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

Hollywood and Beverly Hills

Visiting Hollywood and wondering what there is to do and see? Read through my ideas and tips to get the most out of your visit!

Hollywood Boulevard

No matter where you’ve decided to stay, A visit to Hollywood Boulevard is probably going to be on your itinerary. So what to expect? Yes, it’s tacky. Yes, it’s full of crowds of tourists all congregating in the same small areas of pavement. Yes, the far ends of the Hollywood Boulevard and anywhere slightly off the Boulevard, does not feel the safest place in the World to wander. But go with your expectations not too high and you’ll find plenty to enjoy.

The Four Ladies Statue, Hollywood/La Brea Gateway

You’ll more than likely find yourself wandering along the Walk of Fame eyes down with exclaims of ‘oh Britney Spears!’ , ‘Look, there’s Tom Cruise!’ and ‘Kermit the Frog!!!’ – no, not pointing out the actual celebrity of course but just shouting out the name on every other star you walk past with no real reason why you’re doing it. Be prepared to get annoyed as fellow tourists decide to sit in the middle of the pavement to get photos with various stars only to find yourself doing exactly the same when you see one of your faves.

Then as the pavement opens out in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, push your way through the crowds waiting for your turn to see how your shoe size measures up to your Hollywood faves. When in Hollywood…!

Looking for a particular celebrity’s star? Then download the Walk of Fame app which will pinpoint the exact place of any star you are looking for or look on the Walk of Fame’s official site. You can also find out if there’s any new stars ceremonies going on while you’re in town.
https://www.walkoffame.com/

View of he Capital Records Building from the Hollywood & Vine intersection

If you can raise your eyes from the pavement long enough to notice, you’ll find various costumed individuals around the area in front of Madame Tussaud’s encouraging tourists to have photos with them – remember, they are expecting hefty tip in return – and many competing tacky gift stores selling cheap and cheerful souvenirs – fake Oscar statuette with you name on anyone?! Look out for the $10 store which seems to constantly have an ‘everything is just $5’ sale on!!


Looking out towards Hollywood Boulevard from the arch at the Hollywood & Highland Center

For a handful of high street stores and chain restaurants, the Hollywood and Highland Center, a 3-storey entertainment complex, is a good bet and also provides some great photo opportunities with it’s over-the-top Babylon Gate entrance flanked by elephant statues, the jumping water jets/fountain in the central courtyard and the ‘casting couch’ from which you can follow the Road to Hollywood with it’s anonymous stories of industry stars’ rise to fame.

From the walkways across the arch at the back of the center, there are views of the Hollywood sign in the distance. Not really close enough for you to get a photo with the sign but you can definitely get a photo of it. (You can find my tips on getting closer to the Hollywood sign here.)

From the center, you can access the neighbouring Dolby Theatre – famous for being the most recent location of the Oscars ceremonies. Take a tour of the theatre and if you’re lucky and there’s no current production on there, you’ll get to step onto the stage where so many winners have accepted their award. Or for free, just pose on the red carpet steps leading up to the theatre’s entrance!

A few doors down, you can also take a tour of the Chinese Theatre to hear some of it’s history although personally, I didn’t really feel the tour was worth it and you can see just as much of the theatre by seeing a film there!

I much prefer a visit to the Hollywood Museum, just off Hollywood Boulevard opposite the Hollywood & Highland Center. The building it’s housed in is the former Max Factor Building and now contains props and costumes from Hollywood films and TV shows. The museum changes and updates a lot of its displays regularly so I like to return whenever I’m visiting Hollywood to see what’s currently on display.

Next door to the Hollywood Museum is one of my favourite places to eat in Hollywood, Mel’s Drive In, a traditional 50s style diner.


Mel’s Drive In Diner next to the Hollywood Museum

Slightly cheaper fare than at the Hard Rock Cafe across Hollywood Boulevard and better value, in my opinion, than the similar Johnny Rocket’s in the Hollywood Highland Center, it offers the usual burgers and sandwiches-type diner menu.

There’s plenty of other entertainment opportunities along the strip including Ripley’s Believe It or Not and two wax museums. If you’ve bought a tourist card such as the Go Los Angeles pass or Starline’s Hollywood Pass then it’s likely you’ll have a visit to Madame Tussaud’s included. If nothing else, a walk around the heavily air-conditioned museum is a welcome relief from the hot summer days or if you’re looking for a quieter visit, go in the evening after 8 when the queues are usually non-existent and you can move around much easier once inside.

Star Homes Tours

When my brother and his wife visited LA, they googled a map and headed of into the Hollywood Hills from Hollywood Boulevard by foot the one day and into the Beverly Hills on foot from Rodeo Drive another day!! It was the middle of August and sweltering heat but they had a great time exploring. If you have hired a car or also enjoy a hike then maps of the Star Homes can be purchased in many stores around the Hollywood area or you can indeed find plenty of information just using google but if not, there are plenty of companies offering these tours departing from Hollywood Boulevard!


View of the Hollywood sign from a scenic lookout on Mulholland.

I’ve taken 3 of these tours from Hollywood – and one to Malibu from Santa Monica – all with different companies and quite honestly, they’re all pretty similar – driving up into the Hollywood Hills via a stop at the Mulholland Drive lookout point to see the Hollywood sign in the distance before continuing through the Hollywood Hills and into Beverly Hills all the time with the driver shouting out the names of the celebrities that supposedly live at the various gated mansions you pass along the way! I say ‘supposedly’ because quite honestly, they could be saying anything and I’d have no idea if they were telling the truth or now but it’s always fun to see the huge compounds and see how the other half lives if nothing else!


One of the mansions on the tour

A Star Homes Tour is included on the Go LA tourist card and also in a lot of the tourist combo tickets available but if you haven’t purchased one of these then I recommend just walking along Hollywood Boulevard bartering with the tour guides – they are all trying to get you on their tour and are willing to offer competitive prices to gain your custom so don’t sign up at the first price offered or the first company you come to, see what’s on offer and haggle!

To read about the Malibu Star Homes tour I took, see my post about LA’s Beach Cities here.

Studio Tours

If you’re a movie buff or US TV fan then you’ll probably enjoy one, or all, of the 4 film studio tours LA currently offers. All are pretty easily accessible from Hollywood via the metro or public buses and while I do have a favourite – the Warner Brother’s Studio Tour – they all have their merits and are worth doing if you are a film and TV fan. The studio tour at Universal is only available with entry to Universal Studios Hollywood amusement park and is almost like a ride rather than a traditional backlot tour as you stay on an almost constantly moving bus past the film sets and there are many effects laden set pieces to add to the fun. (A more in-depth ‘VIP’ tour where you do get to tour some of the sets is also available but at a much higher cost.)

Warner Brothers, Sony Pictures and Paramount all offer more traditional backlot tours at their working studios with the opportunity to step foot on some of their sound stages and see the sets of some of their current shows. The tours are quite similar in some ways so you probably wouldn’t want to do all 4 on one trip as they could all end up blending into one. To help narrow it down, it could be worth looking into what’s currently filming at each one to give you an idea of what sets you might get to see although it’s all dependent on what’s not being used on the day. It is possible to apply to be an audience member at some of the shows but many have long waiting lists making it difficult to guarantee tickets for the days you are in the city.

For a more detailed account of my own experiences of the various Studio Tours available in LA and what they each have to offer, see my page here.

Griffith Park and Observatory

Griffith Observatory

I’d often see Griffith Observatory high up in the Hollywood Hills while in LA and was familiar with it from various films and TV shows, but it wasn’t until my most recent visit that I finally paid it a visit. The observatory lies in Griffith Park but on top of a steep hill so unless you want to hike up it, the easiest way to get there is on public transport.

When I visited, an easy public transport option didn’t exist so I caught an Uber there and walked back but now you can catch a red metro line train a few stops from Hollywood Boulevard to the Vermont/Sunset Station and catch a DASH bus from here which will drop you right outside the observatory! DASH buses are not included on TAP card fares but having a TAP card will get you a discount, making the fare just 35 cents, otherwise, it’ll set you back a whole 50 cents – bargainous either way!!

The observatory itself is free to enter and has some really interesting space-related exhibitions but the big attraction for me was the view.

From the observatory it is possible to pick up hiking trails that will eventually lead you closer to the Hollywood sign but if you do plan on taking one of these, make sure you have plenty of water on you and the right footwear as it’s quite a long walk! Otherwise, I recommend strolling back down the hill and through Griffith Park itself before walking or catching a bus back into Hollywood!

Griffith Observatory on top of a hill in Griffith Park

Sunset Boulevard

Running parallel to Hollywood, a block south, is Sunset Boulevard. After passing along this road a few times on the sightseeing bus but never hopping off to explore I finally decided to take a walk down there on my last visit to the city.

The main reason I’d decided to head down to Sunset Boulevard was to visit Amoeba Records, the World’s largest independent music store. The store did not disappoint with 2 floors of cds, dvds, vinyls and music merchandise and is definitely worth a visit if you’re a music fan.

Walk a bit further west along Sunset Boulevard and you will come to Hollywood’s Rockwalk outside another music store, this one selling instruments. Like a mini-versions of the pavement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre only this time, for musicians, the Rockwalk at the Guitar Centre has the handprints of many famous rock artists as well as bronze plaques on the walls for some well-known names.

Moving into West Hollywood by continuing a few miles along Sunset Boulevard, you will come to the infamous Sunset Strip. Here, Sunset Boulevard is lined with bars and clubs. The strip is a short taxi ride from Hollywood Boulevard and comes alive at night with clubs offering live music and comedy. During the day, there is shopping at Sunset Plaza.

The Viper Room on Sunset Strip

The Grove and Farmers’ Market

If you are heading out of Hollywood towards Beverly Hills on public transport, then it’s likely you’ll turn south on Fairfax Avenue and pass The Grove Shopping Centre and neighbouring Farmer’s Market along the way.

Both worth a stop, The Grove is a pleasantly laid out open shopping mall with lots of high street stores, department stores, cafes, restaurants and even a cinema all set around a pretty lake and fountain area. A tram runs through the Grove complex connecting it with the LA Farmers Market where you will find a variety of food stalls selling both fresh produce and plenty of lunch or snack options.

While visiting The Grove and Farmers Market, why not walk a block south to the corner of Fairfax and Wiltshire where you’ll find LACMA – the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. While I’ve still not got round to actually visiting the museum, I did enjoy walking through it’s ‘Urban Lights’ sculpture while waiting for the bus back to Hollywood. Next door to LACMA, you’ll find the La Brea Tar Pits which I plan to visit for the first time on my LA visit later this year – can’t wait!

Beverly Hills

While most of the Star Homes Tours offered from Hollywood will drive through Beverly Hills past the huge mansions and along Rodeo Drive passing the designer stores, they don’t tend to make a stop here so you may decide to go back to explore this area a bit more by yourself.

A Beverly Hills shield

Whether you’ve hired a car to drive yourself or if you’re getting a bus from Hollywood or Santa Monica, you will probably find yourself at the large Beverly Hills sign in Beverly Gardens Park.

Across the road from the park, you’ll find the Beverly Hills Visitors Centre where you can get a photo with one of the famous Beverly Hills shields. It is also just a short walk to Rodeo Drive which I have walked down window shopping many a time but never had the nerve to enter any of the high end designer stores!!

Nearby is the Beverly Hills City Hall which is the building used as the police station in the Beverly Hills Cop films.

If you want to experience a bit of Hollywood glamour, walk to one of the 2 famous Beverly Hills hotels. The Beverly Wiltshire at the end of Rodeo Drive featured in the film Pretty Woman and the Beverly Hilton is just to many red carpet events including the annual Grammy awards!

LA Overview

Downtown

The Hollywood sign

Studio Tours

Beach Cities