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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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…!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
After an exhausting but amazing day kayaking out to an iceberg field in Valdez, it was back on the van today to set off for our next stop on our Alaskan Highlights tour of Alaska, the historic town of McCarthy from where we’d be exploring the largest US National Park, Wrangell-St Elias.
After a quick breakfast stop in Valdez, we began our long drive, stopping just outside of Valdez after spotting a bald eagle in the trees on the roadside and then again at an overlook for Lowe River.
We made more frequent stops at various viewpoints to stretch our legs along the way including one at Liberty Falls State Recreation Area to see the waterfall.
Our lunch stop today was in the small town of Chitina. As we’d once again made our own lunch up to keep costs down, we again bought a dessert to share at the cafe the group were eating at!
The road to McCarthy was long and bumpy and following yesterday’s exhausting full day’s kayaking excursion, after lunch, I did something I rarely do and fell asleep in the van!
I woke up just before our final stop before McCarthy at an overlook for the Copper River. We stopped at a long road bridge crossing the river from which there pretty views of the chalky river flowing through the canyon below. The road was so quiet, we sat on the bridge posing for photos – something we’d rarely be able to do on road bridges in the UK!
Once we reached the vicinity of McCarthy, we stopped and parked up near an old railroad bridge. We were told to retrieve our luggage from the trailer and to take it over the river bridge and once on the other side, we would be met by vans belonging to the guesthouse we were staying in who would take us the rest of the way into town as larger vehicles such as our tour van are not advised to drive the last stretch of the road.
We were staying at Ma Johnson’s Hotel, a historic guesthouse in the town. There was no wifi, no power points in our rooms – we had to use the few in the communal areas – and bathrooms were shared rather than being en suite but it had a real charm about it and the rooms were really lovely. The whole town was like something time had forgot with its swinging saloon doors and Wild West style fronts.
That afternoon, some of us had opted to take a scenic flight over Wrangell-St Elias National Park so, after a bit of time to settle in to our accommodation and look around the small town, we met at the front of the hotel to be shuttled down to the local airfield and board our small aircraft.
The flight was an amazing experience with stunning views of the park below. We flew over the braided Copper River, over the ghost town of Kennecott and then over mountains and glaciers, the scenery taking our breath away as our pilot told us about the history and geography of the area and answered any questions we had as we communicated with him through our headsets. We had saved furiously before the trip to be able to do these optional extras as we knew they would be what made the trip and while this was certainly not the cheapest optional extra on offer, it was absolutely worth every penny.
After our flight, we were dropped back in McCarthy town and all went for dinner at local diner, The Potato, where I had an amazing pulled pork sandwich. The group was really starting to gel now and the banter was in full flow as we were all on a high from our scenic flight experience.
Day 2 in McCarthy and we were off to Wrangell-St Elias National Park for a glacier hiking experience. Once again, we were picked up and shuttled out of McCarthy, this time to the old mining town of Kennecott, now a ghost town, where we met our guide for the day and got kitted out with special grips that fitted over our shoes enabling us to walk on the icy glacier.
Taking a short hike out to the glacier’s edge, we followed the glacier trail until the rocky path disappeared to be replaced by ice. It was surreal walking across the seemingly endless icy plain which we had been flying over the afternoon before. We came across huge walls of ice and deep crevices with no bottom in sight. We stopped for snacks and drinks sat out on the glacier and stopped to fill up our water bottles from the icy springs – the clearest, freshest water I’ve ever tasted!
After returning to Kennecott and handing back our equipment, the afternoon was free for us to either explore Kennecott or to return to McCarthy. We decided to stay in Kennecott, grabbing some lunch and visiting the national park visitor center before signing up for a tour of the old abandoned copper mine.
The tour was really interesting, taking us through the town of Kennecott hearing all about its history and then up into the remains of the old, red mill building. Although the building had been stabilised to allow visitors in, we had to wear hard hats in case of any falling debris!
After the tour, we caught the shuttle back to McCarthy taking another trip to the Potato Cafe for dinner and relaxing after a busy day.
The next morning, we had breakfast and spent some time down by the river before we were dropped back at our tour van ready to set off for our next destination, an overnight stop in Maclaren.
Watch my vlog of my visit to McCarthy and scenic flight over Wrangell-St Elias here:
Watch my vlog of my Wrangell-St Elias glacier hike and visit to Kennecott ghost town here:
After beginning my trip exploring Anchorage and a couple of days in Seward exploring Kenai Fjords National Park, it was back aboard our Grand American Adventures tour bus early this morning to start the long drive to our next stop, Valdez. Following a supermarket stop to grab breakfast and snacks for the day, we continued on to our next quick stop of the day, Bear Creek Weir, not far outside of Seward to watch the salmon swimming through.
Next up was a stop at the Moose Pass Water Wheel and Grindstone which sit at the side of the highway at the entrance to the town of Moose Pass.
Continuing towards Valdez, our next stop was at a viewing point for Mantanuska River and Glacier before we stopped for lunch at the cute Sheep Mountain Lodge from which there were more beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. Having realised just how expensive Alaska was over the last few days, we had opted to buy cheese and rolls on our supermarket stop that morning and had made our own lunch to eat on the van so instead, we ordered a delicious warm cookie and ice cream dessert to share from the lodge’s menu!
We were slowly realising that the main thing to see is Alaska is glaciers and sure enough, our next stop was a viewing point for another one, this time, Worthington Glacier.
Luckily, the views were always so beautiful, we never tired of this kind of stop to enjoy the Alaskan scenery.
As we neared Valdez, we started to pass a few waterfalls trickling down the cliffs either side of the highway. We pulled over to get a closer look at some of these and also see the Old Railroad Tunnel, a historic unfinished tunnel nearby.
Our last stop before we reached Valdez was at Soloman Gulch Fish Hatchery where we watched in amazement at the hundreds of salmon swimming at the weir. Then it was onto Valdez where we checked into our hotel and then went for a group dinner at Roma Italian restaurant.
The evening was ours to wander through Valdez or – in our case – do laundry!
We did find time for a quick walk around town, spotting some of Valdez’s many rabbits as we went!
It was an early morning the next day. Although it was a free day to spending Valdez as we liked, 4 of us had opted to spend it taking a full day sea kayaking tour. After checking in for our tour and getting kitted out in our thermal, waterproof gear for the day, we boarded a small boat carrying our kayaking equipment and sailed out to sea.
This part of the day was exciting enough as we sped across the waves and even passed a group of seals. Once at our destination, we boarded our kayaks and set off, paddling out to a waterfall in a calm lagoon at first before heading out to sea.
It was a long, cold day and by the end of it, our arms and shoulders ached a lot, but it was totally worth it as we kayaked out to see huge icebergs floating in the icy sea. We even saw one enormous iceberg start to roll until it was completely the other way up, sending small waves towards our kayaks. Just amazing.
We docked on an island for lunch and a warm cup of tea, stunning views of the icebergs in the sea in front of us before kayaking out to them again, getting close enough to touch some of the small pieces of floating ice. An incredible experience!
At the end of the day we clambered from our kayaks back onto the boat which had come to collect us and take us back to Valdez where we went for a well-earned pizza and to tell the rest of the group about our adventure.
We slept well that night and the next morning, after a breakfast stop at Valdez’s famous Roadside Potatohead Cafe, it was back on the road to begin our journey to our next Alaska destination.
Watch my vlog of our journey to Valdez here…
and my vlog of my sea kayaking experience in Vadelz here:
After 2 underwhelming days spent in Anchorage, the day we had been waiting for had arrived – the start of our 10-day Grand American Adventures Alaskan Highlights tour.
Having got the introductions and paperwork out of the way at a welcome meeting the previous evening, it was straight to loading up the trailer with our luggage, hopping on and setting off. The tour was off to a precarious start when moments after leaving the hotel, a huge moose leapt out in front of us just as we had started picking up speed down a main road. Luckily, there was nothing in the lane next to us and we managed to swerve to avoid hitting it. Danger over, we were relieved and excited to have had our first Alaska wildlife spot!
Our guide explained to us that she had a tour ‘morning song’ – a song she played as the first song of the day on the bus each morning and which we’d all get to know and be able to sing along to by the end of the tour. The song was I Got a Name by Joe Croce. It wasn’t a song I was already familiar with but by the end of the tour, we did indeed all know and love it.
Our first stop of the day was at Potter Marsh Wildlife Viewing Boardwalk just outside of Anchorage. We wandered the board walks and were rewarded as we looked out over the marsh with another moose appearance!
Back on the bus, we continued to Alyeska Mountain where we had the option of riding the aerial tramway to the top of the mountain. Never ones to turn down the opportunity to take a gondola ride, we got our tickets along with a few other members of our tour group and soon we were at the top taking in the beautiful views of the mountains and glaciers.
We next stopped at a section of the Byron Glacier Trail in the National Forest. We followed the short section of the trail down to the glacier viewing area then returned to the bus to continue on to Seward arriving early afternoon.
Dropping us off in downtown Seward, we visited a cafe for lunch before going to check in at the motel we’d be staying in for the next 2 nights.
While in Seward, we would mainly be exploring Kenai Fjords National Park and this afternoon we would be heading to the Exit Glacier part of the park.
We were dropped off at the Exit Glacier Visitor Center where most of us decided to take the guided ranger tour to the glacier. After taking a walk in the park ourselves while waiting for the guided walk to start, we made our way back to the visitor centre meeting point. It was quite an easy hike to the glacier with plenty of stops as the ranger talked to us about the park and explained how quickly the glacier is receding.
After our hike, we all boarded our tour bus again to be dropped back in Seward where we had a group meal after which a few of us decided to head to one of the local bars, the Yukon Bar, where it was open mic night then after a few drinks, we walked back to our motel.
Day 2 in Seward we were taking an included full day cruise into Kenai Fjords National Park. After grabbing breakfast at a cafe in town, we met with the rest of the group at the marina, spotting an adorable sea otter playing in the bay as we waited. Our cruise was lead by a National Park Ranger who pointed out where to look to spot wildlife in the area – and there was certainly plenty of it to spot! We saw seals, puffins, bald eagles and goats on the cliffs we sailed past and eventually, our patience paid off when we saw a whale swimming ahead.
During the cruise, the park ranger announced that they were running an Explorer Ranger programme on board, jokingly suggesting that adults could get involved as well as children. So, of course, we requested booklets and completed them to earn our Explorer Ranger badges by the end of the cruise.
Once back on dry land, the evening was ours to spend as we wished. We decided to walk in the opposite direction from the town where we found Seward Lagoon. After having a quick walk along the boardwalk, we went for dinner at Red’s Burgers where you get to eat your food sat on an old converted school bus!
After dinner, we walked back into town taking more pictures around the seafront then returned to the Yukon Bar for drinks at the end of the evening.
It had been a great start to the tour. Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park had been really fun places to explore and now, we were excited to head to Valdez for the next part of our tour!
Watch my vlog of my journey to Seward and visit to Exit Glacier here:
Having had a disappointing trip to Lake Clark on our first day in the state of Alaska, we figured things could only get better! This evening, we would be kicking off a 10-day Grand American Adventures tour of the state with a Welcome Meeting at our hotel and tomorrow we would be departing for Seward, the first stop on our Alaskan Highlights tour, but first, we had the whole day ahead of us to explore Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city.
It was about a 10 minute walk from our hotel to the main downtown strip where all the shops, bars and restaurants were. On the way, we passed famous Anchorage resident, Star the Reindeer.
Once downtown, we grabbed some breakfast from Starbucks in the shopping mall then spent some time exploring the many souvenir stores, picking up a few last minute essentials for our upcoming tour. There was a good selection of stores, our favourite being the huge Polar Bear Gifts, claiming to be Alaska’s largest gift store!
All shopped out, we then found ourselves at the Anchorage Visitor Information Center where we saw a trolley tour of the city departing. Still having a few hours to kill before our Tour Welcome Meeting, we bought tickets for the next trolley tour.
The trolley took us out of downtown, along to the Port of Anchorage and past the Captain Cook Monument then down past Westchester Lagoon and Earthquake Park where we were told how Anchorage had suffered a huge earthquake in the 1960s – the largest quake ever recorded in North America – and how it’s effects to the landscape can be seen in the park. Then, we headed back towards downtown Anchorage past Lake Hood and Lake Spenard. Here we saw lots of small aircraft and seaplanes and were told that it’s almost as common to have these to get around in as it is cars in Alaska!
Although there wasn’t really a lot to see on the tour, our tour guide was really interesting to listen to with lots of facts about the city. But it was a shame there wasn’t the opportunity to hop off at any of the places pointed out as it would have been nice to explore Earthquake Park but we were unsure how to get back to it, not to mention short on time, after.
With it now being way past lunchtime, we decided to make our way along one of the city’s many walking trails to a retro diner we had seen on the way to our hotel the other night. Unfortunately, when we got there, it was closed – one of the downfalls of not having internet access in other countries is not being able to check these things first! – but it had been a pleasant walk past Westchester Lagoon to get there. We made do with a Subway sandwich instead and also stopped by a Walgreens to stock up on some snacks for our tour so it wasn’t a complete waste of a walk!
By the time we got back it was time for our tour welcome meeting. We met the rest of our group, just 9 of us, ranging in age from 28 to a very active 75, and our tour guide who just happened to be an Alaskan native! With the introductions and paperwork all done, we walked back into downtown to grab some pizza for dinner.
Our Alaskan adventure had been a bit underwhelming so far. We found that Anchorage didn’t really have a lot to offer and was really just a gateway city for tourists beginning or ending Alaskan tours or cruises but we were still excited to see what the state had to offer away from its largest city were eager to get on the road the next day.
When I quit my full time teaching position to travel more, I knew this would have to be solo as most of my friends were also teachers and were stuck with having to travel in school holidays. I’d done plenty of city breaks in the past but wanted to see more of certain countries than the obvious. Having never travelled solo before, I wasn’t confident to organise or take this kind of trip alone. I wasn’t a confident driver and had never driven abroad before but many of the places I wanted to see such as the National Parks, weren’t particularly accessible by public transport.
So after a lot of research, I decided joining a group tour was the best way forward. I’m not good with large crowds so I narrowed it down to a few small group tour providers and I didn’t want to be camping for 3 weeks so that narrowed down my search a bit more. Eventually, I booked a coast to coast tour with Trek America, the Southern BLT (Budget Lodging Tour).
As excited as I was to get on the road, in the days leading up to my tour, there were a few things I was nervous about. Luckily, it more than worked out but here’s some things I wish I’d known…
I didn’t need to worry about being a solo traveller
Maybe it goes without saying when you’re doing a group tour like Trek America but I still worried that everyone else would be there as a couple or with a friend. As it turned out, my first group tour with Trek was mainly made up with solo travellers and just one pair of friends and it was everyone’s first time doing such a tour which instantly gave us something in common!
I didn’t need to have to worried about taking too much luggage long
This was something I had looked to the internet for advice on before travelling – how much luggage was it alright to take? Would everyone else have backpacks, should I try and squash everything into a small suitcase? On my first Trek, I went for a medium sized suitcase in the end and squashed as much as possible in but I needn’t have worried. Only one person in our group had a backpack for their luggage, everyone else had a case and those cases were all a lot bigger than mine! So on subsequent tours, I have taken my larger case instead and packed more. Apart from my main case, I also took a small backpack to take on the van on a daily basis which I could put my drink and snacks in, and other essentials like my camera and portable phone chargers.
Age wouldn’t be an issue
This was quite a big one for me in choosing a group tour. I was approaching my mid-30s and was worried everyone else would be late-teens/early 20s. As it turned out, the group was a mixture of ages ranging from 20 to myself. I think choosing a budget lodging tour over a camping tour possibly lends itself to the older demographic of Trek but it was still a worry for me. Yes, I was the oldest, and on this tour (although not subsequent tours), I was the only one in my 30s but did it make a difference? Absolutely not. Again, everyone was there for the same reason, for the same shared experience and in fact, one of the group members I got on best with, and am still good friends with to this day, was one of the youngest in the group!
It wouldn’t be all partying
Another quite big worry for me, and kinda tied in with the age issue. I don’t really drink, I don’t like late nights out partying at bars and clubs very often so I was anxious that my fellow travellers would be heavy drinkers, out partying all the time and that this might even be encouraged on the tour (I’d read nightmare reviews of Contiki tours and the like and was worried this could be similar). Again, my worries were unfounded. If you do like to drink and party (and there were a couple of group members that did) then yes, there was plenty of opportunity for this but again, everyone had signed up for this tour for a similar reason – to travel and see new places and while socialising was a part of this (else we’d have travelled completely solo), you don’t feel up to much or want to throw yourselves into some of the amazing activities offered over the 3 weeks if you are constantly hung over so any partying was done in moderation.
And for those of us that like to stick to our diet Cokes and our early nights, it was never frowned upon by anyone else in the group. That’s not to say I didn’t have any late nights out – an extremely late night out for my birthday in Austin, a fun night out on Bourbon Street in New Orleans and hitting the country music bars on Broadway in Nashville were all huge highlights of the trip and I was extremely thankful for van time the next day!!
Being a fussy eater is fine
Another worry for me was my eating habits. I’m pretty fussy. I don’t eat fish, I don’t like spicy food, I don’t like a lot of sauces, I don’t eat Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Indian… I know, I’m ridiculous but that’s the way it is, I have very plain tastes and I was worried this would be a hindrance on a tour where I expected at least, we’d be taken to a restaurant and told that’s where we’re eating today and I’d have to make do and find something I liked. Luckily, this wasn’t quite how it worked and, as it turned out, I wasn’t the only fussy eater on any of my tours.
My tours have all worked differently. On the first tour I did, our tour leader favoured group meals where she’d book somewhere, or we’d just turn up somewhere, and we’d all eat together at that place. But we’d be told in advance the place she had in mind and occasionally, like when a fresh fish restaurant was suggested in San Diego, if we didn’t like the sound of the idea, we’d say so and go to an alternative restaurant instead. Being America, most of the places we went to offered something that I ate even if it was a basic pasta dish, a burger or a grilled cheese. On my New Zealand tour there was a couple of times when the group chose places I knew I wouldn’t find anything I liked at and each time, I opted to eat elsewhere – something I’d have happily done alone but each time, another group member offered to come along with me to keep me company. On one of my Trek America tours, we had someone in our group with a severe peanut allergy and everyone in the group was really accommodating and supportive. That tour, we tended to be dropped in a town with multiple eating options where we could all go off and find something suitable in small groups rather than all eating together at one place every day. Occasionally on cabin stay days, we’d cook around the campfire, again making sure that when we shopped, food was bought that suited everyone. Either way, my eating habits were never a problem on any of the group tours I’ve taken!
Van time would be fine
That last section brings me nicely onto ‘van time’. With a huge distance to cover on a cross-country trip in a relatively short amount of time, I was worried we’d spend most of the trip sat on a bus and not doing much else. And yes, a lot of the journey’s between each overnight stop were long but we were often grateful for those journeys. They were a chance to catch up on much needed sleep after late nights out, noisy hostel nights or early mornings. They were a chance to chat and get to know each other better and on most of my tours, the group would make an effort to switch around where we sat each day so we could spend time with different people. They were a chance for banter and silly games.
On one tour I did, someone had brought Cards Against Humanity with them and we played a group game while driving through the state of Georgia. And they were a time to listen to each other’s music collection and sing along to some classic tunes at the top of our voices with each group member taking it in turns to sit ‘shotgun’ and control the music for that day.
There’d be a range of weather along the way
When I booked my first Trek America trip, 3 weeks travelling coast to coast through the Southern states in February and March, I assumed that being down south would mean mild weather. I knew from previous experience that New York would still be cold at that time so packed a couple of jumpers, hat and gloves and a big coat for the last few days of the tour travelling from Washington DC – Philadelphia – New York, but otherwise, I packed mainly summery clothes.
Last minute, I threw in a couple of long sleeved t-shirts that I could layer under t-shirts in case it became chillier in the evenings. And it’s a good job I did because from the moment we left Las Vegas on day 5 of our trip until the end of our trip over 2 weeks later in New York, with the exception of a couple of gloriously warm days in New Orleans, we had nothing but what could be described as wintry weather. Cold, rain, SNOW! There were a few group members even less prepared than I was – some of the Australians in the group had never even seen snow before – and many of us ended up buying cheap hoodies etc from souvenir stores or Walmart stops. I certainly learnt my lesson to be prepared for all sorts of weather and now always check temperatures for all the stops along the way before going on any type of roadtrip!!
Things Might Go Wrong – anything can, and probably will, happen (but it doesn’t matter and you’ll still have a great time!)
Leading on from weather issues, this was the main cause of anything that went wrong on my first Trek trip. Not enough warm clothes was a minor issue and when the snow first fell, it was actually quite a nice surprise – who else can say they saw the Grand Canyon covered in heavy snow?! Not many people – I didn’t even know that ever happened there! But wintry weather can become tiresome after a week or so, especially when it interferes with your plans.
Van journey’s taking twice the time and arriving in places a lot later than expected with less sightseeing time because of road closures was annoying enough but when planned activities have to dropped because of safety fears and snow closures, it’s downright disappointing. So there was no hiking down into the Grand Canyon and, worse still, no helicopter ride over it. Instead we watched a film about the Grand Canyon at the IMAX in Grand Canyon Village. And there was no visit to Graceland (or anywhere else really) after Memphis completely shut down after more heavy snowfall.
Yes, this was all disappointing – the helicopter over the Grand Canyon and the visit to Graceland were both things I was really excited for when I booked the trip – but seeing Monument Valley covered in snow, something so rare that even the Navajo were taking photos was not just one of the highlights of the trip, but a highlight of my life. A group snowball fight on Beale Street in Memphis a week or so later, a stop at a small town diner in the middle of nowhere Texas for pancakes where all the staff were fascinated to have a motley crew of Brits, Australians, Swiss and Swedes suddenly invade the premises followed by the joy of randomly finding a British store next door selling Cadbury chocolate bars – all things we look fondly back on that wouldn’t have otherwise happened!
It would be easy to keep in touch with everyone back home
With the extra days I had booked in LA and New York at either side of the Trek America tour, I was going to be away for 4 weeks on my first trip and I was worried that with a busy itinerary, stops in the middle of nowhere and being on the van travelling so much that it might be difficult to find time – or wifi – to be able to keep in touch with everyone back home and, at the very least, let my parents know I was ok on a regular basis. This was not a problem though. Our Trek van was equipped with wifi – this was unlimited on our first trip and although it only allowed 5 people on at time, most of the group were pretty good at limiting the time they spent online so that everyone could get on at some point.
On my second trip, our group leader told us the wifi was supposed to be limited to a set amount per trip and somehow, our group managed to use up most of this allowance within the first few days.
But we were still all able to easy get online to keep in touch with those back home. Wifi is easy to come across in the US and we were usually able to find it at service stations, bars and restaurants, some tourist attractions and in motels, hostels and cabin parks!
There will be (many) ups and (occasional) downs
I’ve loved all my Trek America – and other group tour – experiences, I really have, but there’s always the occasional time when you feel a bit down. The first low point for me on my first Trek came just after my birthday. We were staying in my nightmare of a hostel in Austin – we’d been used to mainly staying in small dorms where it would just be us group members in a room but here we were in a huge, noisy co-ed dorm and didn’t get a lot of sleep.
The next night, we were staying in a motel that had seen better days – filthy, stank of cigarettes and we worried for our safety after a huge argument erupted right outside our room and sirens and flashing lights started going off. A night later, we were staying at a B&B in Louisiana where a rock concert was being hosted and our room backed onto the stage area, with the room shaking so much that pictures fell off the wall, it meant another night of little sleep. We laugh about it now but at the time, we were pretty fed up. This was all forgotten about a day later when we arrived at our New Orleans’ accommodation to find we were in an actual hotel with proper rooms and beds but that feeling came back briefly again in Washington DC when we were told our hotel dorms would be similar to the huge co-ed Austin dorms and a few of us almost burst into tears and started looking up prices of local hotels!
As it turned out, we were in 6-bed dorms with each other and it was all fine and we carried on with our trip happy as anything again!
Hostel Life would be ok
I’d never stayed in hostels before doing group tours and going into my first trip, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like them much. But on the whole, I had a better experience staying in them than I imagined and even booked hostel accommodation for myself travelling solo in Australia a year later – a pair of ear plugs, an eye mask and a pair of flip flops to wear in hostel showers and its fine!!
For the most part, Trek and any other group tour companies I’ve used, will book dorms where you will just be sharing with those on your tour but depending on the group numbers, this doesn’t always work out. So for example, on my first group tour, there were only 4 girls so if we were in a 6-bed dorm, the other 2 beds would sometimes be given to independent travellers booking into the hostel rather than going to waste. This kinda thing almost caused an embarrassing incident in our San Francisco hostel when our group of 7 girls had to split into a 3 and a 4 across two 4-bed dorm rooms. I was in the group of 3 and as it was late, we assumed no one would be taking that last bed, sprawled our stuff out everywhere and started really making ourselves at home only to have a random late arriving guy walk in on us to take up bed 4!! I was in the shower down the hall at the time and one of my dorm mates was banging on the door to tell me about our unexpected guest. It’s a good job they did or I’d have probably waltzed back into our dorm in just a towel!
We’d see some amazing places and have some amazing experiences
Maybe this goes without saying, after all, it was the reason for travelling, for taking this trip but I don’t think anything prepared me for how amazing this element of the trip would be. I’d been to a lot of the main cities of America before and specifically wanted a tour which would take me to those harder to reach places and it delivered. The National Parks in America especially are absolutely breath-taking and I’d say to anyone, if you get the chance to visit Yellowstone National Park in your lifetime, take it, you won’t regret it! You’ll see some amazing places and you will want to go back to them in the future!
Even the cities I’d been to previously, I experienced in new way I would never had done on a city break with a friend – taking a ‘party bus’ along the Vegas Strip where we put our own music on and danced along to the Spice Girls and 5ive, cycling down a busy main road in Chicago on a nighttime tour, sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge on a catamaran in San Francisco.
And then there were the outdoor adventurous activities, the long hikes in the National Parks to spectacular view points, horse riding though the hills of Wyoming, white water rafting – something I’d never have seen myself doing! – kayaking out to iceburgs in Alaska, hurtling down over a huge canyon on a ‘Flying Fox’ zipline and black water rafting through a glowworm-filled cave in New Zealand…
A lot of these experiences are optional extras but they’re often what makes the tour so take the opportunity and do something you wouldn’t usually do, get out of your comfort zone, it’s what its all about!
I’d learn a lot
Yes, group tours can be educational! I learnt a lot about geography, about the history of the countries and cities I visited on the tour and about the cultures and people there. But it’s often the little things that stick with me like even now, if I’m back in the States visiting a National Park, or out taking extended walks anywhere else, the advice our Trek America guide gave us about hiking, tips on snacks to take, hiking at higher altitudes etc etc, always comes back to me!
I learnt a bit about myself too – that I can do without 8 or more hours of sleep a night, that I can adapt to situations and people around me, that I can hike for hours on end and enjoy it and that I can get on with different people of all ages and from all backgrounds.
I’d bond with the group quickly
One of the main reasons for choosing a group tour was for companionship while travelling. I’m not the kind of person that can walk into a bar or restaurant and strike up a conversation with someone so I knew if I travelled completely solo for 3 weeks, I’d probably not speak to anyone other than to buy/order something! I figured that in a group tour of 10 plus people there would hopefully be at least one person I’d get on with and company is better than no company but what I didn’t expect was how quickly you get to know these people and how you become firm friends fast. When you’re on the road for 3 weeks, you are around each other pretty much 24/7. I probably spent more time with my tour mates in those 3 weeks than I had with some of my ‘real life’ friends in 3 years! You’re in this little bubble with each other, pretty much switched off from what is happening in the outside World and after the first few days discussing with each other you ‘story’ – where you’re from, what you do for a living, why you’re here, now – you just start to be yourself around each other, the banter starts and it’s like you’ve all known each other for years. That’s not to say you won’t get on with some group members more than others and that there won’t be days when you want some alone time away from the group – and there are some opportunities for this on free days. But these people become your family for the length of the tour and when it comes to an end and you have to say goodbye, it can be horrendous. I’ve always found that the longer the tour, the harder saying goodbye has been and there’s been a couple of times when there’s been tears!
I’d make friends for life
On most of the group tours I’ve done, we’ve had a WhatsApp or Facebook group active during the tour where we can exchange photos of the group or each other, arrange where to meet if we’ve split up on free days etc etc. In the days after a tour finishes, this group is always at it’s most active as we miss each other and want to continue that group banter and reminisce. But a lot of my tour group chat groups are still active months and years on, even if its just a ‘Happy Christmas’ message that starts the conversation off once a year, we’re all still in touch and very much a part of each other’s lives.
Not only that but some of my very best friends now are people I’ve met on a group tour. There’s group members I regularly meet up with and those I talk to on a weekly basis. I’ve been on holiday with these people, we’ve since been travelling together on our own roadtrips across the US and Australia, I’ve been to their weddings, gone to concerts and on nights out with them, celebrated landmark birthdays together.
Our shared experiences on the group tour is a huge part of why we still communicate now but we have more than that in common and are now real life friends and will be for a long time to come.
I’d want to talk constantly about my experiences…
but most people just won’t want to listen. It’s one of those things that will forever be a milestone in your life, a real highlight but only those people who were there with you, who had that shared experience, will really ever understand and that’s why you will be forever bonded with them. A lot of my friends took a leaf out of my book and have joined group tours over the last few years and now they understand a bit more but with anyone else it can be frustrating when you get back and it’s all you can think or talk about and no one else in interested. But that’s what the group’s Whatsapp chat is for!
I really wish I’d known how addictive group travel would be. Within days of returning from my first tour, I’d booked another and then another. Few of the tours I’ve done have quite lived up to those first couple but everyone has been special and exciting and amazing in it’s own way. And even now when I tend to plan my own travel with friends I met on group tours, we use our group tour experiences to guide trips, planning huge road trips full of unusual activities and experiences along the way in the style of Trek America and sometimes revisiting places we loved on our group tour.
It would be the best thing I’d ever do
So if you’re thinking of taking a group tour with Trek America or another company*, my advice is to stop thinking about it and just book it. It really will be the best thing you’ll ever do!
*While I have been a customer of small group tour companies including Trek America, Grand American Adventures, Haka Tours and Macbackpackers, all the opinions expressed here are my own.
Have you ever been on a group tour with Trek America or any other companies? Let me know about your own experiences!
It was the last full day of our trip and after beginning the day with a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, we started to make our way down the California coast towards our final destination of Los Angeles. Too far to travel in a day, we would be spending the night at a motel around the half way point in the city of San Luis Obispo and today’s drive would include plenty of stop offs along the way at various view points along the famous Pacific Coast Highway.
Our first stop was for lunch at an In-N-Out Burger, a fast food chain which mainly exists in California and had been requested by some group members. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about!
After we’d all eaten, we continued on to our main stop of the day at Santa Cruz Boardwalk. This was a really fun stop off and although we didn’t have time to queue for some of the bigger rides, some of us did have lots fun trying out the spooky walk-through Haunted House before spending the rest of our time in the many souvenir stores, amusement arcades and on the beautiful, sandy beach.
Before leaving we all indulged in some of the many unhealthy snacks on offer – huge Texas doughnuts, funnel cake and various other fried or sugar-filled treats!
From Santa Cruz, we continued our drive down PCH stopping at various breathtakingly-pretty overlooks along the rugged Big Sur coastline.
Our final stop before we reached San Luis Obispo was to see the Elephant Seals at a beach in San Simeon.
Once at our motel and settled in, it was off into San Luis Obispo town for dinner at a local BBQ/diner before returning to our motel for last night drinks.
Our adventure wasn’t over just yet and we began the final day of the tour with a stop at the upmarket coastal city of Santa Barbara. Here we spent some time walking along the pier, souvenir shopping and enjoying the views.
Continuing on to Los Angeles, we avoided the city itself and instead stopped at the beach city of Santa Monica, one of my favourite places in LA. After taking a walk along the beach and yet another pier, a group of us headed inland to Third Street Promenade for some last minute shopping.
Short on time with some of the group having evening flights to make, our original plan to walk from Santa Monica to Venice had to be abandoned and instead we hopped back on the bus to be driven the short distance along the coast.
Venice is always a fun place to visit with it’s quirky shops and stalls lining the boardwalk, fun to watch street performers and the always busy skate park where skateboarded impress onlookers with an array of stunts. We maybe didn’t enjoy or make the most of our visit as much as we should have as the impending goodbyes at the end of our tour loomed over us and we all sat in silence on the van as we left the beach cities behind to make our way to the gateway hotel near LAX airport.
Once there, the tears soon started as the first few group members started to drift away, some making their way to the airport for flights home, some, like myself, off to hotels or AirBnBs elsewhere in the city while others were remaining at the gateway hotel for another night before going home or starting another tour through the Southern states. It had been one of those groups that just really gelled from the outset. We’d all had the time of our lives travelling together across the country and were devastated it was now over but at the same time immensely happy that it had happened to start with and we’d all be leaving with amazing memories to last a lifetime!