Goodbye Trek America

My top 5 memories of travelling with Trek

Regular readers will know I’ve been a bit of a cheerleader for Trek America, a small group US tour company aimed at 18-38 year old solo travellers which I credit with changing my life by quashing my fears and doubts of travelling alone, instilling my love of small group tours and adventure travel in general and leading to me forming many lifelong friendships. So it was with great sadness that I met the news that the company had been disbanded, another casualty of the effects of Covid on the Worldwide travel industry. Trek America wasn’t a baby in the World of escorted touring having started offering its unique adventures across the Americas all the way back in 1972, but global travel restrictions along with the logistics of how to operate group tours which essentially consist of up to 15 individuals crammed together on a minibus for much of the time in a World of social distancing, eventually made the business unviable.

Message breaking the news on the company’s social media pages

At the grand old age of 34, I took the plunge and booked myself onto the 3-week Trek America Southern BLT tour, my first foray into solo travel and group tours and I loved it so much that I returned to the States just a few months later to join the company’s 3-week Northern BLT Trek. Since then, I have travelled with them through Alaska and introduced my sister-in-law the joys of small group travel when I won 2 places on their Deep South Tour. While I’m now more likely to plan my own self-driven road trips with some of the many friends I made on Trek and the news of the company’s demise came *just* as I was too old to join onto any more of their tours anyway, I still felt a huge loss at hearing its fate and especially thinking of all those who now won’t get to go through the experience of touring with them.

So to celebrate its existence rather than mourn its loss, here are my top 5 memories from the 4 tours I took with Trek America!

5. Partying in Vegas

Just three days into a 3 week trip, our stop in Vegas is mainly memorable because, unusually, it wasn’t how I’d ever spent my time in Vegas before.

The Bellagio dancing fountains

Playing drinking games in the hotel followed by piling onto a ‘party bus’ on which we spent our time on board hooking up our own ipod and singing and dancing along to the cheesiest of cheesy pop tunes. Then catching the last 2 shows at the Bellagio dancing fountains before karaoke at an off-Strip dive bar until the early hours.

And yet we were still up reasonably early the next day to make the most of everything else Vegas has to offer. Only on Trek.

4. Learning about Civil Rights in Memphis

At completely the other end of the spectrum to the time I spent in Vegas on the Southern BLT but equally unforgettable was the afternoon I spent in Memphis on the Deep South BLT at the National Civil Rights Museum.

At the National Civil Rights Museum housed in the Lorraine Hotel, Memphis

Compelling, humbling and thought-provoking, the museum took us on a journey through the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the US and Worldwide including a deeply moving look at the events leading up to the assassination of Martin Luther King before seeing the room where he died. A sobering experience.

Who knew Trek could be educational.

3. Monument Valley in the snow

A magical visit to Monument Valley a week into the Southern BLT. After an unexpected snow storm suddenly hit as we visited the Grand Canyon, it was on to Utah where we found the snow getting deeper and deeper.

Staring out at the vast beauty of a snow-covered Monument Valley

Despite the weather making it impossible to do the complete tour of the Navajo Tribal Park site, the snow made the visit even more special bringing a serene calm over the area. And underneath a clear blue sky with the sun shining on it, the famous red rocks poking up from the valley floor looked even more beautiful covered in the heavy, white snow.

Still the moment from the tour we talk about the most.

2. Seeing Mount Denali in Alaska

A glimpse of Mount Denali on a scenic flight over Denali National Park

Not strictly a Trek America memory as although I booked the tour of Alaska with them, I was transferred onto a tour with their sister company Grand American Adventures, but it still felt very much like Trek so I’m going to count it!

The highlight of a trip full of highlights, this expensive tour extra was worth every penny as we flew in a light aircraft over Denali National Park and finally caught sight of the until then elusive Mount Denali.

Only 30% of visitors to Denali National Park get to see Mount Denali and the weather had not been on our side while touring the park so having it suddenly come into view as we flew over the park was an amazing surprise and a strangely emotional experience.

Even without the appearance of Mount Denali, the scenic flight over glaciers and the Alaskan Range, followed by a glacial landing, was a wonderful, once in a lifetime, experience.

1. Wyoming & Yellowstone National Park

Rafting down Snake River, Wyoming and above, hiking in Grand Teton National Park and horse riding in Wyoming. Below, spending time in the epic Yellowstone National Park.

Despite it being a very National Park heavy tour, nothing could have prepared me for sheer beauty and spectacle of Yellowstone National Park. From bison and bear sightings to colourful canyons and of course, the famous geysers and geothermal activity, never has my jaw dropped so may time in such a short amount of times.

If it looks amazing in the photos, they don’t do it even the slightest justice. The park has to be seen to be believed. And as if that wasn’t enough, we continued from the park through its home state of Wyoming visiting the neighbouring Grand Teton National Park where we were met by more breath-taking scenery before spending the rest of our time in old west-style town of Jackson horse riding in the mountains and rafting through the rapids of Snake River. The one state on the tour I couldn’t wait to return to!

There are hundreds of other memories I could have mentioned from my Trek America trips – line dancing the night away in Nashville, listening to a jazz band play as we floated down the Mississippi on a New Orleans paddle boat, spending the day exploring the valley at Yosemite National Park, watching the sunset over Lake Tahoe, hiking in the amazing US National Parks, visiting the studios Elvis recorded at in Memphis… not to mention all the amazing food we ate, fun nights out we had and all the interesting places we stayed in.

Thanks for all the memories Trek America, you will be missed.

Find links to read about my adventures travelling across America with Trek here.

Wanaka, New Zealand

Lake Wanaka

I was about half way through a small group tour of New Zealand’s South Island with Haka Tours and so far, had spent a few days exploring Christchurch before journeying to Lake Tekapo and then on to Queenstown.

Stopping off in Arrowtown

After a busy few days in Queenstown, we were making a late morning departure for Wanaka where we’d be staying in a hostel situated right on the lake.

Leaving later than planned after some of the group’s morning excursions finished late, it was already pretty much lunch time so we made a stop at the nearby Arrowtown.

For me and a few other members of the group, this was our second visit to Arrowtown that day after we had stopped as part of our Lord of the Rings locations tour that morning.

Old West style building in Arrowtown

Then, we had mainly spent time down by the river, driving through the actual town without stopping, so it was nice to have some time to explore the pretty American gold rush-style town this time.

Whilst there, we grabbed a sandwich for lunch from a local cafe, which I followed with a boysenberry ice cream, before jumping back on board our bus to continue to Wanaka.

Down by the marina in Wanaka

We didn’t make any more stops along the way until we reached Wanaka’s skydiving centre. Braver members of the group had signed up to skydive over Lake Wanaka that afternoon.

The rest of us waved goodbye to our nervous but excited friends as we continued our drive to our accommodation and as we wished them luck we were both relieved it wasn’t us but also wishing we had the nerve to join them!

Above, and below, an autumn stroll alongside Lake Wanaka

After checking into my private en suite room at our hostel, I sat out in the common area admiring the stunning view of the lake from the floor to ceiling window. Joined by some other members of the group, we took a late afternoon stroll down to the lake and along the lakeside path before looping back to the hostel and sitting out in the autumn sunshine awaiting the return of our skydiving buddies.

That evening, we walked into town to Mexican restaurant for dinner, staying for drinks after.

Stopping to take in the view while cycling alongside Lake Wanaka

We had just one night in Wanaka but wouldn’t be departing until early afternoon the next day.

A few of us made plans to meet early to make the most of the morning and hire bikes to ride a circular route along the lake and back.

Above and below, views as I cycle at Lake Wanaka

The path along the lake was pretty flat and easy to ride along and made plenty of stops along the way to enjoy the beautiful views and take way too many photos. The lake looked beautiful in the autumn sunshine surrounded by the the golden-leafed trees.

Cycling past Wanaka’s Puzzling World attraction

Eventually, the path turned away from the lake and along the road up a huge hill and back to Wanaka town where we passed the Puzzling World attraction. It looked like it would have been a fun place to explore if we’d had more time!

Above and below, spending an autumn morning cycling at Lake Wanaka

From here it was downhill back to the lake and we returned our bikes and met the rest of the group to check out of our hostel. We just had time to grab some lunch before it was time to load up the bus and depart.

We made a stop for one last look at Lake Wanaka before continuing on to our next destination, Franz Josef.

Queenstown, New Zealand

Day 2 of my 7-day tour of New Zealand’s South Island from Christchurch with Haka Tours and we were waving goodbye to beautiful Lake Tekapo to drive to Queenstown.

Stopping at a Lake Pukaki viewpoint en route from Lake Tekapo to Queenstown

Our first stop along the way was at a viewpoint over the nearby Lake Pukaki, the largest of the region’s Alpine lakes glimmering under the sunshine and backed by snow-capped mountains in the distance.

Random stop along the road

From here, we continued on stopping at High Country Salmon, a salmon farm and one of the more random stops on our tour! We got to feed the salmon, find out a bit about the salmon farming business and make use of the cafe before continuing on our way!

At High Country Salmon

Our journey through the mountains was slowed down briefly as we suddenly found a herd of sheep running down the road towards our bus.

It was great fun watching them surround the bus as they squeezed their way past us and on down the road to their new field!

Scenery on the way to Queenstown

We made another stop at a view point along the mountain pass before arriving at our Haka Lodge accommodation for the next two nights in Queenstown. The cosy Haka Lodge was a hostel owned by the Haka Tour company. I once again had a private room although this time it wasn’t en suite.

Enjoying the scenery along the way

After checking in, some members of the group had activities booked for the afternoon including the Shotover Jet boat ride and, for the more adventurous group members, the Canyon Swing – a bit like a bungee jump except you sit in a chair to swing from the cliff! Having not signed up for any of the activities on offer, the rest of us walked to Skyline Queenstown to make use of our free ticket to ride the gondola to the top that was included in our Haka Tours package.

Above, and below, the views from the top at Skyline Queenstown

The cable car ride to the top of Bob’s Peak is the steepest in the Southern Hemisphere. Once at the top, we spent a while enjoying the amazing views over Queenstown and the surrounding area before taking the chairlift further up the mountain to ride the Queenstown Luge back down to the viewing platforms and cafe.

Riding the luge at the top of Skyline Queenstown

After catching the gondola back down, we walked into Queenstown to meet up with the rest of the group at a local bar to share our stories over drinks and pizza.

The following day, the group once again all had different activities booked. Five of us had booked a full day’s coach trip out to Milford Sound.

Stopping to enjoy the view on the way to Milford Sound

Our coach drove us through Fiordland National Park making stops along the way at various lakes and mountainous viewpoints before we arrived at Milford Sound harbour early afternoon to enjoy a 2-hour cruise past waterfalls and stunning tropical scenery. This was a really amazing experience!

On the water at Milford Sound

After our cruise, we were met by our coach for the long journey back to Queenstown. It had been a long day but was definitely worth it.

Despite the late finish the night before, it was up early again the next day for one last tour before leaving Queenstown. Along with a few other group members, I had booked onto a Lord of the Rings tour of the area to see some of the locations used in the films.

Kawarau Gorge, one of the filming locations used in the Lord of the Rings films

Our tour was in a four-wheel drive vehicle and took is out of Queenstown to Kawarau Gorge, the location of the Pillars of the Kings in the film then out to the nearby Arrowtown where the autumn colours of the trees were just breathtaking.

Here, we went off-roading into the woods and down to the Arrow River.

Down by the river in Arrowtown

We made a stop by the river to give panning for gold a go. It was a lot harder than it looks and we came away with just one miniscule piece of gold between us!

Getting ready to go panning for gold

The final part of our tour took us high up into the mountains for more dramatic scenery and stunning views over Queenstown. Even without an interest in the filming locations for the Lord of the Rings films, this tour would have been worth taking just for the amazing views along the way!

Heading up into the mountains, and below, stunning views from the last stop on our Lord of the Rings locations tour

At the end of our tour we were dropped back at Haka Lodge to meet up with the rest of our group and climb back aboard our Haka bus to begin our journey to Wanaka.

It had been a fun few days in Queenstown although looking back on it, I feel I hardly seen any of the town itself being so busy with tours and activities. Definitely somewhere I need to return to one day!!

Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

South Island Tour Day 1

Above, and below, mountain views on the way from Christchurch to Tekapo

After a few days exploring Christchurch by myself, I had joined a small group tour of the South Island of New Zealand with the award-winning adventure tour company, Haka Tours.

Having met the group for dinner the previous evening, this morning, after a quick breakfast – our tour guide had a breakfast box full of cereals, bread for toasting etc just for the group – it was up and onto the bus to begin our South Island adventure.

More beautiful scenery on the road to Lake Tekapo

Most of the group had been travelling together a week already touring New Zealand’s North Island and although everyone was super friendly, with bonds having already been formed, we straight away fell into the pattern of us newbies pairing up to sit together on the bus which did make it a bit more difficult to get to know the rest of the group at first.

Today’s destination was Lake Tekapo but first we had a very scenic drive from Christchurch.

The mountain-backed Lake Tekapo

We made a few stops along the road to hop out of the van and take photos of the stunning mountain scenery and Mount Cook in the distance and then a lunch stop at a middle of nowhere cafe for a delicious toasted sandwich.

View from the lakeshore

Arriving at Lake Tekapo late afternoon, we stopped lakeside on the way in to take photos along the lake shore near to the Church of the Good Shepherd, a small chapel built on the shore that has become an iconic landmark.

On the lakeshore, and below, the Mackenzie Sheepdog Statue and Church of the Good Shepherd by the lake.

The views across the lake with the turquoise waters backed by the snow-capped Southern Alps were just stunning and we spent longer than planned wandering along the shore and sat on the rocks taking it all in.

Motel accommodation by the lake and below, the view from my room

From the lake shore, we were taken into the small town where or accommodation for the night was situated. Those in shared dorm accommodation were staying at a lakeside hostel while the few of us who had upgraded to private rooms were staying at a lovely lakeside motel. My room was comfortable, well-equipped and had a patio with stunning views across the lake.

As the sun went down, the mountains across the lake were bathed in a red glow.

Managing to drag myself away from the view from my patio, I met with the rest of the group early evening for surprise trip to Tekapo Springs Hot Pools. The sun had gone down and we relaxed in the hot pools under a spectacularly star-filled sky – Lake Tekapo is part of a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve and is well-known for it’s starry skies!

Sunset at Lake Tekapo and below, watching the sunrise the next morning.

From the Hot Springs, we were taken back into town for dinner. Our guide had made reservations at a local Japanese restaurant but there were a coupe of us who were not fans of this cuisine so instead, we went to an Italian restaurant next door for a delicious pizza before wandering back to our accommodation.

The next morning was an early start but I couldn’t complain when it meant being up in time to watch the sunrise over the lake! Taking one last look at the beautiful view, I waved goodbye to Lake Tekapo and joined the rest of the group on our Haka Tours bus ready to continue our journey through South Island, New Zealand to our next stop, Queenstown.

New Zealand’s South Island

Touring the South Island with Haka Tours

Needing to justify my idea for a long haul concert break Down Under to a city I had been to many times before, I decided instead to make my trip a New Zealand vacation with a stop off in Melbourne for the concert on the way home. I’d never visited New Zealand before so it would be somewhere new to explore before joining meeting my Melbourne-based friend in her home city for the gig.

I’d be travelling solo until I reached Melbourne so decided a tour would be the best way to see what New Zealand had to offer in a relatively short time – I had 2 weeks in total which was to include the 2 nights in Melbourne. After researching and reading through various itineraries, I realised I’d only have time to see one of New Zealand’s two islands and South Island seemed to come most heavily recommended.

There were a variety of options aimed at solo travellers including Kiwi Experience, a flexi-travel option where you weren’t tied down to specific travel dates but still had a ready made, mapped out itinerary, the use of a tour guide and the chance to meet fellow solo travellers along the way but deciding this was aimed more at younger backpackers in their early 20s than someone in their mid-30s, I instead opted for the award winning New Zealand small group tour company, Haka Tours.

The adventure travel company got rave reviews and catered for a more open age-group than the 18-38 tours I’d done with Trek America so I was hoping there’d be at least some 30-somethings in my group and it wouldn’t just be hard-partying youngsters!

The groups were slightly larger than the 13 maximum on Trek with Haka buses catering for groups of up to 20 passengers but even at full capacity, this sounded like a better option than the groups of 50 herded around by companies such as Kiwi Experience and Contiki.

So I found a 7-day tour of South Island on Haka’s website which fitted in with my other travel plans and even left me with a few nights between the end of the tour and the gig in Melbourne which I decided to spend in Adelaide, one of the few Australian cities I hadn’t visited yet, and decided to take the plunge and book it.

Having recently come off a Trek America Tour across the Southern States of America with one hostel too many for my liking, I decided to take Haka Tours up on their offer to upgrade to private rooms on their tour. While I didn’t really mind hostel life too much, this at least gave me peace of mind that I could get an early night without being disturbed by any night owls in the group as well as meaning I’d have an en suite at some, although not all, of our accommodations over the week.

The tour was to start in the city of Christchurch. Haka Tours owns some of it’s own hostels, including one on the outskirts of Christchurch but we were advised that as this was full with another group at the time of our departure, we would instead depart from the more central Christchurch YHA. I booked a night at the city’s Ibis hotel for my first night in the city then would move to the YHA for the night before the tour began.

The tour’s itinerary sounded really exciting with stops at Lake Tekapo, Queenstown, Wanaka and Franz Josef before returning to Christchurch via a ride on the TranzAlpine train.

Activities for each stop could be booked in advance on the Haka Tours’ website and there was so much to choose from, I couldn’t fit everything I’d have liked to do in! I stayed away from booking the more adventurous activities like bungee jumping and skydiving and instead plumped for tamer activities including a full-day tour to Milford Sound from Queenstown.

With everything booked and my onward travel plan to Australia sorted out, I was excited for my New Zealand adventure to begin…

Pembrokeshire Coast National Park

While not a stop on my UK National Parks road trip this summer, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park is a park very close to my heart after visiting it at least once every year for the last 27 years. As a child and teenager, our annual summer holidays there were spent mainly on the beach at Tenby, only venturing further afield on rainy days where the beach was no longer an option.

Back then, our summers were mainly warm and sunny so these trips out of Tenby were rarities. Now our visits tend to be out of season, early September or late March and even on the occasions we do make it there at the height of the British summer, the weather is rarely nice enough to be able to sit on the beach for hours on end so instead, we’ve spent a lot more time getting out and exploring more of what the park has to offer. And what it has to offer is a lot. Enough to make it my favourite place in the World. Despite all the travelling I have done the last 10 years, I am yet to find anywhere that matches the beauty of Pembrokeshire.

I spent some time revisiting some of my favourite spots and at seeing some parts of the park I’d not been to before on a trip earlier this summer.

Tenby

Painted town houses in Tenby

In recent years, Tenby has been our base for most of our trips to Pembrokeshire National Park, usually hiring a static caravan at one of the Penally holiday parks. This year, due to demand for staycations and our trip being a bit of a last minute decision, we ended up staying inland near the market town of Narberth, right on the Pembrokeshire/Carmarthernshire county border but once settled in to our accommodation, Tenby was, as always, our first port of call on day 1 of our trip.

South Beach in Tenby

Parking up at Penally Station just outside of Tenby, we followed the coast path signs choosing to take the turning down to the beach at the Kiln Park junction rather than continuing along the path which runs behind the dunes.

Tenby South Beach and, below, views from a visit to Caldey Island

We walked along South Beach enjoying the views of Caldey Island which lies a few miles off the coast of Tenby. In a normal year, it is possible to take a day trip over to Caldey Island with boats regularly departing from Tenby Harbour – or Castle Beach at low tide – every day except Sunday. We last did this a couple of years ago and spent most of the day walking up to the lighthouse and along the island’s coastal paths enjoying spectacular views along the way.

The Arches, the entrance to the walled town of Tenby

From South Beach, we took the path off the beach and up to the Esplanade which offers more beautiful views of Caldey Island and also the much closer St Catherine’s Isle. St Catherine’s Isle has recently reopened to the public in the last few years although I’m yet to visit.

Tenby is a walled town and we entered at the Arches and wandered through to grab an ice cream from one of the many shops selling them. During the summer months, Tenby closes its centre off to traffic between 10 and 5 meaning the many cafes and restaurants can put their tables out in the street during these times.

After wandering through the town, we exited by Tenby’s North Beach. This huge sandy beach is my favourite of all the wonderful beaches on offer in Tenby. We stood at the viewpoint on the cliff and took in the view of the beach, the harbour and Tenby castle before following the path down to the golden sands.

Goscar Rock on North Beach

When the tide is out, it is possible to walk around from Tenby North Beach to Castle and South Beach but unfortunately this wasn’t the case today so instead we followed the path back off the beach and through the harbour.

From the harbour we walked up towards the remnants of Tenby castle upon the hill top for more spectacular views over the bay and a chance to visit Tenby’s lifeboat station, before returning to Castle Beach and walking back to Penally along South Beach.

Amroth, Wisemans Bidge and Saundersfoot

Walking the coast path from Wisemans Bridge to Saundersfoot

Day 2 and we returned to another old favourite – following the coastal path from Amroth to Saundersfoot and back. Parking up at the back of the small coastal town of Amroth, we walked to the end of the beach and turned up the road until we saw the acorn signpost pointing out the coast path.

We followed it up a steep hill through the woods until it opened out onto a field and past a caravan park before leading back down hill onto the road into Wisemans Bridge.

Wiseman’s Bridge Beach

Here we walked alongside the pebbly beach and then followed the sea wall path to Coppets Hall Beach on the outskirts of Saundersfoot. The tide was out enough to walk along the beach from here to the main beach in Saundersfoot where we grabbed tea and cake from a cafe in the small town and wandered around the harbour before retracing our steps back along the coast path to Wisemans Bridge and then Amroth.

Carew Castle

That evening, we had a ride out to Carew Castle and Tidal Mill to do a circular walk around it. Parking at the castle is free and from the car park, we walked back up to the main road, crossing it to follow signs to the small village of Carew Cheriton. Here, we stopped to look around St Mary’s Church, parts of which date back to the 1300s before following a riverside path from the village and across a wooden bridge which brought us back out at the main road across from the village of Milton. A public footpath across a field which took us back to Carew Castle where we followed the path looping up to the Tidal Mill and around the mill pond.

Carew Castle and millpond

When the tide is in, the walk looping Carew Castle offers beautiful views of it reflected in the mill pond and it looks especially pretty at sunset and we often do a shorter version of this walk just following the path around the castle and Tidal Mill without detouring to Carew Cheriton and Milton followed by drinks at the pub across the road!

Lydstep, Skrinkle Haven and Manorbier

Skrinkle Haven Beach

Day 3 and we drove a bit further up the coast past Tenby to Skrinkle Haven, a part of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path nestled between the more popular beaches of Lydstep Haven and Manorbier. Following the road signs to Skrinkle Haven, we drove past the YHA and up to the cliff top car park. From here there are amazing coastal views in both directions but the main attraction is the view of the beautiful Skrinkle Haven beach.

View of Skrinkle Haven

We picked up the coast path and wandered along it until we came to a set of steps leading down to the small Church Doors Cove, so called because of door-shaped caves carved into the cliffs by the sea. After climbing back up the steps from the rocky beach, we continued along the coast path a little further but came to Ministry of Defence land which the path seemed to detour around. While we had heard it is now possible to once again access Skrinkle Haven beach itself from the coast path after it was closed off for years, we couldn’t quite work out how so instead, decided to retrace our steps back to the car park.

Skrinkle Haven lies just down the coast path from the popular town of Manorbier with its castle and sandy beach. While we didn’t visit Manorbier on this trip, we have in the past and it’s definitley worth a stop, especially if you follow the coast path up from the beach in either direction for more beautiful views.

Lydstep Beach with Lydstep Haven Holiday Park behind

Instead of driving north to Manorbier today, we instead drove back towards Tenby stopping at Lydstep. Here there is a national trust car park and circular headland walk although it can be a little difficult to find and access as it is down a narrow one-track road with an unpaved section at the end a steep hill at the very end up to the cliff! It’s definitely worth it though.

Lydstep Beach

From the cliffs there are views across to Caldey Island and down to Lydstep Haven beach backed by the caravans on it’s upmarket holiday park. After walking a loop of the cliff, we returned to the car park and walked down the steep hill towards Lydstep Haven Beach. When the tide is out, it is possible to access sea caves from here but today, we just walked along the pebbly beach before climbing the hill back to the car park.

Freshwater East and Barafundle Bay

At Freshwater East

The beach that was always our rainy day ride out when we visited as kids, Freshwater East is a dog friendly, long sandy beach which is great to visit at low tide when the cliffs and caves at the far end of the beach become visible.

Freshwater East and, below, walking the coast path to Barafundle Beach from Stackpole Quay

After walking along the sands, we attempted to follow the circular ‘family walk’ along some of the coast path and up into the dunes which we remembered taking in the past but found that some of the arrows and numbered posts were missing. We managed to find our way around using a bit of guess work and from what we remembered from before and eventually found ourselves back at the car park.

Barafundle

After lunch on the beach, we continued along the coast to Stackpole Quay where we parked up at its National Trust car park to begin our walk across the coast path to Barafundle Beach. Often finding its way onto the ‘best beaches in the UK’ lists, Barafundle is a bit of a hidden gem. With no direct access, the only way to reach it is to hike across the headland to it.

Reaching Barafundle Beach

From Stackpole Quay, this is a relatively easy half mile hike from which you eventually follow a few steps down to the bay. As a child, it was always a beach I longed to visit and spend the day at playing on its golden sands and swimming in the sea, but with its isolated location and complete lack of facilities, I can now see why my parents were never as keen on the idea and we always stuck to Tenby’s North beach on sunny days!

On Barafundle Beach

Today however, I happily spent an hour or so sat on the beach and walking down to the sea front before walking back along the cliffs to the car park at Stackpole Quay.

Bosherton and Broad Haven South

We headed a bit further up the coast the next day to visit Bosherton Lily Ponds, another go to location on a rainy day when we were younger!

Broad Haven South Beach

Another National Trust Car Park from which we followed the path down to edge of the lily pond to begin our walk. We turned left, following the sign to Broad Haven South, to take the anti-clockwise route around. The walk was mainly flat and eventually brought us out at the junction with Broad Haven South, a large sandy beach home to Church Rock, a rock formation just off the coast.

Narrow bridge across the lily pond

After stopping for snacks, we returned to the path around the lily ponds continuing to follow it around and enjoying the views across the lily ponds. Whether or not the lillies are in bloom, this is a really pretty walk and a great place for spotting wildlife too. My favourite part of the walk is crossing a couple of long bridges across the pond.

The bridges are open on the one side and quite narrow which can make it a challenge if someone starts walking across from the opposite direction!!

St Govans

Above and below, views from the coast path at St Govans

After our walk around the lily pond, we took a short drive to the next point on the coast path, St Govans. St Govans is a small chapel built into the cliffs. From the car park, you can walk down some steps to the chapel and even go inside. I continued down the cliff from the chapel to the small bay beneath to enjoy the views before climbing back up to the car park.

From the car park, we followed the coast path along the cliffs to the point overlooking Broad Haven South beach. The views were again stunning.

Stack Rocks and the Green Bridge of Wales

The Green Bridge of Wales

Our final stop today was to see Pembrokeshire’s famous rock formations, The Green Bridge of Wales and the Stack Rocks. We followed the signposts to the Green Bridge down a long road towards the cliffs which lead past Ministry of Defence land and parked on the free car park.

A path from the car park split in 2 directions and we took the right fork towards the viewing platform for the Green Bridge.

Coast path views

After admiring the views and taking plenty of photos, we followed the coast path along the cliff to see the Stack Rocks, rock pillars lying just off the coast. We continued along the coast path for a while, enjoying the views before looping back to the car park and calling it a day.

Freshwater West and Angle

Looking down at Freshwater West Beach

It was off to one of my favourite Pembrokeshire beaches today, Freshwater West but first, after a wrong turn, we made a quick stop at the nearby West Angle Bay. This is a small beach, especially when the tide is is, but at low tide, it can be fun to walk to the rocks around the edges of the beach to explore the rock pools!

From Angle, we finally found our way back to Freshwater West and as usual, the first glimpse of the dramatic combination of cliffs, dunes, beach and crashing waves was breathtaking.

On the beach at Freshwater West

Freshwater West is known for its strong waves and surfers can often be seen bobbing around in the sea here. The beach is also famous for being used in one of the Harry Potter films – Shell House was built into the dunes here for the purpose of filming and although it has now been dismantled, the beach is often visited by fans of the films and books to see the site of Dobby’s grave. The 2010 Robin Hood film starring Russell Crowe was also filmed at Freshwater West!

Enjoying the view at Freshwater West

Today, we began our visit with a walk along the cliffs to a seaweed drying hut sat on top. From here there were beautiful views across the bay. We retraced out steps back down to the road and followed the path down to the beach taking a long walk along the sea front to the rocks and cliff at the far end before returning to the car. A great way to spend the day!

Heatherton

Adventure golf at Heatherton

We took a break from the coast today for a bit of family fun at Heatherton World of Activities, another favourite from family holidays of the past! The park is situated not far from Tenby by the village of St Florence. Currently, visitors have to pre-book passes for the activities so the park can keep attendance down and social distancing can be maintained. We opted for a 6 credit pass and used up our first 2 credits on a round of Adventure Golf then spent the rest of our credits on activities including pistol shooting, laser clay pigeon shooting and, our favourites, the bumper boats. A really fun day out!!

While we didn’t have chance on this trip, other fun family days out we have enjoyed on past visits to Pembrokeshire have included visits to Clerkenhill Adventure Farm for a round or two of Frisbee Golf and Oakwood Theme Park which we like to visit on an ‘After Dark’ day when the park and rides stays open until 10pm ending the day with a firework display.

Broad, Little and Sandy Haven

Broad Haven Beach

Today’s destination was Broad Haven. Not to be confused with Broad Haven South by Bosherton, this Broad Haven lies further up the coast and is a long sandy beach backed by a row of cafes and shops.

The tide was going out as we arrived meaning there was a huge expanse of sand leading down to the sea. We paddled along in the shallows and with the tide going out, were able to walk around into the next bay, Little Haven. On days when the tide is in, it’s still possible to walk between the two beaches but over the cliff top on the coast path instead.

Walking down to Sandy Haven

After a few hours, we left Broad Haven when, in typically Welsh fashion, the weather changed from glorious sunshine to cloudy with the threat of rain. With it still being early afternoon, we consulted our map on the back of the visitor magazine Coast to Coast and decided to visit Sandy Haven, an area we had not been to before.

Sandy Haven

Arriving just as the rain set in, we parked at a pull in just off the road and followed the coast path signs through a holiday park and out towards a rocky beach. This was a lovely, hidden away location, spoilt only by views of a power station off the coast in the distance. With the tide out, an array of rock pools were revealed and we had fun carefully scrambling over the rocks along the beach to find a way down to the sea.

St Davids

We began today with a ride out to the city of St Davids. As well as being the only city in Pembrokeshire, St Davids is also the smallest city in the UK!

We parked at the top of the town and walked down the main street towards the city’s cathedral. The Cathedral was open for visitors to look around. Next to the , is the medieval ruins of the Bishop’s Palace but as admission was by pre-booked ticket only, we couldn’t explore this any further.

Solva and Newgale

After grabbing a delicious ice cream in St Davids, we returned to the car and drove down the coast to the town of Solva, a place we had driven through many times but never stopped in.

Looking down at Solva from the coast path and below,
views from the coast path.

We parked by the pretty harbour and decided to follow the coast path signs to see where it took up. A quite steep, muddy track eventually opened out to give us amazing views over the harbour, and, as we continued further, we found ourselves on a cliff top with beautiful coastal views.

Rather than following the path any further, we returned the way we had come and instead, drove to the next bay, Newgale Beach. Like Freshwater West, Newgale is a popular surfing spot. The beach here is pebbly and we didn’t stop long before continuing our drive back to our accommodation making one last stop at the tiny bay of Nolton Haven along the way.

The Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon
View of the Blue Lagoon

Not to be confused with the Centre Parcs-style Pembrokeshire holiday park of the same name near Narberth, today we were visiting The Blue Lagoon, a former slate quarry in Abereiddy. The quarry has since flooded, the slate giving it the colour that gives it its name.

A visit to this area of Pembrokeshire had long been recommended to us but for some reason, we had yet to make it there until today.

Traeth Llyfn

Parking for the Blue Lagoon is behind the small beach of Abereiddy. From the car park, we followed the coast path a short distance to the Blue Lagoon viewpoint. Straight away we could see the contrast in the colour of the water here to the colour of the sea. There were some visitors swimming, kayaking and jumping into the lagoon but we stayed on land and decided to follow the coast path a bit further along up to the cliff top overlooking it.

Strolling along Traeth Llyfn

From here, we walked along the cliff top path, a small cove soon coming into view in the distance. We continued along until we reached a signpost at the top of some steps reading Traeth Llyfn, or Llyfn Beach. We took the steps down to the secluded beach where the tide was out enough to reveal a pretty sandy cove and the perfect place to sit down for a while, enjoy the beautiful scenery and have a snack.

After climbing the steps back up to the coast path, we walked back towards the Blue Lagoon and Abereiddy Beach where we sat and had lunch.

Strumble Head

Abermawr Beach

After a quick stop at another secluded beach, Abermawr, we continued up the coast for an afternoon visit to Strumble Head, another part of the park we had never visited before.

Here we walked down to get a closer look at the lighthouse before following the coast path south for a bit to get beautiful coastal views and views looking back towards the lighthouse.

Looking for wildlife off the coast of Strumble Head

After retracing our steps back towards the car park, we walked down to a wildlife viewing hut built onto the cliff, looking out to see if we could spot any of the birds, seals or sea creatures listed on the building’s wall.

Failing to spot anything other than a few noisy seagulls, we returned to the car to drive back.

As always, we had had an amazing time exploring the Pembrokeshire Coast and out walking along the coast path and it had been fun to visit some new places along the way as well as revisit lots of old favourites and I can’t wait to go back.

Yorkshire Dales National Park

Entering the Yorkshire Dales National Park

The second stop on my tour of UK National Parks was 3 nights in the Yorkshire Dales. Having spent a good portion of the day hiking in the Peak District, it was early evening by the time we arrived. We had again chosen accommodation outside of the park’s boundaries, this time in a Travelodge near the town of Skipton.

For our first of 2 full days in the park, we had booked to visit the nearby Bolton Abbey Estate. The site has 4 car parks to choose from and, having not visited before, we were unsure which to pick but eventually booked into the Riverside car park as it seemed to be somewhere near the middle of the grounds. We deliberately chose an early slot so we could make a full day of our visit and we arrived to find the car park almost empty and just a few dog walkers about.

At Bolton Abbey Estate
The priory ruins at Bolton Abbey

Seeing the priory ruins in the distance, we decided to walk along the river in that direction. It was a pleasant walk and it didn’t take us long to reach the priory. We were able to look inside the chapel which is still used for services and then we walked around to explore the ruins behind the main building structure.

From here, we walked back towards the river heading for the park of the estate we were most looking forward to – the Bolton Abbey stepping stones. Here, visitors can choose to cross a rather wide section of the river by hopping across a series of stepping stones.

It was harder than it looked with some of the stones being quite widely spread and one or two wobbling a bit as we trod on them and as much fun as it was, it was also quite a relief to safely reach the other side!!

The Valley of Desolation

After walking back along the other side of the river and making a quick visit to the cafe near the Riverside car park for a delicious locally produced chocolate Brownie, we followed signposts to walk to the Valley of Desolation. It was a relatively short and easy walk out to the very pretty waterfall.

After a picnic lunch, we finished our visit with a walk along one of the shorter trails through the ancient woodland of Strid Wood. An information board as we entered this area of the estate showed maps of the circular walks available and details on the length and difficulty of each walk and we found coloured the signposting of the trails once we were in the woods to be really easy to follow.

By the time we left Bolton Abbey Estate mid-afternoon, the car park was full and the park was extremely busy with families walking, picnicking and playing in the river and we were glad we’d thought to come early and seen it while it was quiet first thing in the morning.

Next, we drove to the town of Pateley Bridge to visit England’s Oldest Sweet Shop. On the drive there we had our first experience of some of the park’s narrower, steeper roads which were even less fun to drive along in the worsening weather. The quaint town of Pateley Bridge was busy for a Sunday afternoon and we had to queue for 10 minutes or so to enter the traditional sweet shop. After browsing the shelves and buying a couple of gifts, we called into a cafe further along the street for ice creams before driving back to our hotel.

At the Upper Falls

Day 2 in the Yorkshire Dales National Park we drove to the north end of the park, starting the day with a walk to Aysgarth Falls. Arriving just after 10am, we parked at the very quiet National Park Visitor Centre car park and followed the signposts across the main road to pick up the trail leading past the different parts of the falls. The trail took us through woodland to the Middle Falls then to Lower Falls before looping back to the now packed car park.

Arriving at Wensleydale Creamery

From here we followed the signs pointing in the opposite direction to the short trail to the Upper Falls. It was another easy, mainly flat walk along the trail and it didn’t take long to see all three waterfalls. While we enjoyed the walk, the falls themselves were not as spectacular as the Valley of Desolation waterfall at Bolton Abbey.

From Aysgarth Falls, we drove to the busy town of Hawes to visit Wensleydale Creamery. As well as a shop, restaurant and cafe, the creamery also offers the Wensleydale Cheese Experience – a museum and interactive exhibit which also allows you to peak in at the Wensleydale factory.

At the moment, some of the more interactive exhibitions are closed due to Covid restrictions so the entrance price has been reduced to reflect this but it didn’t stop visitors from wanting to enter and we faced a 30 minute wait to get our ticket and enter! The museum and its exhibits were interesting but our favourite part was watching the cheese being made in the factory.

Peering into the factory at the Wensleydale Cheese Experience

With queues for the Wensleydale shop reaching back and around the corner, we decided to follow our visit to the Wensleydale Cheese Experience with lunch at the Creamery’s cafe in hope that the store queues would subside in the meantime. After a delicious Wensleydale and Yorkshire Red Cheese on Toast lunch, we found the store queues had not gone down much at all so sucked it up and joined the end.

It took about half an hour to reach the main gift store but after looking around that, we then had another 10 minute wait to enter the cheese section! We couldn’t leave without buying some Wensleydale to take home with us though.

Ribblehead Viaduct

Although our visit to Wensleydale Creamery had taken a lot longer than we had anticipated with all the queues, we still had a good portion of the afternoon left so we decided to drive back to the southern end of the park for a stop at the village of Malham. Along the way we passed Ribblehead Viaduct so pulled over to take a few photos before continuing our drive along more narrow, steep, winding roads.

Malham Cove in the distance

While Malham village itself is a lovely place for a quick stop with its array of pubs and cafes, we were there to do the walk to Malham Cove, a curved, limestone cliff just outside of the town. We parked at the National Park Visitor Centre car park and walked through the busy town to the trail head. The trail ran alongside a babbling stream and with the sun deciding to suddenly shine, it was a pretty settling for an afternoon stroll.

It didn’t take long at all to reach the cliff face and we stopped there for a while to watch some adventurous rock climbers scale it before retracing our steps back to Malham and driving back to our Skipton hotel for the evening.

We had one more morning left in the Yorkshire Dales National Park before driving to our next stop, the Lake District, and we planned to spend it at the Ingleton Waterfalls Trail, a 5 mile circular trail that takes in 5 waterfalls as well as woodland and views of the Yorkshire Dales. The trail is on private land and therefore an entrance fee of £7 per person is charged. Parking was free of charge and again, arriving early at 10am, the large car park was quiet.

Unfortunately, we picked a grey, miserable day with some heavy downpours but while it made the trail muddy and slippery in parts, it did seem to make the falls look more dramatic! It took us just over 2 hours to complete the trail and we stopped for a look around the shops in the village of Ingleton before returning to the car park for a picnic in the car as the rain started bouncing again.

It had been a fun few days in the Yorkshire Dales National Park and we definitely felt we had got a good taster of what the park has to offer. Like with the Peak District, we could have easily filled another day or so hiking out to other beauty spots in the park or visiting other towns and villages and we would happily return to the area in the future.

Watch my trip vlog here:

Find out what I got up to on the next leg of my road trip, visiting the Lake District, here.

A short break in the Peak District

Deciding to spend 2 weeks on a road trip around some of the UK’s National Parks, none of which I’d spent any time in before, we kicked off our trip with 3 nights in the Peak District National Park.

To keep costs down, we had chose to stay in a chain budget hotel in the Derbyshire town of Chesterfield, right on the edge of the park and no more than 40 minutes drive from any of the areas on our ‘to see’ list.

A stop by the river in Matlock

As we made our way to the hotel midweek in the middle of August, it was an uncomfortably hot day with thunderstorms predicted for the evening and rain forecast for the next 3 days. Not exactly the perfect weather for a visit to a place where we planned to spend the majority of our time outside walking! We briefly entered the Derbyshire Dales part of the park that afternoon with a stop in the town of Matlock.

Looking down from a viewpoint on a walk towards High Tor.

Having spent a week planning our trip, we had discussed the possibility of visiting Matlock Bath’s Heights of Abraham attraction, a cable car ride up a cliff side with panoramic views and a range of attractions on offer from the top but as it was our travel day, we were unsure on what time, or even if, we’d make it on time for a stop in the area and, of course, with Covid-restrictions in place, any activities had to be booked in advance. As we left that morning, ride slots were still available for that afternoon but, making good time, we checked again as we nearer the area to find they had now all sold out. We realised that spontaneity on visiting attractions this trip was out of the question and we were going to have to book well in advance for anything else like this we wanted to do on this trip.

Instead of the cable car ride, we spent some time wandering into Matlock town and through it’s pretty park then back along the river detouring up a steep path towards High Tor to a view point before wandering into the neighbouring Matlock Bath, where we found a very touristy High Street lined with arcades, fish and chip shops and random money-grabbing attractions. In an attempt to avoid the busy footpaths, we crossed over to Derwent Gardens, a riverside park, and took a stroll along the river before returning to our car and continuing our drive to our Chesterfield hotel which would be our base for the next 3 nights.

Officially entering the Peak District National Park

For our first full day in the Peak District, we had booked an early slot to visit the recently reopened Chatsworth House and gardens near Bakewell. As we drove into the park we spotted a millstone boundary marker and seeing as it is a bit of a tradition on our US National Park trips to get a photo with the park entrance signs, we decided to pull over and do the same here!

Chatsworth House and, below, inside the house

Organisation at Chatsworth House was well done. We were careful to arrive just before our ticketed time slot and after parking, we had our mobile tickets scanned and were shown to an area where sinks with hot running water had been installed and asked to go up in our social groups to thoroughly wash our hands then put our face coverings on before being allowed into the house.

Only a few tickets were available for each time slot to cut down the number of people in the house at one time and a one way system was in operation around the property and we were asked to distance from the other groups that we were not attending with. This mainly worked except for times when groups in front stopped for an extended period to look at something or ask questions of the staff. If the corridors or rooms we were in were narrow at this point, it meant you were unable to overtake and had to wait for the groups in front to move on before you could get any further causing some queues to advance to the next room.

After looking around the house, we went for a walk around the impressive gardens. On a nice day, it would be possible to spend the day just in the gardens at Chatsworth alone but although we hadn’t had the thunder and rain storms which had been forecast, there was the occasional drizzle and the threat of rain in the air so after wandering down to the fountains and through the rock garden we decided to call our visit a day and move on.

Bakewell Bridge and, below, some of the many Bakewell bakeries on offer in the town

Since it was only a few miles away, we decided to head to the town of Bakewell next. We found that the signposts to the car parks around the town would disappear before we actually found the car park we were aiming for and ended up at a large, but seemingly very out of town parking area in a field. After parking up and paying for a couple of hours’ stay, we found there we weren’t on the outskirts after all and there was actually a shortcut into the centre over a bridge across the river. While the town had attempted to encourage visitors to socially distance with roadside parking areas now being use as coned off pavement extensions, we still found the town to be way too busy for our liking. We visited the National Park Centre there to pick up some souvenirs but unfortunately, the few park exhibitions there were cordoned off due to Covid restrictions so the centre was operating as little more than a gift shop. From here we made our way to the famous Bakewell Pudding shop and glanced through the window at the baked goodies on offer. The puddings themselves didn’t look particularly appetising and the cakes on offer seemed alittle overpriced so we moved on to find another bakery eventually settling on the Bakewell tart shop where we got a very generous portion of Bakewell tart for a more reasonable price.

We finished our visit to the town with a walk along the river to see the historic Bakewell Bridge before returning to the car and driving on to the town of Buxton.

St Anne’s Well in Buxton

Buxton was much quieter. We parked at the Pavilion Gardens and walked past the Buxton Pavilion into the lower part of the town where we visited the old Pump Room which now doubles as a visitor centre. While mainly just a gift store now, part of the building has been left as it would have been in Victorian times and information boards give an insight into the spa town’s past. Just outside is the historic St Anne’s Well from which you can fill your water bottle with natural spring water.

Part of the original Pump Room at the Buxton Visitors Centre

We picked up a leaflet outlining the Buxton Heritage Trail from the visitor centre which contained a town map pointing out the highlights. Many of the places mentioned were around the visitor centre area so it didn’t take long to walk to some of these. We finished our visit with a walk through the beautiful Pavilion Gardens before driving to the nearby Buxton Country Park for a late afternoon walk up to Soloman’s Temple.

Hiking in the Peak District – walking to Soloman’s Temple and, below, Soloman’s Temple and the view from the top

Rather than using the main car park, we parked at a smaller car park at the back of the park from which it was an easy hike to the rotunda on top of a hill. It was possible to climb a few stairs to the top of the building from which there were 360 degree views across the Peak District. The country park was a really great place to walk and get out in the open after spending time in the busy towns.

With the weather forecast now showing sunny spells rather than the originally forecast rain, we decided to spend the next day cycling the Monsal Trail, a former rail line now converted into a space for walking and cycling stretching from Bakewell to Wye Valley. Bikes can be hired from either end so we drove to the old Hassop Station near Bakewell and parked up for the day, arriving around 10am so there’d still be plenty of bikes to rent.

Map of the Monsal Trail at Hassop Station
Cycling across Monsal Viaduct

Cycling towards Wye Valley, the track was at a very slight, almost unnoticeable incline. It was just under 8 miles to the end of the trail and we’d been provided with maps showing the villages lying just off the trail should we want to visit them as well as the position of the Monsal Viaduct and the four tunnels along the route (which were great fun cycling through!!) so we could track our progress along the way. We chose not to leave the trail to venture into these villages at any point but there was a cafe at the old Millers Dale station directly on the trail which we stopped at for a well lunch. Once at the end of the trail, we turned around and cycled back the other way.

Another view along the Monsal Trail

Instead of returning our bikes as soon as we got back to Hassop station, we continued on to Bakewell to ensure we had fully completed the trail. It was a short downhill ride from the old station at Bakewell into the town centre and we headed straight to a cafe we had seen the day before to get well-deserved ice creams. Exhausted, we wheeled our bikes back up the hill to Bakewell station again and picked the trail back up to ride the mile back in the other direction to Hassop and finally return our bikes.

Although it is possible to complete the whole trail in under 2 hours, we took our time on the outbound cycle, stopping regularly to enjoy the views and read the information signs dotted along the trail and managed to make a day out of the activity, not returning our bikes until 3.30pm – more than 5 hours after we hired them. A really fun day out!

The trail head for Mam Tor

The next day, we’d be leaving the Peak District National Park for our next stop in the Yorkshire Dales National Park but we had one more activity planned that morning before heading off. Having spent most of our time in the south of the park we drove a bit further north instead to the Hope Valley region where we planned to walk up Mam Tor, a large hill in the High Peak area of the park. It was a Saturday and as we drove to the National Trust owned car park, we found cars already parked all along the roads around the area wherever they could fit. It was only 10am but the site was extremely busy and the car park was very tight, made worse again by people parking where they shouldn’t and not just in the marked bays. Luckily as we struggled to manoeuvre our way out of one section of the car park, someone parked there left and we managed to grab their space. Our National Trust membership gave us free paring here.

Mam Tor now in the distance as we make our way back along the circular walking route

We followed the circular walking route from the National Trust’s website for our walk but many people were just walking to the peak of Mam Tor then returning back down the way they came. The instructions for the walk were easy to follow and the walk wasn’t too difficult at all with the steps up to the peak of Mam Tor not being too steep. The worst part was descending along a narrow, overgrown, sandy trail down the side of the hill towards the woods.

Evidence of a landslide walking back from Mam Tor

Once back down on the ground, the last part of the trail back up hill to the car park seemed to go on forever, especially as we seemed to complete the trail up to that point pretty quickly, but there were plenty of places to stop for a breather under the pretense of taking in the scenery!

And with that it was time to say goodbye to the Peak District. It had been a fun few days and we felt we had fit a lot in but as always, there was plenty more on our list of possible things to do which we hadn’t got around to such as walking in The Roaches near Leek or touring some of the many caverns in the area. I guess I’ll just have to go back someday!

Watch my vlog of my trip here:

Find out what I got up to at the next National Park on my road trip, the Yorkshire Dales, here.

A UK National Parks Staycation

Like many people, I had big trvel plans for this year, namely a 5-week mammoth USA road trip passing through California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah and Arizona visiting a variety of National Parks. Luckily, while our route was planned, we hadn’t got very far in the booking process with just our return flights to LA and our first 2 nights’ hotel accommodation booked by the time we went into lockdown. We put our planning on hold and thankfully, as it became more and more apparent that our trip had no chance of going ahead, our flights with Norwegian Airlines were cancelled and promptly fully refunded and we went ahead and cancelled our LA hotel reservation.

While travel to the USA was out of the question, as restrictions in the UK slowly began to be lifted, we started to wonder if a trip here would be a summer possibility. While I’ve extensively explored the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Italy and a range of European cities, there is very little of my own country I have spent time seeing in anywhere near as much detail. Trips here for me mainly consist of city breaks to see a concert where more time is often spent travelling to and getting ready for our night out than sightseeing, or a few days somewhere on the Welsh coast walking my dog on the same 4 or 5 beaches each time. With our original trip being based on visiting USA National Parks, we wondered if we should maybe spend some time in the UK Parks.

So, still unsure if our trip would even become a possibility, we tentatively started doing some research.

With Wales and Scotland under separate rules and restrictions to here in England, we decided we should plan to stay away from the parks there in case we were still not allowed across the borders by the time August rolled around. That straight away cut down the possibilities to 10 English National Parks. The Norfolk Broads on the east coast, the Southern Downs, New Forest, Exmoor and Dartmoor in the south and the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors, Lake District and Northumberland National Parks to the North. Living in the Midlands, any direction would suit me as nowhere is very far in comparison to the distances we’d have driven in the US.

After some research, we decided rather than being over ambitious and attempting a full 5-week road trip taking in all of the parks when local lockdowns were very likely to come into force and disrupt our plans, we would concentrate on the parks in one area of the country and aim to spend about 10-14 days on our trip. Having seen a number of reports on crowds rushing to the south of England, we eventually decided to head to the parks in the north and came up with a 14 day itinerary during which we would hopefully spend time in the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District, Northumberland and then the North York Moors. We’d begin our adventure midweek to avoid weekend traffic and made sure the days spent in the Lake District, the park we expected to be busiest, were also midweek when it might be slightly quieter.

By the time that it looked as if lockdown would be relaxed enough for our ideas to possibly come to fruition, we found that with everyone being forced into staycations, accommodation options were either very limited or extremely expensive so rather than staying in the parks themselves, we opted for chain hotels in towns on the outskirts of the park – making sure we went for the fully cancellable room options of course, just in case!

Hotels booked, a basic plan of possible activities was next. Covid restrictions meant spontaneity was not as much a possibility as usual. Attractions including National Trust properties, farm parks, boat trips etc were all working on a time-slot booking system and spots were filling up quickly but we were pleased to see most places offering transferable or even refundable tickets in case circumstances changed and visitors couldn’t it.

We wanted to stick with outdoor activities for the main part anyway so were banking on the weather staying mainly dry at least so we could busy ourselves with a range of walks to see the parks’ highlights. In preparation, we found the postcodes for all the car parks we might use and collected together as much change as possible – which is more difficult than it sounds in a world where contactless card payments are preferred everywhere – in case any of the park machines were cash only.

With the government’s Eat Out To Help Out scheme running Mon-Wed throughout August, park attractions weren’t the only thing we couldn’t be spontaneous with. Most restaurants were also operating a book ahead only policy so we had to think ahead as to where to eat on our trip sometimes booking more than a week in advance. Staying in the towns on the outskirts of the parks at least gave us more choice with this and allowed us to vary our cuisine a bit more. The scheme helped us to keep the cost of the trip down a lot along with finding various online vouchers to use at chain restaurants for the remaining days of the week and we kept the cost of eating out down further still by carrying a box of cereal with us for breakfast, buying rolls to make our own lunch and even taking a flask of hot water with us each day to make our own tea!

As we set off for the Peak District, we were fully expecting to have to give up and head home from our trip before reaching the end either due to weather issues or local lockdowns suddenly coming in but surprisingly we made it to all 5 of the parks on our list without interruption. It was certainly very different from our experiences of visiting the National Parks of America in the past with the UK parks being large areas containing lived and worked in towns and villages rather than being actual parks like in the US with an entrance, exit and a route to follow through taking you past all the highlights. We discovered early on that it was best to mainly keep out of the villages and towns after we arrived in Bakewell to find crowded streets and very little social distancing going on and from that point forward we aimed for open spaces where we could hike out to beauty spots on easy to follow trails, keeping a distance from others.

It was great to see a bit more of our own country, to get out into the countryside and go hiking and to drive through such beautiful scenery and while not quite as exciting as the trip we had planned, it was an adventure we would probably never have planned or experienced in normal circumstances.

Keep checking back for my write up of what we got up to in each park starting with our visit to the Peak District!

Touring the Deep South USA: Natchez, MS

Today’s lunch stop

It was the final full day of our tour across America’s Deep South with Trek America. So far, we had spent time in New Orleans, Alabama, Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains, Nashville and Memphis and today we would be travelling to the state of Mississippi to visit the city of Natchez.

Making our pledge to earn our Junior Ranger badges

I had passed through the state of Mississippi once before on a previous road trip through the Southern States of America but that day, our only stop in the state had been at a Burger King so I was looking forward to spending just a bit more time and seeing a tiny bit of what the state has to offer.

My completed booklet and Junior Ranger badge!

We made one stop on the way from Memphis, for lunch at a roadside cafe/green grocers store called The Tomato Place which had a range of delicious sandwiches and toasties on offer. Then it was on into the historic centre of Natchez.

Our first port of call in Natchez was at the visitor centre for Natchez National Historic Park. Here, we spoke to the park rangers and looked at the displays and exhibits to learn about the history of Natchez, completing the complimentary Junior Ranger activity booklets to earn a Junior Ranger badge each!

Beautiful views of the Mississippi River

We had some free time in the area next, to explore, during which some of us decided to take a tour of one of the historic houses to find out more about life in Natchez during the Antebellum era.

On the border of Mississippi state

After our tour, we spent a bit of time in the park overlooking the river before going to check in at our motel for the evening right on the Mississippi/Louisiana border.

Watching the sunset over the Mississippi River

It was the last night of our group tour so in the evening we went out to a nice restaurant by the river for a final group meal, stopping to watch the sunset over the Mississippi River after. Then it was back to the motel for a few drinks around the pool, reminiscing about our adventures over the last week.

Tomorrow, we would be heading back to New Orleans where our tour would come to an end.

Back in New Orleans’ Garden District

After leaving Natchez early, we arrived in New Orleans late morning, stopping at a roadside bar to pick up cocktails to drink as we toured the Garden District. My sister-in-law and I had visited the area during our pre-tour stay of New Orleans just a week earlier but it was nice to have a guided tour this time. We all felt a bit strange drinking cocktails from brightly coloured plastic glasses as we strolled through the Lafayette Cemetery #1 and past the mansions lining the streets but when in New Orleans…!

Entrance to Louis Armstrong Park

Our next stop was at Louis Armstrong Park, on the edge of the city’s French Quarter. We wandered through the park looking at some of the sculptures dotted around the area.

Louis Armstrong statue in the park and below, one last look at the Mississippi River

Then it was time to say goodbye to our tour guide as we were dropped back at the gateway hotel in the French Quarter. Most of the group would be staying on in New Orleans for a few extra days but as we had stayed before the tour, we would be flying out that evening.

Before waving goodbye to our new friends, we all took a walk into the French Quarter, revisiting the French market, looking inside St Louis Cathedral and strolling along the riverside. Then, after grabbing some Pizza fries for lunch at one of the nearby bars, it was time to say our goodbyes.

We’d had an incredible time exploring America’s Deep South region. We’d seen a lot, had a lot of fun and felt we had learnt a lot along the way too.