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.

Franz Josef, New Zealand

I was nearing the end of a one-week tour of New Zealand’s South Island with small group adventure tour company, Haka Tours. The tour had began in Christchurch with stops at Lake Tekapo, Queenstown and Wanaka and now we had 2 nights left and were driving north to Glacier Country.

Beautiful coastal view on the way to Franz Josef

As the Haka Tours bus took us from Wanaka towards our destination of Franz Josef, there was a visible change in the scenery as we entered Mount Aspiring National Park and the New Zealand rainforest and the vivid autumn colours that had dominated our views so far were replaced by deep hues of green.

Coastal drive

Before leaving, we were all advised to invest in some bug spray to use as we reached the tropics and as we got out the bus at our first stop, Fantail Falls, we were all glad to have taken this advice as mosquitos swarmed near the river.

Ocean view

Fantail Falls was a pretty and easy to access waterfall in Mount Aspiring National Parks. After spending some time taking photos, we took a short drive to another waterfall, the taller Thunder Creek Falls.

It was another couple of hours or so drive from here to our motel in Franz Josef, the only other stop we made along the way was a a viewpoint over the coast.

Our limo awaits

That evening, our guide told us there was a surprise night out arranged for us all and after checking into our rooms, we met up to find a limousine waiting outside our motel for us!

The limo took us up and down the high street a few time before dropping us at the Blue Ice Cafe, a bar that was actually just a short walk from our accommodation.

Church in Franz Josef Village

Here, we found a tray of shots lined up for us and after some good ‘pub grub’ food, we spent the evening entertaining ourselves playing pool along with games on the Nintendo Wii set up by the bar staff!

Walking through Franz Josef village, the glacier in the distance

The next morning, we were off to visit Franz Josef glacier. Some of the group had booked helicopter tours and ice-walking trips to get a bit closer to the glacier while the rest of us would be following the walking trail out of Franz Josef village to the base of the glacier.

Hiking to the glacier

After grabbing some snacks and sandwiches to take with us, we set off. It was a mainly easy walk to the glacier over rivers, through the rainforest and past waterfalls with the glacier in view most of the way.

Waterfalls on the way to the glacier and below, nearing the glacier

After taking plenty of photos, we ate lunch near the glacier before retracing our steps back to the path.

With plenty of time to spare before meeting the rest of our group back at the hotel, we decided to follow the Douglas Walk path, hoping it would lead us to a suspension bridge we had glimpsed sight of from the glacier.

In the rainforest

The path took us through more rainforest and to Peters Pool, a small but pretty lake which reflected the surrounding scenery and then on to Douglas Bridge, a suspension bridge across the Waiho River. While not the bridge we had seen from the glacier earlier, it was still fun to cross and we made sure to follow the ‘5 persons only’ instruction written on the bridge’s entrance!

From here, some of the group decided to continue on in their search for the other suspension bridge while the rest of us decided to turn around and walk back to Franz Josef village. Once there we sat out in the sunshine having tea and cake at a small cafe waiting for the rest of the group to get back.

We met with the rest of the group late afternoon and all swapped our stories from the day. All tired after the day’s excursions, we were delighted to find out that we would be visiting the Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools to relax for a while.

The suspension bridge across the River Waiho

Then, as it was officially the last night of our tour, we all went out to a local restaurant for one last group meal together.

Arriving in Hokitika

The next morning, we checked out of our Franz Josef motel and boarded our Haka Tours bus for the last time. Our tour of New Zealand’s South Island would be finishing this evening back at where we started, the city of Christchurch.

But instead of taking the tour bus the whole way there, we would be taking the TranzAlpine train for the last leg of the journey!

Above, and below, Hokitka Beach

Before arriving at the train station, we made a lunch stop in the coastal town of Hokitika. After grabbing some food and browsing in some of the town’s jade stores, we made our way down to the beach. Hokitika is home to a large beach full of driftwood and local artists had fashioned this driftwood into various sculptures covering the sand.

The sculptures made great backgrounds for our photos and with it being the last day of our tour, we made sure to get a few photos of the group together.

Above, and below, driftwood sculptures on Hokitika Beach

From here, we continued on until we reached the train station. We waved goodbye to our tour guide for a while – he’d be driving the bus back to Christchurch and would meet us at the other end with our luggage for a proper goodbye – and waited for the train to arrive.

Above, on board the TranzAlpine Train to Christchurch, and below, views along the way

The TranzAlpine is supposed to be one of the World’s greatest train journeys and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The journey took us past amazing scenery passing river gorges and through the Southern Alps then across the Canterbury Plains before arriving in Christchurch. Here we were met as planned by the Haka Tours bus and it was time to say goodbye to some members of the group who were leaving that night to catch flights.

The rest of us would be staying over at the Haka Lodge hostel on the outskirts of the city before departing the next day.

It had been an unforgettable week and I’d enjoyed my time in New Zealand so much, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I returned, next time to explore its North Island!

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!!

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 int he 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.

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…

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.

Touring the Deep South USA: Nashville

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

A quick stop at the Bluebird Cafe

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

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

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

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

Giant boot on Broadway

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

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

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

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

View of the Cumberland River from the Shelby St Pedestrian Bridge

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

Skyline view from the bridge

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

Entering the Wild Horse Saloon

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

Country band plays to a quiet Wild Horse Saloon

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

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

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

Broadway at night

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

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

Breakfast

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

Touring the Deep South USA: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Entering the state of Georgia en route to Tennessee

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

A game of Cards Against Humanity on the van

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

Setting foot in Georgia state

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

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

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

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

First stop, the Visitor Centre!

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

Views changing as we drive through the park

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

Beginning our Abrams Falls Trail hike

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

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

Not a bad spot to sit and have some lunch!

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

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

Beautiful autumn colours looking out from the closer to the waterfall

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

Downtown Gatlinburg

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

Autumn displays decorating the main Strip

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

Arriving at Ole Smokey Distillery

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

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

A band plays outside the distillery

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

Belting out the cheesy pop tunes at karaoke night!

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

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

Touring the Deep South USA: New Orleans

A couple of years ago I was ecstatic to win 2 places on Trek America’s Deep South Budget Lodging Tour (or Deep South BLT as it’s known for short). The 7 night tour would begin and end in New Orleans, taking in Birmingham, Alabama, Gatlinburg/Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee and Natchez, Mississippi along the way.

View of Jackson Square and St Louis Cathedral
On board our boat through the swamp in Lafitte

Having previously taken Trek America’s Southern BLT, I had visited New Orleans, Nashville and Memphis before so this probably wasn’t a tour I would have paid to take part in but, last time I visited Nashville and Memphis, things hadn’t exactly gone to plan (read all about it here!) thanks to the onset of wintry weather forcing us to abandon most of our plans so I was ecstatic to get a second chance to experience these cities, this time, hopefully, snow free!

Beautiful scenery on our swamp tour

Deciding to invite along my sister-in-law who had only ever been to New York and LA in the USA before, we added on a few extra days in New Orleans before the tour was to begin. Wanting her to get the most out of the experience, I borrowed heavily from my last experience of visiting the city in planning our itinerary for the 2 full days we had there.

Spotting a small ‘gator!

So on day one, we walked from our hotel on the edge of the French quarter to Jackson Square where we would be meeting for a swamp tour. Last time, I had taken Dr Wagner’s Honey Island swamp tour which had been organised by our Trek leader. It was February, cold and wet and not alligator season. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the experience, I had a great time. But this time, I wanted to visit a different swamp so I booked us on a tour offered by Grayline. The weather was warm and sunny and it was, just, still alligator season.

Alligator!

We were taken by bus to the swamp, where we boarded our boats and headed out onto the bayou. Today, there were plenty of alligators to see as we glided through the water and past the lush, green scenery. While the commentary was sometimes difficult to hear over the conversations going on between passengers, it was still a really fun and exciting way to spend the morning.

The French Market entrance decorated for the season

Once back in New Orleans, we spent the afternoon exploring the French Quarter. It was Hallowe’en week and many of the buildings had been dressed up in preparation. We sampled some beignets from a local cafe and finished up with drinks on Bourbon Street.

View along Bourbon Street from the veranda of one of the bars and, below, New Orleans at night – on the ghost tour

That evening we took a ghost tour with Free Tours By Foot. This company allows you to sign up to its walking tours for free then at the end of the tour, you pay what you feel it was worth or what you can afford. On my previous visit to New Orleans I had taken a ghost tour with a company where you pay a set price up front and I have to say that of the two tours, the ‘free’ tour was much better.

Beignets!!
One of the many grand houses in New Orleans’ Garden District

The next day, we took a street car out to New Orleans’ Garden District. Rather than taking a guided tour like I had on my previous visit, this time I’d downloaded a self-guided walking tour which directed us around the area pointing out houses of interest along the way. The Garden District is a really pretty place to explore and with many celebrities living in the are, you never know who you might bump into!

At City Park and, below, sculptures and scenery at City Park

That afternoon, we took another streetcar, this time, out to City Park, a large park on the edge of the city and a new experience for me. The park is home to a sculpture park which we explored before stumbling across a mini-golf course.

The mini-golf course dressed up for Hallowe’en

As it was Hallowe’en week, the course had been decorated with cobwebs and a range of spooky figures and as we played, we were regularly interrupted by witches cackling and skeleton dogs howling, livening up the game.

City views

Back in the city, we walked towards the Mississippi River and watched the pipes play on the Natchez steamboat. We had booked an evening dinner cruise as I had enjoyed taking one on my previous visit to the the city. After enjoying the delicious buffet dinner, we sat out on the deck enjoying the sunset and city views and listening to the jazz band play.

It had been fun to return to New Orleans a few years on, revisiting some of the places I had seen before and reliving some of my previous experiences but now I was looking forward to beginning our tour of America’s Deep South, starting with a trip to Birmingham, Alabama!

Watch my trip vlog here: