A Midwest Road Trip: Chicago

After spending over 6 months planning a self-drive road trip of Midwest USA, the time had finally come to depart for our gateway city of Chicago. Being used to taking either short city breaks in the USA or escorted small group tours for longer trips – neither of which required us to do any of our own driving – it was the first time any of us had undertaken such a trip and we were equally excited and nervous for the weeks ahead.

At the airport waiting to board

To help to calm the nerves, we had chosen to begin our trip with a few (carless!) days in a city familiar to us all – Chicago. The three of us had all spent a few days here as part of the Trek America coast to coast tour through the Northern states we previously taken – the trip we had actually met on – and I had visited a few times prior to this and knew the city pretty well (read my tips for visiting the city here).

After meeting up in the arrivals at Chicago airport (we had all flown in from different parts of the UK), we managed to navigate our way into the city and then drag our luggage the short distance from the subway to our Michigan Avenue hotel. It was already early evening so after checking into our room, the only thing on our mind was food and sleep. We grabbed take away from the first place we stumbled across and then settled down in our room for the night.

Rising early thanks to the jetlag, we began the next day – our only full day in the city – with a stroll along Michigan Avenue up to the John Hancock building. After stopping for breakfast at Starbucks, we continued across the DeSable Bridge and onto the ‘Magnificent Mile’. This area is a shoppers paradise and we couldn’t resist popping into a few of the stores we passed including Dylan’s Candy Bar and the Disney Store.

Above, and below, views from Chicago 360

Eventually, we reached the John Hancock building where we had booked tickets up to its observation deck, now rebranded as Chicago 360. On our last visit together to the city, we had instead visited the observation deck at the Willis Tower but having been up both before, the John Hancock building’s observation deck was my favourite. Feeling adventurous, we had also purchased tickets to try out Chicago 360’s latest attraction, TILT. Branded “Chicago’s newest thrill ride”, here visitors can stand against a glass window on the 94th floor observation deck as it slowly tilts forward over the city below.

It was a clear, sunny day and the views over the city from the top, especially looking towards Lake Michigan, were beautiful. The TILT ride was fun, if short-lived, and not nearly as scary as it looked in my opinion although the screams from other visitors showed that not everyone agreed with me on that!

Walking along Lake Shore Drive

Once back at ground level, we walked east towards Lake Shore Drive, crossing to the path running alongside the lake and following it south past the beaches towards Navy Pier. Wanting to get out on the lake but having taken the Shoreline Sightseeing company’s Lake Michigan cruise on our last visit, this time we opted for a jetboat ride.

With some time to kill between booking our boat trip and its departure time, we walked the pier and had a go on some of the amusements before returning to board.

Navy Pier fun

The jet boat trip was great fun as we sped across the lake twisting and turning, getting us just wet enough to cool us down a bit from the the strong, summer sun without soaking us.

We returned to the pier at a slightly slower pace allowing us the opportunity to take some photos of the Chicago skyline in front of us.

Above, and below, having fun at the Cloudgate Sculpture

Leaving Navy Pier behind, we walked south to Millennium Park, home of my favourite Chicago attraction – the Cloudgate Sculpture or ‘the silver bean’ as we prefer to call it. Here, we spent more time than was probably necessary staring at the reflections of ourselves ad the city skyline in the sculpture, walking beneath and finding lots of different angles to take photos from.

Also in Millennium Park and not far from Cloudgate, is the Crown Fountain and with it being a boiling hot summer’s day, it was full of children – and some adults – cooling off by paddling their feet and waiting for the faces on the screens at each end to ‘spit’ water over them.

Crown Fountain

Having spent all day under the hot, summer sun, and now being almost back at our hotel, we couldn’t resist diving under the jet of water suddenly spewed from the fountain. We were absolutely drenched but it felt so good!

Next stop was across the road to our hotel to change – and to try to dry our clothes before the start of our road trip the next day! – before heading back uptown later for pizza at our favourite Deep Dish restaurant, Gino’s East. As usual, the pizza took a while to cook but we kept ourselves entertained adding to the customer graffiti covering the restaurant’s walls and furnishings!

The deep dish didn’t disappoint and full up, we waddled back to our hotel full of anticipation for what the next day would bring.

This was it, it was time to check out of our city hotel, head back to the airport and pick up our hire car for 3 weeks on the road. We would be back in Chicago at the end of it all having hopefully returned from a fun-filled Midwest adventure!!

San Francisco

The city of San Francisco was my first experience of the state of California and it was pretty much love at first sight – for both the city and the state.  This year, I was planning my fifth visit to the city until the pandemic got in the way but I can’t wait to reschedule my trip.

Here’s my guide to how I like to spend my time in this Northern California city.

Where to stay

View from my room at the Mark Hopkins InterContinental Hotel

On each of my visits to San Francisco, I’ve stayed in very different accommodations – a luxury hotel on my first trip, a budget hotel on trip number 2, a hostel on my third visit and a roadside motel the last time – but on 3 out of 4 of my visits, I at least stuck to the same area of the city – Union Square/Nob Hill.

The area is one of the most central areas of the city, convenient for the theatres and shopping malls and with plenty of transport links – including a terminus for the famous San Francisco cable cars – to easily reach other parts of the city.

The Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel, perched on the top of Nob Hill near to Grace Cathedral, was one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed in – although having to walk up the city’s largest hill from the bottom of Union Square at the end of each day was not my favourite! 

At the Top of the Mark martini bar

We won our stay there on a Priceline bid so stayed there for a fraction of the usual cost and we spent most of our evenings sat in its top floor martini bar, Top of the Mark, listening to the piano player while looking out at the city through its floor to ceiling windows.

Wherever I’m staying in the city, I try to make a return visit to the Top of the Mark bar to enjoy the city view overs a drink and watch the fog roll in over the city.

If you’re looking for something a bit more budget for your stay, I found both the Hotel Beresford and the nearby USA Hostels to offer clean and comfortable accommodation also in a convenient Union Square adjacent location.

Union Square shops

My only reason for not staying in the Union Square area on my last visit was having a car.  We were visiting the city as part of a road trip so looked for somewhere within our budget that was easily accessible without too much city driving and had free parking. The roadside motel La Luna, somewhere between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Presidio area, was where we ended up and was a comfortable budget option for a couple of nights.

Getting Around

San Francisco City Hall

On my first visit to the city, we barely used public transport. In the city for 4 nights/3 days, we bought tickets for the hop on/off tour bus which lasted us for the first 2 days and used the cable car, and even a taxi, for the third day.

The hop on/off bus worked well for us on our first visit, helping us to get our bearings and to see the highlights of the city and learn a bit about it without having to navigate our way around an unfamiliar public transport system.

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on the hop on/off bus, and below, riding the famous Cable Cars

There were 2 routes to ride, one which took us from Union Square out past Alamo Square – home of the famous ‘Painted Ladies’ houses – to Golden Gate Park then back via Fisherman’s Wharf and a second which took us across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and back and we decided along the way which stops to hop off and explore at.

On my subsequent visits to San Francisco, being more familiar with the city, I have made the effort to use the public transport system, usually purchasing a 1 or 3-day MUNI Visitor Passport allowing unlimited rides on the buses, metro, streetcars and cable cars and have found it to be and easy and convenient system to navigate.

The famous, historic San Francisco cable cars are, in my opinion, the most fun way of travelling across the city but the queues to ride at the terminus for these can be quite long and often, it is difficult to hop on elsewhere as there isn’t always room for new passengers when the cars reach these stops unless people are getting off there.

Waiting to board a cable car

I try to head to the the Union Square or Hyde Street cable car terminuses either early morning or late evening/night as these are the best times to avoid long queues. If there is a queue, it is at least fun to watch the cable cars come in before swivelling around on the turntable and heading off in the opposite direction again.

When riding, I love to stand on the ledge on the outside of the cable cars, clinging on tightly as they ascend and descend the city’s huge hills but it is possible to find seats inside the cars if you prefer!

The Golden Gate Bridge

Probably the most famous of San Francisco’s sights, the suspension bridge painted the iconic shade of International Orange is a must-see on any visit to the city and there are a range of ways you can cross the bridge.

Tour bus

With the bridge not being visible from a lot of the more touristy areas of the city, it took to the end of my first visit to the city before we caught a glimpse of it while on a visit to the Presidio area. Later that day, we used the hop on/off buses’ Sausalito route to cross the bridge.

At the Palace of Fine Arts

The bus took us from Fishermans Wharf to the Marina District where we made a stop at the beautiful Palace of Fine Arts building before we drove across the bridge and see it up close. The main thing I remember about this is the wind in my face, whipping my hair into one huge tangle as we sat on the outside deck upstairs on the bus, whizzing across!

I managed to cling onto my camera long enough to take a few photos and luckily, it was a clear afternoon meaning the bridge was completely visible – which isn’t always the case!

Looking out from the viewpoint actross the bridge

Once across the bridge, the bus made a 10 minute stop at a nearby viewpoint where we could look back at it and at San Francisco city across the bay. The bus then continued to the pretty town of Sausalito where it was possible to hop off and explore. Being short on time, we instead stayed on the bus to return back across the bridge to the city.

Bike

Getting closer to the bridge, and below, photos of the views as we cycled to the Golden Gate Bridge

On my second visit to the San Francisco, we decided to hire bikes from the Fisherman’s Wharf area of the city and cycle across the bridge. Our hire bikes came with a map and detailed instructions of the route to reach the bridge, Sausalito and continue further to Muir Woods should we wish to.

The cycle to the bridge was mainly easy with some on road and steep uphill sections and it was great fun then cycling across the bridge, being able to stop along the way to take photos and enjoy the view.

Finally at the Golden Gate Bridge, and below, exploring Sausalito

The weather was mainly on our side with the unpredictable San Francisco fog only occasionally drifting in to obscure the peaks of the bridge. Mainly though, it was clear and sunny.

Once across, it was then down hill into Sausalito where we stopped for lunch and a look around this beautiful bay side town with its cafes, restaurants, galleries and boutique stores before catching the ferry with our bikes back to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Walking

Walking across the Golden Gate Bridge

My third visit to the city was as part of my Trek America coast to coast tour across the USA through the Northern states and this time, we were dropped off at one side of the bridge early morning and walked across to then meet our tour guide at the other side.

It was an easy walk across but unfortunately the weather wasn’t the best with the fog covering the bridge for much of our walk across and only clearing occasionally.

Our catamaran heads under the Golden Gate Bridge

Boat

On this trip, we also took a sunset catamaran cruise out to the bay but, as much fun as this was, the weather clouded over and the fog descended meaning we didn’t see any sunset and could hardly make out the bridge at all until we were right up close to it!

Self-drive

The fog obscures the view as we drive across the Golden Gate bridge early one morning!

On my final visit to the city, we were on a self-drive trip where we needed to make a very early start. This meant the fog hadn’t had time to clear at all and we couldn’t see the structure of the bridge at all, it could have been any other road, which was a shame!

If possible, I would definitely recommend cycling across the bridge and including a stop in Sausalito before returning, definitely my favourite way of seeing this famous structure!

Alcatraz Island

Saining across to Alcatraz

Another must-do on my first visit to San Francisco was a trip over to Alcatraz Island to explore the infamous former prison. Boats to the island leave from one of the piers near to Fisherman’s Wharf and need to be booked in advance – often well in advance! – from the official Alcatraz Cruises site. We decided on an evening visit, departing the mainland just as the sun was setting – not that we could tell as it had long clouded over.

Nearing Alctaraz Island, and below, touring Alcatraz

Once on the island, we were handed headsets and listened to a commentary which guided us around the building while explaining the significance of each room or block and recounted stories from when it was an active prison. Night had fallen by the time we completed our tour and it was an eerie experience being on the island in the dark.

I have since been back in daylight hours and after we’d finished touring the prison, it was possible to stay on the island longer to join Ranger-led talks and find out more.

Fishermans Wharf

Probably the most touristy area of San Francisco and a popular area for many visitors to stay in, Fishermans Wharf is home to a variety of shops, restaurants and tourist attractions including Pier 39.

The Pier 39 Sealions

I love walking to the end of the pier where you will usually find the famous San Francisco sealions clambering onto pontoons in the bay, barking loudly at each other. It’s always amusing to watch if you can put up with the smell!

You’ll also find the Victorian-style carousel towards the end of the pier, notable for unusually being a double-decker carousel!

The Embarcadero Clock Tower, and below, Hyde Street Pier

From Fishermans Wharf it is possible to walk along the bay front in one direction towards the Embarcadero area with the various piers and jetties and its striking Embarcadero Clock Tower or towards the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park in the other direction. It’s visitor centre is free to look inside or for a fee, you can board some of the old ships docked in the bay at Hyde Street Pier or explore the Maritime Museum.

A bust Ghirardelli Square

A bit further along from Hyde Street Pier but still in the Fishermans Wharf area is Ghirardelli Square, site of the former Ghirardelli chocolate factory and now home to various stores and restaurants including the Ghirardelli Chocolate shop and cafe for amazing ice cream sundaes!!

Lombard Street

Crowds watching the cars weave down Lombard Street

A quirkier attraction of San Francisco city, this road is often referred to as ‘the crookedest street in the World’. It is walkable to the top of the street from Fishermans Wharf if you don’t mind steep uphill walks – we had to make a few stops along the way up to catch our breath! – or the cable cars stop here. From the top, you can see the street winding down and watch the cars slowly crawl their way down before walking down to the bottom end of the street for a view of it from the other end.

Segwaying down Lombard Street

Feeling a bit more adventurous on our last visit to the city, we not only drove our hire car down it but also took an ‘advanced’ segway tour of the city which involved segwaying down Lombard Street as crowds of tourists videoed and photographed us!

Museums

The deYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park, and below, the Cable Car Museum near Chinatown

If it’s culture you want, then San Francisco has plenty! As well as the previously mentioned Maritime Museum in Fishermans Wharf, San Francisco is home to a variety of museums. Golden Gate Park is home to the de Young Museum – an art museum – and the science museum, The Californian Academy of Science. If art is your thing, the Legion of Honor Museum in Lincoln Park is also well worth a visit.

A small but excellent free museum that is worth a visit is the Cable Car Museum, not far from Union Square in the Nob Hill area.

Viewing the cablecar system mechanics at the Cable Car Museum

As well as exhibits on the history of the city’s cable car system, the museum is housed at the powerstation for the cable car system and there is a viewing area where you can see the huge wheels whirring and cables shifting powering the cars along through the city!

My favourite San Francisco museum is the Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio area of the city. The museum explores the life of Walt Disney and tracks the establishment of the Walt Disney company with plenty of clips from his early animated features and is really interesting for any Disney fan.

Golden Gate Park

The Japanese Tea Gardens, and below, views across the park from the deYoung Museum observation deck

Named Golden Gate Park despite it not actually being anywhere near the Golden Gate Bridge, this huge park – larger than Central Park in New York – is definitely worth a visit. Along with the aforementioned museums, the are plenty of other attractions in the park including the Conservatory of Flowers and the Japanese Tea Gardens.

Above, and below, exploring Golden Gate Park

If you don’t want to pay entrance fees into the attractions, there’s plenty to do and see for free. It’s possible to visit the viewing platform at the deYoung Museum without paying to go into the museum itself and there are plenty of gardens, sculpture parks, open spaces, lakes and even waterfalls to explore.

Ocean Beach

We explored the east side of the park before exiting and catching a bus down to the west end where the park reaches Ocean Beach.

San Francisco Hearts

The only heart permanently in Union Square and painted International Orange – the same shade as the Golden Gate Bridge!

If you’re wandering around Union Square, you might notice four heart-shaped sculptures, one on each corner of the square, each uniquely decorated. These hearts, part of an art installation and inspired by the Tony Bennett classic I Left My Heart in San Francisco, can be found all over the city.

Above, and below, heart-spotting in San Francisco

A google search will bring up various websites listing some of the locations, some in obvious, easy to access places like at the end of Pier 39, some in harder to find places – we found one in a corner of Macy’s in Union Square and another in the foyer of a bank!

It can be fun trying to track them down and a good way to explore the city!

Exploring different areas of the city

The city of San Francisco is made up of many very distinctive areas, including Fisherman’s Wharf and the Union Square/Nob Hill areas which I’ve already mentioned, all of which are worth exploring.

Haight-Ashbury

Above, and below, brightly painted stores and murals in the Haight-Ashbury area

The historic Haight-Ashbury area was made famous in the 1960s for being the birthplace of hippie culture.

Near to the east end of Golden Gate Park, the area has the quirkiness of Camden in London and Venice Beach in LA with its colourful houses, brightly painted murals and eclectic array of mainly independent stores.

The Painted Ladies houses in Alamo Sqaure

If you are in the are, it is also possible to walk to Alamo Square from the main street to see the famous ‘Painted Ladies’, a row of colourful Victorian houses. There’s also great views of the city from the top of the hill in Alamo Square Park!

Chinatown

Not far from the Union Square/Nob Hill area, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest outside of Asia. It’s always fun to walk down its bustling streets with the many market stalls and souvenir stores but my favourite place to visit there is the the Fortune Cookie Factory.

Fortune cookies piled up at Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in Chinatown

It’s free to enter and watch the fortune cookies being made, although if you want to take photos or videos you are asked to leave a donation, and it is even possible to write your own message to be put into a fortune cookie to give to someone!

North Beach

The view from outside City Lights bookstore in North Beach, and below, Washington Square

Right next to Chinatown is the North Beach area which, confusingly, is not actually anywhere near a beach! This is actually the Italian district of the city and a great place to head to in the evening to find a nice Italian restaurant to eat out at.

Apart from the many Italian restaurants other points of interest in the area include the City Lights Bookstore, a large independent bookstore founded in the early 1950s; The Stinking Rose restaurant – the original garlic restaurant where it’s even possible to order a dessert made with garlic! – The Beat Museum which traces the history of The Beats generation from the 1950s onwards; the pretty Washington Square overlooked by Saints Peter and Paul Church (famous for being the site of Marilyn Monroe & Joe DiMaggio’s wedding photos) and Telegraph Hill where you’ll find San Francisco’s Coit Tower.

Enjoying the sunshine in Washington Square

Above, the Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, and below, views from Telegraph Hill and the Coit Tower observation deck

Often said to resemble a firefighter’s hose, and coincidentally a monument to San Francisco’s firefighters, the Coit Tower stands atop Telegraph Hill and can be seen from many points in the city.

Walking up to Telegraph Hill there are views of San Francisco bay in one direction and the financial district with the distinct pyramid-shaped TransAmerica building on the other direction. It is possible for a small fee to go up to the top of the Coit Tower to a small observation deck but there’s not lot of room up there and I found the views to be slightly obscured by scratched windows in need of a clean!

A pagoda in Japantown

There are many other areas of the city worth a visit, the Mission area is a great place to head to for a night out with its many bars and on my next visit I’m planning to visit its Delores Park which is supposed to have great views of the city skyline. Japantown offers many Japanese restaurants and Japanese-style spas and I’m yet to visit Treasure Island, an artificial island across the Bay Bridge.

Beyond the city, its also possible to take a trip out to Yosemite National Park to see the highlights – although I would argue that a day there really isn’t enough! – or to the closer Muir Woods which is on my ‘to do list for my next visit. Or head across the bay to visit the cities Oakland and Berkley.

However you spend your time in San Francisco, you’re bound to have a great time in this eclectic, beautiful city.

Wellington, New Zealand

Completing my tour of New Zealand’s North Island

It was the final few days of my week-long tour of New Zealand’s North Island with small group adventure tour company Haka Tours.  I’d joined the tour after spending some time travelling solo to the Bay of Islands and Auckland and so far, we’d spent time on the Coromandel, in Waitomo and Rotorua.  Now, we were about to leave a 2-night stay in Taupo behind us.

Looking back at Tongariro National Park from the road

Still exhausted and aching all over from completing an almost 20km hike across Tongariro National Park the day before, we checked out of our hostel, loaded up the bus with our luggage and hit the road.  Today, we’d be heading to our final North Island destination, New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington.

At the National Army Museum

Along the way, we made a couple of stops.  First up was a roadside stop to enjoy the stunning views of Tongariro National Park and then a stop at the a National Army Museum.  While none of the group decided to pay to go into the museum, we used the opportunity to stretch our legs, use the conveniences and pose for photos with the tanks outside!

Gumboot sculpture in Taihape

Our second stop was on the outskirts of the town of Taihape where the town’s boundary was marked with a sculpture of a giant ‘gumboot’ or Wellington boot as we’d call it in the UK.  Taihape is the gumboot throwing capital of New Zealand. 

Competitions in this unusual sport are held regularly here on a purpose built court and after we posed for photos with the giant boot, that’s exactly where we headed next for our own bit of friendly competition throwing gumboots!

Armed with a boot each, we stepped up in pairs to throw it as far as we could, winner staying on to compete again.  I somehow won my first couple of rounds, luck more than anything, but it certainly wasn’t third time lucky for me as I crashed out in the next round!!

Game over, we walked to a nearby café for a well-deserved cup of tea and some lunch before our next stop at Gravity Canyon.

Trying out the Flying Fox at Gravity Canyon

Here, we had the option of trying out a Flying Fox – a kind of zip line over a canyon where you fly down head first like Superman! I’d ziplined many time before and didn’t see how this could be any scarier than that so seeing as I’d not signed up for any of the other more adventurous activities like bungee jumping or skydiving, I decided to give this one a go!

Three of us were strapped into the holster next to each other before a cord was pulled sending us hurtling down over the canyon below. It was great fun and I was glad I decided to do it.

From here, we continued on towards Wellington. Just outside of the city, we stopped once more to stretch our legs at a park, letting out our inner kids to play on the swings etc.  Traffic was already heavy into the city and our rush hour arrival made it worse so by the time we arrived at our YHA hostel accommodation, there wasn’t a lot of the day left.

We made plans to all meet for dinner after a bit of downtime.

With most of the group deciding on an Asian Fusion restaurant recommended by our tour guide for dinner, a couple of us who were not keen on this cuisine made plans to either eat elsewhere or cook our own food at the hostel before meeting back with the others at the Asian Fusion bar after for drinks.

Still tired from the previous day’s hike, most of us went straight back to our hostel dorms afterwards for an earlyish night.

Wellington waterfront

The next day was the final day of our week-long North Island tour. Tomorrow, some of the group would be continuing on to complete the South Island leg of the tour while I would be staying a few more days in Wellington alone before flying home.

Walking along the waterfront

Today, we had the full day in Wellington to spend as we wished.  Our guide was offering to take us on a tour of the city in the morning or we could make our own plans.  A few of the Lord of the Rings fans in the group wanted to visit the Weta Workshop, where many of the props for the films were made, for a tour.

As a big film fan, I decided to go along too so rather than join our guide’s city tour, we instead walked to the tourist information office to book a place on a tour later that morning.

Arriving at Weta Cave for our Weta Workshop tour

We had an hour to kill before our tour was due to leave so we had a walk along the water front and got drinks and a snack from a nearby café before returning to catch our mini bus.

The bus took us out to Weta Workshops where we were taken on a guided tour of the premises. We were shown props and costumes from the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films as well as other films made in New Zealand – unfortunately we were not allowed to take any photos during the tour – and I was surprised to learn what a big part Wellington played in the film industry.

Part of our food order

After our tour, we had some time to spend in the gift store/museum before our minibus arrived to take us back to the city centre where we met up with a few more of our group who were now back from their city tour. We spent some time exploring the city – grabbing tea and cake from yet another cafe! – before heading back to the waterfront where we sat out at a riverside bar ordering pretty much everything off its menu between us for dinner!

Above, and below, walking along Oriental Parade

That evening, the entire group went out for final night drinks at a bar we found with a 60s cover band playing.  We had fun dancing the night away before returning to the hostel and, as those continuing the tour had a very early start the next day, said our goodbyes.

Looking back at the view as I made my way up to Mount Victoria

The next morning, I moved out of my now empty dorm room and into a private room at the YHA then set out alone to explore more of the city.

First up, was a hike up to Mount Victoria.  It was a beautiful, sunny day and I’d found instructions for a self-guided route which took me along Oriental Parade past the city’s pretty sea front and then up a steep path until I reached the viewpoint at the top.

Relaxing on the beach after my hike, and below, catching the Wellington Cable Car

After spending some time enjoying the views from the top, I walked back down to sea level stopping to relax on the beach, enjoying the sunshine and even taking a dip in the sea.

Above, and below, at the Cable Car Museum

Following a quick change back at the hostel, I walked to the terminus of the Wellington Cable Car catching it uphill to the viewpoint at the top. Once at the top, I had a quick look around the small cable car museum then walked back down to the city through the Botanic Gardens.

As one of the girls from my tour group was also still in Wellington, we met for dinner then went for drinks. It was Chinese New Year and there were celebrations going on at the waterfront ending in a firework display so we watched them from outside the bar – a great way to spend my last night in the city – and New Zealand!

My flight home via Sydney wasn’t leaving until late afternoon the next day so after checking out of the hostel, I went for a hearty breakfast at a café then spent the morning visiting some of Wellington’s museums.  I started off at the Te Papa, the city’s Museum of New Zealand .

After spending a few hours looking around the various exhibitions, I still had some time to spare so walked along the waterfront to the Wellington Museum, a much smaller, but equally interesting museum tracking the history of the city.

At the Wellington Museum

Eventually, it was time to say goodbye to the beautiful city of Wellington and to New Zealand and begin my long journey back to the UK.  I’d loved my time in the city and exploring New Zealand’s North Island, in fact, despite everyone telling me I’d be disappointed after first visiting South Island and that South Island was the best of the two islands to visit, I think if I had to pick, I actually preferred visiting North Island.

I loved the island’s areas of geothermal activity and volcanic landscapes, found learning about Maori culture fascinating, loved the vibrant cities of Auckland and Wellington and visiting the coastal areas of the Northlands and the Coromandel and while the scenery may not have been as constantly dramatic as South Island’s, it’s just as beautiful in its own way.

I was definitely sad to be leaving New Zealand and hoped to return some day.

Taupo, New Zealand

I was nearing the end of a second solo trip to New Zealand. Having visited South Island previously, this time, I was exploring North Island. After spending time alone in the Bay of Islands and Auckland, I had joined a one-week small group tour with Haka Tours which had so far taken in the Coromandel, Waitomo and Rotorua and we were now en route to our first 2-night stop of the trip, Taupo.

Leaving Rotorua mid-afternoon after a morning visit to Hobbiton and a stop off at Wai O Tapu Thermal Wonderland, it was only an hour’s drive so we still arrived at our Haka Lodge accommodation with some of the afternoon to spare. After checking into our dorms, we were taken to the nearby Spa Park. Here, there was a natural thermal hot spring which we spent the next hour or so relaxing in.

Once back at the hostel, it was time for some shopping. Most of the group would be taking on the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing the next day, a 19km hike, so supplies were needed to sustain us along the way. Hiking supplies bought, we then grabbed some food from the rather interesting Taupo McDonalds – a converted airplane! – before getting an early night.

We were up at 4am the next day to be picked up and taken to the start point of the crossing. Before starting the hike, I had little idea of what exactly it entailed other than the length of it but I had been told by members of my South Island tour group who had completed it, that although tiring, it was must do on the North Island tour and that had been my main reason for signing up.

After being dropped off, we made our way along the first part of the track. It was pretty flat and easy going and markers along the way tracked how far we had walked and how far we still had to go. We soon realised we’d been lulled into a false sense of security as we reached the infamous Devil’s Staircase part of the trek an hour or so later.

A long, uphill section with a mixture of steep pathways and stairs to climb causing us to take plenty of stops to ‘take some photos’ of the views!

The path then evened out again as we passed through the barren volcanic landscape of a crater before climbing steeply again, culminating in a tricky section where we had to use a rope attached to the rocks to scramble up a sharp ridge!

At the highest point of the trek now, Red Crater Summit, and also around the halfway point, we stopped to eat lunch. The weather so far had been very changeable and out of nowhere as we reached the summit, a huge cloud had descended around us masking the view.

Undeterred, we were soon ready to begin our descent down the other side of Red Crater. Glad there was some respite from walking uphill for the foreseeable future, we were surprised to find that this would actually turn out to be the most difficult part of the entire hike!

The path down was not only extremely steep but the surface was made up of loose lava fragments, like gravel, making it difficult to get a firm grip. We all lost our footing at some point, some sliding down the track before managing to steady ourselves again and the sheer incline at either side of us made the path even more precarious.

As we carefully made our way down, the cloud around us started to clear revealing the Emerald Lakes in the distance below.

Eventually we reached the lakes and looking back at where we just were and the hikers behind us looking tiny as they came down the steep path, we couldn’t believe we’d ever even managed to get to that point!

We continued on to Blue Lake where we stopped for snacks and to take in the beautiful scenery around us.

Next, there was another uphill section but the climb was much gentler than the previous climbs and the views along the way were stunning. From this point, the scenery started to change, becoming greener and less barren. Soon, we could see Ketetahi shelter in the distance – the first public conveniences since the first part of the track – but the winding track to get there seemed never ending!

Finally reaching Ketetahi shelter, some of the group were starting to flag but after a quick pit stop, I just wanted to get the last section of the trek done so edging ahead of the rest of the group, I started to pick up the pace as the path started to wind downhill. Again, the scenery began to noticeably change until I was walking through a forest of lush green plants and past a stream small waterfall before finally opening out into a car park.

Exhausted but also feeling a sense of achievement, I found somewhere to slump down as I waited for the rest of the group. Once on the coach we all fell asleep pretty much immediately on the journey back to our hostel.

We arrived back to find the few members of the group who hadn’t joined us on our hike looking a lot livelier than us after they’d spent the day exploring Taupo. They excitedly told us our tour guide had organised for us to go on a sunset cruise on the lake that evening. Struggling to muster up the energy to be excited for the prospect of doing anything other than sleep that evening, I retreated to my bed for a nap to recover from the day’s exertions.

After my nap and a shower, I still felt exhausted and ached all over but despite some of my fellow hikers deciding to give the cruise a miss, I decided I didn’t want to miss out so managed to drag myself out of my room and down to the meeting point just in time to be dropped down at the marina.

Here, we found a sail boat waiting for us along with crates of drinks in a cooler and a delivery of pizza’s for everyone. The cruise turned out to be just what I needed as I sat relaxing, wrapped up in the blankets that had been provided enjoying the good food, good company and pretty views.

The boat took us out to the Mine Bay Maori Rock Carving and then back to Taupo as the darkness began to descend. It had been a really fun evening and I was really glad I made the effort to go along but I was also very happy to get back to my bed and slept very well that night!

It had been a fun but exhausting couple of days in Taupo and I wished we had another day there to spend some more time exploring the town and relaxing down by the lake but for now, it was on to the last stop of the North Island tour, the capital city of New Zealand, Wellington.

Rotorua and Hobbiton, New Zealand

Having spent an exciting morning black water rafting through the glow worm caves of Waitomo, it was on to our next destination in New Zealand’s North Island. I was visiting New Zealand as a solo traveller and so far, I had visited the Bay of Islands and explored Auckland alone before visiting the Coromandel and Waitomo as part of an escorted tour with adventure travel company, Haka Tours and today we were off to Rotorua.

The journey from Waitomo to Rotorua took under 2 hours and once there, we made our first stop at Agrodome, a farm and adventure park just outside of Rotorua.

Riding the Agrojet boat

After cooing over the cute goats and emus, we were given the opportunity to have a go on some of the park’s activities including the high-speed Agrojet boat. After watching some other group members taking a spin on it, I decided it looked like fun and before I knew it I was strapped in and being whizzed around the water track at full speed! The boat was great fun!!

At OGO Rotorua

After grabbing some lunch from the cafe, it was on to our next stop just down the road, OGO Rotorua, where some group members tried their hands at Zorbing – rolling down a grassy slope in a large, inflatable ball. While I decided not to have a go myself, we all had lots of fun giggling at the others as we watched them attempt to stay upright inside!

It was off to check in at our accommodation for the night next – the Rotorua YHA where we’d be in dorms for the night.

Our meal being cooked, and below, traditional entertainment before dinner

This evening, we’d be going out for dinner at a traditional Maori Hangi. After getting ready, we were dropped at the Mitai Maori Village. Here, we were shown our dinner being cooked traditionally in a pit before seeing a ‘Waka’, or ceremonial war canoe being sailed down the river then watching a traditional Maori cultural performance and Haka.

Dinner was then served to us followed by a guided bush walk to finish the evening with.

Arriving at the Hobbiton Movie Set

The next morning, we had the choice of white water rafting, visiting Hobbiton or exploring Rotorua. Although ideally, I’d have liked to have had time for all 3 options, as a huge movie fan who loves to visit movie sets and studios (read about some of the other movie sites I’ve visited on my travels here!), I had signed up to visit Hobbiton along with the majority of the group.

Hobbiton

We were picked up from a Lord of the Rings-themed store near to our hostel and taken to Hobbiton. The purpose set used in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films had been left up after filming was completed and turned into a tourist attraction.

A hobbit house at Hobbiton

We were taken around the hobbit village by a tour guide, told a bit about the filming process, how the set was built, how it was used and stories from when they filmed and were given the opportunity to take photos of and with the hobbit houses.

While I’m glad I got to visit, I did find the tour very rushed with the tour group behind us hot on our heels the whole time making it difficult to get the photos we wanted.

Posing outside a hobbit house

I also found the guided groups to be too large and it was sometimes difficult to hear what the guide was saying. It is possible to take tours to Hobbiton from Auckland and I wished I had done this so I had the chance to white water raft or explore Rotorua that morning instead.

At the end of our tour, we got to visit the Green Dragon Inn for a glass of ale, cider or ginger ale included in our ticket price then it was time to get the coach back to Rotorua to meet back up with the rest of the group and begin our drive to Taupo.

Bubbling mud pools, and below, geothermal activity at Wai O Tapu Thermal Wonderland

But first we had one more stop just outside of town – Wai O Tapu Thermal Wonderland where we followed the boardwalk to see some of New Zealand’s geothermal and volcanic activity. Similar to Yellowstone National Park, we saw geysers, bubbling mud pools and pools of colourful boiling hot water all accompanied by the lovely smell of sulphur! It was really interesting to see.

It was a shame I’d not got to see more of Rotorua itself but I’d enjoyed my stay in the town and the varied activities along the way!

Waitomo, New Zealand

After spending time alone exploring the Bay of Islands and Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island, I was now 2 days into a tour of the island with Haka Tours. This afternoon we had left the Coromandel behind and now we were journeying towards our next stop, Waitomo.

3 hours later, we arrived at our accommodation for the night, a small motel on the outskirts of Waitomo. I was allocated a comfortable 3-bedroom ensuite room to share with 2 other group members and after settling in, we met up with the rest of the group at the adjoining pub spending the rest of the evening eating, drinking and chatting.

Before we realised what we’d let ourselves in for!

I had taken a tour of New Zealand’s South Island with Haka Tours just a few months earlier and kept in touch with most of my group in a Whatsapp chat. As most of them had toured North Island with the company immediately before our South Island trip, I had made sure to ask them to recommend which optional extras I should book. There were 2 unanimous ‘must dos’ according to my friends – the Tongariro Crossing in Taupo and Black Water Rafting at the glow worm caves in Waitomo.

There were actually 3 options available to use for viewing the Glow Worm Caves – a boat tour, black water rafting or, the most expensive, time-consuming and high-energy option, an abseiling and caving tour.

I wasn’t completely sure what Black Water Rafting was but had done White Water Rafting a few times and loved it so taking my friends’ advice, I had upgraded my travel insurance cover (as apparently it was a higher risk activity than anything I’d previously done!) and signed myself up for it!

Finding out what was involved in black water rafting!

So the next morning, we were up early and those of us going black water rafting were picked up and taken to the headquarters of the Black Water Rafting Company. Once there, we were handed skin tight wetsuits, special boots and a helmet with a flashlight on the front to change into and led to a pile of black inner tubes to choose from.

Now, I’m not sure what I did expect from the tour but what I certainly didn’t expect was to have to leap from the top of a waterfall into the river below. Backwards. Landing in my inner tube! Upon finding out exactly what was involved in the black water rafting experience, a few of us (ok, all of us!) in the group started exchanging worried looks – You want us to do what?!

We got to practise outside first, all nervously lining up then standing as near to the edge of the small waterfall as possible, back to the river behind us, jumping backwards aiming to land lying down in our inner tube. I watched the first few group members go first, all successfully landing in their tubes and floating off down the river before scrambling back out. Soon, it was my turn and somehow, I managed it straight away too!

Carrying our inner tubes through the caves

Practise over, we were told to hook our tubes over our shoulders and lead off to the cave entrance. Now I knew there’d be caves involved – they’re glow worm CAVES, where else would we be going?! But I’m not sure I’d realised that caving would be involved. Squeezing ourselves along with our tubes through narrow, dark passages underground with nothing but the light on our helmets to guide the way.

But it was too late to back out now so I dutifully followed the rest of the group and our guide into the darkness.

Once in the cave, we scrambled down the dark damp recesses until we heard water in the distance. It go louder until we realised we were at the top of a waterfall with an underground river running below. It was a much higher waterfall than the one we had practised on above ground. Wanting to get it out of the way, I volunteered to be the first to leap off backwards into my tube. Somehow, I again managed it without injury. Landing in the cold water flowing below and drifting off down the river, I grabbed onto the wall to steady myself and wait for the rest of the group to also be sat in their tubes in the river.

In the caves of Waitomo

From this point, it was less strenuous and more like a lazy river in the dark! Led by our guide, we drifted through the cave system along the underground river until we came to the glow worm caves. Here, we formed a train, all grabbing the ankles of the person behind us. We were then asked to all turn the flashlight on our helmet off so we were in complete darkness.

Being at the front, I was then led through through the caves by the guide and pulling the rest of my group behind me. The darkness surrounding us was suddenly lit up by what looked like a million stars shining brightly above us – glow worms! And suddenly all the stress of clambering through the caves and leaping backwards off waterfalls before seemed worth it!

As we left the caves and then Waitomo behind to head for our next stop of Rotorua, we were exhausted but extremely glad we’d all gone through with it.

Black water rafting through the caves of Waitomo was certainly an experience and one I’d absolutely recommend to anyone. As our one week tour of North Island came to an end a few days later, we all agreed that seeing the glow worms in that way was definitely a highlight of the entire week!

The Coromandel, New Zealand

Having toured South Island with them just months earlier, I was about to embark on a 7-day tour of New Zealand’s North Island with small adventure tour group Haka Tours. After a few days travelling solo in the Bay of Islands, I was back in Auckland at the company’s own Haka Lodge hostel to meet the rest of the group and begin our adventure.

Once the formalities were out of the way, the tour bus was loaded up with our luggage and we were ready to depart for our first night’s stop in Whitianga.

The Coromandel

We drove out along the Coromandel Coast stopping at a few beaches along the way including Waiomu as well as stopping at some viewpoints overlooking the coast.

Once in Whitianga, we split into 2 groups to take it in turns to visit Bay Carving where we would get the chance to make our own traditional bone-carved pendant.

My group went to look around the town, passing most of the time in a small cafe getting drinks and ice creams until it was our turn to have a go at making our pendants.

My completed pendant

We were given a selection of shapes to choose from including a fish hook and koro (spiral) and the significance of each shape was explained to us to help us decide. Then we were given a rough version of that shape and guided through the process of sanding in down to it’s finished shape and glazing it to perfect it before it was put onto a black string for us to take with us and wear as a souvenir.

Walking to Cathedral Cove

After completing our pendants, it was already early evening so we went straight to our nearby hostel where we were staying in small dorms that slept just 4 of us.

That evening, we did a group cook in the hostel kitchen rather than going out for food, a few of us heading back to the local supermarket after to grab some sweet treats for dessert!

The famous archway at Cathedral Cove

The next morning, we were going to visit Cathedral Cove where most of us had signed up to go sea kayaking. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans and after an overnight storm, the sea was still to rough and our kayaking session had to be called off. Instead, we parked near to Cathedral Cove and took a short walk along the coast path to get there.

On the beach at Cathedral Cove, and below, at Hot Water Beach

The walk along the clifftop offered plenty of pretty views along the way and when we reached Cathedral Cove it was instantly recognisable from the Chronicles of Narnia film, Prince Caspian.

The quieter end of Hot Water Beach

After spending some time on the beach, it was on to our next stop along the Coromandel Coast – Hot Water Beach.

This beach is famous for providing natural hot springs – if you can put in the effort to dig through the sand to get to the hot water!

Experiencing the hot water of Hot Water Beach!

Visitors flock to the beach either side of low tide armed with their spades (you can hire one from some of the local shops and cafes if you don’t have one with you!) and dig out their own burrows to sit in filled with the hot water that bubbles up from under the sand. The of the beach where the hot water is found was already packed when we arrived and we struggled to find a space so instead, decided to visit one of the local cafes for lunch.

After lunch, we returned to the beach and had a go at digging for some natural hot spring water, finding enough to at least all put our feet into but deciding against digging our own bath sized hole to sit in like many people had!

After our visit to Hot Water Beach, we stopped at a few more viewpoints but then it was time to say goodbye to the Coromandel and begin the long drive to our next destination, Waitomo.

Auckland, New Zealand

Walking through Albert Park

Having had a few hours to familiarise myself with the area surrounding my Auckland hotel before departing for the Bay of Isles just a few days ago, upon my return to the city, I quickly found my way back to the centrally-located Ibis Styles from the coach station.

Wandering through Auckland Domain

I’d arrived back in Auckland from Paihia with with most of the day still to spare so after dropping my bags and freshening up, I was keen to get straight out and spend the afternoon exploring.

Above, and below, at the Auckland War Memorial Museum

I decided to walk through Albert Park and towards the Parnell district of the city then into Auckland Domain, another of the city’s parks and home of the Auckland War Memorial Museum. I spent the next few hours exploring the museum which had an extremely varied collection of exhibits on New Zealand’s history.

Above, and below, at the Sky Tower

After visiting the museum, I walked back to the city centre and bought a ticket for the observation deck at Auckland’s famous Sky Tower to enjoy the views over the city and the surrounding area.

Mission Bay

The next day was my last day in the city and I’d be moving from my hotel near the waterfront to the Haka Lodge hostel in the less-central Ponsonby area of the city as that is where my tour would start from the next morning.

Short on time, I decided the best way to see the as much of Auckland as possible would be on the hop on/off tour bus.

Passing the Parnell Rose Gardens

The bus had 2 routes which crossed over in Auckland Domain at the War Memorial Museum. Route one took me out towards Bastian Point where the bus stopped at the Michael Joseph Savage Memorial. Hopping off, I walked down to the nearby Mission Bay beach then back to the memorial from where there were some pretty views of Auckland city and across the bay.

Crater at Mount Eden

From here, the bus took us through the Parnell are of the city, passing the Parnell Rose Gardens and towards Auckland Domaine for a stop at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. I would be switching bus routes here and had some time to kill between uses.

As I’d already visited the museum the day before, I instead took a stroll to the park’s Winter Gardens and had a quick look around before making my way back to the bus stop.

Passing Eden Park Stadium

The route two bus took me out to Mount Eden where I hopped off again to explore. Mount Eden is Auckland’s highest volcanic cone. The bus couldn’t drive to the summit so instead dropped us further down and I made the walk to the top from where there were some great views of Auckland’s skyline.

Back on the bus, we passed Eden Park, New Zealand’s largest sports stadium and home of the All Blacks. Then it was back to Auckland Domain where I swapped back onto a route one bus.

Visiting Parnell Village

The route one bus took me back into the Parnell district where I hopped off in Parnell Village, grabbing some lunch, browsing the stores and visiting the nearby Holy Trinity Cathedral. Then it was back towards Auckland’s waterfront and to the stop I’d got on at in the morning.

It was late afternoon so after picking up my luggage, I caught the bus down towards Ponsonby and found my way to the Haka Lodge hostel.

It had been a busy couple of days in the city and I felt I’d seen quite a bit of what it had to offer but now I was looking forward to starting my tour of the rest of the North Island.

Bay of Islands, New Zealand

After spending an amazing week touring New Zealand’s South Island with small group adventure tour company Haka Tours, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I returned to explore the country’s North Island. Luckily, I had the opportunity to go back less than a year later so immediately booked myself of Haka Tour’s 7-day North Island trip.

Arriving into New Zealand at the end of 5 weeks spent travelling in Australia, the last 3 of which had been mainly spent travelling solo, I was looking forward to joining a group tour and the company it would provide but first of all I had just under a week to spend in New Zealand alone before meeting my group in Auckland.

The beach in Paihia

Seeing as I’d be flying to Auckland, I decided to spend a night there before travelling north to the Bay of Islands, part of North Island I’d not be visiting as part of my tour, for 3 nights before returning to Auckland for 2 nights ready to start my tour.

Looking out from Paihia waterfront

Despite catching a relatively early flight to Auckland from Sydney, by the time I’d got through airport security and worked out how to get to my hotel using public transport, there wasn’t a lot of the day left so I spent the evening familiarising myself with the area around my conveniently-located Ibis Styles hotel and a stroll along Auckland’s waterfront.

Arriving in Russell

The next morning, I was up early to walk the short distance to the coach stop near the waterfront to make the 3 hour bus journey to Paihia. Once there, I found my way to the YHA where I’d be staying in a private en suite room for the next 3 nights.

Russell waterfront, and below, exploring in Russell

Once settled in, I took a walk down to the seafront and around the small town of Paihia. Realising there wasn’t really much to do in the town itself, I made a spur of the moment decision to catch a boat across the Bay of Islands to the town of Russell.

Long Beach, Russell and below, following the trail to Long Beach and back to the waterfront

The crossing, passing all the small islets and islands which give the Bay of Islands its name, took only 15 minutes and after arriving at the picturesque harbour, I took a stroll along the waterfront and browsed in some of its shops before following the signs to the trail to Long Beach.

After spending some time sat relaxing at the pretty bay, I wandered back towards the waterfront to catch the boat back across to Paihia.

Staircase carved into a Kauri tree

The next morning I was up early to walk down to Paihia’s waterfront where I’d be meeting my coach for a day tour to Cape Reinga, the most north-westernly tip of the peninsula. Our first stop after leaving Paihia was at the store Ka-uri Unearthed which, as well as offering a cafe and conveniences, sells furniture carved out of Kauri trees. Highlight of the store was a staircase carved out of a giant Kauri tree.

Above, and below, 90-mile Beach and the Hole in the Rock

Next, it was on to the area’s 90-Mile Beach, a huge expanse of sand (and actually only 88km/55 miles long!) on the northwest coast of North Island leading down to the Tasman Sea. From here, we could see the Hole in the Rock, a rock formation lying just off the coast.

After leaving the beach behind, we drove the short distance to the Te Paki Giant Sand Dunes for part of the tour I was really looking forward to – sandboarding!

Sand boards ready to use!

I had sandboarded before at the Lancelin Dunes near Perth but there we were given long, thin wooden boards to sit on and ride down the dunes whereas here, we were given boogie boards and shown how to lie on them on our stomachs as if we were bodyboarding in the sea and ride down the huge dunes head first, dragging our toes in the sand behind us if we wanted to control our speed.

Climbing the giant dunes to sandboard down

Like with my first experience of sandboarding down the dunes in Lancelin, actually getting to the top of the dunes to start our descent was a huge challenge and it felt like for every one step I was taking up the dune, I was sliding 2 steps back!

Once at the top, it felt pretty high up and the way down looked pretty steep so it took a while to pluck up the courage to give it a go but after watching a few other members of the group give it a go and survive, I finally plucked up the courage, keeping my toes pretty much permanently jammed in the sand behind me as I went!

Coastal views walking to the lighthouse at Cape Reinga, and below, the meeting point of the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean

It was fun and I’m glad I gave it a go but once back at the bottom of the dune, I couldn’t face climbing all the way back up again and decided to spend the last 5 minutes watching the rest of the group sandboarding down, some at break-neck speed!

A lunch stop was next and we stopped at a local cafe where a canteen style-buffet was provided included in the price of the tour.

Cape Reinga Lighthouse, and below, walking to the lighthouse

Then it was on to Cape Reinga itself, at the tip of the peninsula. Here, we followed the coastal path down to the lighthouse at the end. The coastal views along the way were stunning and looking out we could see the point where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet, a different shade of blue on each side of the join!

We made one more stop on the way back to Paihia at Gumdiggers Park, an ancient buried Kauri forest. Here, we followed a looped track past a giant Kauri log and through an old gum field with a recreated ‘gumdiggers village’ to learn about how the resin extracted from the ancient trees.

Hole in the Rock boat tour in Paihia

The next day, I was off to see another Hole in the Rock, this time the one off the coast of Paihia in the Bay of Islands. The boat took us out past all the small islands in the bay.

Along the way, we spotted dolphins and watched as they swam alongside us!

The Hole in the Rock

When we reached the Hole in the Rock, we took a few trips around it and even through it before turning round to head back to Paihia.

Taking the boat through the Hole in the Rock

On the way back, we stopped off at Urupukapuka Island, walking up to the highest point there to see the view over the Bay of Islands.

Walking from Paihia to Waitangi

Once back in Paihia, I decided to walk up to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, home of the Waitangi Treaty House where the Treaty of Waitangi, the document that establishing the British Colony of New Zealand, was signed in 1840.

A ceremonial ‘waka’ (war canoe), and below, exploring the Waitangi Treaty Grounds

After visiting the museum and exploring its grounds, I followed a nearby trail along the Waitangi River to Haruru Falls.

The next day it was time to say goodbye to Paihia and get the coach back to Auckland.

Haruru Falls, and above, following the trail to the waterfall

I had really enjoyed my few days in the Bay of Islands and was glad I had taken the time to visit this beautiful region on New Zealand’s North Island.

Goodbye Trek America

My top 5 memories of travelling with Trek

Regular readers will know I’ve been a bit of a cheerleader for Trek America, a small group US tour company aimed at 18-38 year old solo travellers which I credit with changing my life by quashing my fears and doubts of travelling alone, instilling my love of small group tours and adventure travel in general and leading to me forming many lifelong friendships. So it was with great sadness that I met the news that the company had been disbanded, another casualty of the effects of Covid on the Worldwide travel industry. Trek America wasn’t a baby in the World of escorted touring having started offering its unique adventures across the Americas all the way back in 1972, but global travel restrictions along with the logistics of how to operate group tours which essentially consist of up to 15 individuals crammed together on a minibus for much of the time in a World of social distancing, eventually made the business unviable.

Message breaking the news on the company’s social media pages

At the grand old age of 34, I took the plunge and booked myself onto the 3-week Trek America Southern BLT tour, my first foray into solo travel and group tours and I loved it so much that I returned to the States just a few months later to join the company’s 3-week Northern BLT Trek. Since then, I have travelled with them through Alaska and introduced my sister-in-law the joys of small group travel when I won 2 places on their Deep South Tour. While I’m now more likely to plan my own self-driven road trips with some of the many friends I made on Trek and the news of the company’s demise came *just* as I was too old to join onto any more of their tours anyway, I still felt a huge loss at hearing its fate and especially thinking of all those who now won’t get to go through the experience of touring with them.

So to celebrate its existence rather than mourn its loss, here are my top 5 memories from the 4 tours I took with Trek America!

5. Partying in Vegas

Just three days into a 3 week trip, our stop in Vegas is mainly memorable because, unusually, it wasn’t how I’d ever spent my time in Vegas before.

The Bellagio dancing fountains

Playing drinking games in the hotel followed by piling onto a ‘party bus’ on which we spent our time on board hooking up our own ipod and singing and dancing along to the cheesiest of cheesy pop tunes. Then catching the last 2 shows at the Bellagio dancing fountains before karaoke at an off-Strip dive bar until the early hours.

And yet we were still up reasonably early the next day to make the most of everything else Vegas has to offer. Only on Trek.

4. Learning about Civil Rights in Memphis

At completely the other end of the spectrum to the time I spent in Vegas on the Southern BLT but equally unforgettable was the afternoon I spent in Memphis on the Deep South BLT at the National Civil Rights Museum.

At the National Civil Rights Museum housed in the Lorraine Hotel, Memphis

Compelling, humbling and thought-provoking, the museum took us on a journey through the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the US and Worldwide including a deeply moving look at the events leading up to the assassination of Martin Luther King before seeing the room where he died. A sobering experience.

Who knew Trek could be educational.

3. Monument Valley in the snow

A magical visit to Monument Valley a week into the Southern BLT. After an unexpected snow storm suddenly hit as we visited the Grand Canyon, it was on to Utah where we found the snow getting deeper and deeper.

Staring out at the vast beauty of a snow-covered Monument Valley

Despite the weather making it impossible to do the complete tour of the Navajo Tribal Park site, the snow made the visit even more special bringing a serene calm over the area. And underneath a clear blue sky with the sun shining on it, the famous red rocks poking up from the valley floor looked even more beautiful covered in the heavy, white snow.

Still the moment from the tour we talk about the most.

2. Seeing Mount Denali in Alaska

A glimpse of Mount Denali on a scenic flight over Denali National Park

Not strictly a Trek America memory as although I booked the tour of Alaska with them, I was transferred onto a tour with their sister company Grand American Adventures, but it still felt very much like Trek so I’m going to count it!

The highlight of a trip full of highlights, this expensive tour extra was worth every penny as we flew in a light aircraft over Denali National Park and finally caught sight of the until then elusive Mount Denali.

Only 30% of visitors to Denali National Park get to see Mount Denali and the weather had not been on our side while touring the park so having it suddenly come into view as we flew over the park was an amazing surprise and a strangely emotional experience.

Even without the appearance of Mount Denali, the scenic flight over glaciers and the Alaskan Range, followed by a glacial landing, was a wonderful, once in a lifetime, experience.

1. Wyoming & Yellowstone National Park

Rafting down Snake River, Wyoming and above, hiking in Grand Teton National Park and horse riding in Wyoming. Below, spending time in the epic Yellowstone National Park.

Despite it being a very National Park heavy tour, nothing could have prepared me for sheer beauty and spectacle of Yellowstone National Park. From bison and bear sightings to colourful canyons and of course, the famous geysers and geothermal activity, never has my jaw dropped so may time in such a short amount of times.

If it looks amazing in the photos, they don’t do it even the slightest justice. The park has to be seen to be believed. And as if that wasn’t enough, we continued from the park through its home state of Wyoming visiting the neighbouring Grand Teton National Park where we were met by more breath-taking scenery before spending the rest of our time in old west-style town of Jackson horse riding in the mountains and rafting through the rapids of Snake River. The one state on the tour I couldn’t wait to return to!

There are hundreds of other memories I could have mentioned from my Trek America trips – line dancing the night away in Nashville, listening to a jazz band play as we floated down the Mississippi on a New Orleans paddle boat, spending the day exploring the valley at Yosemite National Park, watching the sunset over Lake Tahoe, hiking in the amazing US National Parks, visiting the studios Elvis recorded at in Memphis… not to mention all the amazing food we ate, fun nights out we had and all the interesting places we stayed in.

Thanks for all the memories Trek America, you will be missed.

Find links to read about my adventures travelling across America with Trek here.