Northern BLT Day 4-5: Chicago

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

Horse and cart on the streets of Shipshewana
Exploring Shipshewana

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

Shipshewana, Indiana

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

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

At Bobby’s Bike Hire in Chicago

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

The Cloudgate sculpture in Millennium Park

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

Fireworks at the end of our tour

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

Chicago River
Willis Tower

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

Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park

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

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

Ride on Navy Pier

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

Beach on Lake Michigan
Gino’s East

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

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

Northern BLT Day 3: Ohio

Sandusky and Cedar Point Amusement Park

Entering the state of Ohio

After breakfast at the local Dunkin’ Donuts in Buffalo, it was back on the road to drive towards the state of Ohio. Once there, we’d be visiting Cedar Point Amusement Park near Cleveland, an activity I was really looking forward too!

Stops along the way we’re kept to a minimum today as we wanted to make sure we got as much time as possible in the park. We did take a slight detour to drop the American member of our group in Cleveland itself as he wanted to visit the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame there rather than visit Cedar Point.

Our cabins at the KOA park

Our base in Ohio was Sandusky where we’d be staying at the first of many KOA sites this trip. As this was a BLT (Budget Lodging Tour) rather than camping, we were staying in cabins. We checked in and dropped our luggage off and then jumped back on the van to be taken to Cedar Point.

Roller Coasters in the distance as we drive towards Cedar Point

Cedar Point is sat right on a peninsula by Lake Erie. It has some of the biggest roller coasters in the World and as we approached it we could see the tangled, colourful structures twisting and weaving through the sky ahead of us.

Arriving just after 2pm, we qualified for a reduced entry rate. The park was open til 11pm so we still had plenty of time to spend there. Not being familiar with the site, once inside, we headed straight to the nearest coasters which we’d seen from the car park, which were great but I wish we’d looked at a map and realised just how huge the park was and how many coasters were on offer rather than spending so much time in the front area riding not just the few coasters in that area but the smaller rides like the carousel.

The Gatekeeper coaster

Once we had delved deeper into the park, we were amazed by the sheer volume of coasters on offer – huge wooden coasters, the former World’s longest coaster, the former World’s tallest coast, steepest coaster…looping coasters, racing coasters, pretty much every kind of roller coaster imaginable! Thankfully the queues weren’t too long and we got to go on most of what we wanted. Highlights were the Raptor ride where you sit hanging from the track like on Alton Tower’s Nemesis and Millennium Force, once the World’s tallest, fastest coaster.

The Dragster

Throughout the day we’d been eyeing up a terrifying looking coaster called Dragster, debating whether or not to ride it. The ride shoots off reaching 120mph in under 4 seconds before climbing a 90 degree incline, twisting over the top and shooting straight back down the other side. The queue for it started to die down early evening so 5 of us decided to pluck up the courage to give it a go. A few minutes into the queue, one of the cars failed to make it up and over the top, causing the coaster to close for a while so we left the queue and went elsewhere. An hour before we had to leave, we decided to join the queue again and again, the coaster broke down. We were told it would only be a short closure so deciding we didn’t have time to go elsewhere we stuck it out and this time made it to the front of the queue, extra nervous about riding after witnessing the coaster fail a couple of times! We need not have worried as our car made it up and over without problem and it was an amazing exhilarating ride, totally worth the wait!

Rides at Cedar Point

All roller-coastered out and exhausted from traipsing around the park all afternoon, at the end of the evening, we went to meet with the rest of the group choosing unanimously to go straight back to the KOA site and sleep rather than wait for the end of night firework display. Cedar Point was one of the best amusement parks I’d ever visited and I definitely wanted to return someday.

Northern BLT Day 1-2: New York State

Finger Lakes, Niagara Falls and Buffalo

After spending the last few days getting to know each other in New York, we were all up early on the day of departure for our tour to meet the last 2 members of the group who hadn’t managed to make it into the city to meet up and our tour guide.

Our Trek van awaits

Our guide seemed bemused when he started a ‘get to know each other’ game only to find out that despite us being 11 solo travellers from all over the UK (plus one American!), we already knew each other pretty well! After the usual form-filling and trip rules talk, we loaded our luggage into the trailer and jumped into our home for the next 3 weeks – our Trek America van!

Passing through Pennsylvania state

Advertised in the itinerary as ‘The Finger Lakes’, today was a bit of a low key day to start the tour on but the lack of exciting attractions at least gave the group time to bond further as we journeyed through New York State.

Taughannock Falls

That’s not to say there weren’t any scheduled stops today. As well as the usual fuel and snack gas station stops (which are always great fun, it’s amazing what you can find to buy at these places!!), we made prolonged stops at both a winery and a waterfall!

Arriving at Taughannock State Park, on the west shore of Cayuga Lake, we took a short hike out to Taughannock Falls. The miserable weather only added to making the waterfall look and sound more dramatic and we took our first group photo of the trip in front of the cascading water.

Next up was the Crystal Lake Cafe at the Americana Vineyards. Not being a wine drinker, the highlight of the winery for me was the adorable dog enjoying all the fuss he was obviously used to receiving in the gift shop!!

We made one more stop to take photos of one of the Finger Lakes before continuing to our overnight stop at a Super 8 in Auburn, New York State where we ate dinner at a local bar.

At the Finger Lakes

The next morning, those of us up early enough walked to a local diner for a delicious pancake dinner before we departed for Buffalo.

A bit wet after a boat trip to the falls

Today, we’d be visiting the American side of Niagara Falls. After a Walmart stop to get food for a picnic, we arrived at the Falls in time for lunch. Picnic over, we took a trip of Maid of the Mist, a boat that takes you up close to the falls. This was an included extra on our trip meaning we didn’t have to pay any extra. The boat trip was amazing and we were all glad for the fetching blue ponchos that’s had been handed out as we boarded as we’d have got soaked by the spray from the falls without them!

Views of the falls

How we spent the rest of our time at the falls was up to us with some members of the group walking to nearby viewing points to take photos and one even opting to walk across the bridge to Canada just to say he’d been! A few of us decided to visit the Caves of the Wind attraction where, after getting appropriately dressed in yet another provided poncho (bright yellow this time!) and provided water sandals, both of which we got to keep after, we followed a path which lead us alongside the falls, once again soaking us in the spray! This was great fun and well worth the extra cost!!

From Niagara Falls, we continued to the city of Buffalo where we checked into our hostel for the night then it was off out to a local bar for dinner. This bar wasn’t just any bar but the Anchor Bar where Buffalo Wings were supposedly invented in the 1960s! A couple of the group opted to take on the wings challenge ordering a plate of 50 wings between them and attempting (but failing!) to eat them all!

We stayed at the bar til late before taking the short walk back to the hostel and trying to get some sleep in our sweltering room. It had been a great start to the trip and we couldn’t wait to continue our adventure!

Northern BLT with Trek America: New York

Pre-tour New York Adventure

After taking the plunge and joining the 3-week Southern BLT with Trek America earlier in the year, I couldn’t wait to get on the road again so within weeks of returning, I booked my second adventure with them to depart that summer.

My last adventure had been in the winter months and we’d repeatedly ran into heavy snow throughout the trip so I was hoping for some sunshine and warmth this time around! Once again, I’d be travelling coast to coast over 3 weeks but this time, East to West from New York to Los Angeles through the Northern states.

With 2 months to go til the trip departed, I once again made use of the Trek America forums, posting a message asking if anyone else was taking the same trip. After getting a couple of replies, we set up a Facebook group dedicated to our trip and posted a link on the Trek site. Within a few weeks, we had found all members of our tour and were eagerly discussing our upcoming adventure on line.

As most of the group were staying in New York for a night or so prior to the tour departing, we began to make plans together in the city for those few days with me and one of the other girls even deciding to share a hotel room there to cut costs.

So in early June, I flew to New York and made my way to our midtown hotel. My group mate turned up about an hour later and, after chatting online for the last few weeks, it was as if we’d been friends for years. After freshening up, we headed out into the city to meet with another group member and walked up towards Times Square to find dinner. We settled on Applebee’s and were joined by a forth member of our group. We spent the evening excitedly chatting and our upcoming, getting to know each other and making plans for the next day.

Our second day in the city and some of the others had plans to visit the 9/11 Museum. As I had visited already just a few months ago, I instead caught the subway across to Williamsburg in Brooklyn and took a wander around the many Sunday flea markets, even finding myself a few unexpected bargains! After walking along the East River, enjoying the views of Manhattan, I caught the subway back to downtown Manhattan to meet up with my group mates and a few new members who had now arrived in the city.

We spent the afternoon at Coney Island sat on the beach chatting and riding the famous Coney Island Wonder Wheel then that evening we all went for dinner together at a pizzeria in midtown.

The next day we were all moving to our Trek America gateway hotel in New Jersey and the rest of the group would all be arriving into the US. While some of the group would be getting in late and had opted to stay in the hotel, most of the group planned on coming into the city that afternoon and we had booked tickets to go up to the newly opened Freedom Tower observation deck.

With the morning to spare before the remainder of our new friends arrived, some of us decided to walk up to Central Park and visit the zoo. Then, it was time to go and meet up with a few more group arrivals.

Before heading downtown, we made a quick stop in Greenwich Village to go and see the ‘Friends’ apartment block. Then we caught the subway down to Battery Park, finding somewhere to have dinner nearby before our sunset trip up the Freedom Tower.

After spending some time enjoying the views, those of us who’d been staying in the city all went to retrieve our luggage before meeting back up with everyone at Penn Station to catch the train out to the gateway hotel.

After a great few days in the city and with everyone already getting on great, we were all even more excited for the weeks ahead and couldn’t wait for our Trek America adventure to get properly started!

Southern BLT Day 21: The End of the Road

Philadelphia and New York City

My first Trek America Experience Part 8

This was it. The end. After 3 weeks travelling cross country through the southern states of America with this eclectic bunch of people who had now become friends, today we would reach our final destination of New York City and say our goodbyes. But first we had today’s journey ahead of us with a stop in Philadelphia then New Jersey for our final group meal. So after a busy couple of days sight-seeing in Washington D.C., we loaded our luggage onto the Trek van’s trailer for the very last time.

En route to Philadelphia, we passed through the state of Delaware but unfortunately didn’t stop, not even for gas, leaving me uncertain as to whether I could officially say it was a state I had visited!!

Our first stop once we reached the city was on the outskirts at 9th Street where two rival Philly Cheese steak vendors sit across the street from each other. Both restaurants are popular with locals and tourists alike with queues often reaching around the block. We were given the choice of which we got lunch from and faced with an impossible decision, all ended up following our Trek guide to Pat’s. In hindsight, we should have split up, ordered cheese steaks from both and then halved them between us so we could have tried both but I guess I’ll just have to return to try a Geno’s cheese steak another time! I went for the basic sandwich with steak and cheese whizz and it was one of the most delicious things I had ever tasted !

Once we’d all eaten, it was back of the van to head to the main historic district of the city. We parked by Independence Hall and were given a hour to look around. We all joined the short queue to see the Liberty Bell. It was a lot smaller than I expected! Then we broke off into smaller groups. We wandered around the outside of Independence Hall as unfortunately, entrance was by advance ticketing only and there were no tickets available for the current time, and then walked down to the tomb of the unknown soldier before going to a visitors centre to get some souvenirs.

At the request of one of our group, we made one more stop in Philly at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This is where the famous scene from the Rocky movie was filmed and we all did our best to run to the top of the steps in one go!

From Philadelphia, we drove towards the last state of our trip – New Jersey where we’d be stopping in Jersey City at an Italian restaurant for our last group meal, pizza, and then there was just one more stop left, at Liberty Park to view the Manhattan skyline.

Unfortunately, as for much of our trip, the weather was not on our side and we arrived to torrential rain and heavy cloud obscuring a lot of the view. After one final group photo, we boarded the Trek van one last time and headed to the gateway hotel in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Only a few of the group were staying there, most of us had booked accommodation into the city. All but one group member, who had a flight out that evening, had planned to meet up in the city that evening so, our guide let those staying in New Jersey drop their luggage then took us all to the subway station.

After saying our goodbyes and thank-yous to our guide, we all caught the subway into Manhattan, briefly separating to drop bags at our various hotels & AirBnB’s before reuniting in Times Square an hour later. Not wanting our experience to end just yet, we made plans to meet again the next morning for breakfast and spend time in the city together.

The next day, the group started to shrink as one by one, members drifted away to catch flights or just do their own thing. A few of us stuck together to do as much sightseeing as we could in day before 2 members caught a flight home that evening.

We began downtown, visiting Battery Park for a slightly clearer view of the Statue of Liberty than we had had from Liberty Park the previous day then walked half way across the Brooklyn Bridge before catching a subway uptown to window shop along 5th Avenue and go for a walk in Central Park. Lunch was at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, where the singing waitstaff just happened to sing ‘Let It Go’ which had, with the weather we’d experienced, become our Trek tour anthem! Then we ended the afternoon with a trip up to Top of the Rock before saying goodbye to those who had to get to the airport.

That evening, I went alone to watch Kinky Boots on Broadway after queuing at the Time Square TKTS booth to get discount tickets and then met up with the only group member remaining in the city to take a late night trip up the Empire State Building.

The next day we met up again at Chelsea Market and after strolling through past all the food vendors, spent some time walking the Highline, one of New York’s newest green spaces formed from reclaimed land from an old elevated railway track.

From here, we took a subway to Brooklyn to explore the galleries and bookstores of the DUMBO area, take a ride on Jane’s carousel and enjoy the impressive views of downtown Manhattan before walking back across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan then it was off to Greenwich Village where we tried some cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery on Bleecker Street.

After another trip to the theatre that evening, this time with discounted tickets to see Jersey Boys on Broadway, it was time to say goodbye to the last of my Trek companions.

It was odd returning to being a lone traveller the next day, eating breakfast by myself at the IHOP and walking around the city alone. I had a few hours to spare before heading to the airport to catch my flight that evening so I decided to join a ‘free’ walking tour of Grand Central Station and the surrounding area that had been recommended t me by a friend. The tour was really interesting and we got to see inside buildings in the area that are otherwise off-limits to the general public.

Walking tour over, I strolled back to my midtown hotel to pick up my luggage then across the road to Penn Station to catch the train to Newark airport and await my flight back to the UK. It had been an amazing 4 weeks, travelling solo for the first time and joining a group tour for the first time and I was absolutely exhausted from the experience. But I had seen some incredible places and made some great new friends and I couldn’t wait do it all again!

Going It Alone My first solo travel adventure Southern BLT Day 1-4

Southern BLT Day 5-7 Southern BLT Day 8-10 Southern BLT Day 10-12

Southern BLT Day 12-14 Southern BLT Day 15-17 Southern BLT Day 18-20

Southern BLT 18 -20: 2 days in Washington D.C.

My first Trek America Experience Part 7

After a fun evening in Nashville, it was a struggle all round to get up the next day and we departed for our stop in Wytheville, Virginia later than planned. Luckily, today was a bit of a nothing day and our overnight was just a middle-of-nowhere break up the journey kind of stop. Wytheville was notable for only two things – my first ever visit to a Cracker Barrel (we were all very excited at finding somewhere with proper vegetables on the menu along with potato options other than fries!) and our guide forgetting to tell us that the clocks went forward in the US that night meaning more tired faces and even some missed alarms the next morning after unexpectedly losing an hour!

On the road again

We were down to the final 2 nights of our tour now and we were disappointed to find that these would be spent in a hostel, even more disappointed when our guide told us to expect rooms similar to the Austin hostel’s large communal dorms setup. Luckily, us 4 girls ended up in a 6-bed female dorm which would have been fine except for the over-powering stench of trainers/feet belonging to one of the mystery women also in the room with us. Hostel life! Not something from this trip I’d miss!!

National Monument, Washington DC
The Washington Monument

As usual, we’d be spending very little time at our accommodation anyway and after dropping our bags, it was straight out for a monument tour given by our Trek tour guide. I’d been to Washington DC a few years before and it’s one of my favourite US cities as there’s so much to do. We walked down to the White House and took photos outside then walked down past the Washington Monument towards the Potomac River Basin, taking photos of the Jefferson Memorial across the river as the sun started to set.

Sunset in Washington DC
The sun setting over a frozen Potomac and the Jefferson Memorial

From here, we walked back and along the National Mall in the direction of the Lincoln Memorial passing other monuments such as the World War Memorial along the way. Something I remembered from my last visit was how things look nearer than they are in the city when in fact, it had been a very long walk to reach the Lincoln Memorial and was then a very long walk back! We were all very ready for our group meal at a city steak house that night.

The National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC

We were up early the next morning so that we could go and queue at the Washington Monument to try and get 11 of their on-the-day tickets for the entire group to go up the Monument. We were front of the queue and got the tickets without problem, all for the same late morning timeband so with a few hours to kill, we decided to explore some of the many museums along the National Mall. Another great thing about Washington DC is that most of the attractions are completely free! So our tickets up to the observation deck of the Washington Monument hadn’t cost us a penny and it was nothing to visit any of the Smithsonian group museums!

We began at the National Museum of Air and Space, a museum I hadn’t visited on my last trip to the city. The museum was excellent with displays on space travel, the moon landing and a history of air travel and we could have easily spent a lot longer there than a couple of hours but had to leave to make our Washington Monument timeband.

I had been up the Washington Monument on my previous visit to the city but as that was the height of summer and this was the middle of winter, this time the views were quite different with the National Mall recovering from heavy snow fall over the last few days.

The Museum of the History of America

After spending some time taking in the views from the observation deck, the group split up to do different things. We went to get some lunch before continuing to visit the many museums on offer.

The Ruby Slipper on display at the Museum of the History of America, Washington DC
A pair of the ruby slippers

Next up was the Museum of the History of America, a museum which had been closed for refurbishment on my last visit but, being pop culture related, was one I really wanted to visit. It didn’t disappoint and we saw some really amazing things on display including one of the pairs of Ruby Slippers from the Wizard of Oz film, some of the original Muppet and Sesame Street puppets, items belonging to previous Presidents of the United States and dresses worn by the First Ladies. Highlight of the visit was seeing the first flag of the United States which we viewed from behind a big glass screen while the American National Anthem played in the background.

The gun that shot Abraham Lincoln

Taking a break from the museums lining the National Mall, next we wandered up to Ford Theatre, another place that had been closed on my last visit to DC. The theatre is famous for being the place where President Lincoln was shot and killed and after seeing into the theatre and the balcony where he had sat that night, we explored the museum beneath the theatre telling the story of events and containing artefacts including the gun that was used.

A diamond at the Natural History Museum

My last museum of the day was the Smithsonian Natural History Museum back down on the National Mall. While smaller than a lot of other Natural History Museums I have visited in New York, Chicago and, of course, in London, this museum was still worth a look around, the highlight being the World’s largest diamond on display!

Despite it being the last official night of our Trek America tour, the group did not eat together this evening with some of the group opting to book a fancier restaurant for the last night while the rest of us went to a local Chinese before walking back down the the National Mall. There, a few of us decided to go ice skating outside the National History Museum and we followed this with concretes at Shake Shack for dessert! Then it was back to the hostel one last time.

Ice rink at the Natural History Museum

I left Washington the next morning feeling that we’d made the most of our free day in the city and pleased that I’d got to see lots of things I’d missed out on on my last visit but I also felt that there was still much more to see and made a mental note to return for a longer visit at some point in the future.

Going It Alone My first solo travel adventure

Day 1-4: LA, San Diego and Vegas

Day 5-7: Grand Canyon and Monument Valley

Day 8-10: New Mexico Day 10-12: Texas

Day 12-14: New Orleans Day 15-17: Memphis and Nashville

Southern BLT Day 12-14: 36 hours in New Orleans

My first Trek America adventure – Part 5

Entering the Deep South

Our Layfayette accommodation

Snow and freezing cold weather.

Since our stay in Vegas – which now felt like a long time ago – this cold snap seemed to have been following us on our trip. But despite awaking to another cold morning in Texas, as we pulled over at a rest stop just across the state line of Louisiana, we couldn’t believe the change in the weather. Gone were the freezing cold air and snow spattered roads and instead there was a balmy heat!

Band playing at our guesthouse

Tonight we’d be stopping in Lafayette, just a pit stop to break up the journey between Austin and New Orleans, and our accommodation would be at the Blue Moon Saloon, a small quirky guest house. As usual, we waited in the van as our guide went to check in and we could tell as she returned that something wasn’t quite right – they’d got the booking wrong and there weren’t quite enough rooms and beds for us all. After some jiggling about and compromise – my roommate and I offered to share a double bed with another group member taking the couch in our en-suite room, another 2 members of the group had to make do with a makeshift bed in the corridor! – we were checked in and sorted. We went for dinner at a local bar down the road and then returned to the guesthouse. After been kept awake in Lubbock by the commotion outside and our late night out in Austin, many of us just wanted an early night tonight but that wasn’t to be. A band was playing at the guesthouse that night and their stage and speakers happened to back right onto the wall of our room! The room was shaking so much from the noise that a picture fell off the wall. It was the last thing we wanted but there was nothing we could do but sit it out until the music stopped at 1am!

At the Waffle House

Exhausted from 3 nights with little sleep, we dragged ourselves up and made the 7am departure time the next day. First stop was a Waffle House for breakfast before we reached the check in point for our Louisiana Swamp Tour.

It was a rainy day and as our boat picked up speed down the river, we got drenched but this turned out to be a really fun experience. Being February, we were told it was unlikely we’d see any alligators – we did as it turned out see one baby ‘gator sat on a log! – but there was plenty of other wildlife to be spotted including birds, snakes, wild hogs and a very friendly marshmallow-loving raccoon! We also found out about the history of the swamp and heard tales about the devastating effect of Storm Katrina.

A nice hotel at last!!

Our tour over, we continued on to New Orleans where we were absolutely delighted to find our accommodation for the next two nights would be in a beautiful 4 star hotel! Arriving more or less to schedule for the first time in days, we settled in then regrouped for our guide to give us a tour of the French Quarter.

After handing us all some New Orleans beads to wear, we wandered through the French market where some of the group sampled ‘gator meat at one of the food stands (I played it safe and stuck to a grilled cheese sandwich!), walked down to catch our first glimpse of the Mississippi River, tried what our guide told us was the best praline in the city – it really was melt-in-the-mouth delicious! – and, of course, visited a few bars including the oldest bar in the city and a few along the World famous Bourbon Street.

After our busy afternoon, we had dinner at Oceana restaurant which specialised in fish along with traditional Cajun dishes before taking a ghost tour of the area – not particularly scary but actually really interesting and great fun!

Bourbon Street

Tour over, it was back to Bourbon Street where we found ourselves in a dueling piano bar – or at least those of us over the legal drinking age did, the remaining members of the group forced to stand outside and communicate with us through an open window!

A delicious doughnut from District

Not wanting to waste our upcoming free day in the city recovering from the night before, a few of us chose to leave Bourbon Street a little after midnight and return to our hotel rather than staying out partying to the early hours. The next morning, just the 4 of us made it to breakfast at which we made the decision to get tickets for the hop on/off tour bus as our best option to see as much as the city as possible in a relatively short time and we definitely felt we packed a lot in. The bus took us out of the French Quarter, through the CBD and into the Garden District where we hopped off to take an included walking tour of the area, taking time to look in some of the local boutique stores and grab a delicious doughnut at the local District cafe while we waited for the tour to start.

The Garden District was a complete contrast to the French District of the city with its huge mansions along the tree lined streets. Our guide pointed out some of the celebrity homes in the area as well as discussing the area’s history and briefly taking us into its Lafayette Cemetery. We then hopped onto the next tour bus to continue our tour, eventually returning to the French Quarter.

Po’ Boy lunch

For lunch, we decided to try some more of the local cuisine and opted for a cute but touristy cafe in the centre of the French Quarter where a live jazz band was keeping the patrons entertained. We had a leisurely lunch of Po’ Boy sandwiches, the braver of us sampling the ‘gator filling while I again stuck with cheese, enjoying the warm sunshine and the music playing before wandering through the streets of the French Quarter visiting some of the many art galleries we passed.

Jackson Square

Before heading back to the hotel to get ready for our evening out, we had one more ‘must do’ item to tick off our list – trying some beignets from Cafe du Monde. Beignets are sugary pastries, similar to doughnuts, sold at many cafes in the French Quarter but Cafe du Monde is the most famous place to get them from and they’re supposed to have the best beignets in the city. Customers often queue around the block in the morning to get their beignets and coffee but being late afternoon, the queue was only short so we bought a bag of the pastries to share between us. The sugary treats were indeed delicious but after all the food we had already consumed that day, we struggled to finish them and took some back to the hotel with us to share with the rest of the group.

This evening, the whole group would be taking a dinner cruise on a steamboat along the Mississippi River. We walked up towards the river, all sharing stories of our day – some of the group hadn’t seen any more of New Orleans than the hotel’s laundry room, others had ventured out into the city to explore a bit like us. Once we arrived at the river, we waited as our guide went to pick up our tickets and watched as the steamboat played a tune on it’s steam pipe organ before boarding and taking our table in the restaurant. The food, served buffet style, was better than I had expected it to be – being a fussy eater, I was worried I wouldn’t find anything to my tastes but it was standard fare with enough options to keep everyone happy. After dinner, we were free to wander around the boat as we pleased. The New Orleans’ skyline isn’t the prettiest so there wasn’t much in the way of views and, being February, it had already gone dark with a bit of a chill in the air so we mainly chose to stay indoors. A jazz band played on one of the decks and we sat and listened for a while and it was also possible to go down to the boat’s engine room to take a look.

After the cruise, some of the group decided to head back to the bars on Bourbon Street and the rest of us decided to take a look at the other main ‘entertainment’ street in the city, Frenchman Street. A bit more laid back than the partying atmosphere of Bourbon, Frenchman Street offered a series of live music venue and we settled on a small bar where a jazz band played indiscreetly in corner allowing us to chat over drinks while still listening to the music and soaking up the atmosphere.

Out on Frenchman Street

After another late night, we strolled back to our hotel, making the most of having a nice hotel room for the last time for a while and getting a few hours sleep before our early start. We’d all enjoyed our time in New Orleans and I definitely hoped to return and explore more in the future but for now, it was time for our adventure to continue elsewhere!

Going It Alone

My first solo travel experience

My first small group tour travel experience Part 1

My first small group tour travel experience Part 2

My first Trek America Experience Part 3

My first Trek America Experience Part 4

Southern BLT Day 10 -12: Travelling through Texas state

My first Trek America Experience Part 4

Lubbock and Austin

Texas is a huge state which I often forget I’ve even been to despite spending a few days of our trip travelling through it. After our entry to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico was delayed, we continued to make slow progress to the night’s stop in the Texas city of Lubbock, finally arriving to a snow covered car park in the dark.

Our first impressions of Texas didn’t get off to the best start when the motel was less than ideal – our room had seen better days to say the least. Walls were cracked with small holes in the bathroom making us uneasy, food was visibly crumbled into the carpet and, despite it being a non-smoking room, the air was thick with smoke. We didn’t have long to dwell on it as we had 5 minutes to drop our bags and cases before meeting back at the van to go for dinner before everywhere closed but we mentioned it to our tour guide on the way out.

Dinner in Lubbock

Dinner was at a lovely Italian diner a short drive away and when we returned to the motel, our guide came into reception with us to complain about our room. The receptionist seemed annoyed and offered us a bottle of air freshener. When we pointed out this only (partly) dealt with one of the issues, she begrudgingly gave us a different room. This one was slightly better and we decided we could manage for one night but just after we settled to bed, we were disturbed by an almighty argument going on seemingly directly outside our room which ended in sirens and flashing lights appearing in the car park! We were more than a little relieved to leave Lubbock the next day!

Our Brunch stop

Today was my birthday! More snow had fallen overnight and not long into our journey, we hit a roadblock due to an accident caused by the snow and were forced to take a long diversion. With lunch time approaching, our guide looked for somewhere to stop only to find most places closed due to the bad weather! We eventually found ourselves in the town of Abilene where the Flippin’ Egg diner was open and the staff were more than a little excited to have international visitors! After a delicious pancake brunch, and a visit to the British Shoppe a few doors down to stock up on some Dairy Milk chocolate, we were back on the snow-covered road to Austin, Texas.

Again, with the weather causing us to arrive later than we’d hoped, there was little time for sightseeing. Instead, we went straight to our out-of-town hostel and checked in. We were more than a little dismayed to find ourselves in a huge communal co-ed dorm of 20 but we’d not be spending a lot of time here. We had half an hour to get ready before we’d be heading out to dinner followed by a night out in the city.

Dinner was at the Salt Lick BBQ restaurant, a place that our guide had been raving about since the trip started and it certainly didn’t disappoint. After, we were driven into central Austin where we headed straight to the bars on 6th Street where we stayed until 2am.

Visiting South Congress Avenue

Before leaving Austin the next day, we stopped at South Congress Street and walked around some of the quirky stores. We then continued our dive through Texas with one last stop in the state, Buc-ee’s, the biggest truck stop I have ever seen. Souvenirs, snacks and even lunch all bought, it was time to say goodbye to Texas and hello to the next state on our trip, Louisiana.

Going It Alone

My first solo travel adventure

Hollywood, San Diego & Las Vegas – My first Small Group Tour Travel Experience Part 1

Grand Canyon and Utah – My first Trek America Experience Part 2

New Mexico – My first Trek America Experience Part 3

Southern BLT Day 1-4: Hollywood, San Diego and Las Vegas

My first small group tour travel experience – Part 1

The start of a 3-week road trip across America with 10 strangers!

Getting ready for the Oscars – red carpet lining Hollywood Blvd

Within minutes of meeting my companions for the next 3 weeks You can read my previous blog on this here), we were all climbing into our mini-bus and being driven by our tour guide across the city to our first stop – Hollywood. Conversations in the bus at this point mainly consisted of the “What’s your name again?”, “Where did you say you’re from again?” kind and when we were dropped off and given an hour to wander around Hollywood Boulevard, we drifted into smaller groups – the 2 Swedish girls sticking together, the 20-something guys grouping up and then those of us that didn’t fit any other group wandering off together too. Hollywood was setting up for the weekend’s big Oscar Ceremony which, having been to the Walk of Fame many times before, made the stop a bit more exciting for me as we saw the preparations going on and watched through the fence as reporters broadcast from the red carpet already running down the middle of the road to the Kodak Theater.

Oscar preparations outside the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood

Once we were all back at the bus, we made one more quick hop off and on stop nearby to get a photo of the Hollywood sign from Beachwood Canyon before settling in for the 2 hour drive to San Diego. Lunch was at a truck stop just outside the city with a choice of fast food options (most of us tried Wendy’s!) and then it was off to drop our things at our hostel in the Gaslamp District. Like me, this was to be the first hostel experience for most of the group. We were allocated two 6-bed dorms to share between us, there were plenty of bathrooms along the corridor and breakfast was provided in the morning. Our room overlooked the main street in the Gaslamp Quarter, where all the bars were so we had loud music pumping through the walls until the early hours of the morning but it was only for 2 nights and our next stop would be a hotel in Vegas.

The Hollywood sign
Paddling in the sea on Mission Beach

After we had settled, we met back at the bus and were taken to Mission Beach for the afternoon. Despite it being February, the weather was a balmy 20 degrees and we wandered along the sands chatting and getting to know each other a bit more before returning to the city for our first group dinner at Bepe di Bucco’s family dining restaurant. That night, we split into those who wanted to go partying and those who didn’t with some of us opting instead to keep out of the bars and get frozen yoghurt instead as we planned to be up early the next day for a trip to the zoo.

What we did on our free day was completely up to us but with the suggestions being SeaWorld or San Diego Zoo, most of the group was keen on going to the zoo so our tour guide offered to drive us there and then we could make our own way back. Only 2 of the group – the two Swedish girls who were mainly keeping themselves to themselves at this point – decided to stay in the city and do their own bit of sightseeing. The zoo was huge, so much so that we lost one group member at one point which was a good point to decide we should all swap numbers and start a Whatsapp group! After spending most for the day there, we walked through Balboa Park and back to the hostel. Our tour guide suggested a seafood place for dinner but with none of the group too keen in that idea, we ended up in Hooters which, if nothing else, was cheaper!

It was a very early start the next morning to begin our drive to Las Vegas and most of us slept in the bus. Lunch was at a bizarre Greek-style diner in Baker, California, opposite the World’s Largest Thermometer(!) before continuing to our destination.

Our seemingly luxurious hotel room at Bally’s!

After 2 nights in a hostel, our room at Bally’s Casino seemed like luxury and I was surprised we were in a hotel on the Strip and in such a good location, expecting to be Downtown from reading other Trekkers’ experiences online. With hotel rooms being for 2, the two Swedish girls shared a room, I shared with the other solo girl (we’d already become good friends at this point – 2 days can seem a lot longer when you’re spending all that time in someone’s company!) and then the guys paired up, taking it in turns to have a room to themselves with there being an odd number of them.

We had the rest of the afternoon as free time but were to be back early evening for our included Party Bus activity. As my roommate and I had decided we’d like to see Britney play the following night, we headed straight to the Planet Hollywood box office to acquire some tickets before joining the others strolling through some of the hotels on the strip. Then it was all round to our tour guide’s room for some group-bonding drinking games and Chinese food before we piled onto our private Vegas Party bus. The bus drives up and down the strip while music blasts out and the inside is like a mini-dance club.

Downtown Vegas

Unimpressed by the very clubby music, one of the group asked if he could instead plug in his iPhone and we instead sang and danced along to cheesy 90s pop tracks from the Spice Girls and 5ive and tunes from Disney’s Frozen. The bus made a stop Downtown in time for us to catch the hourly laser show at Fremont Street and then at the Welcome to Vegas sign for us to get photos before dropping us off at the Bellagio to watch the penultimate dancing fountain show of the night. We loved this so much we decided to wait 15 minutes to watch the final show of the night too before following our tour guide to her favourite karaoke bar at Ellis Island Casino just behind Bally’s.

The Bellagio Founains

The next morning we split into 2 groups – those of us who had returned to our hotel at a reasonable time and were up to spend the day exploring Vegas, and those who were sleeping it off! By the time we met with the rest of the group later that afternoon, we had already had a huge Denny’s breakfast, took a gondola ride at the Venetian hotel, and got lost in Circus Circus. We were joined by a few more group members at the top of the Stratosphere where we screamed our way through the 3 rides sat on top of the tallest building in the Strip.

Britney!

That evening, we all went off to see various shows and for me that meant the chance to see Britney’s Piece Of Me show, something I’d wanted to do since it was announced so I was ecstatic to discover she was playing on our free evening in the city. We’d managed to get our hands on pit tickets so were up close, especially when Britney came out along the catwalk and the show was every bit as amazing as I’d hoped. After, we met up with a few other group members for a late night ride on the High Roller Ferris Wheel to see the bright lights of Vegas from above.

I’d been to Vegas a few times before this trip but never experienced it quite like this. Being in a group tour situation was already taking me out of my comfort zone – drinking games, party buses, late night karaoke bars, none of these things were how I’d usually spend my time on holiday – and yet I was loving every minute and really enjoying the company of this eclectic band of individuals.

4 days in and things were going great but I should know by now to expect the unexpected…

My Trek America Experience Part 2

My first solo travel adventure

Going it alone

My first solo travel adventure

Coast to coast with Trek America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alone on Santa Monica Beach

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

Sunset over Santa Monica Pier

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

Breakfast feast for one at Denny’s

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

Sony Studios Tour

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

Walking to Venice Beach

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

Exploring the canals at Venice
On a tour to Malibu

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

Malibu Beach
After cycling to Marina del Rey

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

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

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

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

My first Small Group Tour travel experience Part 1

Going it alone