Going to Miami

Starting our East coast road trip with one day in Miami

Early evening on South Beach

After spending months planning another adventure driving through the USA, it was finally time to set off. We’d be catching a morning flight from Heathrow that would have us in Miami mid-afternoon. Once through passport control at Miami airport, we followed signs to the station to catch a bus into the city. We’d researched which number bus to catch and which stop to get off at for our South Beach motel and as the stops flashed up on the screens inside the bus, it was a pretty straightforward – and cheap – way to get to our destination.

On South Beach with Ocean Drive in the background, and below following the path behind South Beach past some colouful beach huts

Once checked in, we went out for a walk. Our motel was conveniently located across the road from the famous South Beach so after heading north along Washington Avenue finding somewhere to grab a snack and popping into the few souvenir stores we passed along the way, we walked east along Lincoln Road Mall, a shopping and entertainment district and looped around to South Beach following the path that runs behind the beach south, parallel to Ocean Drive with all its art deco buildings.

The sun was setting by the time we reached our motel so being jet-lagged from travelling, we called it a night making sure we got plenty of sleep for the busy day we had planned for the next day.

Early morning on South Beach – a colourful Miami beach hut

Having just one full day in the city, we had decided to take a combo tour which would include a visit to the Everglades, a city tour and a sightseeing cruise on Biscayne Bay. From the reading on the booking site, we were expecting this to be one long day tour run by a single company where we’d be with the same group all day but we soon realised this was not the case but instead, 3 different tours run by 3 different companies tenuously linked together in a rather disorganised way!

Cruising through the Everglades

After checking in for the tour at a Lincoln Road Mall tourist information centre, we were told we had some time to kill before our scheduled departure so we walked along to South Beach to get some photos with its colourful beach huts. Then, back at the tour company office, we were eventually shepherded onto a double decker bus to be ferried out to the Everglades.

After being dropped at the head quarters for boat trips in the Everglades, we were given a number depending on the type of boat trip we had opted to take.

Above, and below, taking an airboat trip through the Everglades

Having taken a private airboat trip along the Platte River in Nebraska the year before, we had opted to take a standard boat trip this time. Once our number was called, we queued up to board a larger airboat and this took us through the swamps to spot some ‘gators. As we cruised through the Everglades, we made regular stops so our guide could talk to us about what we were seeing.

It was great fun speeding through the swamp land and we managed to spot a few alligators hiding in the lilies and reeds along the way.

After our boat trip, we were given the opportunity to watch a presentation about the alligators and to meet one then we were provided with a sandwich lunch before boarding the bus again to return to Miami.

Back in South Beach – art deco buildings

Once back in Miami, we were expecting to begin our city tour straight away but instead arrived back to chaos as various groups of people all booked onto different combo tours etc were gathered trying to find out where to go. We were eventually told by harassed staff that the buses lining the road were not the ones we needed to catch and that our bus was running late so we used the opportunity to go get cold drinks to cool down from the heat returning just as our bus pulled in.

On the tour bus through Miami

Our city tour turned out to be similar to a hop on/off tour bus. The bus had a live guide who gave a commentary as we travelled through the city along Ocean Drive, Will Smith’s Miami blaring out, and out towards the downtown financial area. We sat on the outside upper deck of the bus and typically, as we drove towards our first stop in Little Havana, it started to rain heavily. Luckily, it was just a short, sharp shower!

Once in Little Havana, we were lead immediately into a Cigar shop to try and entice some group members into buying something from there. After a quick look at the staff rolling the cigars, we made a swift exit and instead wandered down to ‘Domino Park’ where locals famously sit and play dominoes and chess. The heavens opening again, we found shelter looking around some of the local store then under a shop parapet until it was time to board the bus again.

Continuing our tour through Miami

Leaving our first stop in Little Havana, the rain stopped again but we were instead harassed by an alarming number of low hanging branches on some of the residential roads! It was lucky that there wasn’t really anything to see at this point as we all spent most of the ride ducking down between the bus seats to avoid being smacked by a branch! While we all laughed about it, it wasn’t the safest I’d ever felt on one of these sightseeing tours!

The tour continued towards downtown Miami but we found that there was still very little of interest to see along the way, or at least on the route we were taken.

Above, almost at the marina, and below, at Bayside waiting for our cruise

We were dropped off downtown at the marina a couple of hours before our Biscayne Bay Cruise was ready to leave by Bayside, a large shopping and entertainment mall by the marina, so we spent some time looking around and having dinner at pizzeria there until it was time to board.

Above, and below, ending a long day with a boat tour of Biscayne Bay

While we had enjoyed visiting the Everglades, the organisation once we returned to Miami and the city tour being a bit of a disappointment had put a slight dampener on our day but I was looking forward to our cruise and it didn’t disappoint. The views were beautiful, especially once the weather started to clear and the dark clouds dispelled and I enjoyed the commentary as we sailed pointing out some of the celebrity homes we passed as well as Miami landmarks.

By the time the cruise finished, we were exhausted by what had been a long and busy day. We once again boarded the city tour bus and were dropped back by Lincoln Road Mall from where we once again walked the short distance along Ocean Drive back to our motel.

Trying to see Miami in what was effectively one day was probably not the best idea in hindsight and I would have liked to have been able to take more really exploring the different districts and just to have spent more time around South Beach enjoying the atmosphere and relaxing. But the next day, we had to be up early to get to the airport and pick up our one-day hire car to drive to Orlando for a few days of Disney fun. I really hope I get to return to Miami sometime in the future and give it the time I feel it deserves.

Planning a second USA road trip

After a pretty successful first attempt at a self-drive road trip through America’s Midwest states and beyond, we decided to plan another trip, this time aiming to tick off some of the East coast states missing from our lists.

One of lorida’s roadside attractions

We’d learnt a few lessons from our first trip – mainly, not to plan quite so much!! Many of the more random road side stops we had down on our itinerary the first time around ended up being kicked to the kerb after we realised we were adding up to 3 hours onto our travel time estimates due to little things like supermarket stops, petrol stops, comfort breaks, food stops and, of course, unpredictable traffic and roadworks!

So this time, the idea was not only to plan less for each day, but to keep our drive times down to an estimated 4-5 hours at most, less if we only had a one night stop between.

Visiting another National Park

We’d found that some of the most fun stops last time had been the random roadside attractions so we were still planning to use some of the same road side attraction websites we had used to plan our Midwest trip in the hope we’d find some more “World’s largest…” etc sites to jump out and grab a photo with and we again wanted to include a mixture of cities and National Parks along the way.

Looking at the map, there were a range of states from Maine at the northern tip of the east coast, right down to Florida and the most southern tip that at least one of us hadn’t visited before so we wanted to try and cover the entire coast in 3-4 weeks as well as heading inland slightly revisit one of our favourite cities from our Trek trips – Nashville – and head to Great Smoky Mountains National Park while we were in Tennessee state.

A trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Deciding to travel South to North, we plotted out a route starting with a couple of nights in Miami then, following a few days at Walt Disney World, continuing into the states of Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina ,Virginia and Maryland. Then, after a few nights in New York, we’d head into New England stopping in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, looping round from Boston through Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont and back to Boston, MA before flying home.

Revisiting Washington DC

It was going to be a long trip and it took a lot of hour looking at google maps and investigating what there was to see and where the best place was for overnight stops along the way but once we had a rough idea of what was going to work, we were ready to book our outbound flights to Miami and our inbound ones from Boston and start looking at each day in more detail.

Walt Disney World was our next priority and we decided to stay on site for 6 nights at their Little Mermaid themed motel as booking this direct through Disney got us ‘memory makers’ with fast pass access and photo passes included. As this meant we didn’t need a car for this part of our trip, we decided to make 2 car hire bookings – day hire to get us from Miami to Orlando then the main long term car hire from Orlando to Boston for the rest of our road trip.

Back in New York City, and below, making stops in Connecticut and Rhode Island

For our accommodation, we decided to stick to a similar formula to last time and mainly have a mixture of one and 2-night stops. For many of our one-night stops we looked for roadside chain motels along our route with free parking and breakfast included and for city stops, tried to find budget hotels with reasonable parking charges.

Pretty-as-a-picture scenery in New Hampshire

New York City was the big challenge here. Neither of us really wanted to drive in the city so somewhere outside of Manhattan but with good transport links into the city was what we were looking for. We eventually settled on a Jersey City hotel right by the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel and walking distance from a metro station with connections to both midtown’s Penn Station and downtown’s World Trade Centre.

Arriving to a beautiful evening in Boston

Some of our our original plans changed slightly as our research revealed attractions and even National Parks we didn’t know about (Congaree in South Carolina?!) that weren’t far from our original route and therefore just had to be added into our itinerary but mainly, our final itinerary resembled our original plan.

And as the summer approached, we couldn’t wait to get back to the State and on the road again!!!

Scottish Highlands: Oban and the Inner Hebrides

On the ferry from the Isle of Skye back to the mainland

I was coming to the end of a one week tour of the Scottish Highlands. Following a trip to the Orkney Islands, I’d flew back to the mainland to begin the tour in Edinburgh. Travelling minibus with a small group of other, mainly solo, international travellers, we had so far visited Loch Ness, the Isle of Lewis and Harris and the Isle of Skye and today I was briefly waving the Scottish Isles goodbye as we took a ferry from Armadale on Skye to Mallaig on the mainland.

Heading back to the Scottish mainland

It was the shortest of the ferry crossings so far at just 45 minutes but also the most exciting as we saw porpoises swimming nearby from the deck.

Once on the other side, it was back on the bus to make our way to Glenfinnan.

Above, and below, the train crossing the viaduct

The Harry Potter fans amongst us were very excited as here, we’d be going to see the Glenfinnan Viaduct in time to watch the ‘Hogwarts Express’ cross it. The steam train and viaduct are the ones seen in the film and it is possible to purchase tickets to take a ride on it. While we didn’t have time for this, it was fun to see the steam train race across the viaduct from the crowded viewing point.

The Glenfinnan Monument

Glenfinnan is also home to the Glenfinnan Monument and there was a visitor centre with a store and cafe by the car park which we had some time to visit after watching the train go by.

From here, we drove towards Fort William where we’d be stopping for lunch, making a quick stop at a viewpoint of Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain. Once in Fort William, we had some free time to wander through the town, looking in some of the local stores and having lunch at one of the many cafe’s along the high street.

Stopping to take in the view of Ben Nevis, and below, hiking at Glencoe

Our main stop today would be at Glencoe where we’d be hiking to the Lost Valley.

Above, and below, hiking to the Lost Valley at Glencoe

The 2 mile hike was challenging in parts as we followed a path that was steeps and rocky in parts, crossed a river by either paddling through or hopping over rough stepping stones, scrambled up loose rocks and over fallen trees and climbed boulders masquerading as steps!

It was all worth it though as we were surrounded by pretty scenery throughout the walk and the views in the valley itself were amazing.

After taking photos and sitting down for a while to consume our snacks and drinks, we followed the same track to return to the car park rewarding ourselves after with food and drinks at a nearby pub before continuing on our journey to Oban.

McCaigs Tower in Oban, and below, views from the tower

We’d be spending the next 2 nights in the town of Oban, staying in a busy hostel where the group was split between 2 dorms. The next day was a free day for us to spend as we wished and after grabbing dinner from the local chippie, we sat down to discuss the options on offer. Activities on offer included a trip across to some of the nearby Inner Hebrides islands, kayaking in the bay, cycle hire, distillery tours or just having a relaxing day exploring the town.

After dinner, some of us walked up to McCaigs Tower, sat on top of a steep hill in Oban, taking in the views across the town and its bay.

On the ferry to the Isle of Mullfrom Oban

With two of us deciding to spend our free day on the island-hopping tour, I had an early night as it meant foregoing the planned lie in.

On the boat to the Isle of Mull

The next morning, I was up early to get breakfast and the two of us then made our way down to the marina. We had purchased our tour tickets on line the night before so just needed to check in before catching our first ferry of the day.

This ferry took us from Oban across to the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides.

On the Isle of Mull, and below, arriving on the Isle of Iona

Upon arrival in Mull, we were met by a coach which we boarded to drive us across the island. Our coach driver pointed out anything of interest along the way but it was difficult to see through the not-as-clean-as-they-could-be windows and we didn’t make any stops until we reached the marina to catch the ferry across to the Isle of Iona.

Fingal’s Cave

Once on Iona, we had the rest of the day free until we had to catch the ferry back to Mull at the end of the day. Our day ticket included a return ferry to the nearby Isle of Staffa and although we could catch this across at any point of the day, we decided to do it immediately so we wouldn’t be rushing to fit it in later in the day.

Peering into the cave

The uninhabited island of Staffa is famous for two things – Fingal’s Cave and its abundance of wildlife, especially it’s puffins! Fingal’s Cave is at the Scottish end of the Giant’s Causeway and is formed from hexagonal lava flow. While we couldn’t go inside the cave, as we approached the island by boat, we sailed as close to it as we could to get photos from the sea and once on the island, were able to walk down and along the rocks to peer inside.

Puffins on Staffa Island, and below, exploring the island

We then walked across the island and along the cliffs to see some of the puffins gathered around the rocks. Obviously used to being stared at by visitors to the island, I was surprised at how close we were able to get to the small sea birds.

After spending some time watching the colourful birds, we made our way back along the cliff tops and down to the boat to make our way back to the Isle of Iona.

Once back on Iona, we spent a few hours exploring, wandering around the ruins of the Isle of Iona Nunnery and paying the small fee to visit Iona Abbey.

Above, and below, visitng Iona Abbey

Then it was time to board the boat back to the Isle of Mull where the coach was waiting to transport us back across the island to the ferry terminal.

We caught the ferry back to Oban having dinner at a pub by the marina before returning to the hostel.

That evening, after meeting back up with the rest of the group and swapping stories from our day, it was time to make sure everything was packed and ready for the last day of our tour. Tomorrow, we would be boarding the minibus for one last day on the road as we returned to Edinburgh where I’d be saying goodbye to the rest of the group and spending a couple of days exploring Scotland’s capital city by myself!

A weekend in Orkney

Having been invited to a wedding by a friend who lives way up north in the Orkney Islands, I began making plans to fly up there from Birmingham for 2 nights. Discovering just how expensive this was going to be, I ended up having to change my initial plans slightly, taking a direct flight with Loganair from Manchester rather than flying to Edinburgh from Birmingham and then having to change flights.

The trip was going to cost so much that it seemed a shame to only be spending a weekend in Scotland when the flights were so much so I decided to extend my trip adding on an extra week touring the Scottish Highlands after my weekend in Orkney.

Kirwall marina

Flights, itinerary and accommodation sorted, I travelled to Manchester by train and on to its airport on a Friday afternoon only to find my flight to Scotland had been indefinitely delayed. Strike action was going on and it was a scary few hours waiting to find out not only if my flight would run at all, but if it would be scheduled in time to arrive in Orkney before it’s airport shut down early due to the industrial action.

Luckily, a new flight time was eventually announced and we set off with minutes to spare. After a short but pleasant flight – I especially appreciated the free tea and Scottish Caramel bar on board – we arrived, the penultimate flight to land that evening in the moments before the closure.

The airport at Kirkwall couldn’t be more different from the huge, busy metropolis that is Manchester airport. Instead, we walked from the steps of the plane into a small hangar with a single waiting area for departures, a (now closed for the evening) cafe and a small conveyor belt which our luggage promptly appeared on. Meeting my friend who who had scraped in on the final arriving flight of the day shortly after, we walked the short distance outside to the bus stop and waited for the next bus into Kirkwall centre. The journey didn’t take long and from the central bus station, it didn’t take us long to find our hotel – a pub/guesthouse.

Arriving at the Skara Brae Visitor Centre

After settling into our room, we went for a walk into the town centre. Other than the local convenience stores, the businesses had all closed for the evening but it at least allowed us to get our bearings and find the Cathedral which tomorrow’s wedding would take place at. Returning to our hotel, we had dinner at the pub downstairs before settling down for the night trying to ignore the music coming from the bar!

Views on Orkney Island, and below, at the Ring of Brodgar

The next morning, we walked to the local garden centre for a delicious cooked breakfast at their cafe then spent some more time exploring Kirkwall, visiting some of the now open independent and boutique stores. The rest of the day was spent getting ready for and attending the wedding, a lavish and traditionally Scottish affair that was lots of fun to be a part of!

We all had early evening flights booked out of Orkney the next day so planned to use the day to explore Orkney a bit further. We had originally hoped to hire a car and explore the island ourselves but it was a Sunday and most of the car hire services on the island either weren’t open or closed early meaning we wouldn’t be able to return our car at a suitable time. So instead, we had enquired at the tourist information office the morning before about using the island’s sightseeing bus service. The T11 service which doubled as a commuter route, offered an open-topped hop on/off bus tour of the island looping back round to Kirkwall.

The service was busy but luckily they had multiple buses ready to cope with the demand. Despite it being a cool, blustery day with the occasional drops of rain in the air, we bundled ourselves onto the top deck to get the best views along the way.

View from the Ring of Brodgar

The bus made stops along the way at points of interest giving us time to get off and see these attractions before either jumping back onto the same bus or waiting for the later service. The buses were not very regular and with our time restraints, we didn’t have the option to wait for later buses if we were going to be back in Kirkwall for our flights back so we made the most of the time we were given at each stop before jumping back on the same bus.

The first stop was at Skara Brae, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you can explore a Neolithic village of ancient stone houses discovered to be lying on Orkney in the 1800s. The entrance fee into the grounds was more than we wanted to pay given that we didn’t have much time to explore and get our money’s worth so instead, we read about the site at the visitor centre, looking out at the stone houses from there before grabbing a delicious lunch from the on site cafe.

Following the Orkney coastline

Back on the bus, we continued through Orkney making one more stop at the Ring of Brodgar, a circle of ancient standing stones. We were given time to walk up the path to the stones and take photos before getting back on the bus one last time as we returned to Kirkwall.

While the tour wasn’t ideal, we were at least glad to have had an opportunity to get out and see some of the island while we were there.

Once back in Kirkwall, it was time to collect our luggage and catch the bus back to the airport where I’d be catching my Edinburgh-bound flight, ready to start a new adventure the next day – exploring the Scottish Highlands!

Planning a trip to Scotland

About to board a Loganair flight to Scotland

I’ve spent a lot of time travelling in the USA, ticking off 49 of the 50 States so far, and travelling in Australia and New Zealand. I’ve taken plenty of city breaks in Europe too, travelling for concert breaks or just for fun. But I always feel I should spend more time exploring the UK. The events of the last year have given me some opportunity to do this and I had a great time visiting some of England’s National Parks last summer as well as making my regular annual visit to Pembrokeshire National Park in Wales but Scotland is a country I’d never spent much time in.

Travelling to the Scottish Highlands

When a Scottish friend from one of the Trek America tours I had done got engaged and invited all of the group to her wedding, it seemed like the perfect excuse to see some of this beautiful country. You see, my friend lived in Orkney, one of the northernmost islands of Scotland, and travelling there was going to cost a small fortune!

As much as I wanted to go, it almost didn’t seem worth it for just 2 nights. So I decided to extend my trip and take a solo tour of the Scottish Highlands while I was there.

Rather than taking a tour completely solo, I decided I’d rather join an escorted tour.

Some ‘hairy coos’

While I’d taken a few of these elsewhere – while travelling in the USA, Australia and new Zealand – I wasn’t at all familiar with any companies that operated in the UK. After researching the tours and companies on offer for a solo traveller on a budget, I decided to book with Macbackpackers on their 7-day Best of the West tour. The company aims it small group tours at the 18-40 age group and got excellent reviews and while I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of staying in hostels again, I felt I’d be able to cope for 6 nights if it meant saving some money!

To save a bit more money, I booked the tour through Touradar during one of their sales using credits I had with them from previous bookings to bring the cost down even further!

Ancient standing stones on Orkney Island

The tour left from Edinburgh on Mondays so I decided to join the one that left after the weekend of the wedding meaning I’d fly to Orkney on Friday, leave for Edinburgh on Sunday evening and start the tour on the Monday morning, arriving back in Edinburgh where I’d spend a few more days, a week later.

Deciding I’d need a break from hostels along the way, I booked a city centre Travelodge in Edinburgh for the nights either side of the tour within walking distance of the hostel the tour departed from. The hostels used along the tour were pre-booked through the company although the price wasn’t included in the cost of the tour, we had to pay cash upon arrival at each one.

With our accommodation in Kirkwall on Orkney Island sorted for us by our friend, I was excited for the trip, ready to explore somewhere new and ready for adventure!

Boston

Boston is one of my favourite cities to visit in the USA and one I take every opportunity to return to. Here’s my guide to this charming New England city!

Where to stay

Massachusetts state, home to the city of Boston

My first trip to the city, we had very little idea about the best area to stay in and left it to fate winning a 4* hotel on Priceline’s Name You Own Price feature near the Old Statehouse. The location turned out to be perfect, close to the Freedom Trail and nearby shops, in walking distance of the waterfront and Boston Common. When returning to the city a few years later, I booked a more budget hotel in a similar area only to be contacted by the travel company a few weeks before our departure to say they’d double booked and cancelling our reservation. We were offered a similar priced hotel but it was on the outskirts of the city with very little in the way of transport connections nearby and therefore not at all convenient to our needs. With it being Easter weekend, Patriots Day and the Boston Marathon while we were there, we struggled to find any available rooms in our price range, eventually grabbing a last minute cancellation just slightly above our budget in Boston’s South End. While not quite as conveniently located as our original choice of hotel, the area still made for a good base to explore the city and in walking distance of many of the city’s attractions. On my last visit to the city, I stayed close to Boston Common, again putting us in walking distance of many of the city’s attractions and the ‘T’, Boston’s metro system.

Getting around

The Old South Meeting Housein Boston

Having twice found ourselves trying to navigate our way through or around the city of Boston in a car, I really do not recommend it! The city is extremely walkable and the ‘T’ subway system is easy to navigate if you’re heading to anywhere slightly outside of the city centre.

I’ve mainly used taxi’s to get to and from the airport, only once attempting to use public transport, using the airport link bus to the main station in the city and the subway from there to the hotel. While doable, it wasn’t the easiest way to get our luggage across the city and with us arriving at rush hour, we spent a lot of time stuck in traffic.

On my first visit to the city, we made use of the city’s hop on/off trolley to do some sightseeing, mainly as it was included in the Go Boston sightseeing card we had purchased. This was a good way to get our bearings in an unfamiliar city and to learn about about the city as well as meaning we could mainly avoid using the subway system.

Boston Common and Public Gardens

Above, Washington sculpture in the Public Gardens, and below, visiting Boston Common and the Public Gardens

Boston Common is a great place to start any trip to Boston. As well as being at the start of the historic Freedom Trail, it provides easy access to other areas of the city including Beacon Hill and Newbury Street. The common is right next to the beautiful Boston Public Gardens where as well as wandering past the colourful flower beds, for a few dollars you can take a ride on one of the famous swan boats around the lake.

The Freedom Trail

Following the Freedom Trail, starting from Boston Common – below

The Freedom Trail, a 2.5 mile marked trail around historic places around the city of Boston, was top of my to do list on my first visit to the city. Seeing a walking tour of the start of the trail included on our Go Boston tourist card, we booked a space, meeting our historically-dressed guide in Boston Common. The tour took us past the Park Street Church and into the adjacent burial ground and then down towards the Old South Meeting House and the Old Statehouse where, after hearing the story of the 1770 Boston Massacre, we were left to continue the trail ourselves.

Boston City Hall overlooking Boston Common

We opted to visit the Old South Meeting House and then the museum at the Old Statehouse before following the trail down to Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market. After using our Go Boston passes to take a narrated harbour boat-tour, we continued to follow the waymarkers to follow the Freedom Trail through Boston’s North End.

Here, we used our passes to visit the Paul Revere House and then made our way to Old North Church.

Paul Revere House

As it was already early evening, we turned around and made our way back to our hotel at that point and it wasn’t until my next visit to the city that I completed the Freedom Trail, taking a tour of City Hall whose golden dome looms over Boston Common before revisiting some of the sites along the trail and continuing on past the Old North Church to see the USS Constitution, an old warship, and then walking to the Bunker Hill Monument where we climbed the almost 300 steps to the top to see the views over the city.

Following the Freedom Trail is a really great way to see the city of Boston and learn about America’s history!

City views

View from the top of the Bunker Hill Monument

If you can make it to the end of the Freedom Trail and have enough energy left to climb the hill to the base and then the 294 steps to the top, then the Bunker Hill Monument offers pretty views of the city in the distance.

Above, and below, enjoying the views from the Skywalk Observatory in the Prudential Tower

For more close up views of the city, the Skywalk Observatory on the 50th floor of the Prudential Tower is situated close to Copley Place, right in the centre of the city and offers sweeping views in every direction. It was a beautiful, clear day when we visited and the views over the Charles River in one direction and across South Boston and Cape Cod Bay in the other direction were amazing.

Museums

The Old State House

With Boston being one of America’s most historically rich cities, there are plenty of museums offering opportunities to learn about its past.

Many of the museums are housed in buildings of historical importance such as the Old South Meeting House and Old State House, both on the Freedom Trail and contain a variety of artefacts and interactive exhibits to explore.

Throwing ‘tea’ overboard on the Boston Tea Party Museum’s ship

Down on the waterfront, as well as the Boston Aquarium and the Children’s Museum, is the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, an interactive exhibition where you get to board a full-size replica of an 18th century vessel and throw ‘tea’ into the harbour like its 1773. While I found the interactive elements of the museum aimed more at children, it was still interesting to learn about such a famous event and the tea-throwing was especially fun.

Above, the view across the bay from the grounds of the JFK Museum, and below, visiting the JFK Museum

Boston is also home to the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Slightly out of the city in the Dorchester neighbourhood, the museum is easily reachable via the ‘T’ subway system and a courtesy bus from the UMass station.

The museum has exhibits on the life of Kennedy, his presidency, assassination and legacy and we spent a good few hours exploring its collections. Situated right on the waterfront, the museum grounds also offers beautiful views over the bay.

As well as history museums, Boston is also the home of a range of art galleries including the Museum of Fine Arts

Beacon Hill

Beacon Hill is one of the most picturesque neighbourhoods of Boston to walk through with its cobbled streets and red brick buildings.

On the northside of Boston Common, the area is great place to visit if you’re looking for boutique shops, small art galleries and antiques stores. It is also home to the famous, and now only, ‘Cheers’ bar in Boston. Formally, there was a themed bar based on the layout of the bar in the popular 80s US sitcom in Quincy Market, but now this has closed leaving just the Beacon Hill bar. While the interior of this bar is not very reminiscent of the bar in the show, the outside, with the steps leading down to the entrance, is instantly recognisable. As well as serving food and drinks, the bar has a store selling Cheers themed merchandise.

North End

Paul Rever statue in Boston’s North End

As well as being home to some of the stops along Boston’s Freedom Trail, the North End – Boston’s Italian district – is also worth a stroll through to visit one of its many Italian bakeries where you can grab a delicious cannoli. If you’re looking for somewhere to eat out in the evening, you’ll also find plenty of options here with some top class Italian and seafood restaurants.

Fenway Park

Fenway Park is the baseball stadium famously home to the Boston Red Sox team and the oldest baseball stadium in the US that’s currently still in use.

On a tour of Fenway Park

I decided to take a tour of the grounds when it was included on my Go Boston tourist card during my first visit to the city and, while not a baseball fan at all, or a fan of any sports for that matter, I still found it to be really interesting finding out about the ground’s – and team’s – history.

Watching a baseball game at Fenway Park, and below, spending time at Fenway Park

On my next visit to the city, I found out the Red Sox would be playing against New York’s equally famous Yankees team while I was in the city so I couldn’t resist going one step further and booking tickets to actually watch a game at Fenway Park one evening. It was certainly an experience and while it was fun for a while, mainly before the game started with the crowd atmosphere and mass singalongs, I had no idea what was going on once the game started and found it to be very stop start and left way before it drew to a close!

Boat Trips

There are plenty of ways to get out on the water in Boston from the Codzilla speed boat to the more sedate dinner cruises and even a tea party cruise on a tall ship.

The city skyline

I took a historic harbour cruise and over the 90-minutes on board, a commentary told us about some of the areas history while we looked out across beautiful views of the city’s skyline in the distance.

Sailing past the Bunker Hill Bridge

Another really fun way to get out on the water is to take a whale watching cruise.

Above, and below, out at sea on a whale watching day trip

This was a really amazing experience as we sailed out to sea, watching the city views fade into nothing before witnessing the amazing sight of huge whales basking on the surface of the water and swimming past us just under the surface.

Taking a harbour tour in Boston

We swapped the habour for the Charles River on a Boston Duck Tour.

Starting on land with a madcap commentary as we toured the city, we then set sail along the Charles River for some beautiful views of the city.

Harvard

Above and below, visiting the campus at Harvard University

Across the river, in the district of Cambridge, lies the World famous Harvard University. We took the ‘T’ subway out to have a look around, taking a student-lead tour of the campus. While it is possible to just wander around the grounds without a taking a tour, we found it interesting to learn a bit of the university’s history and the tour also gave us access to a couple of buildings we wouldn’t have otherwise gone inside!

Shopping

There are plenty of opportunities to shop in Boston, with something for everyone from the high street stores of Downtown Crossing – they even have a Primark! – to the more exclusive boutique stores of Beacon Hill and the eclectic stalls of Quincy market.

Coplry Square

Newbury Street is probably the most well known of Boston’s shopping districts. Running along 8 blocks from the west side of the Public Gardens, it is home to a mixture of both internationally renowned designer boutiques, high street brands and local one of a kind boutique stores, all housed in huge Victorian red-brick buildings.

For more high street stores as well as large department stores and more high end fashion houses, the Prudential Centre and Copley Place are also great places to shop in the city.

Venturing out of the city

There are plenty of opportunities to get out of the city of Boston and visit the surrounding area.

A witch trial recreated at the Witch Dungeon Museum

We took a train north to the town of Salem, infamous for the 17th century Salem Witch Trials. There were plenty of museums and attractions on offer here to find out about the history of the town and the witch trials but we found many of them to be on the tacky side, the ‘museum’ we chose to visit, consisting of being lead around a series of crude wax figures by a guide dressed up in as a 17th century Salemite retelling the story of what happened and another giving us the opportunity to sit through a reenactment of one of the trials.

The marina at Hyannis

Other trips out we have taken have included a drive out to the town of Plymouth to see the Plymouth Rock and out to Cape Cod and the town of Hyannis.

It is possible to take a fast from Boston Harbour out to Cape Cod for a day trip as well as to the Boston Habor Islands State and National Park.

A trip to Boston, Massachusetts is always worthwhile and I look forward to the day I can return to this historic city.

Planning a US Road Trip

After years of visiting major American cities on various city breaks and then spending some time travelling across America on small group escorted tours, I was really starting to tick the 50 states of America off, having even managed to visit Alaska which isn’t part of the ‘Great 48’ mainland states.  A visit to Denver, Colorado marked reaching my 30th state (ok, some states I’d just passed through without stopping at at this point, but it still kinda counted!) and it seemed silly now not to try and aim to tick off all 50.

30 States down (pink), 20 to go (grey)

Looking at a map, it became clear that the majority of the states I had left to visit, were congregated around the middle – the Midwest states – and as it seemed to be agreed on most travel sites that there wasn’t a lot to see in this part of the USA, none of the small group tours I looked at visited any of these in much detail, if at all.

Having made a great group of friends on the tours I had previously done, I began to see if any of these would be interested in adding to the number of states we had visited and eventually, this lead to a group of 3 of us deciding to plan our own tour, a roadtrip of the Midwest states, lasting around the 3-week mark.

We were all drivers so would hire a car, plan a route and take it in turns to drive each day.  The aim was to tick off the states in the middle and find our own adventures along the way, proving the websites which said there was nothing to see in these states wrong!

Starting our trip in Chicago, and below, visiting the Gateway Arch in St Louis, Missouri

Having never planned a trip like this before – we were all used to jumping on a group tour and having everything done for us – we were unsure where to start but having seen our tour guides in action, how difficult could it be driving across America, getting to places on time and finding interesting places to stop at along the way, right?

Deciding that Chicago would be a good ‘gateway to the Midwest’, we began to plot a possible circular route passing through as many states we hadn’t yet visited as possible before arriving back in Chicago.

Above, and below, visiting various Wizard of Oz themed attractions in Kansas

Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri were all on our list and, similar to our Trek trips, we decided to aim to spend just one or two nights at each stop along the way.

We had very little idea on what each of these states had to offer but we’d heard of St Louis, Missouri and all wanted to visit its Gateway Arch and one of us knew someone who had visited a Wizard of Oz-themed attraction in Kansas which sounded like fun – who doesn’t like the Wizard of Oz after all – so we added those ideas to our list as a starting point. 

On a segway tour of Minneapolis

Wanting to try and recreate the feel of our Trek America trips, we also made a list of all the activities we had enjoyed on these tours so that we could find similar opportunities along the way this time – National Park visits, white water rafting, horse riding, bike or Segway tours… were all jotted down on a document we had created and shared via Google Drive.

On our Trek America trip across the Northern states, we had spent a lot of time travelling through South Dakota but never made it across the border into North Dakota.  It was a bit out of the way, to say the least, of the other states we were aiming to cross off this trip but as we were unsure when else we would ever get there, we started to look into whether we could somehow add it into our itinerary.

At Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, and below, visiting the huge Mall of America with its indoor amusement park in Minnesota

Remembering a brief couple of hours stop we’d had at Wisconsin Dells on our Trek America trip, we thought we could factor in a longer stop there after leaving Chicago then from there it made sense to once again pass through the state of Minnesota from which we could travel up into North Dakota before heading south through South Dakota and into Iowa to begin our original circular route back to Chicago.

So that is where we began, with 2 nights pencilled in in Chicago then 2 nights in Wisconsin Dells. I’d heard a lot about the Mall of America with its indoor amusement park which sounded like fun so we pencilled in a 2 night stop in Minneapolis. 

Some of the roadside attractions we visited included the World’s Largest Ball of Twine and the Jelly Belly Factory

Thinking of Minnesota reminded us of the random stop we had made during our Trek America trip at the Jolly Green Giant statue and museum and got us wondering what other random roadside attractions we might be able to find. This led us to the discovery of The World’s Biggest Ball of Twine, also in Minnesota and suddenly our trip took on a whole new direction. 

Visiting a cheese store in Wisconsin

We decided to try and find as many random roadside attractions as we could to stop at along the way and as we soon found out, if that was our aim, then the Midwest was definitely the right place to be to find them!

Finding a couple of websites that listed this kind of thing, we began to plot our route and itinerary around these random stops! The Roadtrip America and Roadside America sites, both had useful map features pinpointing places of interest in each state and we soon had a long list for Wisconsin alone including the Jelly Belly Factory, a Cheese Castle and giant sculptures of a cow, an elephant and a bicycle!

A huge bicycle in Wisconsin state

We had a lot of debate over where our overnight stops should be in each state, how long our drive times each day could reasonably be and what routes to take and there had to be a lot of compromise. Eventually, we realised that adding in North Dakota was too much of a stretch so we dropped the 4 days we’d have spent there and in South Dakota from our original plans, leaving us with a couple of days to add in elsewhere along our route which we ended up allocating to a stop in Branson, Missouri.

A Titanic Museum in Branson, Missouri shaped like the ship itself

A rough route worked out starting and ending in Chicago and taking exactly 3 weeks, the 2 of us who were school teachers and had more time to play with plotted out an extra week or so on the end of our trip with the aim of ticking off the states of Michigan and West Virginia and ending in Philadelphia – a city we’d made an hour’s stop in on our Trek America tours but felt we needed a bit more time exploring.

Flights booked, we went back to the first draft of our itinerary and spent the next few months fine tuning it, looking at where we’d make our one or two night stops and booking roadside motels or convenient city hotels.  Here, we found a slight problem for travelling as a group of three in that most accommodations offered rooms with 2 doubles and didn’t offer triple rooms or rooms with an extra bed. This meant that most nights, two of us had to share a double bed while we took turns have the other bed to ourselves! Car parking was also something new for us to consider and while most roadside motels offered it for free, this was rarely the case in the cities so we had to factor this into our budget.

A rough map of our 3-week route taking in Illinois, Chicago,Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky and Indiana

We had originally said we’d aim to keep drive days down to a maximum of 4-5 hours driving but the more we researched the states we were passing through, the more random roadside attractions we found that were ‘just a short diversion off our route’ and just had to be added into our itinerary.  We even managed to alter our route to include cutting through a corner of Texas as one of us hadn’t been to that state before!

Suddenly, we found that some of our 4 hour drive days, were now 6 or 7 hour drive days but we told ourselves it would be fine as we could make an early start and share the driving three ways. With two of us making it clear from the start we were much less confident with city driving, we also had to make plans to switch drivers well before we reached any cities on our itinerary.

The last thing we got around to booking were the attractions and activities that needed to be booked in advance. Where possible, we booked these in places where we were staying 2 nights so we were already in the area and didn’t have to factor in possible traffic stopping us from reaching the attraction on time. If we couldn’t do this, then we aimed to book them for first thing in the morning on the day we left that area so any driving was after.  There were a couple of activities including ziplining in Kentucky where we had to book for the afternoon we arrived so we made sure we didn’t have any other stops planned along the way that day and added an extra hour or so onto our arrival time, booking a slot for late afternoon. It was good job we did in Kentucky as we had completely forgot to factor in US time zones into our plans and we later realised we would lose an hour crossing a time zone that day!

On an airboat in Nebraska

There were also some activities we had to drop purely because we didn’t have the time – we’d read that in Nebraska, something called ‘tanking’ was a popular summertime activity. It involved floating down a river sat in a giant tub and it looked like great fun. But as we researched it, we realised it was a full day activity with tanking trips taking 4-5 hours and unfortunately there was no way we could fit that in. We replaced it with an air-boating trip on the River Platte so we did at least get out on the eater!

When our trip finally came around, we were very excited but also nervous at the thought of hiring a car and driving around such a huge country, on the other side of the road, with its complicated multilane highways around the cities.  We had a great few days in Chicago after arriving in the US but sat in silence on the subway en route to the airport to pick up our hire car on the day our road trip was to begin, probably all thinking about all the things that could go wrong!

Heading back to the city of Chicago 3 weeks after our trip began

Three weeks later, we were back in Chicago after what had been, all in all, a pretty successful trip.  While we had learnt that we had way over planned what we could fit in on a drive day, we had made it to many of the roadside stops we had in our itinerary and had made it on time to all of the activities we had booked specific time slots for along the way.  We also found out that 6-7 hours drive days were not a good idea as we somehow seemed to add on 3 hours to the timings we had down in our itinerary each day once food stops, petrol stops, stops to switch drivers, time spent at each attraction along the way and general faffing had been added in; so an estimated 4-hour drive day took us 7 hours and a 7-hour drive day took us 10 hours!

Lessons learnt for our next US roadtrip and there have been 2 more equally successful trips since.

I’ll be writing about our trip soon so come back to find out exactly how our trip went and what we got up to along the way soon!!