East Sussex and Kent coast

A UK Staycation

After months of lockdown over the winter, I was desperate for a break and with Spring approaching, UK staycations in self-contained accommodation were finally to be allowed. With the opening date for holiday parks, holiday cottages and lodges overlapping with the second week of the school Easter holidays, we decided to look for somewhere to go for a few days, just looking forward to a change of scenery.

Winchelsea Beach

With Wales, our normal port of call for a UK staycation, remaining closed to visitors from across the border for the time being, we had to look elsewhere. Having family in Kent we’d not seen for a while, we started to look at availability in the south of England, thinking we could tie in a get-together while there.

Prices were sky high with everyone desperate for a getaway, especially in the more obvious holiday destinations around Brighton. Deciding to leave booking to the last minute, we eventually managed to grab a bargain 4-night stay at in a static caravan at an East Sussex holiday park.

It was a long drive from the Midlands down to the small seaside town of Winchelsea and by the time we arrived we were pretty exhausted. Not wanting to cook, we took a drive into the nearby town of Rye, hoping to grab some food from the local chippy. Unfortunately, we found both of the town’s Fish and Chip shops closed on a Monday. Not being able to find or settle on anything else, we ended up heading back to the holiday park and its local Co-op, finding what we could from the groceries we’d brought with us and grabbing a few extra items from the convenience store.

On the bech at Camber Sands

The next morning, we had arranged to meet with family at Winchelsea Beach. They were not expected to make it there til a little before midday so with Lily the dog chomping at the bit to be walked, we headed down a bit earlier. We were disappointed to find that with the tide in, the beach was pebbly, the shale stone hurting Lily’s paws so instead we had to walk her along the coast path that ran along the top of the sharply steeping beach.

Messaging our family who were more familiar with the area, we asked if there was any sandy bays they knew of nearby and they suggested Camber Sands, just a 20 minute drive along the coast. Quickly changing our plans, we arranged to meet there instead at around noon and turned around to walk back to the small Winchelsea Beach car park.

With it being a warm-for-April, sunny Easter holiday day, the main car park at Camber Sands was busy and the charges seemed a bit steep but luckily, we found some on-road parking nearby and cut across a playing field to reach the dunes backing the beach. Following one of the well-trodden paths that had been made through the dunes, we soon emerged the other side to be greeted with an absolutely beautiful stretch of golden sands to our right which gradually turned to pebbles to our left.

We made our way down towards the beach cafe where we’d arranged to meet our family members who had also just arrived then walked down towards the sea to find a space to sit out and picnic together.

A stroll on the beach at Camber

After lunch, Lily and my 6 year old niece paddled happily in the sea. The tide was starting to go out and we spent the next few ours strolling along the sand, paddling in the shallows, and, once away from the busier end of the beach (by the car park and cafe), we even found time for a family game of French cricket!

Away from the crowds, with the warm sun shining and the sea sparkling, we could have been anywhere. The beach at Camber is definitely up there with some of the best I’ve been to in Europe and further afield!

Above, and below, at Bexhill-on-Sea and, further below, St Leonards-on-Sea

3 hours later, we decided it was time to make our way back to our cars and saying our goodbyes, we returned to our spacious caravan back at the holiday park exhausted.

After dinner, we took Lily out for an evening stroll in Winchelsea around the playing field behind the beach where a local children’s football club were finishing a practise session, then up to the coast path retracing our steps from our morning stroll.

The next day, we decided to have a ride our further along the coast to explore the area further. Driving out past an extremely busy-looking Hastings, we stopped instead at the quieter Bexhill-on-Sea. Like Winchelsea, the beach here was pebbly while the tide was in but we enjoyed spending an hour or so walking along the wide, grass-lined promenade, sitting out in the sunshine on a bench overlooking the sea to eat our picnic lunch. After lunch, we briefly walked Lily down to the sea, being careful not to stay too long on the pebbles before returning along the promenade to our car and driving back towards Winchelsea.

Our next stop was at St Leonards-on-Sea. Unfortunately, the weather had changed for the worse and the sunny spells from the morning had been replaces by cloud, some passing drizzle and a bitterly cold wind. Parking at the southern end of the town, we took a quick walk down onto the beach hut lined pebbly beach then battled against the wind to take a stroll along the promenade and back.

On the way back to Winchelsea, we took a slight detour to the small village of Icklesham.

Hogg Hill Mill sat on top of a hill

My mother is a huge fan of The Beatles and my sister-in-law had informed her a recording studio belonging to Paul McCartney lay just outside of Winchelsea and it was possible to follow a public footpath running alongside it. After looking it up, we found our way to Hogg Hill Mill, a former post mill which had been converted into a recording studio.

Reaching the former mill

Seeing the building lying on top of a hill, we found a small pull in to park by the gate signposted as a public footpath and dutifully all marched up the hill so my mother could get a photo with the studio in the background!

Returning to the holiday park, we ventured out again in the evening to once again walk Lily around the playing fields behind the beach, this time heading up to the coast path and wandering along towards Rye Nature Reserve before looping back to the car.

Wanting to give Lily another run on a sandy beach, the next morning we returned to Camber Sands first thing.

Back on Camber Sands briefly, and below, the intriguing landscape of Dungeness

After Lily had a run around and splash in the sea, we drove east across the border into Kent to visit Dungeness. Situated on the Kent headland, Dungeness is part of Romney Marsh and is both a private estate and part of a national nature reserve. The barren, almost destitute headland was like something out of an apocalyptic movie with rusting machinery, empty shacks and rotting boats sporadically dotted across the land, paths and the occasional boardwalk leading down to a shingle beach and the sea.

Further along, a lighthouse, which can sometimes be climbed for views across the bay, lay along with a busy cafe and more boardwalk walks across the land.

Greatstone-on-Sea

After spending some time exploring, we continued along the Kent coast, stopping at Greatstone-on-Sea where we found another pretty, but pebbly, beach. Taking a walk along the grassy promenade, we then continued into the town of New Romney and along towards Dymchurch where we hoped to make our final stop of the day.

Unfortunately, we found Dymchurch to be incredibly busy and, unable to find somewhere to park, had to turn around and head back towards Winchelsea and our holiday park.

After another walk along the Winchelsea coast path that evening then again the next morning, it was time to say goodbye to East Sussex and Kent but we’d enjoyed spending a few days exploring part of the UK we’d not seen before.

24 hours in Boston

Ending our 5-week road trip with a day in Boston, MA

After 5 weeks on the road, it was time to say goodbye to our trusty hire car. Pulling up at the Alamo terminus at Boston Logan International Airport, we scrambled to get everything we needed from the various compartments of our vehicle before making our way to catch the free shuttle from the car rental centre to the main terminals.

Swan Boats docked for the evening in Boston Public Gardens

Then we hopped on to the Silver Line bus to shuttle us into the city. With it being early evening, traffic into the city was heavy but we eventually made it to Boston’s South Station, transferring here onto the Red Line to reach our Back Bay area hotel.

All checked in and not wanting to completely waste the evening, we went for a walk finding ourselves in the Boston Common-adjacent Boston Public Gardens.

George Washington statue in Boston Public Gardens

The sun was starting to set and the sky was a beautiful red colour as we wandered through the grounds past the Swan Boats all docked for the evening and then out of the park past the George Washington statue. We then walked along Newbury Street down to Copley Place stopping to grab a drink and a snack before looping back round to our hotel.

Leaving Boston Harbour

The next day, we had a late night flight out of the city back to the UK meaning we had the full day to enjoy in the city. Having both been to Boston before – this was my third stay in the city – we’d seen a lot of the main sights before. So, wanting to do something a bit different, we had pre-booked a whale watching trip with Boston Harbor Cruises.

The Boston skyline disappearing in the distance

Getting up and out early, we made a pit stop at a Starbucks for breakfast then walked through the city past Boston Common following the Freedom Trail markers down to Boston Harbour. Arriving at the harbour area a little are than needed, we took a stroll along the waterfront until it was time to check in for our tour and board our boat.

It was a large boat and we took a seat inside by the window, staying put for the first few minutes as we left the harbour, a commentary from one of the crew members explaining to us all how the morning would run and a little about what we could see looking back at the Boston skyline.

We soon decided to make the most of the beautiful weather and head up to the open deck where we could move about more freely and enjoy the skyline views unobstructed.

Everyone trying to get a glimpse of our first whale.

As we moved further and further away from the city, our guide continued to give us information on our surroundings and we when far enough out to sea, we eventually slowed to begin our search for whales. Even without the excitement of spotting some marine life, it was the perfect weather for just cruising out at sea watching the World go by. But as it turned out, we didn’t have long to wait before our first whale spotting.

A whale in the distance

Suddenly everyone onboard seemed to be out on the top deck as we all tried to find a space to get a look at our first whale of the day! Luckily, it was the first of many sightings and we even came across a pod of whales floating at the surface as they enjoyed the sunshine before seemingly showing off to us waving their fins and splashing around!

After spending some time watching these magnificent creatures, it was time to turn around and make our way back to Boston harbour. It had been a really exciting way to spend the morning though and we were really glad we’d decided to book the activity.

With a few more hours to spare, we walked to Boston’s Hard Rock Cafe for a late lunch then followed the Freedom Trail markers back towards Boston Common stopping to look around in Quincy Market and passing Boston landmarks including Faneuil Hall and the Old State House.

Arriving back into Boston Harbour

Finally finding ourselves back at Boston Common, we enjoyed the last bit of sunshine before walking back to our hotel to collect our luggage and making our way back to Logan Airport ready to fly back to the UK.

It didn’t feel like 5 weeks had gone since we arrived in Miami.

The Old State House

Since then we’d certainly had a lot of adventures – my first ever trip to Walt Disney World, exploring Savannah, visiting Charleston and Congaree National Park in South Carolina state, learning about the history of Coca Cola in Atlanta, line dancing the night away in Nashville, encountering black bears in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, enjoying the beautiful views along Blue Ridge Parkway, segwaying in Washington DC, visiting Baltimore city, returning to New York, enjoying a sunset sail in Rhode Island, becoming a Junior Range at Acadia National Park in Maine, visiting New Hampshire’s White Mountains and learning all about ice cream production at the Ben & Jerry’s Factory Tour in Vermont to name just a few.

While I was sad to say goodbye for now, with a few more States still to tick off and plenty more to see, I knew it wouldn’t be long until I returned for another epic trip.

A road trip through New Hampshire and Vermont

We were on the last few days of another epic US road trip and after following the New England east coastline north into Maine to visit Acadia National Park, we were now looping round back to Boston via stops in New Hampshire and Vermont.

We had been on the road for almost 5 weeks at this point and the start of our journey in Florida seemed like a very long time ago.

Looking down at the ski lift terminus fromthe summit of Cannon Mountain

Travelling from Miami to Walt Disney World then north to Savannah, Georgia and into South Carolina, we’d then ventured away from the East Coast heading towards Atlanta, Georgia, up to Nashville and the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and then driving north through the Blue Ridge Mountains and back to the East Coast to visit Washington DC, Baltimore in Maryland and New York City. The final leg of our trip had been through the New England states, so far making stops in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and briefly passing through New Hampshire to reach Maine.

Leaving this state behind early this morning, we were now heading back into New Hampshire to visit the White Mountains.

Above, and below, views from Cannon Mountain

Our first stop was at Cannon Mountain, part of Franconia Notch State Park. Arriving mid-afternoon, we took the aerial tramway up the mountain to enjoy views over the New Hampshire and the White Mountains, the surrounding states of Maine and Vermont and, on a clear day, even Canada. Unfortunately, today was not the clearest of days and it was cold and windy on the viewing platforms at the top of Cannon Mountain but the views over the White Mountains were still pretty. After spending some time on the observation decks and hiking along the summit rim trail, we hopped back onto the aerial tramway to begin our descent.

Following the Flume Gorge Trail at Franconia Notch State Park

From here, we continued to another part of Franconia Notch State Park, Flume Gorge. Here, we followed the 2-mile loop trail which takes visitors past the natural gorge at the bottom of Mount Liberty.

There was lots to see along the trail, including waterfalls, pretty streams and pools and the oldest covered bridge in New Hampshire state.

After completing our hike, we continued to the town of Lincoln where we’d be staying overnight, grabbing a pizza dinner from one of the local restaurants.

Above, the oldest covered bridge in New Hampshire state, and below, following the Flume Gorge Trail

The next morning, we had booked a White Mountains Alpine Ziplining Adventure just outside of Lincoln town. After checking in and getting our equipment, we were taken along a series of bridges and up to platforms from which we ziplined across the trees. A really fun and exhilarating way to enjoy the mountain views!

We then began our drive to the state of Vermont. Making good time, we decided to take a detour to Danville after spotting an advert for a corn maze there during our lunch stop. We thought it sounded like a fun way to spend a bit of time.

Above, and below, having fun lost in a giant corn maze in Vermont

What we didn’t bank on was the maze being so huge and what we thought would be an hour’s activity took us the rest of the afternoon as we got more and more lost inside the complicated corn labyrinth! We had a really great, if sometimes frustrating, time trying to find our way out and were elated to finally ring the bell at the maze exit about 3 hours later!!

Above, off for some cheese sampling at Cabot Visitors Centre, and below, sampling different strengths of Maple Syrup at Morse Farm

Despite it being late afternoon, we still managed to fit a few more of our planned stops en route to our overnight stop in Stowe including a visit to the Cabot Cheese Visitors Centre where we sampled some of the products and at Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks in Montpelier to try some maple syrup products but unfortunately, spending all that extra time trapped in a corn maze meant an evening arrival in Stowe, too late to spend any time exploring the town and visit Sunset Rock or hike the Pinnacle Trail as we’d planned.

We did make a quick trip into Stowe’s pretty town centre the next morning, having a quick look in some of stores along the main street but we had a long drive to Boston ahead of us to return our hire car so couldn’t extend our visit any more.

Ingredients for ice cream at the Ben & Jerry’s Factory

We still had a few more stops in Vermont to make along the way, the first of which was just outside of Stowe at the Ben & Jerry’s Factory where you can take a tour of the premises. The tour was short but interesting and we grabbed some ice cream before we left. Next up was the nearby Cold Hollow Cider Mill where we tried the famous Cider Donuts.

We had a few more food related stops at other farm shops in Vermont but unfortunately made a wrong turn onto the highway and had to drive an hour out of our way before we could turn around and return in the direction we needed to be travelling in. This put us too far behind schedule to allow anymore stops if we were going to make our deadline to return our hire car to the depot at Boston Airport that afternoon.

Enjoying an ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s after our tour

Making up a bit of time, we made one stop for a late lunch at a road side Cracker Barrel before finally reaching Boston on schedule late afternoon.

It had been a long road from Miami, Florida to our final destination of Boston, Massachusetts but we’d had a lot of fun along the way. Now, we had just over another 24 hours of our trip left before returning back to the UK late the next day and we were determined to make the most of it!

An East Coast USA Road Trip: Acadia National Park

Briefly passing through the state of New Hampshire en route to Maine

I was nearing the end of my 5 week USA road trip and after spending time in Miami, Orlando, Savannah, Charleston, Atlanta, Nashville and Gatlinburg, we’d driven through the Blue Ridge Mountains and across to Washington DC, visited Baltimore and New York City. The last leg of our trip was a loop of the New England states and after ticking off Connecticut and Rhode Island and driving through Massachusetts, today we’d be leaving our motel on the outskirts of Boston to drive north towards Acadia National Park in Maine.

Driving north from Massachusetts to Maine meant briefly crossing in to the state of New Hampshire. We’d be spending more time in this state on the way back towards Boston after our visit to Acadia but for now, always on the lookout for interesting or fun roadside attractions, we made a quick stop in New Castle at Great Island Common, a small coastal park that’s home to a giant picture frame you can pose inside.

It was fun and pretty early morning stop although probably not worth the cost of parking is you’re not staying for long!

From New Castle, NH, we crossed the state border into Maine where we had a few more fun stops planned to break up our journey to Bar Harbor, where we’d be staying for the next few nights.

Lenny, the chocolate moose at Len Libbies Candies

First up, was a giant arm chair just randomly sat on a grassy area by a furniture store in the town of Kittery. After clambering on to try it out, we continued Scarborough where we visited the roadside store Len Libbies Candies to see it’s giant chocolate moose sculpture and buy some sweet treats for our journey.

Next up, was a stop at a business park in Yarmouth to peer in at ‘Eartha’, the World’s Largest Rotating Globe, rotating so slowly, we weren’t actually sure it was moving at all at first!

Our lunch time stop was in the town of Freeport where, after grabbing a Subway sandwich, we took photos with a giant L.L. Bean Boot car. We were also very excited to find a British shop in the town selling the UK made Cadbury’s chocolate we’d recently found ourselves craving!

The welcome sign at Acadia National Park

It was a long drive from Freeport to our motel on the outskirts of Bar Harbor. With time getting on, we made one last stop at a Denny’s along the highway for dinner, finally arriving at our accommodation early evening. Finding an ice cream and desserts shop near to our motel while out walking that evening, we grabbed a delicious crepe stuffed with Nutella and strawberries to eat before settling down for the night, ready for an early start the next day.

The following morning, we enjoyed a pancake breakfast at a local restaurant before driving towards Acadia National Park. We began our day at the Hulls Cove Visitor Centre to pick up park brochures and, of course, a Junior Ranger booklet to fill in along the way!

Above, and below, views from Cadillac Mountain

We had planned to drive along the park’s loop road, stopping off at some of the park’s highlights along the way. We’d been warned that the park often got busy and parking could be difficult to find at some of the main sites after mid-morning so had made sure to get up and out as early as we could.

Our first stop was at Cadillac Mountain where, luckily, there were still plenty of parking spaces available. Walking up the the viewpoint from the car park, we then spent almost an hour hiking over the rocks and enjoying the beautiful views.

At Schooner Head Outlook

Back in the car, we entered the one-way section of the loop road. We diverted off briefly to drive down to the Schooner Head Outlook, parking up and hiking down along the Schooner Head Trail for a bit to get a better look.

Above, and below, our lunch spot overlooking Thunder Hole

Next, we had hoped to stop at Sand Beach but found the area to be overrun with visitors, the car park full and no spaces anywhere along the road either. A bit further along the loop road, we did eventually manage to find a space to pull in and park at to walk down to the coast path and see Thunder Hole, so called because it is said to sound like a clap of thunder when the water hits the rocks at certain times of the day.

Scrambling further along the rocky coast path, we found somewhere to sit to have lunch with a view before returning to the car and continuing along the loop road a bit further to Otter Point.

At Otter Point

After enjoying more beautiful views, we followed the loop road inland towards Jordan Pond. As well as the picturesque lake, this part of the park is also home to restaurants, gift stores and conveniences and is therefore a popular spot on the loop road. With it being mid-afternoon, everyone seemed to have arrived at the same time and despite multiple loops on the car park, we could not find a space.

An Eagle Lake overlook

As this part of the park lay just off the one-way section of the loop road, we decided to drive on and return later when we hoped it would be a bit quieter. Instead, we continued our loop of the park, stopping briefly at a viewpoint for Eagle Lake and then exiting the park back by the Hulls Cove Visitor Centre to drive into Bar Harbor instead.

With our motel lying on the outskirts of Bar Harbor, this was our first visit to the main town. After wandering around looking in some of the stores, we walked down to the pretty harbour and along the sea front.

The marina at Bar Harbor

After spending a bit of time in the town, we decided to return to Acadia and make another attempt at finding a car parking space at Jordan Pond. The couple of hours that had passed since our last visit had made a huge difference and this time we had a choice of spaces!

Above, and below, back in Acadia National Park at Jordan Pond

We visited Jordan Pond House first looking around the gift store and enjoying the views overlooking the lake in the distance then walked down to the lake front following the path along the shore for a while. The views across Jordan Pond with the two hills of South and North Bubble behind it were really pretty and we were glad we made the effort to return and spend some time here.

Ice cream!

That evening, we returned to our motel grabbing dinner at a neighbouring restaurant then returning to the dessert store for ice cream before spending some time completing our Junior Ranger booklets.

The next morning, after checking out, we returned to the Hulls Cove Visitor Centre to hand our booklets in and earn our souvenir Junior Ranger badges before setting off for New Hampshire and the White Mountains.

We had one more stop to make in Maine, at a roadside attraction in the town of Bryant Pond – the World’s Largest telephone!

Then it was time to wave goodbye to this pretty state and continue with the last few days of our adventure.

A New England Road Trip

Travelling through New York state and Connecticut to Newport, RI then on through Massachusetts

We were on the last leg of an epic road trip through the USA.

Driving through New York state

Starting weeks earlier in Florida with a few nights in Miami and a visit to Walt Disney World, we had then travelled on through Georgia to the city of Savannah, up into South Carolina to visit Charleston and Congaree National Park, back across into Georgia passing through the city of Atlanta, through Alabama and into Tennessee returning to the city of Nashville and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, into North Carolina and Virginia where we drove along the Blue Ridge Parkway and into Shenandoah National Park, across to Washington DC and then up to Baltimore in Maryland and through Delaware and New Jersey to New York City.

Entering the state of Connecticut

After a busy few days in the city, we were now departing our New Jersey motel and driving north to Rhode Island. Our journey took us briefly through New York state and then into Connecticut, a state my only previous experience of was stopping at a couple of stations while travelling by train from Boston to New York many years ago!

Arriving at the PEZ Visotors Centre

We had plans to make a couple of stops in Connecticut, including one at Yale University to tour the campus grounds, but, as often happens on our road trips, time got away from us and with a sunset cruise to make in Rhode Island that evening, we had to cut down our itinerary.

We did at least manage a quick stop at a Connecticut roadside attraction – the Pez Visitor Centre. The centre was a like a museum dedicated to the character candy dispensers with displays showing hundreds of dispensers from over the years organised by character or theme. There was also a chance to peer into the factory to see the PEZ candies being made.

Reaching the state of Rhode Island

After a quick stop at the Cracker Barrel for lunch, we continued on to Rhode Island where we’d be staying overnight in Newport.

The Breakers, one of the Newport Mansions

After checking into our motel on the outskirts of town, we decided to use the rest of the afternoon to visit one of the historic mansions in the area. We had pre-booked a two-house ticket which gave us a choice of a few of the mansions in the area and aimed to tour one this afternoon and another before leaving Newport the following morning.

We decided to start with The Breakers, a huge mansion built in the late 1800s as a summer residence for members of the Vanderbilt family. Upon entry to the house, we were given audio guides to listen to and guide us around. It was interesting to explore the house with its opulent furnishings and reminded us of visiting National Trust properties in the UK.

After touring the mansion, we drove down towards Newport’s pretty waterfront area and spent some time looking around before our sunset cruise was due to depart. It was a beautiful evening and Bowen’s Wharf was bustling with visitors sat outside at the bars and restaurants, enjoying the sunshine.

Above, and below, a perfect evening for a sunset cruise

The rest of our evening was spent enjoying a Champagne Sunset Sail through Newport Harbour and Narragansett Bay on board Schooner Madeleine, a sailing yacht. It was the perfect weather for the cruise, the sunset was really beautiful and it was nice to chat to the other passenger and the staff on board.

Rosecliffe, another of the historic Newport Mansions

The next morning, we went to visit another of the Newport Mansions. We had done some research to see if we could find a house that contrasted a bit with The Breakers and had decided to visit the smaller but equally beautiful Rosecliffe, a mansion which has also been used in a number of films.

The grounds of Rosecliffe

Touring the house and grounds took us longer than planned and we therefore had to abandon our plans to take a stroll along the Newport cliff walk so we could get back on the road towards Boston, Massachusetts and fit in as many of the stops we’d planned along the way as possible!

Newport – and from what we’d see, Rhode Island in general – had been a really pretty place to visit and we felt we could have easily spent more time exploring there but maybe we can return one day in the future to see what else the smallest state in the USA has to offer!

Entering the state of Massachusetts

Leaving Newport late morning, we then began our drive out towards Cape Cod. We’d predicted we’d hit some traffic but were delayed more than we expected and arrived in Hyannis, which we’d planned to be our first of a few stops along the coast, much later than we’d have liked.

Hyannis Harbour

Finding somewhere to park, we began our wander around the pretty town along Main Street lined with its many gift stores, cafes and restaurants. Hungry, we chose one of the cafes to sit in and grab a BLT for lunch then continued to look around the town, grabbing an ice cream and walking down to the harbour.

If we’d had more time, we’d have liked to have visited the JFK Museum but unfortunately, we had to cut our visit to Hyannis short if we were to make our destination at a reasonable time and fit in a few more stops along the way.

The portico containing Plymouth Rock along the sea front

Instead of continuing along the peninsula to the Cape Cod National Seashore Visitor’s Centre as originally planned, we turned around and began our drive up to the town of Plymouth. This pretty coast town is where settlers first arrived in America and the famous Plymouth Rock marks the place where the Mayflower ship is said to have landed on the shore.

We walked along the sea front towards the huge stone portico surrounding the rock. The tide was out so the large boulder sat on the sand in the middle of its walled compound. It was a lot smaller than I expected it to be!

Enjoying a chocolate chip cookies at the birthplace of chocolate chip cookies!

From Plymouth, we continued towards Boston making one final stop to stretch our legs in Whitman, where a historic marker shows the place where The Toll House Inn once stood, said to be the place chocolate chip cookies were first invented!

We neared the city of Boston towards the end of rush hour but still found ourselves caught in traffic with our Sat Nav directing us to a ridiculously busy tunnel that seemed to run directly under the city. Finally making it out, we continued north of the city to Wakefield where our motel for the night was situated.

It had been a busy couple of days and tomorrow we’d be heading towards one of the most anticipated stops of our road trip – Acadia National Park in Maine.

An East Coast road trip: NYC

Spending 3 nights in New York City

We’d been on the road in the USA for weeks travelling through Florida with visits to Miami and Disney World, on to Savannah, GA, up through the state of South Carolina to visit Charleston and Congaree National Park, on to Atlanta, GA, into Tennessee to visit Nashville and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, along North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway, through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, spent a day in Washington DC before arriving in Baltimore, MD. Now, it was off to New York City and after a stressful drive through New Jersey state, we were breathing a huge sigh of relief to finally arrive at our motel accommodation in Jersey City, just across the river from Manhattan.

It was already late afternoon and we had evening plans in the city – tickets booked for the sunset hours at Top of the Rock, one of the three observations decks to choose from in New York City.

The view of downtown Manhattan from the Top of the Rock observation deck

Now we just had to find our way to the nearest New Jersey Transit station and catch the PATH train the few stops into Manhattan. Sounded simple enough and we’d researched train times, routes to get to midtown and where to get tickets from. What we hadn’t prepared for, was rail works meaning the line we needed to get to midtown was closed. This, coupled with there being less trains because of the Sunday service timetable, put us into a bit of a panic that we wouldn’t make our Top of the Rock timeslot!

The only trains running into Manhattan were running to the World Trade Centre in downtown Manhattan which meant we’d then have to catch a subway train up to the Rockefeller Centre. Luckily, I’d spent enough time in New York over the years (this would be my 10th visit to the city) that I was pretty familiar with the transport system.

On the Top of the Rock observation deck overlooking Central Park

The platform at the New Jersey stop was extremely busy but when the train arrived, we managed to squeeze on. We were given free transfer tickets to use on the subway at the other end to make up for the inconvenience and were soon on our way on the uptown line to the Rockefeller Centre. From here, we quickly found our way to the Top of the Rock entrance just in time for our timed entry slot.

Top of the Rock has always been my favourite of the three observation decks on offer in New York. There’s more space on the viewing decks than the Empire State Building and I prefer the view, especially as you get the iconic Empire State Building in your pictures. I also prefer my observation decks to have an outdoor viewing area so you can avoid glare from windows in your photos, something the Freedom Tower’s observation deck lacks. Historically, I’d always found Top of the Rock to be the quietest of the three attractions too and had never had to fight my way into a space to take a photo.

That was until tonight anyway. Whether it was because we’d booked one of the sunset viewing slots or because it was a just a busy Sunday summer evening,I had never seen so many people up there! It made our visit a lot less relaxed than my previous visits had been and we stayed for less time than we probably would have done otherwise.

Despite the crowds, the views from the top were as amazing as ever.

After our Top of the Rock visit, the only thing on our mind was food. We had originally planned to eat before our Top of the Rock timeslot but our delays driving through New Jersey followed by the train problems getting into Manhattan meant we didn’t have time. It was late and we didn’t really want to hop on a subway to a different part of the city but Times Square was busy and everywhere we looked at either had queues or, predictably, an overpriced menu. So instead, we decided to catch the train back to New Jersey figuring we’d be able to find something once back there.

The view of Manhattan from the Statue of Liberty Pedestal

With the train delays, it took us a while to get back and once we did, we found the malls we had passed walking to the station earlier closed for the night along with the restaurants. Luckily, the McDonalds not too far from our motel was still open so we resorted to grabbing some fast food from there to satisfy us.

The next morning, the trains were back to running as normal so after breakfast, we walked to the station to head into Manhattan. Despite it being my tenth visit to the city, there is always something new to experience and I like to make sure I always do something I haven’t done before.

This time, I would be returning to Liberty Island to visit the iconic Statue of Liberty but for the first time, actually going inside the statue. Despite visiting Liberty Island twice before, I’d always had an island only ticket so not even been as far in as the pedestal which the statue stands on.

Once in downtown Manhattan, we made our way to Battery Park to catch the ferry across, enjoying the skyline views as we looked back at the city. Our tickets this time, gave us access to the crown of the statue and we knew there were a lot of steps to climb to reach this so, with some trepidation, we handed our tickets in at the entrance to the pedestal and began our climb. There was an option to take an elevator to the pedestal for anyone who didn’t want to climb the entire up but we decided to walk it taking our time and enjoying the views whilst catching our breath once we reached the lookout point.

Then, from the pedestal, we began our climb up to the crown. It was a strange feeling being inside the huge statue and being able to make out the shape of the the gown as we climbed up through the hollow structure. The stirs got narrower the further we climbed and when we finally reached the crown, the viewing deck there was extremely compact meaning we didn’t feel comfortable spending a lot of time there. After a quick chat with the park ranger who told us a bit about the statue and what we could see, we took a few photos of the view and what was visible of the structure itself and then began our descent. It was a really interesting experience getting to climb up inside the statue and if you can manage the 354 steps to the crown (or just 162 from the pedestal if you use the elevator!) then I’d definitely recommend going up there!

After our climb, we caught the ferry over to Ellis Island where the Immigration Museum stands. Having both visited the museum previous trips, we opted to stay on the ferry and continue back to Manhattan.

That afternoon, we had plans to meet up with a friend from the Trek America Northern states tour we’d done, a New York native. Our meeting point was the amazing Grand Central Station and from here we made our way to Washington Square Park, one of those places I had passed many times over the years but never actually stopped at. The small park was buzzing as groups sat around the central fountain. Walking out of the park under its large, marble arch, we made our way towards Nolita. We were in search of ice cream and our friend recommended the area’s Milk Bar, a ‘hole in the wall’ dessert shop specialising in milk flavoured products. Here, I tried their ‘cereal milk’ flavoured ice cream, supposed to taste like the milk left in the bottom of the bowl after a bowl of sugary cereal. I was a little unsure after my first taste – the smell was more of sour milk than cereal milk! – but found myself quite enjoying it by the time I took my last spoonful!!

From Nolita, we strolled west into Greenwich Village to find the ‘Friends apartment’ – the building used for the exterior, between-scene shots in the famous comedy show. Being a huge fan of the series, I’d visited before but my friend hadn’t so we thought we’d stop by while we weren’t too far away.

Downtown views from a pier along Hudson River Park

After taking a few photos with the building, we continued west along to the Hudson River Park, the pedestrianised greenway which runs north to south along the west side of Manhattan. Strolling along the walkway and along some of its piers, we paused to take photos of the views across the river and of the downtown skyline as the sun started to dip.

The sun setting over the River Hudson

In need of some proper food, we then walked in land again towards Chelsea Market. The market is known for its abundance of food stalls but with so much on offer, we couldn’t settle on anything. Deciding to see what else the area had to offer, we eventually decided to grab some typical New York pizza from a local pizzeria before heading back across the Hudson River to our New Jersey motel.

Interviewing my travel mascot, Mr Ted, at the NBC Studios

We had one more day left in the city and plenty more to pack in. First up was a trip back to the Rockefeller Centre where this time, we’d be visiting the NBC Studios. I love doing the studio tours in LA and while I knew there wasn’t a lot in the way of films and major TV shows filmed here, I’m a fan of old skool Saturday Night Live and mainly wanted to see the studio it is filmed in. The studio, and that used for Jimmy Fallon’s late night chat show, were so much smaller than they appear on TV!

Despite not being familiar with a great deal of the shows mentioned by our guide, it was still really interesting to get a look inside both of these studios as well as a news studio and various other production areas.

Off to shop at Bloomingdales

From the Rockefeller Centre, we headed uptown, popping to Bloomingdales for a bit of shopping and then Dylan’s Candy Bar for some souvenirs and snacks to keep us going on the road for the next few days! It was almost lunch time and while we knew we wanted to eat at the always entertaining but rather touristy Ella’s Stardust Diner that evening, we also really wanted to visit Serendipity, a New York restaurant that had been on my places to visit list for years but I hadn’t yet made it to!

Visiting Serendipity

What we really wanted to try was it’s frozen hot chocolate but after being seated in the quirky dining room, we noticed there was a minimum charge per person that was quite a bit higher than the cost of the frozen hot chocolate between us would have been.

We debated just leaving but really wanting to try the famous dessert, eventually found settled on a plate of fries to share and a drink to just tip is over the minimum spend once the frozen hot chocolate was added in.

It was worth it as the dessert was delicious, like a huge, extremely cold, chocolate milkshake!

After demolishing the delicious dessert, we started to work it off by walking to Central Park where we spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the sunshine.

While in the park, we made sure to tick off our favourite park highlights including some of the bronze statues, the boating pond, the lake, Bow Bridge and Bethesda Fountain.

Above, and below, dinner at Ella’s Stardust diner

After all that walking, we were soon hungry again so made our way out of the park and back towards Times Square to visit the nearby Ella’s Stardust Diner. A complete contrast to the small, cute surrounding of Serendipity earlier, Ella’s Diner is a huge, loud diner where the waitstaff are all Broadway wannabes who sing to entertain you as you eat. It’s always great fun and this time was no different.

After dinner, we walked to Times Square to take some last minute photos of the bright lights. You can;t visit New York without taking in a show so we finished our trip to the city at the theatre watching Frozen on Broadway.

Heading back to our New Jersey motel, I was sad to once again say goodbye to the bright lights and noise of the city. We’d crammed a lot in to our short visit but there was lots we hadn’t got round to. Hopefully sometime in the future I can return again. For now it was back on the road ready to visit some of the states of New England.

East coast road trip: DC to NYC

Driving through Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey

After a short visit to Washington DC, we were back on the road, northbound to the city of Baltimore in Maryland. My only experience of visiting the state of Maryland before had been a bus journey to its airport on a previous visit to DC, a cheaper alternative to flying from Washington DC’s own airports, so I was looking forward to seeing a bit more of this east coast state.

Stopping for ice cream

The majority of our road trip so far had been spent in the hot and humid southern states. So far, we’d sweltered in the state of Florida, visiting Miami and spending a few days at Walt Disney World, passed through the state of Georgia visiting the beautiful city of Savannah, drove through South Carolina state taking in the city of Charleston and Congaree National Park, continued back into Georgia state with stops including the city of Atlanta, travelled into Tennessee to revisit Nashville and stop by Great Smoky Mountains National Park and taken a long drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway and through Shenandoah National Park to admire the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Now, after a morning stop at the Arlington National Cemetery just outside of Washington DC, we were enjoying a scenic drive along the National Park Service owned Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

Baltimore

After a quick lunch (and ice cream!) stop along the way, we were soon in Baltimore checking into our motel in the Downtown/Inner Harbor area of the city. We had booked tickets for a late afternoon visit to the Washington Monument, an 178-ft tall column in the pretty Mount Vernon area of the city, dedicated to President George Washington. Deciding to walk from our motel, wandering through the immediate area around our motel was not the safest I’ve ever felt in a city and we were glad when we reached the historic Mount Vernon neighbourhood.

Reaching Mount Vernon Place where the Washington Memorial stands, we were greeted by the friendly curator who gave us a bit of history about the monument and the surrounding area, recommending some of the local museums if we had time the following day (it was already 4.30pm and they all closed for the day at 5pm).

Above, and below, views over Baltimore from the Washington Monument

We had to climb 227 steps up the narrow spiral staircase to reach the viewing platform at the top of the monument. Once at the top, we caught our breath while admiring the views over the city. Then, after returning back down the stairs to the base of the monument, we were rewarded with an ‘I climbed the monument’ sticker!

Inner Harbor

From the monument, we wandered back through the Mount Vernon neighbourhood along its mansion-lined streets and down to Baltimore’s waterfront, an area which has been, and continues to be, the focus of huge renovation and rejuvenation in Baltimore. With it being a Saturday evening, the area was bustling and there was a great atmosphere as families, couples and groups of friends took strolls along the sea front and visited the many attractions, bars and restaurants.

Above, by the waterfront in Baltimore, and below, on a dragon pedal boat

We took a walk through one of the malls for a bit of souvenir shopping then walked along the harbour. Spotting a pedalo boat hire company along the front offering a range of different boats, we couldn’t resist and even paid extra to one with a dragon head on the front of it! We spent the next half hour or so bobbing around the harbour among all the other pedalo boats enjoying the views and a bit of friendly banter with some of the other groups out on the water.

Pedal boats are hard work though and we were in need of some well-deserved fuel next so we called in one of the bars overlooking the harbour for a bite to eat. With it being a busy Saturday night, there was a long wait for a table so we opted to eat at the bar instead, watching the busy bar tenders reminding us how they deserve all their tips and more!

Heading back to our motel, we decided this evening was as good a night as any to do some long overdue laundry.

View from the pedalo

Making our way back to our room after loading the machines, we were unable to get back in! Assuming it was a key card issue, we returned to the reception to get a new key but that didn’t work either. It turned out there was an issue with the locking system to our room which was unable to be fixed that evening. The door could be opened from the inside but not from outside meaning one of us had to stay in the room the whole time.

Luckily, we were checking out the next morning and had no plans to go out into the city again that evening or the next morning but it was a bit inconvenient that only one of us could go and get the laundry from the machines once it was done so the other could then let us back into the room after and that we had to go to breakfast one at a time the next morning!

New Jersey

After that little adventure, we checked out the next morning to continue our drive towards New York City. Not wanting to drive in Manhattan, or pay the huge parking fees at the city hotels, we’d actually be staying across the Hudson River in New Jersey.

A pit stop in the state of Delaware

Our drive took us briefly through the state of Delaware. Having made a stop in Wilmington on a previous US road trip, today, apart from a quick pit stop at an Interstate rest area, we continued on until we reached New Jersey.

With it being a few days since our last stop at a roadside attraction, today, we were excited to be visiting the town of Edison, NJ, home of the World’s Largest Lightbulb!! Driving through New Jersey with its busy turnpike’s was one of the most stressful journeys of our trip so far, and possibly the most stressful drive of any of our trips, so we breathed a sigh of relief to reach our destination – Menlo Park, Edison.

Entering the state of New Jersey

The town of Edison is, of course, named after inventor Thomas Edison and the lightbulb sits atop of the Art Deco Edison Memorial Tower as reminder of his amazing legacy. A small museum was next to the tower but with it being a Sunday, was unfortunately closed when we visited but it was still a fun stop to see the huge lightbulb!

From Edison, we continued our drive towards our motel on the outskirts of New York City.

The Edison Monument in New Jersey

Just when we thought our drive couldn’t get any more stressful, we hit roadworks and were redirected. Not quite understanding the diversion signs, we ended up taking a few wrong turns before finally finding ourselves back on the right track only to then find out our motel was right on the edge of the entrance to the infamous Holland Tunnel which joins New Jersey to Manhattan and we had to edge our way across numerous lanes of queuing traffic in time to exit into the hotel car park or end up in the tunnel heading to Manhattan!

Somehow we made it across into the lane we needed in time and found our way into the hotel grounds. Glad to have finally reached our destination, we checked in to our motel for the next 3 nights and got ready to head into New York City for the evening.

New York had always been a favourite city of mine and I was excited to return and see what adventures the next few days would bring!

An East Coast Road Trip to Washington DC

I was about half way through a self-planned 5 week US road trip. Starting in Florida with a few days in Miami followed by a trip to Walt Disney World, we had since visited Savannah GA, South Carolina state, Atlanta GA, Nashville and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, both in Tennessee, before heading into North Carolina to drive Blue Ridge Parkway and Virginia to visit Shenandoah National Park.

Going to the zoo

After a long day cruising along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah, we were now heading east to Washington DC for 2 nights in the capital city. It would not be my first visit to DC. It had actually been the second US city I’d ever visited after a few trips to New York in my early days of travelling. That time, I had spent 5 days there fitting in as much sight seeing as possible and I had returned for a 2-night visit as part of my coast to coast Southern States tour with Trek America, filling in some of the gaps by visiting a few museums and monuments that I’d not made it to before.

This time, it was more of a ‘revisiting a favourite city’ type trip where we hoped to return to some city highlights and explore a bit further.

Leaving Shenandoah late afternoon meant we arrived in DC just as the main brunt of rush hour traffic started to ease but it was still busy and navigating our way from the interstate into Arlington where our motel was located, was a pretty nerve-wracking experience! As night was falling, we settled into our room and went for a pizza dinner at a local restaurant before calling it a night.

At the National Museum of American History

The next morning, we were up early to walk to Rosslyn metro station, catching the subway across the Potomac into Washington DC and along to the first stop of the day, Washington Zoo. I had visited the zoo here before on my first trip to the city but my travel buddy hadn’t and wanted to see one of the pandas having never seen one in the flesh before. As one of the Smithsonian-run attractions in the city, entrance to the zoo is free meaning we didn’t feel like we had to spend a lot of time there getting our money’s worth. The plan was to get there, find a panda and leave!

Of course, we ended up staying there a bit longer than planned as we got distracted by some of the other animals on our way to the panda enclosure and then by the gift store after. We also spent a lot more time than planned watching the pandas as they played with plastic crates in their indoor areas or just lolled around looking cute!

Back in the centre of the city by the Mall, we walked to the White House to take photos and then to the National Monument. Normally, we would have applied for the free tickets to go up to the viewing platform at the top but on this visit, the monument was closed for repairs.

Two new Junior Ranger badges to add to the collection!

Instead, we walked along the Mall towards some of the many museums. Across my visits to the city, I have visited many of the Smithsonian Museums including the Air and Space Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Natural History Museum but my favourite is the National Museum of American History with its popular culture displays which, in the past, have included the Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz film and various muppet characters.

While I was disappointed to find the Ruby Slippers weren’t currently on display, we still found plenty to keep us interested for a while.

Next, we walked back to the White House Visitor Centre which contains exhibits about, and artefacts from, the White House itself. Here, we requested Junior Ranger booklets from one of the park rangers and spent some time exploring and filling our booklets in before returning our booklets to earn not just one, but two Junior Ranger badges!!

On a segway adventure

We had booked a segway tour of the monuments for the evening so, realising it was getting late, we decided to head in the direction of the meeting point for our tour and to look for somewhere nearby to have dinner. We caught the subway up towards the Dupont Circle area. Struggling to really find any suitable restaurants, we settled for a gourmet burger diner. Finding ourselves ahead of schedule, we then walked down to the Lincoln Memorial.

We assumed we would pass this again later as part of our tour but thought it would be good to take photos while it was daylight as it would be dark by the time we returned.

Back at the White House

We then returned to the segway company headquarters in time to check in for our evening tour. After checking in and filling out the various forms, we had a quick practise session on our segways. We had both ridden segways previously on a visit to Portland, Oregon and then in the city of Minneapolis on previous trips and this time, we felt like old pros settling into it straight away.

The Capitol Building

The tour was good fun and a really great way of seeing some of the city’s many monuments and memorials in a relatively short time. As I’d found out on previous visits to the city, from the National Monument the Lincoln Memorial – or in the other direction to the Capitol Building – is a LOT further than it looks but whizzing along on our segways, we were there in no time!

We began the tour with a stop at the White House for photos outside just as the sun started to set then continued along the mall past some of the museums and monuments and along to the Capitol Building.

Above, back at the Lincoln Memorial, and below, some of the sights on our segway tour

Heading back to the National Monument, we then passed the World War II Memorial before finishing off back at the Lincoln Memorial. While we had been to most of the places we stopped at before, it was nice to see the buildings, monuments and memorials all lit up at night and our guide had plenty of interesting facts and stories to keep us entertained along the way.

Our tour over, we walked back to the nearest subway station to catch the metro back across to Virginia state and walked back to our motel.

The next morning, after checking out of our motel, we drove the short distance to Arlington National Cemetery, paying our respects at the many military graves there as well as visiting the grave of President John F. Kennedy and watching the ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Then, after our short but busy visit to the city, it was time to say goodbye as we began our drive into Maryland to visit the city of Baltimore.

Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park

A road trip through North Carolina and Virginia states

After a busy few days in Tennessee visiting the always fun city of Nashville followed by the Great Smoky Mountains, we were driving – in a bit of a hurry – to the next state to tick off on our road trip, North Carolina. Our rush, was due to a bear causing a delay on the one-way Cades Cove loop road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park meaning we’d made it out of the park slightly later than planned and now needed to reach Hartford, just before the North Caroline border, in time for a white water rafting session along the Pigeon River.

Having already missed a dolphin-watching excursion in Savannah earlier along our road trip, we had no desire to repeat our disappointment – or lose more money – by missing out on this! Luckily, we had a traffic and road-works free run and made it with time to spare.

We had both white water rafted before – on the Snake River in Wyoming on our Trek America tour through the Northern states of the USA and then in Oklahoma at a man-made facility in Oklahoma City during another of our self-planned road trips. Both times, and when I’d rafted in Australia, it had been great fun and we were looking forward to doing it again.

With their being just 2 of us, we knew we’d have to team up with other people to make up the numbers in our raft. What we didn’t bank on was there being a huge group of summer camp teenagers booked in for this afternoon’s slot. Climbing onto an old yellow school bus full of raucous excited teenagers was not our idea of fun and we were more than a little relieved when the bus pulled up at the launch point alongside the Pigeon River. Things got better once we were allocated our rafting guide and split up into groups to board our 6-berth rafts – now we only had 4 excited teenagers to contend with!!

The actual rafting trip was, once again, great fun as we tackled a range of fast flowing water rapids dotted along the river and after our initial reservations having seen the rest of the group, we were glad we had booked it.

Dripping wet (the queue for the changing rooms was way too long!) and exhausted from a busy day, we found plastic bags to sit on in the car and started our short drive across the border into North Carolina and our roadside motel for the evening on the outskirts of Asheville.

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast at the IHOP, we drove to the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Centre, towards the south end of the famous road, near Asheville. Here, we looked around some of the centre’s exhibits, shopped for souvenirs and picked up junior ranger booklets to fill in along the way and hopefully ear ourselves another Junior Ranger badge!

Then we began our drive along the park way, initially stopping every mile or so to jump out and take photos of yet another beautiful view! Soon realising that our photos were al starting to look similar and that of we carried on like this we’d take forever to reach today’s overnight destination of Wytheville, Virginia, we started to be a bit more choosy about our stops, pulling over at the craggy Gardens Visitor Centre then veering off the parkway slightly into the town of Little Switzerland for lunch. This cute town had buildings in the style of Swiss chalets and the Switzerland Cafe offered tasty home-cooked food and delicious hot chocolate!

After lunch, it was back onto the Blue Ridge Parkway to continue our scenic drive until our next stop at Linville Falls Visitor Centre. From here, we took the short walk to see the upper and lower falls before continuing on to our last stop of the day, at Linn Cove Viaduct Visitor Centre where we exchanged our now filled in Junior Ranger booklets for Junior Ranger badges!

Leaving the Blue Ridge Parkway, we still had a bit of a drive ahead of us into the state of Virginia where we’d be staying at a motel in Wytheville for the night. After a long day of driving, we were exhausted by the time we got there so we had dinner at one of the nearby restaurants before a well-deserved early night.

The next day, after a Walmart stop for lunch and snack supplies, we drove towards the southern entrance to Shenandoah National Park.

The park is really a continuation of the Blue Ridge Parkway, with just one road, the Skyline Drive, running through the park. We soon found that the drive, and the views along the way, were very similar to what we’d experienced the previous day.

After a few stops at view points, we nervously ate lunch in a picnic area, slightly worried from reading the abundance of signs in the area that a bear might appear at any moment! Although we didn’t spot any bears after our lunch, we spotted one soon after on the roadside, climbing it’s way into the overgrowth.

We made a few more stops along the Skyline Drive including one in a pretty flower-filled meadow where we watched brightly coloured butterflies dance from flower to flower and then parked up at the Harry F Byrd Snr Visitor Centre.

Here, we picked up a Junior Ranger booklet then explored the exhibits filling in some of the booklet’s pages.

From the centre, we followed the short circular Story of the Forest trail through a pretty wooded area and out onto the meadows across from the Visitor Centre before returning with our completed booklets to receive our Junior Ranger badges.

From here, we continued along the Skyline Drive to the Thornton Gap Entrance station, spotting another bear on the roadside right before we exited the park!

It had been a long couple of days driving and by the end of it, the views of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains were all starting to blend into one! If I was going to plan it again, I’d definitely plan to spend more than one day in Shenandoah National Park and would look more into where to stop along the Skyline Drive to get out and hike in the park rather than just driving and pulling over at viewpoints as I’m sure the park has a lot more to offer than we saw.

For now, it was time for a drive east across Virginia to our next stop, America’s capital city, Washington DC!

Gatlinburg, Dollywood and Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Continuing my road trip through Tennessee

It had been less than a year since I had visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the first time as part of a Trek America group tour of the Deep South. Then, it was mid-Autumn and we’d arrived as the the first snow of the season had fallen, the park a sea of browns, oranges and red as the trees got ready to shed their leaves. This time, it was the height of summer so I expected a rather different experience. I’d planned to spend a bit more time in the park for this visit having only got to spend one morning hiking to Abrams Falls last time so was excited to return and get the chance to see more of this huge National Park.

Meeting Ellie,the Pink Elephant, in Cookeville, TN

We were visiting the park as part of an extensive road trip mainly taking in the east coast states of the US. Having begun out trip in Florida visiting Miami and Walt Disney World, Orlando, we had since spent time in Savannah, Georgia and driving through South Carolina state before briefly heading inland to visit Atlanta, Georgia and Nashville, Tennessee. We were now driving back east towards ours next state of North Carolina, giving us the perfect opportunity to make a stop at the Smokies.

Once again, I’d be using the nearby town of Gatlinburg as a base having enjoyed its ‘Swiss mountain village’ theming on my last visit. Leaving Nashville after a fun couple of days, we made our first stop of the day literally on the roadside in Cookeville to see Ellie the Pink Elephant. This roadside attraction is known for being dressed in various props and costumes throughout the year and when we stopped, was wearing a huge pair of sunglasses!

It was then on towards Gatlinburg.

Arriving late morning, we drove straight into Great Smoky Mountains National Park taking the obligatory photos with the National Park sign at the park’s border. After a quick stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Centre to pick up park maps and buy a Junior Rangers activity booklet to fill in, we began our drive further into the park towards Clingmans Dome viewpoint. Along the way, we stopped at a picnic site alongside the Little Pigeon River, taking a short hike along a self-guided trail up into the woods nearby before returning to eat lunch by the river.

Enjoying the view on the way to Clingman’s Dome Observation Tower

Continuing our drive along the gradually ascending road, we pulled over at a few viewpoints along the way and were very excited when we spotted a family of black bears on the roadside in the distance.

Pulling over at a safe distance, we watched as they crossed the road in front of us before disappearing into the trees.

After that bit of excitement, we continued our drive, stopping at a few more view points before arriving at the start of the trail for Clingman’s Dome Observation Tower.

Above, another pretty view as we climbed the road towards Clingman’s Dome, and below, at the Observation Tower enjoying the views

We then followed the trail from the car park towards the large concrete structure. The observation tower lies just across the North Carolina border and on a clear day you can see 7 states from it.

Even on this slightly cloudy day, the views were pretty spectacular although we found the observation tower itself to be a bit of an eyesore!

Having spent some time enjoying the views, we returned to our car and drove back down through the park and into Gatlinburg to check into our motel, an Econo Lodge just off the main strip. That evening, we took a stroll along the strip before a pizza dinner at the Smoky Mountain Brewery.

The next day, instead of returning to the National Park, we visited Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s iconic theme park!

Above, the Dollywood Express running through the park, and below, a fun day at Dollywood

Parking in nearby Pigeon Ford, we used the park’s park and ride service to get to the gates. Once inside, we spent the day riding the park’s various coasters and amusement rides and watching some of the shows.

Dolly Parton’s tour bus

Highlights included taking multiple rides on the huge Wild Eagle coaster, getting soaked on the Smoky Mountain River Rampage rapids, visiting the on site Dolly Museum, full of Dolly Parton costumes and memorabilia and getting to steps inside Dolly Parton’s tour bus!

After a fun but tiring day at the park, we caught the park bus back to the Pigeon Forge car park and drove back to our Gatlinburg accommodation taking another stroll into town that evening to have dinner at the Texas Roadhouse.

We were saying goodbye to Gatlinburg – and Tennessee – the next day to continue on our road trip but first, we were heading back into Great Smoky Mountains National Park to spend most of the day exploring further. After parking at the Sugarlands Visitor Centre, we followed the nearby trail through the woods and out to Cataract Falls.

John Ownby Cabin

Then, we returned towards the Visitor Centre and picked up the Fighting Creek Nature Trail, a short looped trail out past the historic John Ownby Cabin.

Returning to the Visitor Centre, we handed in our now completed Junior Ranger booklets and took our pledge to received our Great Smoky Mountains National Park Junior Ranger badges!

With plenty of the park still to see, we then began our drive out to the Cades Cove loop road, an 11-mile one way road past some of the park’s highlights. Allowing ourselves what we thought was ample time to make regular stops along the road and get out and hike, we soon found ourselves hitting slow moving traffic and began to panic that we wouldn’t make it around the loop road and out of the park in time to make our pre-booked early evening white water rafting trip en route to Asheville in North Carolina!

Pulling over along the Cades Cove loop road

Seeing crowds of people gathered around a tree in the distance and realising that whatever they were looking was the reason for the hold up as cars either slowed to see or backed in and out of whatever parking spaces they could find nearby, we joked that maybe there was a bear up the tree only to discover that there actually was! Managing to find somewhere to park, we pulled over to have a look for ourselves and there, sat up high in a tree eating berries was a huge black bear!

Spotting a bear up a tree!

It was amazing to see the bear sat up there, casually eating his lunch, seemingly oblivious to the fuss he was causing around him!

Back in the car, we continued around the trail, unfortunately with no time left to pull over, stop and explore anywhere. It had taken us twice as long as we expected to get around but we made it out of the park with just enough time to get to our next destination on time.

It had been lovely to return to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, see a bit more and experience it in different season and we felt lucky to have had a couple of encounters with black bears along the way but there is still plenty of the park let to see and I hope to have the chance to go back some time in the future.