hostel and taken to Hobbiton. The purpose set used in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films had been left up after filming was completed and turned into a tourist attraction.

A hobbit house at Hobbiton

We were taken around the hobbit village by a tour guide, told a bit about the filming process, how the set was built, how it was used and stories from when they filmed and were given the opportunity to take photos of and with the hobbit houses.

While I’m glad I got to visit, I did find the tour very rushed with the tour group behind us hot on our heels the whole time making it difficult to get the photos we wanted.

Posing outside a hobbit house

I also found the guided groups to be too large and it was sometimes difficult to hear what the guide was saying. It is possible to take tours to Hobbiton from Auckland and I wished I had done this so I had the chance to white water raft or explore Rotorua that morning instead.

At the end of our tour, we got to visit the Green Dragon Inn for a glass of ale, cider or ginger ale included in our ticket price then it was time to get the coach back to Rotorua to meet back up with the rest of the group and begin our drive to Taupo.

Bubbling mud pools, and below, geothermal activity at Wai O Tapu Thermal Wonderland

But first we had one more stop just outside of town – Wai O Tapu Thermal Wonderland where we followed the boardwalk to see some of New Zealand’s geothermal and volcanic activity. Similar to Yellowstone National Park, we saw geysers, bubbling mud pools and pools of colourful boiling hot water all accompanied by the lovely smell of sulphur! It was really interesting to see.

It was a shame I’d not got to see more of Rotorua itself but I’d enjoyed my stay in the town and the varied activities along the way!

Waitomo, New Zealand

After spending time alone exploring the Bay of Islands and Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island, I was now 2 days into a tour of the island with Haka Tours. This afternoon we had left the Coromandel behind and now we were journeying towards our next stop, Waitomo.

3 hours later, we arrived at our accommodation for the night, a small motel on the outskirts of Waitomo. I was allocated a comfortable 3-bedroom ensuite room to share with 2 other group members and after settling in, we met up with the rest of the group at the adjoining pub spending the rest of the evening eating, drinking and chatting.

Before we realised what we’d let ourselves in for!

I had taken a tour of New Zealand’s South Island with Haka Tours just a few months earlier and kept in touch with most of my group in a Whatsapp chat. As most of them had toured North Island with the company immediately before our South Island trip, I had made sure to ask them to recommend which optional extras I should book. There were 2 unanimous ‘must dos’ according to my friends – the Tongariro Crossing in Taupo and Black Water Rafting at the glow worm caves in Waitomo.

There were actually 3 options available to use for viewing the Glow Worm Caves – a boat tour, black water rafting or, the most expensive, time-consuming and high-energy option, an abseiling and caving tour.

I wasn’t completely sure what Black Water Rafting was but had done White Water Rafting a few times and loved it so taking my friends’ advice, I had upgraded my travel insurance cover (as apparently it was a higher risk activity than anything I’d previously done!) and signed myself up for it!

Finding out what was involved in black water rafting!

So the next morning, we were up early and those of us going black water rafting were picked up and taken to the headquarters of the Black Water Rafting Company. Once there, we were handed skin tight wetsuits, special boots and a helmet with a flashlight on the front to change into and led to a pile of black inner tubes to choose from.

Now, I’m not sure what I did expect from the tour but what I certainly didn’t expect was to have to leap from the top of a waterfall into the river below. Backwards. Landing in my inner tube! Upon finding out exactly what was involved in the black water rafting experience, a few of us (ok, all of us!) in the group started exchanging worried looks – You want us to do what?!

We got to practise outside first, all nervously lining up then standing as near to the edge of the small waterfall as possible, back to the river behind us, jumping backwards aiming to land lying down in our inner tube. I watched the first few group members go first, all successfully landing in their tubes and floating off down the river before scrambling back out. Soon, it was my turn and somehow, I managed it straight away too!

Carrying our inner tubes through the caves

Practise over, we were told to hook our tubes over our shoulders and lead off to the cave entrance. Now I knew there’d be caves involved – they’re glow worm CAVES, where else would we be going?! But I’m not sure I’d realised that caving would be involved. Squeezing ourselves along with our tubes through narrow, dark passages underground with nothing but the light on our helmets to guide the way.

But it was too late to back out now so I dutifully followed the rest of the group and our guide into the darkness.

Once in the cave, we scrambled down the dark damp recesses until we heard water in the distance. It go louder until we realised we were at the top of a waterfall with an underground river running below. It was a much higher waterfall than the one we had practised on above ground. Wanting to get it out of the way, I volunteered to be the first to leap off backwards into my tube. Somehow, I again managed it without injury. Landing in the cold water flowing below and drifting off down the river, I grabbed onto the wall to steady myself and wait for the rest of the group to also be sat in their tubes in the river.

In the caves of Waitomo

From this point, it was less strenuous and more like a lazy river in the dark! Led by our guide, we drifted through the cave system along the underground river until we came to the glow worm caves. Here, we formed a train, all grabbing the ankles of the person behind us. We were then asked to all turn the flashlight on our helmet off so we were in complete darkness.

Being at the front, I was then led through through the caves by the guide and pulling the rest of my group behind me. The darkness surrounding us was suddenly lit up by what looked like a million stars shining brightly above us – glow worms! And suddenly all the stress of clambering through the caves and leaping backwards off waterfalls before seemed worth it!

As we left the caves and then Waitomo behind to head for our next stop of Rotorua, we were exhausted but extremely glad we’d all gone through with it.

Black water rafting through the caves of Waitomo was certainly an experience and one I’d absolutely recommend to anyone. As our one week tour of North Island came to an end a few days later, we all agreed that seeing the glow worms in that way was definitely a highlight of the entire week!

The Coromandel, New Zealand

Having toured South Island with them just months earlier, I was about to embark on a 7-day tour of New Zealand’s North Island with small adventure tour group Haka Tours. After a few days travelling solo in the Bay of Islands, I was back in Auckland at the company’s own Haka Lodge hostel to meet the rest of the group and begin our adventure.

Once the formalities were out of the way, the tour bus was loaded up with our luggage and we were ready to depart for our first night’s stop in Whitianga.

The Coromandel

We drove out along the Coromandel Coast stopping at a few beaches along the way including Waiomu as well as stopping at some viewpoints overlooking the coast.

Once in Whitianga, we split into 2 groups to take it in turns to visit Bay Carving where we would get the chance to make our own traditional bone-carved pendant.

My group went to look around the town, passing most of the time in a small cafe getting drinks and ice creams until it was our turn to have a go at making our pendants.

My completed pendant

We were given a selection of shapes to choose from including a fish hook and koro (spiral) and the significance of each shape was explained to us to help us decide. Then we were given a rough version of that shape and guided through the process of sanding in down to it’s finished shape and glazing it to perfect it before it was put onto a black string for us to take with us and wear as a souvenir.

Walking to Cathedral Cove

After completing our pendants, it was already early evening so we went straight to our nearby hostel where we were staying in small dorms that slept just 4 of us.

That evening, we did a group cook in the hostel kitchen rather than going out for food, a few of us heading back to the local supermarket after to grab some sweet treats for dessert!

The famous archway at Cathedral Cove

The next morning, we were going to visit Cathedral Cove where most of us had signed up to go sea kayaking. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans and after an overnight storm, the sea was still to rough and our kayaking session had to be called off. Instead, we parked near to Cathedral Cove and took a short walk along the coast path to get there.

On the beach at Cathedral Cove, and below, at Hot Water Beach

The walk along the clifftop offered plenty of pretty views along the way and when we reached Cathedral Cove it was instantly recognisable from the Chronicles of Narnia film, Prince Caspian.

The quieter end of Hot Water Beach

After spending some time on the beach, it was on to our next stop along the Coromandel Coast – Hot Water Beach.

This beach is famous for providing natural hot springs – if you can put in the effort to dig through the sand to get to the hot water!

Experiencing the hot water of Hot Water Beach!

Visitors flock to the beach either side of low tide armed with their spades (you can hire one from some of the local shops and cafes if you don’t have one with you!) and dig out their own burrows to sit in filled with the hot water that bubbles up from under the sand. The of the beach where the hot water is found was already packed when we arrived and we struggled to find a space so instead, decided to visit one of the local cafes for lunch.

After lunch, we returned to the beach and had a go at digging for some natural hot spring water, finding enough to at least all put our feet into but deciding against digging our own bath sized hole to sit in like many people had!

After our visit to Hot Water Beach, we stopped at a few more viewpoints but then it was time to say goodbye to the Coromandel and begin the long drive to our next destination, Waitomo.

Touring the Deep South USA: Nashville

The half-way point of our tour of the Deep South and after a fun pre-tour stay in New Orleans and visiting Birmingham, Alabama and Gatlinburg, Tennessee to see Great Smoky Mountains National Park, today, we would be staying in the state of Tennessee to visit the city of Nashville.

A quick stop at the Bluebird Cafe

This would be my second time in ‘Music City’ after a stop there on a previous Trek America tour but as regular readers may know, last time, bad weather had prevented us arriving with time to do much exploring so this time I was hoping to actually get to visit one of the museums and spend a bit more time exploring the city!

At the Country Music Hall of Fame and below, inside the museum

The group was excited today because it was Hallowe’en and, from what we’d seen in the media, the USA celebrates Hallowe’en in a big way. We’d already seen buildings in New Orleans decked out in over-the-top decorations and revellers dressed up in all sorts of costumes wandering around Birmingham, Alabama on a Saturday night out as well as taking part in a spooky Hallowe’en themed night out at Sloss ‘Fright’ Furance that same night so we had high hopes for actual Hallowe’en night.

Many of the group had bought some kind of outfit or make-up to wear from a previous Walmart stop and, my sister-in-law being a professional face painter, was going to help us get made up for a night on the town!

Giant boot on Broadway

A few of us in the group were fans of the TV show Nashville so we made a quick stop at The Bluebird Cafe, the famous country music venue often featured in the show. There wasn’t really a lot to see, especially as there was even a notice on the door requesting that visitors don’t peep through the windows but we at least took some photos outside it.

Then we made a lunch stop at Nashville Farmers Market. There were so many food outlets, it was difficult to decide where to grab some food from but with its food court seating area in the centre it did at least allow us all to get whatever took our fancy and meet back with our purchases rather than all having to decide on one place to all eat at.

Strolling down Broadway, the ‘Batman’ Building in the background.

Lunch done, we were dropped just off Broadway, Nashville’s main central street, and given a few hours of free time before reconvening to o and check in at our hostel. Some of the group decided to visit the Johnny Cash Museum, some to wander around Broadway and visit some of the live music venues while we decided to go to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

View of the Cumberland River from the Shelby St Pedestrian Bridge

While I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a huge fan of country music, I’ve definitely become more familiar with a lot of popular country songs and artists since I started travelling in the US and there were enough exhibitions and displays relating to artists that were well known in the UK such as Shania Twain and Taylor Swift, that it made the visit worthwhile. We especially enjoyed the more interactive exhibits such as a recording booth where we sang a group version of a Taylor Swift hit!

Skyline view from the bridge

With a bit of time still to spare after leaving the museum, we talk a walk along Broadway, browsing at some of the souvenir and gift stores and taking in the energetic atmosphere. As we wandered along, we even bumped into Country music star Kelly Pickler who I recognised from her American Idol days as she was filming for her daily chat show.

Entering the Wild Horse Saloon

After walking along Broadway, we took a quick walk up to the Shelby Street Pedestrian bridge to get some photos of the city skyline and the Cumberland River before meeting back up with the rest of the group and going to check in at our hostel and getting ready for a Hallowe’en evening out.

Country band plays to a quiet Wild Horse Saloon

We were beginning the evening at the Wild Horse Saloon, a music venue I had visited on my last visit to Nashville and had absolutely loved. Whereas my last visit had been on a weekend, it was now midweek and the venue was a lot quieter than it had been before and we were disappointed to find we were pretty much the only people there in costume, out tour guide explaining that most people would have had their costumed Hallowe’en night out at the weekend instead.

Line dancing a the Wild Horse Saloon and below, at Tootsies Bar and the ‘Batman’ Building lit up

Despite the lack of customers putting a slight dampener on the atmosphere, we still had a fun time enjoying the live band playing some country music and taking part in the regular line dancing lessons while we waited for our food to be served. While I would have happily stayed and line-danced the night away, the drinks were on the dearer side so instead, we decided to move on to try some bars along Broadway. Here, the bars were a bit livelier and we hopped from one to the other including the famous Tootsies.

Broadway at night

Not being a drinker or one for late nights, I left the rest of the group to it not long after midnight and retired to the hostel where us girls had a private en suite dorm.

The next morning, a few of us were up in time to take the short walk back into the city and grab some delicious breakfast waffles at Another Broken Egg, a cafe which our guide had recommended to us. Then it was time to climb back on the van and head for more Deep South adventures, this time at our next Tennessee destination, the city of Memphis.

Breakfast

I’d enjoyed my return to Nashville and was pleased that I’d had a bit more time to spend in the city this time around but there was still so much I’d like to see and do and I was definitely making plans to return soon.

Touring the Deep South USA: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Entering the state of Georgia en route to Tennessee

Day 2 of our 8-day tour across the Deep South USA with Trek America and a pre-tour stay in New Orleans and an interesting start to the trip in Alabama, we were now driving through a corner of the state of Georgia and into Tennessee – the state where we’d actually be spending 5 of the 7 nights of our trip.

A game of Cards Against Humanity on the van

Keeping ourselves occupied on the van with a group game of Card Against Humanity and making a few stops along the way to stretch our legs (including one at a gas station in Georgia so we could all officially say we’d set foot in that state!), the time passed quickly and we were soon arriving in our first Tennessee destination of Gatlinburg.

Setting foot in Georgia state

Having not left Birmingham, Alabama until mid-afternoon, it was already dark as we pulled up to our hotel on the main Gatlinburg strip. We were given an hour to settle in before meeting in the lobby to head to dinner together.

Arriving at Great Smoky Mountains National Park and below, a dusting of snow on the trees

We followed our tour guide to the Smoky Mountain Brewery for dinner where I had one of the nicest pizzas I’ve ever eaten! Some of the group sampled some of the the beers on offer and stayed on at the bar after but as we had an early start the next day, most of us headed back to the motel.

The following day would mainly be spent exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As a huge fan of the American National Parks, this was the day of the trip I was most looking forward to. After a pit stop at a local supermarket to grab sandwiches for lunch and snacks and drinks for hiking, we drove the short distance from Gatlinburg to the entrance of the park, jumping out the van for the traditional photo with the park sign.

First stop, the Visitor Centre!

The area had experienced its first snow of the season, just a light dusting over night but enough to linger on the trees this morning. As we drove further into the park we were all agape at just how beautiful it looked – the autumn colours of the trees mixed with the glistening snow. Our guide pulled over a few times so we could take pictures but they failed to capture the beauty before us in full.

Views changing as we drive through the park

Our first main stop in the park was at Sugarlands Visitor Centre to use the facilities and pick up any maps, leaflets and souvenirs we wanted. After meeting back up at the van, our guide told us that the weather meant the road leading to the area she was planning to take us hiking in was closed so we’d have to make alternative plans.

Beginning our Abrams Falls Trail hike

Instead, we spent well over an hour in the van driving through the park to go hiking in a different area.

The journey didn’t feel anywhere near as long as it was as we passed more stunning scenery – streams and waterfalls glistening through the trees alongside the road, endless woods showing their autumn colours and then wide open stretches of meadowland.

Not a bad spot to sit and have some lunch!

Once we reached our destination near the Cades Cove area of the park, we found the Abrams Falls Trailhead and followed the moderately easy, 5-mile roundtrip hiking trail alongside a river, through woods and rocky areas opening out to Abrams Falls itself – a pretty waterfall and lake.

Here, we sat for lunch, enjoying the view, scrambling over rocks in the lake and climbing up behind the waterfall before hiking back the way we came.

Beautiful autumn colours looking out from the closer to the waterfall

Being tired, what had seemed an easyish hike out, felt longer and more a chore heading back and most of the group slept on the van back to Gatlinburg afterwards!

Downtown Gatlinburg

We were back in Gatlinburg mid-afternoon and had the time to spend as we liked. Making arrangements to meet up with the rest of the group for dinner in the evening, my sister-in-law and I decided to go and explore the small mountain resort town.

Autumn displays decorating the main Strip

As we had driven in the night before, my first impression had been that it was in a similar vein to the holiday towns of Wisconsin Dells and Branson, Missouri – a tourist trap full of souvenir shops and expensive attractions – but as we wondered down the main strip, downtown Gatlinburg endeared itself to me a lot more and seemed to have a lot more charm about it with its surrounding mountains, European mountain resort themed ‘Village Shoppes’ area and its breweries and distilleries dotted around.

Arriving at Ole Smokey Distillery

Later, we met up with the rest of the group deciding on the Texas Roadhouse for dinner – my first visit to an American chain that is now one of my firm favourites! – before visiting the Ole Smoky Moonshine distillery.

Here, we took part in a Moonshine tasting session where for $5, we were provided with shots of Moonshine – various flavours and a range of strengths – to sample along with a hilarious commentary from our fast-talking host.

A band plays outside the distillery

Many of the group bought bottles of Moonshine to take along for the rest of our tour after while the rest of us sat out in the courtyard rocking chairs enjoying a live band playing country music while we waited for them to make their purchases.

Belting out the cheesy pop tunes at karaoke night!

Not wanting the night to end just yet, we found ourselves in a small karaoke bar just off the strip and seemingly full of locals. I’m not sure what they made of us demonstrating our singing talents to a range of cheesy British pop hits by the likes of 5ive and Westlife. Hopefully they appreciated some of the groups’ attempts at some Dolly Parton country classics a bit more!!

Exploring Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains had been a really fun part of our trip and I was already making plans in my head to return to the area on a roadtrip I was mentally planning for the near future as there was so much more of the National Park to see. But for now, it was time for our Deep South adventure to continue and tomorrow morning we’d be leaving for Music City itself, Nashville!

Alaska: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and McCarthy

Spotting a bald eagle just outside of Valdez

After an exhausting but amazing day kayaking out to an iceberg field in Valdez, it was back on the van today to set off for our next stop on our Alaskan Highlights tour of Alaska, the historic town of McCarthy from where we’d be exploring the largest US National Park, Wrangell-St Elias.

The long, straight road ahead!

After a quick breakfast stop in Valdez, we began our long drive, stopping just outside of Valdez after spotting a bald eagle in the trees on the roadside and then again at an overlook for Lowe River.

Roadside stop on the way to McCarthy
Casper the Friendly Ghost mural in Chitina

We made more frequent stops at various viewpoints to stretch our legs along the way including one at Liberty Falls State Recreation Area to see the waterfall.

Another delicious dessert
No traffic on the road bridge!

Our lunch stop today was in the small town of Chitina. As we’d once again made our own lunch up to keep costs down, we again bought a dessert to share at the cafe the group were eating at!

The road to McCarthy was long and bumpy and following yesterday’s exhausting full day’s kayaking excursion, after lunch, I did something I rarely do and fell asleep in the van!

I woke up just before our final stop before McCarthy at an overlook for the Copper River. We stopped at a long road bridge crossing the river from which there pretty views of the chalky river flowing through the canyon below. The road was so quiet, we sat on the bridge posing for photos – something we’d rarely be able to do on road bridges in the UK!

Our McCarthy guesthouse

Once we reached the vicinity of McCarthy, we stopped and parked up near an old railroad bridge. We were told to retrieve our luggage from the trailer and to take it over the river bridge and once on the other side, we would be met by vans belonging to the guesthouse we were staying in who would take us the rest of the way into town as larger vehicles such as our tour van are not advised to drive the last stretch of the road.

The hotel’s cosy common area

We were staying at Ma Johnson’s Hotel, a historic guesthouse in the town. There was no wifi, no power points in our rooms – we had to use the few in the communal areas – and bathrooms were shared rather than being en suite but it had a real charm about it and the rooms were really lovely. The whole town was like something time had forgot with its swinging saloon doors and Wild West style fronts.

About to board our small aircraft

That afternoon, some of us had opted to take a scenic flight over Wrangell-St Elias National Park so, after a bit of time to settle in to our accommodation and look around the small town, we met at the front of the hotel to be shuttled down to the local airfield and board our small aircraft.

Flying over the ghost town of Kennecott

The flight was an amazing experience with stunning views of the park below. We flew over the braided Copper River, over the ghost town of Kennecott and then over mountains and glaciers, the scenery taking our breath away as our pilot told us about the history and geography of the area and answered any questions we had as we communicated with him through our headsets. We had saved furiously before the trip to be able to do these optional extras as we knew they would be what made the trip and while this was certainly not the cheapest optional extra on offer, it was absolutely worth every penny.

Pulled pork dinner
Diet Coke summing up the trip so far!

After our flight, we were dropped back in McCarthy town and all went for dinner at local diner, The Potato, where I had an amazing pulled pork sandwich. The group was really starting to gel now and the banter was in full flow as we were all on a high from our scenic flight experience.

Day 2 in McCarthy and we were off to Wrangell-St Elias National Park for a glacier hiking experience. Once again, we were picked up and shuttled out of McCarthy, this time to the old mining town of Kennecott, now a ghost town, where we met our guide for the day and got kitted out with special grips that fitted over our shoes enabling us to walk on the icy glacier.

Starting the hike across the glacier

Taking a short hike out to the glacier’s edge, we followed the glacier trail until the rocky path disappeared to be replaced by ice. It was surreal walking across the seemingly endless icy plain which we had been flying over the afternoon before. We came across huge walls of ice and deep crevices with no bottom in sight. We stopped for snacks and drinks sat out on the glacier and stopped to fill up our water bottles from the icy springs – the clearest, freshest water I’ve ever tasted!

At the National Park Visitor Center in Kennecott

After returning to Kennecott and handing back our equipment, the afternoon was free for us to either explore Kennecott or to return to McCarthy. We decided to stay in Kennecott, grabbing some lunch and visiting the national park visitor center before signing up for a tour of the old abandoned copper mine.

The mill in the old copper mining town of Kennecott
In our protective gear to enter the old mill

The tour was really interesting, taking us through the town of Kennecott hearing all about its history and then up into the remains of the old, red mill building. Although the building had been stabilised to allow visitors in, we had to wear hard hats in case of any falling debris!

After the tour, we caught the shuttle back to McCarthy taking another trip to the Potato Cafe for dinner and relaxing after a busy day.

The next morning, we had breakfast and spent some time down by the river before we were dropped back at our tour van ready to set off for our next destination, an overnight stop in Maclaren.

Watch my vlog of my visit to McCarthy and scenic flight over Wrangell-St Elias here:

Watch my vlog of my Wrangell-St Elias glacier hike and visit to Kennecott ghost town here:

Alaska: Visiting Valdez

Alaskan Highlights Tour Days 3-4

Salmon swimming in the weir

After beginning my trip exploring Anchorage and a couple of days in Seward exploring Kenai Fjords National Park, it was back aboard our Grand American Adventures tour bus early this morning to start the long drive to our next stop, Valdez. Following a supermarket stop to grab breakfast and snacks for the day, we continued on to our next quick stop of the day, Bear Creek Weir, not far outside of Seward to watch the salmon swimming through.

Water wheel and grindstone at Moose Pass
Message board the entrance to Moose Pass

Next up was a stop at the Moose Pass Water Wheel and Grindstone which sit at the side of the highway at the entrance to the town of Moose Pass.

Continuing towards Valdez, our next stop was at a viewing point for Mantanuska River and Glacier before we stopped for lunch at the cute Sheep Mountain Lodge from which there were more beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. Having realised just how expensive Alaska was over the last few days, we had opted to buy cheese and rolls on our supermarket stop that morning and had made our own lunch to eat on the van so instead, we ordered a delicious warm cookie and ice cream dessert to share from the lodge’s menu!

Worthington Glacier

We were slowly realising that the main thing to see is Alaska is glaciers and sure enough, our next stop was a viewing point for another one, this time, Worthington Glacier.

Luckily, the views were always so beautiful, we never tired of this kind of stop to enjoy the Alaskan scenery.

As we neared Valdez, we started to pass a few waterfalls trickling down the cliffs either side of the highway. We pulled over to get a closer look at some of these and also see the Old Railroad Tunnel, a historic unfinished tunnel nearby.

Salmon at Soloman Gulch Fish Hatchery

Our last stop before we reached Valdez was at Soloman Gulch Fish Hatchery where we watched in amazement at the hundreds of salmon swimming at the weir. Then it was onto Valdez where we checked into our hotel and then went for a group dinner at Roma Italian restaurant.

Rabbits are everywhere in Valdez

The evening was ours to wander through Valdez or – in our case – do laundry!

We did find time for a quick walk around town, spotting some of Valdez’s many rabbits as we went!

Off on a kayaking adventure

It was an early morning the next day. Although it was a free day to spending Valdez as we liked, 4 of us had opted to spend it taking a full day sea kayaking tour. After checking in for our tour and getting kitted out in our thermal, waterproof gear for the day, we boarded a small boat carrying our kayaking equipment and sailed out to sea.

Kayaking out to a waterfall
Off out to sea

This part of the day was exciting enough as we sped across the waves and even passed a group of seals. Once at our destination, we boarded our kayaks and set off, paddling out to a waterfall in a calm lagoon at first before heading out to sea.

It was a long, cold day and by the end of it, our arms and shoulders ached a lot, but it was totally worth it as we kayaked out to see huge icebergs floating in the icy sea. We even saw one enormous iceberg start to roll until it was completely the other way up, sending small waves towards our kayaks. Just amazing.

Spotting some icebergs

We docked on an island for lunch and a warm cup of tea, stunning views of the icebergs in the sea in front of us before kayaking out to them again, getting close enough to touch some of the small pieces of floating ice. An incredible experience!

Not a bad place to stop for lunch!

At the end of the day we clambered from our kayaks back onto the boat which had come to collect us and take us back to Valdez where we went for a well-earned pizza and to tell the rest of the group about our adventure.

Pizza!

We slept well that night and the next morning, after a breakfast stop at Valdez’s famous Roadside Potatohead Cafe, it was back on the road to begin our journey to our next Alaska destination.

Watch my vlog of our journey to Valdez here…

and my vlog of my sea kayaking experience in Vadelz here:

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: