Airlie Beach

The gateway to the Whitsundays

Arriving into Airlie, and below, Magnums Backpackers Resort

After flying to Australia towards the end of the Christmas period and spending a once-in-a-lifetime New Year’s Eve in Sydney, I was waving goodbye to the group of friends I had arrived in Australia with to begin the second part of my 7-week adventure – 2 weeks travelling up the East coast of Australia from Airlie Beach to Cairns. I’d be meeting up with a friend from one of my Trek America adventures, who also just happened to be in Australia over New Year, and we’d be beginning our adventure together with 5 nights based in Airlie Beach from where we could explore the Whitsundays.

While I had never been to this part of Australia before, my friend had backpacked here as a gap year student years earlier and was keen to return, hoping to party less and appreciate it more this time around.

Our private hostel room

Despite both being in our mid-30s, we had decided to go with mainly budget accommodation for the 2 weeks in order to splash out on the excursions instead. We had opted for hostel accommodation – private rooms rather than dorms, at least -in Airlie and Cairns, breaking this up with 3 nights in a budget hotel in Townsville.

For our 6 nights at Airlie Beach, we’d be staying at Magnums Backpackers resort situated right in the town centre and within walking distance of the main marina.

Walking down to the seafront at Airlie Beach

We arrived into the area at Hamilton Airport on one of the Whitsunday Islands, my friend flying in from Brisbane and myself from Sydney, and then boarded a pre-booked boat, with our luggage checked on board, to the Port of Airlie. From here, we caught the local bus the short, but uphill, distance into town and quickly found Magnums not far from where we were dropped.

Airlie seafront, and below, Airlie Lagoon

The resort was set out around what felt like a tropical rainforest with tall trees and tropical plants growing all around the hut-like accommodation. Our upstairs room was like a box with a bunk bed in the middle, a small TV mounted on the wall and a small fridge in the corner but for the time we were planning on spending in there, it was fine.

There was a communal shower and toilet block just along the landing so we didn’t have far to to go at least. Wifi was not available in the room but could be picked up in a nearby communal outdoor seating area in the grounds – although we found the surrounding plants and trees, along with the humidity, made the area a haven for insects so even smothered in bug repellent, we had to limit the time we spent there!

Coral Sea Marina

Arriving late afternoon, we settled into our room then walked down to the seafront following the path along the front and out to Airlie Lagoon, a large outdoor pool. We’d taken our towels and swimwear with us and decided to cool off with a dip but were disappointed to find the water was heated too much to cool us down. This, coupled with the onset of evening bringing out the mosquitos, meant we didn’t stay long!

An evening stroll past the marina

After popping back to the hostel to change, we were now pretty hungry so wandered along the main street in Airlie trying to decide between the many bars and restaurants offering cheap food to backpackers and eventually settling on a filling bowl of pasta at Mangrove Jacks.

After eating – and making use of the free wifi! – we stopped off at the Woolworths store next to the hostel to pick up some snacks and supplies for the next few days before returning to our room for an early night.

Bicentennial Walkway

Before setting off on our Australian adventure, we had booked a multi-adventure ticket including a variety of excursions for our time in Airlie Beach – a trip out to the Great Barrier Reef, a day of island hopping and a day sailing around the Whitsundays with a stop off at the famous Whitehaven Beach.

We had 4 full days in the area and had planned to keep the first day as bit of a relaxation day in and and around Airlie Beach. We’d talked about including some time at Airlie Lagoon in this but having been unimpressed on our visit the previous afternoon, we were now unsure how to fill our day.

On Shingley Beach

There were plenty of excursions and activities in the area being offered by various ticket agencies along the front, including kayaking trips out to see turtles and scenic flights, but it was too short notice to book for that day.

The scenic flights over the Whitsundays sounded especially appealing, so as it was fully booked for that day, we decided to book one leaving from Hamilton Island a couple of days later when we would be visiting there.

Scenic flight booked, we headed back towards Airlie Lagoon picking up Bicentennial Walkway, the path that winds its way along the seafront. We followed the path West past Coral Sea Marina and along to Shingley Beach. Here, we found a company offering kayak and paddle board rentals so we decided this would be a fun way to spend some of the day.

Kayaking out to a shipwreck

Hiring a 2-man kayak, we managed to paddle out against the current to the shipwreck we could see in the distance. We kept our eyes open for sea turtles along the way but unfortunately didn’t spot any. Feeling a sense of accomplishment reaching the wreck, we circled it a few times using our old skool waterproof single-use camera to snap a few pictures before paddling back to shore.

Walking back to a cafe we’d seen along the seafront for lunch, we then returned to Shingley Beach later that afternoon to give paddle boarding a go. Neither if us had tried Stand Up Paddle boarding before and we were both convinced we’d be hopeless at it and spend most of the time falling off into the water but after a quick lesson on the beach, we were delighted to find it wasn’t anywhere near as hard as it looked to clamber to an upright position on the board and stay there!

Paddleboarders at Shingley Beach

After a couple of laps of the small bay, we were actually a bit bored and ended up handing our boards back well before our full hour was up!

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the town and shopping for souvenirs before dinner at the extremely busy Hog’s Breath Cafe that evening.

Then another early night in preparation for an early start the next day. After a fun day in Airlie, we were now very excited for 3 days of excursions and getting out on the water around the Whitsunday Islands, starting with a trip to the Great Barrier Reef tomorrow…

Beautiful Sorrento

Visiting Italy’s Amalfi coast

Having spent the last 5 days based in the city of Naples on the west coast of Italy, we were now cramming ourselves and our luggage onto the very busy Circumvesuviana train to spend a few days in the coastal town of Sorrento.

The view from our hotel room

It was our third time riding the Circumvesuviana line from Naples having used it already over the last few days to visit the archaeological sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii as well as to visit Mount Vesuvius itself. Sorrento is the last stop on the line and it took us just over an hour to get there.

From Sorrento station, we got a taxi to our hotel for the next 3 nights. Hotel La Badia was situated on top of a hill just a short, but steep, 15 minute walk from the centre of town. Being on a hilltop, there were beautiful, sweeping views of the coast from our room.

The view from our room at night

By the time we had arrived and settled in, it was already dusk. We had a wander into town and I was surprised at how crowded with tourists it felt after spending time in the much calmer Naples. It did at least make for a jovial atmosphere and despite it being night time, I could straight away see how pretty Sorrento was. We were spoilt for choice for places to eat and settled on pasta from a small restaurant-cafe down a narrow side street.

By the hotel pool

With our time in Naples being spent constantly on the go either in the city or on trips out to nearby attractions, we decided to spend our first day in Sorrento relaxing. We awoke to beautiful weather – blue skies and warm sunshine – so after breakfast at the hotel, spent the first morning sat by the hotel pool and cooling off with a quick dip before taking a stroll into town mid-afternoon to explore.

The busy narrow streets of Sorrento

The town of Sorrento is made up of a series of narrow cobbled streets all lined with a range of stores and restaurants and we spent the afternoon browsing and shopping for souvenirs. Every other shop seemed to be a Lemoncello store, selling a range of products based on the liqueur famously produced in the region and all offering samples to try and get tourists through the doors.

From the town, we walked down to the marina, strolling along the front to enjoy the views before sitting at one of the many restaurant-bars near the harbour for drinks.

A busy summer evening in Sorrento

After more shopping back in town, we found another bar perfectly positioned for people watching and sat out in the sunshine for aperitivo – an Italian socialising tradition of having drinks served with various nibbles.

After heading back to the hotel to freshen up, we then walked back into town. Sorrento is just as bustling in the evening with many of the stores lining the narrow streets staying open late so we once again wandered through the centre to look in the shops before going for a late dinner at one of the many local restaurants.

The next day, we took a boat trip out to the nearby Amalfi coast town of Positano.

Above, enjoying the views in o, and below, exploring Positano

The town is built into a cliff and we spent the day exploring, shopping, visiting some of its churches and enjoying the amazing views over the coast from the cliffs. After a pizza lunch at one of the many restaurants, we spent some time relaxing on the beach before catching the boat back to Sorrento for the evening.

Once back in Sorrento, we spent the last evening of our trip having drinks in town. I’d enjoyed our time on the Amalfi coast and Sorento had been the perfect place for a relaxing few days after our busy time sightseeing in Naples.

Visiting Naples

Spending 5 nights in Napoli

With my friend studying Italian in Rome, I decided to fly out there as her course ended for a couple of nights there followed by a few days in Naples and then Sorrento.

In St Peter’s Square

Having been to Rome a few times before, my time there was mainly spent at the bars, cafes and restaurants catching up with my friend and enjoying the sunshine in Villa Borghese gardens. From here we caught the train from Termini station south to the city of Naples.

It would be my first visit to the city although my friend had been once before and we were staying at the same hotel she had stayed in before, La Stanze Del Vicere Hotel, near the Toledo area of the city and not far from the Archaeological Museum. The hotel is situated inside a restored 16th century townhouse and the original 16th century staircase remains leading into the main building.

Pizza in Naples

Checking into the hotel late afternoon, one of the first things we wanted to do was experience the famous Neopolitan pizza – the Margherita pizza is said to have originated in the city of Naples, but more on that later! – so we went for a walk to Piazza Dante, stopping along the way at a tucked away restaurant for dinner, then on to the popular Piazza Bellini for drinks.

The next day, we walked the short distance to Naples Archaeological Museum spending most of the morning exploring its extensive collection of Roman artifacts including many from the nearby archaeological sites of Herculaneum and the more famous Pompeii.

After leaving the museum, we spent some time exploring the historic centre of Naples. Heading south along Via Duomo, we passed Naples Cathedral stopping to have a look inside then we wandered along the busy Via dei Tribunali with its many cafes and souvenir stores.

Above, and below, visiting Naples Underground

After stopping for coffee and pastries we decided to buy tickets for the nearby Naples Underground attraction. Here, visitors can take a tour of a series of tunnels running beneath the city once used as Roman aqueducts and, more recently, as bomb shelters in the Second World War.

San Domenico Maggiore Church

The tour was really interesting but not one to take if you don’t like confined spaces – at one point we had to squeeze along an extremely narrow passageway with just a candle to light the way!

Following on from our underground tour, we continued to walk south towards the marina stopping in Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, overlooked by the church it is named after. Unfortunately, the church’s doors were closed so we didn’t have chance to look inside but instead, we sat out at a cafe in the square having drinks to cool us down before continuing our walk to the seafront.

Above, and below, visiting Castel Nuovo

Finally reaching the seafront late afternoon, we visited Castel Nuovo, a medieval castle overlooking the marina.

Piazza del Plebiscito

While not the most exciting attraction in the city, the views across the bay with Vesuvius looming in the distance made the small entrance fee worth it.

Fontana del Gigante

From Castel Nuovo, we walked towards Piazza del Plebiscito, a large pedestrianised square beside the Royal Palace of Naples before taking a stroll along the sea wall to the imposing Fontana del Gigante, a 17th century fountain and then along the peninsula to Castel dell’Ovo.

Above, and below, visiting Castel dell’Ovo

It was free to look around this castle overlooking the harbour and as the sun was starting to set, we spent a bit of time enjoying the views.

After visiting Castel dell’Ovo, we walked back along the sea front to Piazza del Plebiscito and the nearby Pizzeria Brandi.

Above, and below, dining at Pizzeria Brandi

Supposedly the birthplace of the Margherita pizza, there was a long wait for a table but it was worth it to eat in such a historic venue as well as it being the best pizza I had all trip!

Stopping for dessert

Then we walked to a nearby metro station to catch the train back to our hotel, stopping first for more drinks (and dessert!) at one of the many bars along the way.

Visiting Herculaneum

The next day, we caught the metro to Central Station where we would be catching the Circovesuviana train out to the archaeological site of Herculaneum.

The Circovesuviana runs between Naples and Sorrento with stops including Pompeii and this would be the first of a few trips along this route during our trip.

Herculaneum is an ancient town which, like the better known Pompeii, was buried under ash following the explosion of Mount Vesuvius.

Above, and below, exploring Herculaneum

The site is even better preserved than Pompeii – there was a lot less structural damage to the town than there was to Pompeii so there are buildings almost entirely intact with perfectly preserved mosaics and many household objects still there. Visiting the site was almost like walking around a Roman town as it would have been back then.

After spending a few hours exploring, we stopped for lunch nearby before catching the train back to Naples where we spent the evening having drinks in Piazza Bellini.

Day 3 of our stay in Naples was once again spent outside of the the city, this time visiting the island of Capri.

Enjoying the sunshine on the beach at Capri

We’d booked our ferry ticket in advance catching the metro down to the marina early morning ready to board. Once in Capri, I was really looking forward to seeing the Blue Grotto, a sea cave you can go on a boat tour to visit, but after a tumultuous crossing from Naples – causing sea sickness among many passengers! – it was announced that the conditions were too rough for the small rowing boats to make trips out to it.

The seafront at Capri

That gave us a bit more time in Capri itself and we decided to spend some time relaxing on the small pebble beach enjoying the sunshine for a while in order to recover from the ferry trip!

Exploring beautiful Capri

From the beach, we took the bus to Anacapri, one of the towns on the island situated high up on the island. Being summer, there were huge queues for the bus – a tiny minibus with very few seats and we were packed on like sardines trying our best not to fall over as we raced up the steep hills of Capri.

Once at our destination, we spent some time enjoying the views over the bay before wandering down the streets for some window shopping and then finding somewhere just about affordable for lunch.

Saying goodbye to Capri

After lunch we walked to Capri town for more window shopping before catching the funicular railway back down to sea level and catching the ferry back to Naples.

Our last full day in Naples and we were again riding the Circumvesuviana, this time to Pompeii.

Above,and below, exploring Pompeii

The Pompeii archaeological site was somewhere that had been high on my list of places I had wanted to visit for a long time and while I did find exploring the site fascinating, I do wish that I had taken a guided tour of the site to get more out of my visit and learn more about what I was seeing.

Arriving early, we spent all morning at Pompeii. After eating lunch at a local cafe, we then went to visit the crater of Mount Vesuvius.

Above, and below, hiking to the crater at Vesuvius

We booked transport on the Busvia del Vesuvio which dropped us at the start of the path which lead up to the crater. It was an easier hike than I expected and once at the crater, there were guides at the top ready to answer any questions and reassure us that we weren’t in any immediate danger of an eruption! After retracing our steps back down the path, we were picked up by the bus and returned to Pompeii station to catch our train back to Naples again.

The next day, we would be leaving Naples for a few days on the Amalfi coast but first, we had the morning to spend in the city.

Shopping on Via San Gregorio

We decided to walk to Via San Gregorio, often referred to as ‘Christmas Avenue’. The road is famous for being the home of a row of shops selling Christmas ornaments and gifts all year around. After spending some time browsing, we picked up some ornaments as souvenirs to take with us.

Then it was time to collect our luggage from our hotel and once again make our way to the train station to catch the Circumvesuvio, this time, all the way to the end of the line in Sorrento.

I’d really enjoyed my time in Naples and the surrounding area. Away from the touristy marina area, I had found it to feel a lot more authentically Italian than some of the other more touristy Italian cities I had visited with its narrow lanes, cobbled streets and residents busily going about their day and I hoped to return someday.

Dublin

The River Liffey running through Dublin city

Despite it being just a short 45 minute flight from my local airport, its only been within the last few years that I first visited the Irish capital. I loved it so much, I’ve been back a few times since, trying to see a bit more of this colourful city each time.

Here are some of my tips and favourite things to do on a short city break in Dublin!

Getting around

Samuel Beckett Bridge

Generally arriving at Dublin’s international airport, I have always made use of its airport link bus with its regular and, in my experience, reliable services in and out of the city. It is also possible to use the local buses between the airport and the city. While a slightly cheaper option, these buses make more stops along the way so the journey takes longer but depending on where you are staying, might possibly drop you more local to you accommodation so are worth looking into.

For the most part, Dublin itself is a pretty walkable city, but for those attractions a bit further afield, it is well served by public transport with an easy to use tram service running alongside the local buses.

Customs House

On my first visit to the city, I made use of the hop on/off tourist bus to get around. Most of the buses came with a live guide rather than a pre-recorded commentary and we found it a convenient way to get out towards those attractions which weren’t quite walkable from where we were staying – such as the Guinness Factory and Phoenix Park – while also learning some of the history of the city.

Where to stay

Ha’penny Bridge

Each time I have visited the city, I have stayed in different areas of the city as well as very different types of accommodation. On my first visit, we stayed north of the River Liffey where we found prices to be cheaper. This put us close to O’Connell Street and it was still walkable Temple Bar and other more touristy areas across the river. Our accommodation on that trip was Anchor House, one of the many small, family run guesthouses in the area and was perfect for what we needed for a 4 night break in the city.

The Spire on O’Connell Sreet

If it’s a bit of luxury you are after then I couldn’t fault the beautiful and very conveniently located Westin Hotel by Trinity College. I stayed there after winning it at an extremely reduced price last minute in a priceline bid and it has to be one of the nicest hotels I have ever stayed in.

To cut down the cost of eating out, a city apartment is always a good bet. We booked an apartment for 4 located in the Temple Bar area though The Key Collection and making full use of the kitchen to save a bit of money.

For budget hotels in the city, you can’t go wrong with a Travelodge and we found the St Stephens Green Travelodge to be particularly well-located for the price.

Things to do

On my first trip to the city, seeing as many sights as we could was the main priority. We spent 4 nights in the city giving us 3 and a half days to explore and we easily managed to fill this time.

Guinness Storehouse

Visiting the Guinness Storehouse attraction

Using the hop on/off bus, we started with the famous Guinness Factory. While not a big drinker and certainly not a drinker of stout, visiting the Guinness Storehouse while in Dublin just seemed like a must-do.

My diet coke next to a pint of Guinness, and below, views from the Gravity Bar

The self-guided tour through the factory traced the story of the drink showing the brewing process, providing samples to try along the way and also covering the role of the drink in popular culture and adverting for the brand. The highlight though, came right at the end with a visit to the Gravity Bar, a bar on top of the Storehouse which offers views across the capital. After trying a sample of Guinness along the tour and deciding it definitely wasn’t for me, I opted to exchange the voucher we had been given for a free Guinness in the bar for a Diet Coke instead!!

If whiskey is more your thing, then there are a few distilleries you can tour in Dublin including the original site of the Jameson Distillery on Bow Street.

Trinity College and the Book of Kells

The next day, we walked across the River Liffey to south Dublin and visited Trinity College. While it is possible to take a guided tour of this historic campus, we chose to look around by ourselves, picking up some pamphlets from its visitors office. Here, we also booked tickets into the college’s Book of Kells exhibition. The Book of Kells is an illustrated Gospel dating back to the first century and it was really interesting to see pages of the intricately decorated text and learn about it.

Kilmainham Gaol

Touring Kilmainham Gaol

That afternoon, we hopped back onto the tour bus, riding it out towards Phoenix Park and hopping off at Kilmainham Gaol. This former prison can be visited by taking a guided tour. Our small group was lead around the building with its history and stories of former inmates explained to us. With Ireland having such a rich history of civil unrest, there were plenty of tales to be told and while this was one of the more unusual attractions on our list, we found the tour fascinating.

Shopping

The Temple Bar pub

Staying more central the next day, we wandered back towards the River Liffey, veering off O’Connell Street for a spot of shopping on Henry Street. Running west from the huge Spire sculpture on O’Connell Street, Henry Street is a great place to shop with a huge selection of high street stores including Penney’s, the Irish version of Primark.

The Molly Malone statue

Heading next across the bridge to the Temple Bar area with its cobbled streets and snapping a photo with the famous Temple Bar pub, we then walked along the river to take photos with the iconic Ha’penny Bridge before walking further into the city, past the Molly Malone Statue and up to Grafton Street.

This is the main shopping street in Dublin, lined with department stores such as Brown Thomas and high street favourites like the Disney Store. It is also well-known for its buskers. Acts can only play there for an hour before moving on so there’s usually something different on offer each time you walk down the street!

Dublin Parks

Above, and below, exploring St Stephen’s Green

At the top of Grafton Street, lies St Stephen’s Green, a pretty city park with landscaped gardens, fountains, a lake and sculptures dotted around. We found the park to be an oasis of calm from the busy city and enjoyed our stroll through.

If you enjoy exploring green spaces then head to Phoenix Park in the west of the city. This park is one of the largest in Europe and also home to Dublin Zoo.

Literary Links

Oscar Wilde sculpture in Merrion Square

Not far from St Stephen’s Green is smaller Merrion Square. Our main reason for visiting this park was to see the Oscar Wilde sculpture surrounded by some of his famous quotes.

If you’re a fan of Irish literary works, then a visit to Dublin’s Writers’ Museum on the north side of the river at Parnell Square is a must do.

The Garden of Remembrance at Parnell Square

The museum celebrates the works of Irish writers including Wilde, Yeats, Joyce with letters, books and personal artefacts on display and an audio tour guiding you through is included in the admission.

While in the area, we also visited the Garden of Remembrance at Parnell Square.

Dublin Castle

I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know Dublin had a castle until it was pointed out to me on the hop on/off bus tour of the city!

Above, and below, visiting Dublin Castle

We decided to visit and took the guided tour option which took us through the state apartments and more. We found the tour interesting, providing plenty of history on the city although after taking the bus tour and Kilmainham Gaol tour, we felt we had heard some of the stories over and over again by now.

We did especially enjoy seeing the many opulently decorated rooms of the castle.

River Liffey Boat Cruise

Looking out across the River Liffey

We got out on the River Liffey taking a 45-minute guided river cruise with Dublin Discovered Boat Tours. The boats were fully enclosed allowing the cruises to operate in any weather but had large glass windows allowing us good views out as we sailed down the river.

The tour took us down to Dublin Docklands from Grattan Street bridge in the city centre and back as the history of some of the many bridges we passed under was explained as well as important building such as Customs House pointed out.

Evenings out

Attending a concert at The Point’s o2 Arena

Since my first visit to Dublin, I have returned a further three times, each time the main reason being to attend a concert. The city’s o2 Arena, east of the city on the north bank of the River Liffey at The Point, is a great venue and easy to get to on public transport from the city if you don’t fancy the walk.

Irish entertainment at The Arlington Hotel

If you’re after some Irish culture, there are a few venues in the city offering traditional Celtic nights with Irish dancers and music. We attended one at the Arlington Hotel. Although it was possible to attend it as a dinner show with a 3-course meal included, we opted to just sit in the bar area and have drinks while watching the entertainment.

Dublin has a lively nightlife with the Temple Bar area being especially popular with clubbers and stag and hen parties. We chose to stay away from that area in the evening but did enjoy a visit to Cafe En Seine on Dawson Street with its Art Nouveau decor and delicious cocktails.

Dublin’s General Post Office, home of the GPO Museum

Dublin has lots to offer and plenty of other attractions to visit including many World-class museums such as the National Gallery of Ireland, the National Museum of Ireland’s Natural History Museum, The Little Museum of Dublin and the GPO Museum.

It is a city I love to return to over and over again!

A US Road Trip: Philadelphia

Passing through the state of Delaware

It had been over 4 weeks since we had arrived in the USA. After spending 3 weeks looping Chicago to Chicago travelling around the Midwest states, we had spent one final week on the road ticking off a few more states as we travelled through Indiana to Michigan then through Ohio and West Virginia into Pennsylvania.

After spending the morning at Hershey’s Chocolate World, we were now making our way to Philadelphia airport to hand back our rental before making our way into the city for one last night in a hotel.

Our route to the airport briefly took us into Delaware, a state which we had travelled through before on a Trek America tour but not stopped in so we had made plans to divert slightly to the city of Wilmington. We had left it to the last minute to look up where to aim for in the city but after a bit of googling in our motel the night before, had found a National Park Service site there so decided to stop there.

The site where the first Swedish and Finnish settlers arrived in the USA

Pulling up at Fort Christina Park, the National Historic Site on the banks of the Christina River, we walked down to the monument which stood there. Unsure at what we were really looking at, we were pleased when a Park Ranger came down to chat with us, answering some of our questions and explaining that the site was like the ‘Plymouth Rock of Delaware’, being where the first Swedish and Finnish settlers had arrived in the USA.

Just down the river from the monument, was a replica of the ship they sailed on, the Kalmar Nyckel.

A rainbow after the storm after we arrived in Philadelphia, and below, views from the One Liberty Place Observation Deck

After leaving Fort Christina Park, we continued to the airport, saying a fond farewell to our rental car then catching the train into the city of Philadelphia.

We arrived at the end of a horrendous thunderstorm and made our way to the Sheraton hotel having decided to spend our last night in a bit of luxury after 4 weeks of roadside motels.

That evening, we walked the short distance to the One Liberty Place building to visit its 57th floor observation deck. The rain had cleared and the sun was starting to set which made for some pretty views across the city.

Outside Independence Hall, and below, touring the site

The next day, we had a late night flight back to the UK so we could spend the day exploring the city. We had visited Philadelphia before on our Trek America tour but it had been a short, one hour visit so we hadn’t seen anything in any detail. This time, we had booked tickets to tour Independence Hall in the morning.

We arrived a bit earlier than our ticket time so we could first visit the nearby Independence Visitor Centre and pick up Junior Ranger booklets to fill in.

The tour was interesting and we especially enjoyed seeing printings of the Articles of Confederation, the American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence in the Great Essentials Exhibition.

After our tour, we joined the lengthy but quick-moving queue to see the Liberty Bell before returning to the Independence Visitor Centre to hand over our Junior Ranger booklets to earn our badges.

After a Philly Cheesesteak lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, we decided to get tickets for the hop on/off city tour bus in order to see as much of the city as we could in a short amount of time.

Philly cheesesteak lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe

We first hopped off the bus at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, not to visit the museum itself, but to see the building’s famous ‘Rocky steps’. The steps to the museum feature in the Rocky film where Sylvester Stallone runs up and down them to train and we decided to also attempt to run all the way from the bottom to the top.

View form the top of the steps

We spent the rest of the afternoon completing the bus tour loop, hopping off again at Elfreth’s Alley, America’s oldest residential street and also walking to see Betsy Ross’ house, supposedly the place Betsy Ross lived in when she sewed the first American flag.

Then it was time to collect our luggage from the hotel and catch the train back to Philadelphia airport. After more than 4 exciting weeks travelling across 16 states of the USA, it was finally time to return to the UK.

A US Road Trip: Pennsylvania

After 4 weeks on the road, 3 spent travelling through the Midwest states and a final week cutting across from Chicago to Philadelphia via Indiana, Michigan and Ohio, we were a just a day away from returning home to the UK.

Crossing the river into West Virginia

We had spent most of the day in Ohio, visiting Cleveland then driving through Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It was now late afternoon and we still had to make it to tonight’s stopover point at a motel on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Visiting the World’s Largest Teapot

Leaving Ohio behind, we briefly cut through a corner of West Virginia, a deliberate detour as it was another state we had not visited before. Here, we had a stop planned in the town of Chester as it is home to the World’s largest teapot! Finding this roadside stop easily – it was hard to miss! – we pulled over and jumped out, posing under it for photos holding empty Starbucks cups we had kept purely for this occasion!

Arriving in Pennsylvania

Then, after a quick visit to the local CVS to purchase a West Virginia souvenir, it was back on the road and we were crossing the border into Pennsylvania just minutes later.

The Punxsutawney, PA Welcome Sign

Battling rush hour traffic around Pittsburgh, we were relieved when we finally made it to our motel to relax for what was left of the evening.

The next day, we were excited to be visiting the town of Punxsutawney, another last minute addition to our road trip itinerary – and quite a hefty diversion from our original route! – after I had happened to watch Groundhog Day just a few weeks before we departed and, seeing it was set in Pennsylvania, had the idea to visit the groundhog!

Although the movie wasn’t actually filmed in Punxsutawney itself, the annual Groundhog Day ceremony is actually help there each year and the town has plenty of Groundhog-related reasons for stopping by!

Upon arriving in Punxsutawney, we were greeted by a giant, top hat wearing Groundhog welcoming us.

Phil’s Burrow in Punxsutawney, and below, groundhog sculptures around the town

After a quick stop for photos, we continued into the town where we quickly found Phil’s Burrow, we den where Punxsutawney Phil sleeps the rest of the year either side of the Groundhog Day festivities. As we peered in, we could see the cute groundhog snuggled up inside and at one point, he even looked up at us, stretching and yawning before snuggling back down again!

The site of the annual Groundhog Ceremony

The town had figures of groundhogs dressed in various ways dotted around it and after having a quick look around, we drove to the interestingly-named Gobblers Knob, site of the annual Groundhog Day ceremony, for more fun photo opportunities!

After that fun diversion, it was a bit of a race against time to reach our destination for the day, Gettysburg, where we had booked a historical tour of the battlefields on horseback.

Horse riding in Gettysburg

Having done horse-riding in Wyoming on our Trek America tour a few years before, we were both eager to fit it in somewhere on our trip this time and this tour seemed like a good way of ticking that off our list as well as finding out some of the history of Gettysburg.

We arrived too late to spend any time exploring the town, instead having to quickly drop our things at our motel before checking in for our horseback tour.

Trying not to faint in the heat!

Unfortunately, it was a sweltering humid day and way too hot to be sat on the back of a horse, out in the middle of a field with no shade, listening to a history lesson on the American Civil War! At one point, I was so uncomfortable, I thought I was going to pass out! Luckily I didn’t but I spent so much time concentrating on not fainting in the heat that I found I wasn’t really following what was being said by our guide.

We also both felt that the tour had taken for granted that those on it would have some background knowledge of the Civil War as I guess most Americans would have studied it at school whereas being from the UK, our knowledge was less than even basic which made the tour even harder to follow.

I did at least enjoy the parts of the tour where we were trotting past the battlefields with a slight breeze blowing through my hair but these parts came too few and far between.

The next morning, we visited the Gettysburg National Military Park’s Visitor Centre and Museum which we felt we got more out of than on the horse back tour the previous evening. Then it was back on the road to drive towards the final destination of our road trip, Philadelphia.

We still had a few stops scheduled before returning our hire car to the Avis drop off at Philadelphia Airport, starting with a visit to Hershey’s Chocolate World!

Above, and below, fun touring Hershey’s Chocolate World

As well as the huge Hershey store, Hershey’s Chocolate World operates a free tour to all visitors. We arrived early just after opening time but the site was already pretty busy. The queue for the tour moved quickly though and acted as part of the attraction as information boards along where we queued told us the history of Hershey’s chocolate. The main attraction though was a ride through a mocked up Hershey’s chocolate factory. We sat in a small car which took us around the factory while Hershey products including chocolate drops, talked and sang to us explaining how the chocolate was made.

As part of the tour, we were also given some free chocolate bars to sample. Definitely worth the stop!

In Lancaster, PA

From Hershey World, we continued on our way and soon found ourselves in Amish Country, finding ourselves sharing the roads with horse-drawn Amish buggies a few times as we drove through the Pennsylvania countryside stopping briefly in Lancaster.

After our stop, we would be leaving Pennsylvania briefly, driving into Delaware en route to Philadelphia to finally complete our road trip!

A US Road Trip: Ohio

Arriving in Ohio

Following on from an epic 3-week road trip travelling through America’s Midwest states, we were now on the second part of our trip, a week travelling from Chicago to Philadelphia via stops in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania. After spending the day travelling West to East across the state of Michigan, it was early evening as we crossed into Ohio.

We had both briefly visited the state before on our coast to coast Trek America tour of the northern states of the USA a few years before but we wanted to revisit parts of it and spend a bit more time exploring the state.

Dessert!

Our first stop, just across the Michigan-Ohio border in the city of Toledo, was at a restaurant we had spotted on a roadside America website, Tony Packo’s. The Hungarian-American restaurant specialises in hot dogs and is a local institution having been in the area since the 1930s and while the food was fine (we especially enjoyed our cookies and ice cream dessert!), we were stopping by because it also doubles as a museum of signed hot dog buns!

All the walls were plastered with autographed hot dog rolls from celebrities who had stopped by over the years and it was fun trying to spot the stars we recognised!

Views across Lake Erie and Cedar Point Park from atop one of the rides, and below, a fun day at Cedar Point

Staying overnight in a Toledo motel, we were up early the next morning to drive to the familiar surrounds of Sandusky, home of the best amusement park we had ever been to, Cedar Point. We had spent the afternoon at the park on our Trek America tour a few years earlier and it just wasn’t long enough so today we were heading back to make a day of it!

Unfortunately, our visit coincided with a corporate day out meaning the park was a lot busier than it would have otherwise been but we still had a fantastic day riding the many World-beating roller coasters.

In Cleveland, OH, and below, Lake Erie and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Leaving the park late evening, we drove the short distance to the outskirts of Cleveland where we were staying the night in a Travelodge on the edge of Lake Erie.

A drum kit belonging to the Beatles and, below, other displays at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

The next morning, we drove into Cleveland itself to visit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a museum we had passed on our last visit to Ohio but not stopped at. The museum, sat on the bank of Lake Erie, had lots of music-related artefacts including costumes and instruments belonging to many popular rock and pop artists from over the ages.

Despite it being a ‘rock’ museum, the displays covered a diverse array of artists including Elvis, the Beatles and Roy Orbison, Aerosmith and Michael Jackson all the way up to modern day popstars including Lady Gaga, BeyoncĂ©, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and it was fun to explore.

Arriving at Cuyahoga Valley National Park

After our Cleveland visit, we drove south to spend the afternoon in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, one of the lesser known National Parks of America.

Knowing little about the park, we made the visitor centre our first port of call, talking to a park ranger to help us decide on an itinerary for the afternoon.

At Beaver Marsh in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and below, exploring the park

Having entered the park at it’s north entrance, it made most sense to head south and exit at the other end so we drove along the main park road stopping along the way at some of the short trails to see waterfalls, rivers, woodland, marshlands and a covered bridge!

From Cuyahoga Valley National Park, we continued to drive through Ohio towards the state of Pennsylvania where we would be spending the remaining couple of nights of our trip. It had been fun revisiting Ohio and I’m sure we will return again one day!

A US Road Trip: Journey to Michigan

Back in Chicago, having breakfast by the silver bean

We were back in Chicago after a 3-week road trip through the Midwest states and after saying goodbye to one of our tripmates, two of us were continuing the adventure for one more week to tick off a few more states as we travelled to our final destination of Philadelphia.

After grabbing breakfast to eat in Millennium Park (because we couldn’t possibly spend a few hours in the Windy City and not visit the Cloudgate sculpture), we retrieved our rental vehicle from the hotel car park and hit the road again, driving north towards the state of Michigan.

At Indiana Dunes

Today’s destination would be the lakeside town of South Haven. From Chicago, we’d be following the east shore of Lake Michigan up through Indiana and into Michigan State.

Dunes backing the lakeshore, and below, walking along Lake Michigan lakeshore

Our first stop of the day was at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (now Indiana Dunes National Park). After calling into the Visitor Centre, we drove down to shore to have a picnic on the beach and walk along the lakeshore gazing up at the huge dunes backing the beach.

First visit to the state of Michigan

Back on the road, we continued towards Michigan and our South Haven motel. After checking in and grabbing some food from the Arby’s next door, we drove further north along the lakeshore to the town of Saugatuck where we had booked a dune buggy ride.

Above, and below, views across the dunes

Sat in the back of a trailer, we were taken out on an off-road trail through the dunes. Racing up and over the dunes was great fun and half way through our tour, we stopped at a view point on top of the dunes and were given some time to take photos before we were on our way again.

In South Haven, MI, and below, a sunset cruise on Lake Michigan

After our dune buggy ride, we returned to the pretty lakeshore town of South Haven. We had booked a sunset lake cruise and luckily it was the perfect weather for it. We spent the next hour or so relaxing as we watched the sun go down on the horizon.

Passing through the Gates of Hell

The next day, we drove east across the state towards Detroit. Today, we had a roadside stop scheduled that we were especially looking forward to – a trip to Hell!

The town of Hell did not disappoint. Playing on the town’s name, we were greeted with ‘Welcome to Hell’ as we entered Screams store and got to walk through the Gates of Hell to enter the grounds of the Hell Chapel of Love, a popular wedding venue!

The Hell Chapel of Love

While grabbing lunch from the Hell Hole Bar, we wrote the Hell postcards we had bought from Screams then visited the post office to send them. Before dropping them in the postbox, the cashier stamped them with ‘Been Thru Hell’ and singed them so they looked like they’d been through the fires of Hell!

A really fun roadside stop!

Our final stop in the state of Michigan was just outside the city of Detroit at the Henry Ford Museum.

The Kennedy Car at the Henry Ford Museum near Detroit, MI, and below, exploring the museum

We had read that this was a great museum to visit, on par with the Smithsonian Museums in Washington but it was even better than expected. As well as popular culture exhibits, the museum had a huge collection of historical artefacts including George Washington’s camp bed, the Ford Theatre chair President Lincoln was sat in when he was shot, the Rosa Parks bus and the car which President Kennedy was assassinated in.

It was a fascinating museum to visit.

After leaving the museum it was also time to leave the state of Michigan as we continued towards Ohio where we were staying that evening but we’d really enjoyed our first visit to the state.

A Midwest Road Trip: Kentucky

Briefly passing through the state of Illinois

After more than 2 weeks on the road, we were on the home stretch and close to completing our 3-week tour through America’s Midwest. Looping anti-clockwise from Chicago, we had so far spent time in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri and now, we had just 2 states left before we returned to the Windy City. Starting with Kentucky.

Arriving in Kentucky

After a couple of nights in the city, we left our St Louis hotel for Louisville, Kentucky with, what we thought was, plenty of time to spare. We had an unusual activity booked their for that afternoon – ziplining underground in some caves – so needed to make sure we arrived in plenty of time to check in.

Unfortunately, we had completely forgot, or just hadn’t realised at all, that we’d be crossing a time zone and because we were travelling East, we would be losing an hour!

Approaching Louisville

It wasn’t until we checked on the traffic as we left St Louis and saw that our arrival time was out that we suddenly realised. Luckily, we were still able to make it on time, it just meant we had to do the drive in one go without any of our planned stops including the stop at a KFC just because we were in Kentucky and at the Louisville Visitor Centre to take photos with a Colonel Sanders wax statue.

Our Tepee accommodation

Arriving in Louisville and finding the Mega Cavern complex relatively easily, we checked in for our Mega Zips tour and got decked out in our safety equipment. Our guides and ziplining experts took us into the caverns where we manoeuvred around via 6 ziplines and 2 rather precarious rope bridges, often with just the torch on our helmet for light! It was an amazing experience leaping into darkness, often not being able to even see the other end of the zipline as we left the platform, although for the most part, the caverns were well-lit as we zoomed over the cavern below us.

After our zipline adventure, we drove to Cave City where we checked in at accommodation for the next 2 nights at the Wigwam Village! Here, our motel room was an en suite concrete tepee. It was a fun alternative to the standard motel rooms we had become used to and there was a lot more room inside than it looked like there would be from the outside!

Above, and below, at Dinosaur World

The next morning, we drove into Cave City and after breakfast at the Cracker Barrel, visited its Dinosaur World attraction. The park had a collection of life-size dinosaur replicas. It was definitely somewhere aimed at kids and wouldn’t have been my choice of how to spend a couple of hours but one of my travel buddies was a big dinosaur fan and seemed to enjoy it!

After Dinosaur World, we returned to Cave City to look around its few stores and grab some snacks before driving up to the nearby Mammoth Cave National Park. The park is nestled above Mammoth Cave, the longest cave system in the World. We had booked a Cave Tour and after picking up junior ranger booklets to fill in from the visitor centre, checked into head underground.

Above, and below, on our cave tour

There were a variety of tours to choose from, all differing length and group sizes, but we chose the Historic Tour as it fitted best with our plans for the day. The tour was really fascinating, taking us through the cave to see all the highlights and following in the footsteps of explorers from as far back as the 1800s. We heard the stories of these explorers and saw graffiti etched into the cave walls from long ago.

Once back in the daylight, we used what we had learnt to complete our Junior Ranger booklets and earn another ranger badge!

That evening, after dinner at a nearby Pizza Hut, we visited Ralphie’s Fun Centre for a change from our usual night in and a game of bowling!

Our journey from Kentucky to Indiana the next day meant retracing our inbound route slightly. This gave us the opportunity to call into one of the stops we didn’t have time for before, Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park. The site housed a memorial to President Lincoln inside of which was a replica of the Kentucky cabin he was born in.

Then it was time to say goodbye Kentucky as we continued on our road trip, Indiana-bound!

A Midwest Road Trip: Branson, Missouri

Being greeted by roadworks as we entered Missouri – setting the scnee for our visit?!

Planning a road trip through the Midwest USA had been like trying to solve a long, time consuming puzzle, trying to workout what we wanted to see and how we were going to fit it in to a 3-week time frame putting us back in Chicago in time for one of us to catch a flight back to the UK.

A Branson water tower

While we had always intended on visiting the state of Missouri – and more specifically, the city of St Louis – spending 2 nights in Branson, Missouri first was a late, and rather hastily inserted, addition to our ever changing itinerary.

It was spotting a replica of the Titanic on the Roadside America website that first brought the city of Branson to our attention and when further investigation revealed that this was actually a Titanic Museum housed inside the replica of the doomed liner along with various other tacky attractions nestled along its main strip, it seemed like a no brainer not to visit on a trip we had fashioned around random roadside attractions.

So after 11 days on the road travelling from Chicago through Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, we were driving back north towards Chicago again heading towards Branson, Missouri (our second visit to the state of Missouri this trip after we spent a night in Kansas City en route to Kansas state) for a 2-night stay.

A rainy Branson Landing

From our research, it had seemed that Branson was split into 2 main touristy areas: Downtown Branson and Branson Strip. We had opted to stay in a motel just off the strip, walkable to the Titanic Museum and other touristy attractions but were aiming to head to Downtown Branson to visit Branson Landing, a huge shopping, dining and entertainment complex on a lakeside setting, before checking in.

Here, we had pre-booked a ride on Parakeet Pete’s Waterfront Zipline, a seated zipline experience over the White River which we had read offered great views over Branson, Lake Taneycomo and the surrounding Ozark Mountains.

Riding Parakeet Pete’s zipline

Unfortunately, we arrived in Branson to torrential rain and after killing some time browsing in some of the many shops to shelter, we realised the weather wasn’t changing anytime soon and we’d have to just suck it up and ride the zipline anyway!

It was still a fun, if rather tame and child-friendly, experience although our views were rather obscured by the heavy cloud and rain and we exited soaked to the skin!

Fountain show at Branson Landing

Branson Landing is also home to a dancing fountains show said to rival the one at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. As it would have been a shame to leave the are without seeing it, we put up with the rain to watch one of the hourly shows, the jets of water dancing along to the beats of King Fu Fighting. As with all fountain shows, I’d imagine it would have been a lot more impressive at nighttime, all lit up and that possibly applies to Branson Landing as a whole – we should probably have aimed for a later visit than mid-afternoon.

Still damp, we decided to grab tea and cake from a Starbucks to warm up. Despite the coffee shop not looking particularly busier than any other Starbucks at a popular shopping mall, it took us over 30 minutes to reach the counter. Only to find that the most of the items we wanted were out of stock!

Bizarre sites as we crawl through traffic down the Strips

Unimpressed with Branson so far and mainly empty-handed, we decided to escape the miserable weather and downtown and head to motel to check in.

Despite it being just a 4-mile journey to our motel, it took us over an hour to make it down Branson Strip as we sat in heavy traffic and hit a red light at every set of traffic lights.

By the time we checked in – and were handed a map outlining alternative routes to avoid traffic on the Strip, something we could have done with an hour or so earlier -we were pretty fed up and regretting our decision to include Branson on our itinerary!

Half of the Titanic sat on Branson Strip, and below, other Strip ‘attractions’

Once we’d calmed down and changed out of our still-damp clothes, we set out for our first walk along Branson Strip, our first glimpse of the reconstruction of the Titanic (or half of it, at least!) looming into view across the main road along with a different take on Mount Rushmore outside the Hollywood Wax Museum and a giant fork and meatball outside the Italian restaurant we eventually decided to have dinner at. Maybe our stay would be fun afterall…

We began the next day with a visit to the Titanic Museum. Here, visitors are – in slightly bad taste?! – handed a card with a passengers name on as they enter and track the fate of this passenger as they move around the museum, eventually finding out if they survived the disaster or not!

Off to visit the Titanic Museum

The museum, claiming to be the “World’s Largest Titanic Museum Attraction” housed plenty of artifacts from the doomed liner and staff were dressed in period costume talking to visitors in character as passengers on board the ship. There was plenty to look at and it was an interesting way to spend a few hours.

It was lunchtime by now so we decided to visit Mel’s Hard Luck Diner, a singing waitstaff restaurant but after being seated in a busy section of the diner, we were ignored for over 20 minutes, the menus and table waters we were promised never emerging. Eventually we gave up and slipped, probably unnoticed, out of the diner opting for the quicker and much cheaper Dairy Queen just up the Strip instead.

Above, and below, at the Celebrity Cars Museum

At this point, we were at a bit of a loss for what to do next. The one thing we had quickly come to realise about Branson, Missouri was that its many attractions all cost money and none of them were cheap. A lot of the attractions we had looked at doing while researching the town looked fun on paper but now we were here seemed tacky, over-priced, out-dated and not at all worth it.

Rather than completely wasting the afternoon talking about what to do, we settled on a visit to the Branson Celebrity Car Museum. I’m not into cars at all but I am a big movie fan and like popular culture museums so went along with the idea to look around and handed over my money at the entrance gate.

The museum had plenty of recognisable cars on display from TV shows and movies such as Jurassic Park and the Fast and the Furious but I found it was unclear whether these were the actual cars used in those films and shows or if they were cars bought and mocked up to look like them. It didn’t take long to walk around and take photos and soon we were back outside wondering what to so next.

Riding the Mountain Coaster

Over McDonalds’ sundaes, we contemplated a Duck Tour but it wasn’t long since we did one in Hot Springs, Arkansas – plus the Branson one was pretty expensive. Looking through tourist leaflets and scrolling through Branson websites on our phones we decided that the Runaway Mountain Coaster looked like fun so hopped into our rental and drove to its slightly off-strip site.

The coaster was similar to tobogganing rides I had been on before where you control speed with a brake in the vehicle but ran on a railed track rather than down a chute. I loved every second of zooming down the twisting, turning and sometimes quite steep track and it was without a doubt my favourite thing in Branson so far!

We still had sometime to kill before we had to go back to the motel to get ready for our night out at the Dixie Stampede show so we decided to drive down towards Table Rock Lake, hoping to find something to do that didn’t cost any money! On the way, we spotted signposts for the Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery and made a spur of the moment decision to pull in and have a look. There was a small visitor centre to look around and then an opportunity to feed the trout being reared in the pools outside. If we’d had more time there were also hiking trails to follow from the car park but instead, we had to drive back to our motel to get ready for our evening out.

One of the things we knew we Branson was famous for was the many shows on offer and despite spending a lot of time researching these, there was really only one choice for us – Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, a popular dinner show. We’d bought tickets that included a souvenir boot to drink from and after picking these up in the foyer, went and found seats on the balcony for the pre-show entertainment, a fun bluegrass group.

Once the pre-show entertainment was over, we were lead into the main arena where we were seated around a central stage area. As the show began, we were served our meal – a soup starter followed by a whole chicken for our mains. We had heard that cutlery was not provided and everyone was expected to eat with their fingers so being terribly British, we had taken plastic cutlery from Starbucks along with us to make the eating experience a bit easier!

The Dixie Stampede finale

While not exactly what we were expecting, the show was still good fun and VERY American, offering a variety of entertainment including rodeo-style displays, singing, dancing, comedy and interactive games culminating in a very patriotic choreographed, flag-waving horse parade to the strains of Dolly Parton singing Colours of America!

With hindsight, Branson was an unnecessary stop on our trip, or at least it was unnecessary to have spent 2 nights there, one would have been sufficient allowing us to spend an hour on the Strip and still take in a show, or we could have even seen a matinee and moved on to stay elsewhere after. Like Wisconsin Dells in many ways, it is a place only worth visiting if you are willing to part with your money and while it felt like we had researched what Branson had to offer to some extent, we’d maybe been swayed by the silly roadside stop-type attractions of its huge inland Titanic replica and movie-star Mount Rushmore and not thought about the logistics of how we were actually going to spend our time there enough. Billing itself as the gateway to the Ozarks, maybe we should have paid more attention to the surrounding area and looked into spending time outdoors by the the lakes and mountains instead of in the tacky resort centre. Either way, our stay was definitely an interesting experience but I’m not sure we’ll be rushing back!