A family trip around the World – Sydney

Upgraded to a penthouse apartment

I was half way through a 3-week trip around the World with my parents, my brother and sister-in-law. So far, we’d spent a few days exploring Melbourne and the surrounding area before heading to the sunshine of tropical Queensland for a relaxing stay in Port Douglas, just north of Cairns. Now we were on the final part of the Australia leg of our trip, a few nights in Sydney before we flew to the USA.

We flew from Cairns Airport into Sydney late-morning, arriving mid-afternoon and got a maxi-taxi to our apartment at World Tower, situated somewhere between Museum station and Darling Harbour.

A stroll to Darling Harbour

We were delighted to find upon checking in that we’d upgraded to a Penthouse apartment and when we walked in to find a spacious, modern, 3-bedroom apartment with beautiful views over the city.

That afternoon, we stayed in the local area visiting the Coles supermarket in the mall beneath our apartment block and taking a stroll to the nearby Darling Harbour that evening.

Stopping at a viewpoint on our tour – Sydney skyline in the distance

The next day, we had a tour booked to the beach cities of north Sydney. Our reason for booking this tour was that it’s main stop was at Palm Beach, the filming location for long-running Aussie soap, Home and Away. Both my parents and my brother were fans of the show and after looking into it, we decided taking a small group tour would be a hassle-free way of getting there rather than attempting pubic transport involving multiple buses.

Arriving at ‘Summer Bay’, the lighthouse in the distance

We were met by our tour guide outside our apartment block and boarded the minibus along with a few other passengers then set off driving across Sydney Harbour Bridge as we headed north out of the city. Along the way to Palm Beach, we made multiple stops, first at a view point from where we could see Sydney’s skyline in the distance then at a small cove which we were told was once used for filming in the soap then it was on to ‘Summer Bay’ itself.

Above, and below Palm Beach aka Summer Bay in Home and Away

As we arrived, it was clear from the various vans and RVs parked everywhere that filming was taking place that day, making my parents very excited. We were told that the cast were usually happy to take photos with fans between filming and given tips on the best place to go to see filming take place or meet the cast then we were given a time to meet back at the van to pick up our lunch and sent off to explore.

We headed straight for the beach, strolling along the golden sands before taking photos with Summer Bay Surf Club then walked along the path behind the beach spotting a few cast members setting up to film a short scene. After watching them film, we continued along the path, bumping into a couple of the other passengers from our tour who told us they had just met a few cast member and pointing us in the direction they had come from. Sure enough, just down the path was a winnebago with cast members stood in front of it happily meeting and greeting fans. My parents recognised the actors and managed to get photos with them, making their day!

It was then time to pick up lunch from the van – chicken, salad and bread – and we set out on picnic benches all discussing who we’d managed to see so far.

Manly Beach, the last stop on our tour

After lunch, we had some more free time so we wondered down to the beach on the east side of the penninsula where ‘Alf’s Bait Shop’ and the pier is situated. We’d been told that the bait shop sometimes opened as a souvenir store but unfortunately, it was closed today. After taking photos on the jetty, we walked back to the main beach were we found more filming going on, this time on the beach. We had a bit of time left so watched them film for a while before it was time to wave ‘Summer Bay’ goodbye and return to the minibus.

The final stop on our Northern Beaches tour was at Manly Beach. Manly is just a short ferry ride from Sydney Harbour and our tour included ferry tickets so we could spend as much time as we liked at Manly Beach then catch the ferry back to Sydney after.

Above, on the boat back to Sydney, and below, back at Circular Quay

After spending some time at the beach then walking down Manly Corso for some souvenir shopping and ice cream, we caught the ferry back arriving in Sydney Harbour just as the sun started to go down. This was my parents, brother and sister-in-laws’ first glimpse of Sydney Harbour and the Opera House so we spent a bit of time wandering around Circular Quay before walking through Sydney back to our apartment early evening.

The bridge at sunset, and below, enjoying a day at Bondi Beach

It had been a long day and my parents were tired and decided to stay in that evening so the three of us decided to take another walk to Darling Harbour and along to Star Casino before returning to our apartment.

Despite it being the Australian winter, the next day was warm (for us Brits at least!) and sunny so we decided to head to the coast and the most famous of Australia’s beaches, Bondi.

Catching a bus from our apartment to Bondi Beach, we spent the day relaxing on the relatively quiet long stretch of sand and playing in the waves to cool off.

That evening, we took a stroll to Circular Quay and The Rocks area by the Harbour Beach to see the bridge and Opera House all lit up.

Skyline views from the Botanic Gardens

On our final day in the city – and in Australia – we split up with my brother and sister-in-law going shopping and exploring by themselves while my parents and I caught the Sydney Hop On/Off Bus to do some last minute sightseeing.

At Mrs Macquaries Point, and below, exploring the Botanic Gardens

Hopping off at the Botanic Gardens, we walked past colourful flower displays overlooked by the towering city skyline and then along to the sea wall to Mrs Macquaries Point to get photos with both the Harbour Bridge and Opera House in shot. Then, we walked back along the sea wall towards the Opera House, dodging the many joggers that were out in their office lunch break!

Above, driving under the Harbour Bridge on our tour of Sydney, and below more sightseeing on the hop on/off bus

Hopping back on the bus, we completed our tour of the city before walking back from Circular Quay to our apartment just in time to watch the sunset over the city.

With it being our last night in Australia, we decided to eat out rather than cook so that evening we walked to a nearby Italian restaurant and sat reminiscing about our trip so far before taking another stroll down to Darling Harbour.

Taking my family with me on a trip to Australia, sharing some of my favourite places and discovering new things with them had been a lot of fun and we were all sad to be saying goodbye to this amazing country. But our adventures weren’t quite over yet, we had one more stop to make, this time in the city of Los Angeles in the USA!

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.

A trip to Bologna

Spending 2 nights in the North Italy city

Piazza Maggiore, Bologna

I was in Italy, one of my favourite European countries, and after spending a few days in the Tuscan city of Florence and its surrounds, it was time to move on to our second destination, Bologna in the Emilia-Romagna region of North Italy.

Palazzo del Podesta in Piazza Maggiore

Arriving from Florence by train, we took a taxi to our hotel. It was late afternoon and once settled in, we grabbed a map of the city from the hotel reception and headed straight out to familiarise ourselves with our surroundings.

A short distance from where we were staying, we found ourselves in Piazza Maggiore, the city’s main square.

Historic buildings surrond Piazza Maggiore

The square is surrounded by some of Bologna’s most important buildings including Biblioteca Salaborsa- a historic library – and the Basilica di San Pietro and in the centre of the square lies the Fountain of Neptune.

Ancient ruins below Biblioteca Salaborsa

From Piazza Maggiore, we walked along Via d’Azeglio, a pedestrianised street lined with high street stores and cafes before looping back around to the main square again.

That evening, we walked north of the square finding ourselves in a maze of narrow streets and choosing a small Trattoria to have dinner at before walking back to our hotel.

With one full day left to explore the city, we found a self-guided walking tour online to follow around the city.

A walkway built over the ancient ruinsunder Biblioteca Salaborsa

Returning to Piazza Maggiore, we visited the Basilica di San Pietro and then Biblioteca Salaborsa. While this is the main public library in the city, the main reason for visiting actually lies beneath the building. Through the floor in the centre of the library, it is possible to see the ruins of an ancient building underneath.

We walked down to the basement level of the building where for a small fee, it was possible to get a bit closer to the ruins, viewing them from an open walkway that has been built above.

Looking out at the Basilica di San Pietro from Palazzo Communale

Next, we crossed the square to visit Palazzo Communale. Formerly a palace, it now houses some of the city’s administrative offices but is also home to the Civic Art Collection.

We wandered through the building looking at some of the art on display and enjoying the views over Piazza Maggiore from the building’s windows.

From Piazza Maggiore, we walked the short distance to the Archaeological Civic Museum.

Art at the Archaeological Civic Museum

The museum is worth visiting for its building alone, being housed in a 15th century Palazzo, and it contains exhibitions which include Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts.

After spending an hour or so looking around, we continued our self-guided tour of the city walking down to the Basilica of San Domenico, a historic church known for its multitude of priceless works of art.

We then walked back on ourselves and along Via Rizzoli towards Two Towers Piazza with the St Petronius statue stood in front of the tall, imposing structures.

Above, and below, at the Basilica di Santa Stefano

After stopping for gelato from Gelateria Gianni, we walked through the Quadrilatero area to Basilica di Santa Stefano, a maze of 4 (originally there were 7) connecting churches.

For our final stop on our sightseeing tour, we walked back to Piazza Maggiore and then headed north to find Finestrella di Via Piella. Here you can peer through a window in a wall to see one of the remaining sections of one of Bologna’s historic canals, Canale delle Moline. Taking a picture through the window, it could easily have been a photo taken of the more famous canals of Venice!

Feet aching from walking all over the city, we returned to the narrow streets of the Quadrilatero, an old medieval market area just east of Piazza Maggiore. Here, we sat out at one of the many bars for Aperitivo, enjoying a selection of breads, cheeses and meats over drinks.

Returning to our hotel for a bit to rest, we then ventured out once more that evening, again finding a small tucked away Trattoria just north of the main touristy areas of the city for a late dinner.

I’d enjoyed my visit to the city of Bologna, less touristy and busy than Florence had been but still with plenty to see and do. Next up, Venice!

A weekend in Orkney

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

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

Kirwall marina

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

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

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

Arriving at the Skara Brae Visitor Centre

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

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

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

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

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

View from the Ring of Brodgar

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

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

Following the Orkney coastline

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

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

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

Christchurch, New Zealand

Having decided upon taking a 7-day tour of New Zealand’s South Island with small group tour company Haka Tour, I set off on my journey from London Heathrow to Christchurch via short stops in Dubai, Bangkok and Sydney before finally landing 35 hours later. While I was not looking forward to such a long flight, I found it went a lot quicker than the longest flights I had previously taken to Australia, maybe helped by all the stops breaking the journey up; but I was still exhausted when we landed and the last thing I needed was to find my suitcase damaged and split open as it came round the conveyor belt at Christchurch airport!

The earthquake damaged Christchurch Cathedral

Customer services were very apologetic and offered to loan me a temporary case while mine was sent to be repaired but said that as it was a holiday weekend for ANZAC day, I would have to return to the airport in 2-3 days to collect it once it was fixed. I explained I was departing on a tour of the island and wouldn’t be in Christchurch then to be able to return to the airport and after a few calls, they agreed to give me a similar suitcase there and then.

A Christchurch tram passes by

It took me a while to repack and transfer everything from one case to the other and by the time I was ready to leave the airport, I’d abandoned all my plans to use public transport into the city and instead hopped straight into a taxi to take me directly to my Ibis hotel.

The temporary Re:Start Mall

It was afternoon when I arrived and with my room ready to check in straight away, I set my alarm for a quick nap before dragging myself out into the city. Finding my way to the Cathedral Square, I had my first glimpse of what was left of the cathedral, severely damaged in the 2011 earthquake.

An autumn stroll along the river

Hoping to find somewhere to eat in the city, I continued to wander through Christchurch but the city was like a ghost town with little about and failing to find anything I wanted to eat, I returned towards my hotel via a walk through Re:Start Mall, a temporary shopping area replacing stores damaged in the earthquake with stores in shipping containers, then along the river and once back, ordered room service before having an very early night to catch up on my missed sleep.

The Chalice sculpture in Cathedral Square

Having seen a leaflet advertising it in the reception of my hotel, I decided to take a walking tour of the city the next morning. There tour was free and there was no need to book, I just needed to be in Cathedral Square, by the Chalice sculpture, at 10am to meet the guide. 7 of us turned up for the tour, a mixture of solo travellers and couples and we were taken around the city hearing about it’s history and the ongoing repercussions of the 2011 quake.

The eerie, ghost town feel to the city made much more sense having heard the stories of the city’s struggles to rebuild and how many people and businesses had moved out to the suburbs to restart.

Above and below, art work covering up earthquake damage in Christchurch

There was still uncertainty about what would become of the damaged Cathedral and we were taken past the temporary ‘Cardboard Cathedral’ being used in the meantime as well as shown the 185 Chairs earthquake memorial with one chair standing for every life lost in the earthquake. The city was also covered in street art and murals trying to cover up the damage and we had plenty of examples pointed out to us.

Rebuilding, art work, car parks and empty space – Christchurch still recovering from a devastating earthquake

Mentioning to the guide that I had struggled to find anywhere to eat in the city with even cafes serving snacks and breakfast being thin on the ground, he took the group to the C1 Espresso, a cafe with a quick bites menu of sandwiches, fries etc., for lunch.

The cafe had an interesting way of serving fries to the tables sending them through pneumatic tubes rather than the serving staff bringing them over!

Above and below, autumn in the botanic gardens

After lunch, I said goodbye to the group and took a walk to the city’s Botanic Gardens then visited the Canterbury Museum before collecting my luggage from my hotel and moving to the nearby YHA to meet my Haka Tours group.

Having arrived from completing their tour of the North Island, the group were just checking in to the YHA and the few of us joining just for the South Island leg of the tour were introduced before we all went out for food at a nearby Mexican restaurant.

Above and below, visiting the Canterbury Museum

The group was made up of mainly Brits, a few Canadians, an American and one Australian varying in age from early 20s to mid-30s and despite most of the group having already spent a week together travelling the North Islands, I felt immediately included and knew we were going to have a good week together exploring the South Island.

Glad to have upgraded to a private room for the trip, after dinner, I headed back to the YHA and my room to again catch up on my sleep before our early start the next morning to begin our South Island adventure starting with a visit to Lake Tekapo.

Trek America Northern BLT Days 18-20: San Francisco

Driving into San Francisco
Entrance to Pier 39

This morning, after a stop for a pancake breakfast in a Mariposa diner, it was off to San Francisco, a city I had visited twice before and is one of my favourite cities in the USA.

City views from the pier

We arrived early afternoon and were dropped in Fisherman’s Wharf and given a couple of hours to explore. Most of us walked down to the busy Pier 39 where we looked around the many souvenir and gift stores before walking down to the end of the pier to see the famous Pier 39 sealions which gather on the decks floating in the bay. Unfortunately there were only a few there compared to the hundreds I’d seen gathered there on my previous visits but it was still fun to watch them jump on and off the wooden decks and scramble around each other before lazing in the sun.

After grabbing snacks and ice creams we spend the rest of the time walking around the Fisherman’s Wharf area visiting more souvenir stores and soaking in the atmosphere before reconvening with the rest of the group ready to head to our Union Square accommodation. For the next 2 nights, we would be staying in a hostel located a short walk from Union Square. As hostels go, it wasn’t too bad and once we were settled in our dorms, we headed back out and down the hill to the Union Square cable car turnaround.

San Francisco Cable Cars

It was early evening by now and the huge queues which gather earlier in the day for the cable cars and gone down leaving just a handful of people. 10 minutes of waiting and watching the cable car operators push the cable cars around on the turntables and it was time for us to board.

View from the cable car

The more adventurous of us in the group, including me, took our places on the outside of the cable cars, stood on the narrow steps and clinging to the bars as the cable cars climbed and descended the famous hills of San Francisco. We managed to survive and got off at the stop at the top of Lombard Street. Lombard Street is known as the ‘crookedest street in the World’ and cars line up to drive down it’s twisty turny section of road. We walked down stopping to watch the cars manoeuvre its tight turns and posing for photos from the bottom of the road from where you can see the wiggly road more clearly.

View of Telegraph Hill from Lombard St
Lombard Street

From Lombard Street, we walked towards the Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, passing Washington Square Park and the church of Sts Peter and Paul – famous from many movies set in the city and as the church where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMagio posed for photos outside after they married.

Church of Sts Peter & Paul in Washington Square
The Coit Tower

It was dusk by the time we reached Telegraph Hill and the Coit Tower was bathed in blue light. The city around it was lighting up and we spent some time taking in the views and taking photos before walking back down the hill towards the North Beach area of the city. North Beach is the city’s Italian quarter and we ended the night with a delicious meal in one of the many small Italian restaurants in the vicinity before catching an Uber back to the hostel.

Looking back at the city from the Alcatraz ferry

The next morning, we were dropped at the Embarcedero area of the city to catch the ferry across to Alcatraz Island. I’d toured Alcatraz on both of my previous visits to San Francisco but as this was another included extra on our tour, meaning we didn’t have to pay any extra for it, I was more than happy to return!

Nearing Alcatraz Island
On Alcatraz

Upon arrival at the prison, visitors are handed audio guides which give instructions on where to walk around the prison while talking about what it is you are seeing. It’s a really interesting place to visit, especially as many of the audio clips are narrated by previous Alcatraz workers and inmates.

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Alcatraz
The Painted Ladies

After catching the boat back to the mainland, we were taken back to Union Square where the group split up to spend the rest of the day in different ways. Some went shopping in and around the Union Square while some of us went sightseeing.

In Haight-Ashbury

As I was already familiar with the city, I took some of the group out towards Haight-Ashbury. We used public transport and took the bus to Alamo Square to see the Painted Ladies houses then walked from here along to Haight-Ashbury to explore the quirky shops, cafes and see the many wall murals.

The Mrs Doubtfire House

From here we took a local bus to the Mrs Doubtfire house before heading back towards Union Square. We still had a few hours to kill before we had to meet with the rest of the group so we decided to visit the Cable Car Museum, a free museum near Chinatown before catching a streetcar to Fisherman’s Wharf for dinner at the Rainforest Cafe.

On the boat under the Golden Gate Bridge

That evening, the whole group was booked on a sunset cruise on the Bay. We could tell as soon as we arrived at the pier that we would not be seeing much of a sunset and as we cruised around, the Golden Gate Bridge repeatedly appeared and disappeared under a cloud of fog!

Sunset Catamaran trip
Dessert at the Hard Rock Cafe

It was still a fun, if a little chilly, way to spend the evening though and after, a few of us rounded the evening off with drinks and dessert at Hard Rock Cafe at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Abou to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge

On our final morning in San Francisco, and our last full day of the tour, we had breakfast at the hostel before checking out and driving to the Golden Gate Bridge. We were dropped off on the city side and told to walk across where the van would meet us at the other end.

Crossing the bridge

As I had crossed the bridge by bus and then bike on my previous 2 visits to the city, it was nice to get a different perspective by walking across this time but like the previous night, the fog kept rolling in hampering the views slightly.

Once at across the bridge, we were jumped back on the bus ready to continue our journey down the Californian coast.

Northern BLT Day 4-5: Chicago

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

Horse and cart on the streets of Shipshewana
Exploring Shipshewana

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

Shipshewana, Indiana

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

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

At Bobby’s Bike Hire in Chicago

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

The Cloudgate sculpture in Millennium Park

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

Fireworks at the end of our tour

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

Chicago River
Willis Tower

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

Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park

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

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

Ride on Navy Pier

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

Beach on Lake Michigan
Gino’s East

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

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

Watch my Trek America adventures in Chicago here:

My first solo travel adventure

Coast to coast with Trek America

If you’ve read my previous post about my decision to travel solo for the first time, you’ll know that rather than spending my entire trip completely by myself, I opted to join a small group tour. Specifically, the Southern BLT Tour with the established small group tour company, Trek America.

I booked the tour through the touradar website in their Christmas sale and the tour was to begin mid-February meaning I didn’t have too much time to dwell on my decision. With the extra nights I had added in LA and New York either side of the 3-week tour, I would be away for 4 weeks in total, the longest I had ever been away from home before.

As the departure date approached I decided to take up Trek America’s offer of a free FairFX prepaid currency card rather than just taking cash as I would on a shorter trip. This came with access to an app which I could use to top up the card with dollars if I was getting low at any point as long as I had internet access and as the tour was advertised as having on-bus WiFi and I knew from previous visits stateside that WiFi was easy to find, finding internet access shouldn’t be a problem.

The tour required us to take a sleeping bag for the night spent in a cabin and I also went out and bought a pair of special walking trainers from Sports Direct for any hiking we’d do, a quick-drying travel towel for use at the hostels and various other bits and bobs that I wouldn’t ordinarily take on holiday but I thought I might need in a trip like this!

My biggest worry was what size case to take. Or whether to take a case at all as I figured a lot of the passengers might be serious backpackers with, well, a backpack. For just a 2 week holiday, I would usually take my large case but I knew luggage was to be stored in our minibus as we travelled and would have to be dragged in and out of our accommodation every day or so (we had no more than 2 nights in any one place on the tour) so maybe a large case was too much. But would there be chance to do laundry or would I have to take enough clothes to last the entire trip?!

What to pack in itself was another problem. I’d assumed when I booked the tour that travelling through the Southern states meant that even in February/March, it’d mainly be warm although I did realise once we reached Washington DC and New York it would be chillier. But after googling the weather for some of our stops, I realised it was likely to be cool in quite a few places along the way so layers, a few jumpers, hoodies and even my winter coat might be necessary!

I eventually opted to take my medium-sized case, squashing as much as possible in and deciding if there was no opportunity for laundry, I could probably get a couple of wears out of most tops!!

Alone on Santa Monica Beach

So with lots of excitement, and some trepidation, I headed to the airport a few days before the start of the tour to begin my trip. I had booked 2 nights by myself in Santa Monica at a motel I had stayed at with my family a couple of years before and would then spend the third night staying at Trek America’s “gateway” hotel – the one the tour departed from – the night before the tour began.

Sunset over Santa Monica Pier

Whereas I would usually share a taxi with my travel buddies to get us to our hotel quickly and easily after a long flight, it was a lot of money to spend for just one person so I had researched how to get to Santa Monica on public transport. So after arriving at LAX, I went to wait for the Airbus service hoping to save a bit of money. But after waiting and waiting and seeing numerous buses come and go for Hollywood, Downtown, Anaheim and various other districts of Los Angeles but none for Santa Monica, I gave up and, just wanting to get there, ended up in a cab!

Breakfast feast for one at Denny’s

It was odd finding myself alone in a city I had visited many times before with family and friends and needing food, I was unsure what to do. Not being brave enough just yet to go to a restaurant alone, I instead opted for the food court in Santa Monica Place shopping mall before heading down to the beach to watch the sunset.

Sony Studios Tour

To keep myself busy over the next few days, I’d planned plenty of activities, again extensively researching how to reach places on public transport. After breakfast at Denny’s (eating alone wasn’t actually that bad!), my first stop was Sony Studios for a backlot tour. Using public transport ran smoother than it had the previous day and after asking for directions just once when I got off the bus, I found my way to the tour check in point with plenty of time to spare.

Walking to Venice Beach

After the tour, I wandered around the nearby area of Culver City before catching the bus back towards Santa Monica. I spent the afternoon in Venice following a self-guided walk around the canals which I had downloaded before my trip, another part of the city I had not seen before.

Exploring the canals at Venice
On a tour to Malibu

The following day, I had booked onto another tour to see the Star Homes in Malibu and then, after lunch alone at Barney’s Beanery – my favourite Santa Monica eatery – I hired a bike and rode to Marina del Rey, again ticking off a few more places I’d not been to before. In all honesty, I kept myself too busy to even notice I was by myself and I actually enjoyed not having to compromise on anything and being able to do what I liked and at my own pace.

Malibu Beach
After cycling to Marina del Rey

Watch my Vlog of my time spent in Santa Monica before the tour here:

That evening, it was time to move from my cosy Santa Monica B&B to my Trek’s departure hotel, the Custom Hotel bear LAX. Wanting to avoid paying out for another taxi, I had again looked up how to get there on public transport. One direct bus which would drop me outside my new hotel seemed doable although I hadn’t factored in travelling in rush hour with a case and bag!

6 weeks before your Trek America tour departs, participants are given access to an online group where you can ‘meet’ other members of your tour group. This only works, of course, if other members are active in the group and no one seemed to be using it for the tour I had booked. Undeterred, and curious as to whom I would be spending 3 weeks travelling with, I instead, left a message on the Trek America forums asking if anyone else was going to be on the Southern BLT tour departing that week. By the time I had left for LA, there had been no replies but a few days later, 2 people had answered saying they too would be on the tour.

So the evening before the tour departed, once settled in at the ‘gateway’ hotel, I made my way up to the hotel’s rooftop bar where I had arranged to meet 3 of my fellow travelling companions. Everyone seemed nice – we were all solo travellers who were travelling solo for the first time and it put my mind at ease slightly about the next few weeks. After a few drinks and some small talk, it was off for an early-ish night ready to start my 3-week cross-country adventure the following morning.

It was an early start the next day where I met the rest of the group in the hotel lobby. 11 of us in total, 7 guys, 4 girls, aged 20-34 from the UK, Australia, Sweden and Switzerland. After brief introductions, some form-filling and a talk from our American tour guide, it was time to load our luggage on to the trailer and board our minibus ready to get on the road!

My first Small Group Tour travel experience Part 1

Going it alone

Going it alone

Travelling solo for the first time.

After almost 10 years of fitting in city breaks around my teaching career, I finally took the plunge and quit my full time job in order to travel more extensively. Up until now, any trips I’d taken had been with friends, often fellow teacher also tied down to taking trips in the school holidays, and had mainly been short breaks with the odd 2-week trip when there was more time over the summer break. But now I was no longer tied down to travelling in the school holidays – which was great as it meant I could take advantage of the cheaper term time flight and accommodation prices – but it also meant that my teacher friends were not available to come with me and, with wanting to go away for longer than the standard week or fortnight, no one else was able, or willing, to get the time off work either. The choice was simple. Stay at home, taking the first long term supply teaching job I was offered and continue to make the odd trip at weekends and in the holidays, or really make use of the situation I had put myself in and go it alone.

I chose the latter and started to research solo travel. Having visited many of the main US cities over the last 10 years, America was a country I knew I felt comfortable in and wanted to see more of – specifically travelling outside of the cities – so that seemed like a good place to start. I’d been receiving brochures from the group travel company Trek America and it’s sister company, Grand American Adventures, for a few years after entering a competition to travel with them once and ending up on their mailing list and I had always flicked through them half-heartedly before throwing them in the recycling but now when the new brochures arrived, I paid a bit more attention and started doing some online research into the companies and their tours. I’d had a few friends do larger group tours with companies such as Contiki and was pretty sure this wasn’t for me but a small group tour sounded more appealing.

Trek America offered a wide range of tours In North America aimed at 18-38 year olds. The majority of the tours offered were camping based, which I knew I did not want to do! – but they also offered some of their tours as BLTs or Budget Lodging Tours which used a mixture of hostels, motels and cabins. I’d never stayed in a hostel in my life and it didn’t particularly appeal to me but if it was just for a few nights here and there between hotel/motel stops, I figured I could cope. The alternative was to choose a tour with another company such as Grand American Adventures which used hotels and motels only but these were a lot more expensive and were open-aged tours which worried me in case everyone else on the tour was a lot older than me. Being in my mid-30s at this point, there was always the risk that doing a Trek America tour would find me as the only ‘older’ traveller in a group of 18 year olds but I decided that choosing a BLT tour over a cheaper, more affordable camping tour plus the 21 years old drinking age in America, would minimise this risk and hopefully the tours would attract a slightly older age group.

Once I’d narrowed down which tour company to use, the next step was choosing which tour to do. There were about 6 BLT tours on offer, all varying in length and visiting different areas of the US. Having spent a lot of time in the obvious cities – at this point I had already visited New York, LA, Chicago, Boston, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Washington DC on city breaks – I wanted to find a tour that went to enough new places for me that it would make it worth while. A lot of the west coast trips mainly spent time in LA, Vegas and San Francisco and the North East BLT tour went to New York, Boston and Niagara Falls which I’d also seen before. Their Deep South BLT certainly looked a possibility as I’d always wanted to see New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville but it was only a one week tour and, not being a drinker, I did worry again about it attracting a partying, younger crowd. Also, I thought that if I was going to do this, maybe I should go all in and go for a longer amount of time rather than testing the waters on a one week tour.

The company’s most encompassing BLT tour was the Grand BLT, a 6 week trip travelling coast to coast from New York to LA through the Northern states before returning to New York travelling back through the Southern states. The trips for that year had already departed and didn’t start up again until the following summer but I was itching to get going sooner than that so I saw that the trip could be split. The company’s Southern BLT tour ran through the winter months as well as the summer months. Paired with the Northern BLT which ran just through the summer months, it creates the Grand BLT. Maybe I didn’t have to do the entire trip in one go but could split it into two 3-week trips, one now and one in the summer. That way, if it turned out it wasn’t for me, 3 weeks is less of a commitment than 6 and I just wouldn’t book onto the second leg.

The Southern BLT Tour route

So after a bit more inning and ahhing, talking it through with various friends and family members who all encouraged me to go for it, I booked myself onto the February departure of the Southern BLT tour, adding on a few days completely by myself in Santa Monica, LA before the trip and in New York after the trip – both cities familiar to me so a few days alone in both seemed manageable!

Trek America tour van

I’ll write about my experiences on the trip in a future post but suffice to say I loved it, it was without a doubt the best thing I have ever done. I did book myself onto the Northern BLT that summer and I have done numerous small group tours since with Trek America and various other companies.

So if you are thinking thinking of travelling solo but maybe don’t want to spend your time completely by yourself, definitely consider a group tour!

My first solo travel adventure

Spending time in Melbourne, Australia

I’ve been lucky enough to make a few visits ‘down under’ and 4 of my 5 trips to Australia have included a stop in the city of Melbourne, Victoria. Partly because a good friend of mine moved to the suburbs of the city 10 years ago so whenever I’m in Australia, I like to try and visit but also because, it’s a great city and a good base to explore the surrounding area.

Flinder Street Station

The city of Melbourne and the surrounding area certainly has plenty to offer visitors.

If it’s shopping you’re after then Melbourne won’t disappoint. As well as department stores and shopping malls aplenty, you’ll find great souvenir shopping at Victoria Market, outlet stores at the relatively new Dockside area and boutique stores hidden down narrow lanes. In need of a coffee after? Melbourne is famous for its cafe culture and you’ll find independent coffee shops around every corner!

Flinders Street

Melbourne’s CBD area is easy to get around, it’s layout borrowing heavily from the American grid system. The city offers a free trolley service which loops around the outside of the CBD, passing Federation Square, the Dockside area, Victoria Market and Melbourne Museum amongst other places of interest and even includes a recorded commentary for tourists! Another free bus service runs along the river Yarra towards Melbourne’s Cricket Ground and back. These services are mainly used by tourists and can get busy, especially the circle line trolley.

Federation Square is a good place to start exploring Melbourne from. The Square is a busy meeting place in the city with large open spaces often hosting events and exhibitions and here, you’ll find the city’s tourist information centre.

The Crown Casino Complex

One of my favourite places to stroll in Melbourne is its Southbank area. From here you’ll find great views of the city looking across to Flinders Street Station across the River Yarra. Street entertainers often line the pavement and there’s the huge Crown Casino complex alongside the Southbank with its many shops and restaurants to explore too. Boat trips are offered along the River Yarra from various companies along the riverside, some offering roundtrips with a commentary, others taking you out at sunset or ferrying you to nearby Williamstown.

Eureka Tower and, below, views from the top

Looming over the Southbank, you can’t help but notice the Eureka Tower, the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere. The tower has an observation deck at the top with 360 degree views across the city and Victoria state.

The Shrine of Remembrance

A short walk off the Southbank you’ll find Alexandra Park and the neighbouring Royal Botanic Gardens. The parks are definitely worth a stroll through and you can walk down to the Shine of Remembrance at the south end of the park.

View of Melbourne skyline from St Kilda Pier

Just outside of Melbourne city, and easily reachable by tram, is the beach suburb of St Kilda. St Kilda is a lovely place to stroll around, grab a coffee and cake on Acland Street, walk along the pier from which you can make out Melbourne City skyline on a clear day, visit it’s Sunday flea market or for a bit more excitement, visit Luna Park, it’s amusement park with its huge clown-face gates!

On ‘Ramsay Street’

Fans of the long-running Australian soap opera Neighbours can pay a visit to ‘Ramsay Street’ or Pinot Court as it’s actually called in the suburbs of Melbourne. While it is possible to drive out to the street yourself, tours are available daily from the Neighbours store in Melbourne’s CBD. These tours are great fun with clips from the show being played on the bus as you drive out and locations such as the school being pointed out along the way. On weekends, tours of the set are also offered so you can have photos with the exteriors of Lassiters, Harold’s General Store etc as well as the houses on Ramsay Street. While the infamous ‘Neighbours Night’ (a weekly club night attended by various cast members) is no longer offered, sometimes cast members do pop along to greet tour buses and have photos!

At the Nobbies, Phillip Island and, below, photos from a day tour to Phillip Island

Like I mentioned before, Melbourne is a great base for exploring more of Victoria from. If you don’t have access to a car, there are plenty of companies offering day tours out of the city. My favourite tour to take is to Phillip Island to see the Little Penguins.

This tour can be done as a full day trip or as a half day afternoon trip, depending on how much you want to see along the way and at Phillip Island itself. Most tour companies offer a stop at a wildlife park along the way where you can hang out with the kangaroos and other Australian animals before crossing into the beautiful Phillip Island. Full day tours will usually give you time to explore beaches and coastal walks at various parts of the island while even afternoon-only tours will usually stop at the Nobbies where you can follow the boardwalk for amazing coastal views. Whichever tour you take, the final stop will be at the Penguin Parade where you will sit on the beach and watch as the Little Penguins swim in and run across the sand to their burrows. It really is incredible to watch!

The Twelve Apostles

Another popular trip out from Melbourne is Great Ocean Road. Running along the coast all the way from Melbourne to Adelaide, the distance is too far for one day but you can at least make it as far as the famous Twelve Apostles rock formations and back although it’s a long day!!!

Apollo Bay

I first travelled Great Ocean Road using public transport, catching a train to Geelong then picking up a bus which stopped at Apollo Bay then at the Twelve Apostles and other rock formations, giving us enough time at each stop to get off and take photos before dropping us at a station to catch a train all the way back to Melbourne. It was a cheap way of doing it and we saw what we wanted to see but without a tour guide to provide a commentary or the social aspect of a small group tour, the day felt even longer than it was.

I have since taken a guided small group one day tour of Great Ocean Road and while this was also a long trip, especially the drive back to Melbourne at the end of the day, and we didn’t make it to as many of the rock formations as on the independent trip, I found this to be a much more enjoyable option. We made many stops along the way to break up the journey at pretty bays and towns, at a rainforest boardwalk, a lighthouse and even somewhere to see koalas in their natural habitat before stopping at the Twelve Apostles and Loch Ard Gorge rock formations.

Trips to Mornington Peninsula and the Yarra Valley wineries are other popular options for easily reachable days out from the city.

Overall, Melbourne is a great place to visit but make sure you take the opportunity to get out of the city itself as Victoria has a lot more than Melbourne city to offer!