Touring the Deep South USA: Birmingham, Alabama

Entering Alabama

Hailing from Birmingham in the UK myself, I found it quite amusing that the first stop on my tour of the Deep South would be in it’s namesake in the USA! It was the first day of our Trek America Deep South BLT tour and after completing the usual formalities at our New Orleans‘ hotel early this morning, we were hitting the road in our Trek van. As we left New Orleans and crossed the border into Mississippi (a state we’d be returning to later into our 7 days tour), we spent the time getting to know the rest of the guys in our group and sharing our excitement for our trip.

Statue of civil rights activist Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth outside the Civil Rights Institute

After making a few stops along the way for comfort breaks, giving us the chance to pick up a few snacks for the journey from the gas station then, later, lunch from a Walmart, we arrived in the state of Alabama, pulling over on the roadside to grab a photo with one of the famous ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ welcome signs.

Once in the city of Birmingham, we were dropped Kelly Ingram Park opposite the Civil Rights Institute and historic 16th Street Baptist Church and containing a range of civil rights monuments.

Driving into the city of Birmingham, Alabama

Given the choice of free time to explore the are or of visiting the Civil Rights Institute, we all chose the latter. The museum was a sobering but interesting experience, taking us through the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement including the Jim Crow laws and the protests and demonstrations of ’50s and ’60s America through a range of informative exhibitions and displays.

After spending a few hours exploring the museum, we were taken to check in at our motel before heading into the city for dinner. Our guide recommended Paramount Bar to us and we were happy to go along with her suggestion, especially once we got inside to find a collection of retro arcade machines filling the rooms! After taking it in turns playing Pac-Man and on the old pinball machines, we sat down to order off the bar menu of basket meals – burgers, sandwiches and the like all at reasonable prices. My burger was delicious and my sister-in-law’s grilled cheese was one of the biggest sandwiches I had ever seen!

An eerie looking Sloss Furnace

Full up, we left the bar to head to our final destination of the evening, Sloss Furnaces.

Sloss Furnaces is actually a National Historic Landmark but every October, it is transformed for Sloss Fright Furnace. The furnace is said to be haunted after the mysterious death of one of its foremans many years ago and other strange goings on since and the organisers play on this creating a walk round experience through the property. After our tour guide had briefly explained this history to us, we were asked if any of us wanted to take part in a walk around the furnace. I love things like this and immediately volunteered along with the 4 others on our tour. One dropped out minutes before we entered leaving it to just me and the 3 boys to work our way around. We moved along dark, narrow corridors as people dressed in hideous outfits and make up jumped out at us or chased us along. It was great fun and I wasn’t scared at all, honest!!

Off to church

The next morning was a Sunday and we were up early to check out of our motel and go to church! We put on our Sunday best to attend a service at the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The church is known for being the centre of a bombing attack by white supremacist groups in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s, resulting in the deaths of 4 young girls and it has since been designated a National Historic Landmark.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
Inside the church

We were welcomed at the church by the friendly congregation and before the service began, were shown around. As our group was made up entirely of Britons, they were especially keen on showing us the beautiful stained glass window donated to the church by the people of Wales to honour the victims of the bombing.

The service itself was really uplifting and we all felt honoured to be attending and welcomed so generously. After it had finished we made the short trip back to the city centre where we called into another Alabama institution – Milo’s Hamburgers, a fast food chain that is exclusive to Alabama state. After grabbing burgers, chicken, crinkle cut fries and traditional Southern sweet tea, it was back on the van to say goodbye to Alabama and begin our journey towards Tennessee.

Touring the Deep South USA: New Orleans

A couple of years ago I was ecstatic to win 2 places on Trek America’s Deep South Budget Lodging Tour (or Deep South BLT as it’s known for short). The 7 night tour would begin and end in New Orleans, taking in Birmingham, Alabama, Gatlinburg/Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee and Natchez, Mississippi along the way.

View of Jackson Square and St Louis Cathedral
On board our boat through the swamp in Lafitte

Having previously taken Trek America’s Southern BLT, I had visited New Orleans, Nashville and Memphis before so this probably wasn’t a tour I would have paid to take part in but, last time I visited Nashville and Memphis, things hadn’t exactly gone to plan (read all about it here!) thanks to the onset of wintry weather forcing us to abandon most of our plans so I was ecstatic to get a second chance to experience these cities, this time, hopefully, snow free!

Beautiful scenery on our swamp tour

Deciding to invite along my sister-in-law who had only ever been to New York and LA in the USA before, we added on a few extra days in New Orleans before the tour was to begin. Wanting her to get the most out of the experience, I borrowed heavily from my last experience of visiting the city in planning our itinerary for the 2 full days we had there.

Spotting a small ‘gator!

So on day one, we walked from our hotel on the edge of the French quarter to Jackson Square where we would be meeting for a swamp tour. Last time, I had taken Dr Wagner’s Honey Island swamp tour which had been organised by our Trek leader. It was February, cold and wet and not alligator season. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the experience, I had a great time. But this time, I wanted to visit a different swamp so I booked us on a tour offered by Grayline. The weather was warm and sunny and it was, just, still alligator season.

Alligator!

We were taken by bus to the swamp, where we boarded our boats and headed out onto the bayou. Today, there were plenty of alligators to see as we glided through the water and past the lush, green scenery. While the commentary was sometimes difficult to hear over the conversations going on between passengers, it was still a really fun and exciting way to spend the morning.

The French Market entrance decorated for the season

Once back in New Orleans, we spent the afternoon exploring the French Quarter. It was Hallowe’en week and many of the buildings had been dressed up in preparation. We sampled some beignets from a local cafe and finished up with drinks on Bourbon Street.

View along Bourbon Street from the veranda of one of the bars and, below, New Orleans at night – on the ghost tour

That evening we took a ghost tour with Free Tours By Foot. This company allows you to sign up to its walking tours for free then at the end of the tour, you pay what you feel it was worth or what you can afford. On my previous visit to New Orleans I had taken a ghost tour with a company where you pay a set price up front and I have to say that of the two tours, the ‘free’ tour was much better.

Beignets!!
One of the many grand houses in New Orleans’ Garden District

The next day, we took a street car out to New Orleans’ Garden District. Rather than taking a guided tour like I had on my previous visit, this time I’d downloaded a self-guided walking tour which directed us around the area pointing out houses of interest along the way. The Garden District is a really pretty place to explore and with many celebrities living in the are, you never know who you might bump into!

At City Park and, below, sculptures and scenery at City Park

That afternoon, we took another streetcar, this time, out to City Park, a large park on the edge of the city and a new experience for me. The park is home to a sculpture park which we explored before stumbling across a mini-golf course.

The mini-golf course dressed up for Hallowe’en

As it was Hallowe’en week, the course had been decorated with cobwebs and a range of spooky figures and as we played, we were regularly interrupted by witches cackling and skeleton dogs howling, livening up the game.

City views

Back in the city, we walked towards the Mississippi River and watched the pipes play on the Natchez steamboat. We had booked an evening dinner cruise as I had enjoyed taking one on my previous visit to the the city. After enjoying the delicious buffet dinner, we sat out on the deck enjoying the sunset and city views and listening to the jazz band play.

It had been fun to return to New Orleans a few years on, revisiting some of the places I had seen before and reliving some of my previous experiences but now I was looking forward to beginning our tour of America’s Deep South, starting with a trip to Birmingham, Alabama!

Why does it always rain on me… in Brisbane?

How I made the most of my visits despite the weather

No sign of any blue skies – down on the South Bank of Brisbane
En route to Brisbane, realising that my second visit to the city will be similar to my first!

Brisbane, the largest city in Queensland and sandwiched between the Sunshine coast to the north and the Gold Coast to the south, famously receives an average of almost 300 days of sunshine a year. Yet typically, on both of my visits, one in early Autumn and one at the height of the Australian summer, I got to experience some of those 60 rare overcast, rainy days instead!

Brisbane River

The weather can really impact how I end up feeling about a place. I think the reason I don’t look back too fondly on my visit to Toronto, Canada was because it mainly rained while I was there and that’s what I always think of now when I’m asked about that city and it was the same with Brisbane after my first visit.

By the Nepal Peace Pagoda in Brisbane’s South Bank Parklands

But after my friends had visited and shared their photos of the sunshine drenched city and of themselves lazing on Streets Beach – the man made city beach and lagoon – I decided to give the city another chance and include a 2- night stop there while on a solo trip travelling down Australia’s east coast.

For most of my stay, it rained once again but I did decide I’d been too harsh on the city and rain or shine, it’s actually a great place to visit. So what is there to do in the River City?

The Wheel of Brisbane

On both of my visits to Brisbane, the first place I have headed each time has been the South Bank. A walk along the Brisbane River, with its views of the city skyline, is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. We took a ride on the Wheel of Brisbane to get a better look over the city.

Following the path along the South Bank will lead to the South Bank Parklands and the aforementioned Streets Beach. On both of my visits, it hasn’t really been the weather for staying very long but on a hot, sunny day, it would be the perfect place to relax and cool off.

Koala at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary

On my first visit to Brisbane, we made plans to get out of the city on our 2 full days there, spending one day visiting the nearby Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary and the other taking a trip out to the Gold Coast and Springbrook Rainforest.

An emu wandering through the grounds of Lone Pine.

We organised our own visit to the koala sanctuary using a local bus to get there. We had planned on getting a boat back to the city but changed our minds when the rain started to come down pretty heavy. The sanctuary itself was definitely worth a visit with plenty of land to explore and mingle with a range of Australian critters.

No matter how many times I visit Australia, getting to hang out with kangaroos, wallabies and emus never gets old!

Sculpture in Brisbane City

With a few hours to spare late afternoon, we took a walk in Brisbane city centre for some shopping before strolling back to the river, this time, the North side where the Brisbane Botanic Gardens lie.

Story Bridge

We walked as far as a Story Bridge view point. Like Sydney Harbour Bridge, it is possible to do a guided bridge climb of Story Bridge. We stopped to see if we could see any groups climbing across then continued back towards the city, the gardens looking a bit sorry for themselves in the continuing rainfall.

A rainy day at the beach in Surfers Paradise

For our Gold Coast and Rainforest day trip, we used a company offering small group organised tours. We were picked up by minibus from a prearranged meeting point in Brisbane city and driven out to Surfers Paradise, a city of skyscrapers, shops, clubs, bars and tourist attractions lying on a seemingly never ending stretch of a golden, sandy beach.

Gold Coast view from the Skypoint Observation Deck in Surfers Paradise, and below, exploring Surfers Paradise

We were given a couple of hours of free time in the city and, as it wasn’t really the weather for spending that time lounging on the beach or swimming in the ocean, instead, I went exploring in the town and then caught the lift up to the Skypoint observation deck in one of the city’s tallest skyscrapers. The views up and down the coast from the top were stunning, especially as the weather started to clear up a bit. By the time I got down again, the sun had come out a bit so I spent the last few minutes of our visit on the beach.

Viewpoint at Springbrook Rainforest and below, a heavy downpour while hiking
through the rainforest.

After leaving Surfers Paradise, we were taken to the nearby Springbrook Rainforest. As we got there, it once again started to pour down but as we were hiking through a rainforest, this only added to the experience.

View of the South Bank crossing Victoria Bridge

On my return trip to Brisbane a few years later, I was hoping for some sunshine, especially as I would be arriving on Australia Day and my hostel were running an afternoon rooftop BBQ.

Another gloomy day at Streets Beach on my return trip to the city

Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. The BBQ was rained off so I spent the taking a walk down to the South Bank before a spot of shopping in the city.

A busy South Bank on Australia Day despite the earlier weather

Luckily the weather had dried up when I returned to the South Bank in time for the evening’s Australia Day firework display.

View of Brisbane City in the distance from New Farm Park

I had been hoping to spend a full day in the city taking a bike tour in the morning and hiking up to Mount Coot-Tha Summit Lookout in the afternoon. Unfortunately, when I went to book the bike tour, it turned out it wasn’t running on that particular day so instead, I took a boat down the Brisbane River to New Farm Park.

Taking a stroll through New Farm Park

The park itself is nothing special but it was nice to take the boat along the river and once there, I took a walk along the riverside path and had a look around the old tram power station there, now interestingly converted into a theatre and art space called Brisbane Powerhouse. The park also offered good views of the Brisbane skyline in the distance.

Disappointed at the Brisbane weather on the boat back to the city centre

With the rain getting heavier and heavier, I didn’t stay too long and was soon under cover back on the boat to the city.

Dinosaurs outside the Queensland Museum

From the South Bank, I took a umbrella covered walk into Brisbane’s trendy West End district, sheltering in a cafe while grabbing some lunch then, with no sign of the weather letting up, decided to spend the rest of the afternoon exploring some of Brisbane’s free museums.

Above and below, contemporary art at GoMA and Queensland Art Gallery

I started with the Queensland Museum situated just off the South Bank with its exhibits on the state’s past then continued to the nearby Gallery of Modern Art, or GoMA, and Queensland Art Gallery where I found more contemporary art.

The oldest building in Brisbane – the Old Windmill

On the way back to the hostel, I took a detour past the Old Windmill, the oldest building in Brisbane. While not quite the day I had in mind, I enjoyed my dose of culture in Brisbane city and it was the perfect way to spend a rainy day in the city by myself.

Gloomy weather over Australia Zoo

The following day, I took a trip north from Brisbane to Australia Zoo. I had looked into a variety of ways of getting there without a car and decided that using the Greyhound bus service would be the most convenient. I booked a ticket that included my return travel and a ticket into the zoo and just had to be at the bus station on time in the morning then back outside the zoo at the end of the day in time for the departure back to Brisbane.

The zoo was definitely worth the visit and despite visiting alone and the overcast and often drizzly weather, I had a great day.

Despite the unfortunate weather, I definitely came away from my second trip to the city with a newfound appreciation for it. Not only is there plenty to see and do in the city itself, its a convenient gateway for trips out towards the Sunshine coast in the north and the Gold Coast in the south.

I hope to return one day and maybe this time the sun will finally shine on me in Brisbane.

Spending the Fourth of July in the USA

As American Independence Day approaches, I thought it a good time to look back at my own experience of spending the 4th of July in the USA.

After booking a coast to coast tour of the USA finishing in Los Angeles at the very end of June, it seemed like the perfect excuse to stay a few extra days in order to experience the 4th of July celebrations in the USA. Seeing as I would be travelling alone, I wanted somewhere that would have plenty going on, preferably including a parade and fireworks.

I couldn’t find much information about things going on in Los Angeles itself other than an event at Hollywood Bowl, so I started to look elsewhere, researching the best places to spend the American holiday.

Eventually, I settled on the city of Huntington Beach, Orange County, just a couple of hours south of LA which seemed to have plenty going on over the holiday weekend.

Having decided where I wanted to spend the holiday, there were still a few hurdles to overcome. First of all, how to reach my destination without a car and secondly, where to stay seeing as even early on, hotels were either pretty booked out or had hiked prices to way out of my budget.

Walking towards the party.

I would be staying at an AirBnB in Hollywood at the end of my tour, the first time I had used the service so I was unsure of how it would go but with hotel prices in Huntington Beach being so high, I decided that maybe this would be the best option, the only other affordable one really being a room at a Best Western a few miles out. In Hollywood, I would have my own private bedsit just off Hollywood Boulevard but I was struggling again to find anything similar in my price range for those dates in Huntington Beach so instead, I decided to look at people offering private rooms within their homes. After narrowing my search down, I eventually settled on staying with a retired teacher who lived in a gated community on the south edge of town, from where it was a 5-10 minute walk to the beach and a half hour walk along the board walk to the main part of the city. Having mentioned in my email that I had chosen Huntington Beach because I was looking for a traditional Fourth of July experience and had heard they had a parade and fireworks, my host told me that all the residences in the gated community held a party around the pool in the afternoon which I was welcome to attend while staying with her. An American pool party and BBQ?! – this completely sold it to me that this was the right choice of places to stay!

Families set up on the beach

So with my accommodation sorted, I continued to look into transport options. While it would be less than an hour’s drive there, public transport wise, there were very few options available. Or at least, no straight forward ones as they all involved taking multiple subways and buses, not ideal when lugging a huge suitcase and bag along!

I eventually decided to get the FlyAway bus from Hollywood to LAX then a shared shuttle service straight to the door of my AirBnB accommodation, a bit pricier but worth it to save a lot of time and effort.

Star-spangled bicycles

Everything ran according to plan and after leaving Hollywood, I arrived in Huntington Beach early afternoon on July 3rd. After meeting my AirBnB host and settling into my room, I took a walk down to the beach and into town. It was already busy and buzzing with an atmosphere of excitement.

Bikes on the boardwalk

Bikes decked out with American flags raced past along the boardwalk all honking their horns, ringing their bells and trailing red, white and blue ribbons. Crowds on the beach regularly broke out into chants of U-S-A, U-S-A, getting louder and louder as more and more people across the beach heard and joined in with them before they petered out again.

A walk along the pier

As I neared the Huntington Beach Pier, the beach got more crowded. From the Pier, I could see that a surfing competition was being held. Surfers rode the huge waves, scoreboards awarded them points, crowds cheered, TV cameras rolled. Surfing is a huge deal here, even earning Huntington Beach the nickname ‘Surf City’.

Flags decorating the pier

I stood and watched for a while before making my way along the pier through the crowds, taking in the atmosphere, browsing in the gift stores and stopping to take in the beautiful views along the coast.

At the market
A stroll along Main Street

Carrying on into town, I came across an outdoor market also set up for the Fourth of July weekend. I weaved my way around stopping to buy a corn on the cob from one of the stalls before walking away the from the beachfront to find Main Street. This is the liveliest street in Huntington Beach with its restaurants, bars and shops and it would also be the site of tomorrow’s parade.

Having checked out where I would need to head to in the morning, and after grabbing an ice cream!, I returned to the beach and began a slow walk back to my accommodation continuing to drink in the atmosphere around me.

Home decorations

The next day, I was greeted by my host with a ‘Happy Fourth’, the house decorated with red, white and blue decorations. After grabbing some breakfast, I headed back into town ready to watch the big parade.

Crowds find a spot to watch the parade

Main Street was already extremely busy as everyone tried to grab a spot along the pavement. It was possible to book spaces on the bleachers for a price but as I was by myself, I figured it would be easy enough to squeeze in somewhere and sure enough, I soon found a spot right by a stone bollard to perch on when my feet became tired!

While the main parade wasn’t due to start for another 40 minutes, many of the decorated bikes I had witnessed riding back and forth along the boardwalk yesterday were now parading up and down Main Street in a pre-parade ritual. Eventually, they were cleared to make way for the main event.

Walking down Main St after the parade

As the parade began, so did the hollering and the flag waving, the patriotic cheers barely letting up as a seemingly never-ending line of marching bands, highly decorated floats and well-trained horses drifted past and getting noticeably louder at the sight of heroic firefighters and members of the armed forces. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement and goodwill.

Brunch!
A 4th of July paddle in the ocean

As the parade began to come to an end, I ducked out early to beat the crowds and go and grab brunch at the IHOP then I made my way back along the boardwalk and to my accommodation. The earlier cloud had now cleared to be replaced with glorious sunshine – perfect weather for a pool party.

Getting the party food ready

Everyone was really welcoming and it was great to experience an authentic typically American 4th of July celebration complete with hot dogs, burgers and home made potato salad!

Relaxing by the pool

That evening, I was already planning on heading to the beach to watch the fireworks but was invited by my AirBnb host to go with her and some friends rather than watch them alone. The beach was even busier than it had been during the day with everyone continuing their parties, singing the national anthem and once again breaking out into regular chants of “U-S-A!”

When the fireworks started they were breath-taking. Probably the most spectacular- and definitely the longest – display I have ever seen and, unlike in the UK where they’re greeted with traditional ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, they were greeted with rapturous cheers and applause.

Fireworks over, we packed away our blankets, food and drinks and returned home. I still had a few days left to spend in the OC before flying back to the UK but there was no way they were going to top today. Spending a traditional Fourth of July stateside had been an amazing experience and one I would definitely recommend!

Watch my vlog of my Fourth of July USA experience here:

Alaska: Denali National Park

In Denali Village

As we left our overnight stop at Maclaren River, there was one topic of conversation on the bus – would we join the “30 per cent club” and get to see Mount Denali? We’d been told that the Alaskan Range is so often covered by cloud that few visitors to the park actually see Mount Denali itself but we were all hopeful that over the next 2 days, the weather would clear enough for us to get at least a glimpse!

Arriving in time for lunch, we went straight to Denali Village rather than stopping to check in at our cabin accommodation and had some time to grab a sandwich and look around the local stores before heading into the park itself.

Watching the sled dogs demonstration

Our first stop in the park was at one of the park’s visitor centres to look around and grab any information we wanted for the next few days. The park runs a series of shuttles to take visitors around the park and after a while, we met at the bus stop outside the centre to catch a shuttle to the Denali Kennels for a dog sled demonstration.

Before the demonstration begins, visitors are able to wander through the kennel area to meet the park’s sled dogs which, being a total dog person, I absolutely loved being able to do! Then we found spaces in the viewing area as the park rangers led the demonstration with a little help from their 4-legged friends.

Glimpsing Mount Denali

Some of us had taken up the optional extra of a scenic flight over the Alaskan Range that evening with a glacial landing so after our visit to the kennel, we were dropped at the airfield where we were kitted out in some special boots to stop us slipping on the ice before boarding the third small aircraft of our trip so far.

On board our small plane

Like our previous two scenic flights in Anchorage and Wrangell-St Elias National Park, this was not a cheap excursion but we knew we’d not get the chance to visit this part of the World again for a long time, if ever, so we saved hard in order to make the most of these experiences.

Mount Denali
Glacial landing

The saving paid off as this was without a doubt the absolute highlight of our entire trip to Alaska. The views as we flew over the mountains were absolutely beautiful and to top it all off, from above the clouds, we joined that 30% club and caught a glimpse of Mount Denali. It was strangely quite an emotional experience!

Snowball fight!

Landing on the glacier at the end of our flight was also an amazing experience. The air was so crisp and clear and we had a fun time letting our inner child out and playing in the icy snow in between taking photos and standing gaping in awe at the surrounding scenery.

Pizza!

After flying back, a shuttle bus took us to our accommodation of cabins just outside of the park and we met with the rest of the group at the Pizza Pub across the road to share our stories.

Hiking in the National Park

We began the next morning back in Denali Village to grab some breakfast then a quick stop at the park entrance to take pictures with the sign.

It was a miserable, wet day meaning there was little chance of catching another glimpse of the elusive mountain.

Evidence of beavers!

Today, we had tickets to ride the Denali shuttle. This 8-hour round trip was one of the included experiences in our Alaskan Highlights Tour. We had a bit of time to spare before the shuttle left so we spent some time hiking in the rain on the short trail out to Horseshoe Lake, keeping an eye out for beavers along the way.

Spotting a moose from the shuttle bus

Then we boarded the shuttle bus to see more of the park. We saw plenty of wildlife in the park from the very first few minutes of the trip but it was mainly caribou and moose.

Teklanika River

The bus made a few stops on the way around giving us the chance to stretch our legs, take bathroom breaks or take a short hike.

We stopped at a viewpoint for the Teklanika River and then at Polychrome Pass where we walked to a Mount Denali viewpoint but the rain and low cloud meant all we could really see was the river below us.

At the information area at Toklat River

The other main stop of the day was at the Toklat River Rest Area where there was an information area along with a gift shop then it was back on the bus to our final stop, Eielson Visitor Centre.

Here we took a short hike out to another viewpoint. Still no sign of Mount Denali but we did see a really cute arctic ground squirrel!!!

Bears in the distance!

From Eielson, we boarded the bus again to return to where we started. The return trip was mainly uneventful except for when we finally spotted bears! It took us until our penultimate day in Alaska and they were pretty far in the distance but we were excited that we had at least ticked that off our Alaska bucketlist!

Back at the Toklat River rest stop in Denali National Park

Once back at our cabin ground, it was time to get ready for our last group meal of the trip as tomorrow we’d be heading back to Anchorage. We went out to a local restaurant where we had an excellent 3 course meal and reminisced about our amazing trip.

Our final day on the Alaskan trip was quite low key. We stopped for lunch in the town of Talkeetna, famous for its mayor once being a cat called Stubbs! Then continued to former Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin’s home town of Wasilla looking to see if we could see Russia from there (we couldn’t!).

Spotting caribou from the Denali shuttle bus

Then, with one last blast of our ‘morning song’, Joe Croce’s I Got a Name (despite it now being the afternoon, it had become out tour anthem!), we were back to where we started 10 days before. Some of the group were heading straight off that afternoon and, having already spent time exploring Anchorage before our tour started, we were off to the airport to fly out of Alaska that night but there was time for one last meal with some of the group so we walked downtown and went for a meal together at the Hard Rock Cafe.

It had been an amazing trip with so many highlights. Looking for bears at Lake Clark, wildlife spotting while cruising through Kenai Fjords National Park in Seward, kayaking out to see magnificent icebergs in Valdez, taking a scenic flight and hiking across a glacier at Wrangell-St Elias National Park, canoeing down the Maclaren River and joining the 33% club by actually laying eyes on Mount Denali! But now, it was time to say our final goodbyes to the group and it was back to Anchorage airport to wave goodbye to this beautiful State!

Watch my Denali National Park vlogs here:


Alaska: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and McCarthy

Spotting a bald eagle just outside of Valdez

After an exhausting but amazing day kayaking out to an iceberg field in Valdez, it was back on the van today to set off for our next stop on our Alaskan Highlights tour of Alaska, the historic town of McCarthy from where we’d be exploring the largest US National Park, Wrangell-St Elias.

The long, straight road ahead!

After a quick breakfast stop in Valdez, we began our long drive, stopping just outside of Valdez after spotting a bald eagle in the trees on the roadside and then again at an overlook for Lowe River.

Roadside stop on the way to McCarthy
Casper the Friendly Ghost mural in Chitina

We made more frequent stops at various viewpoints to stretch our legs along the way including one at Liberty Falls State Recreation Area to see the waterfall.

Another delicious dessert
No traffic on the road bridge!

Our lunch stop today was in the small town of Chitina. As we’d once again made our own lunch up to keep costs down, we again bought a dessert to share at the cafe the group were eating at!

The road to McCarthy was long and bumpy and following yesterday’s exhausting full day’s kayaking excursion, after lunch, I did something I rarely do and fell asleep in the van!

I woke up just before our final stop before McCarthy at an overlook for the Copper River. We stopped at a long road bridge crossing the river from which there pretty views of the chalky river flowing through the canyon below. The road was so quiet, we sat on the bridge posing for photos – something we’d rarely be able to do on road bridges in the UK!

Our McCarthy guesthouse

Once we reached the vicinity of McCarthy, we stopped and parked up near an old railroad bridge. We were told to retrieve our luggage from the trailer and to take it over the river bridge and once on the other side, we would be met by vans belonging to the guesthouse we were staying in who would take us the rest of the way into town as larger vehicles such as our tour van are not advised to drive the last stretch of the road.

The hotel’s cosy common area

We were staying at Ma Johnson’s Hotel, a historic guesthouse in the town. There was no wifi, no power points in our rooms – we had to use the few in the communal areas – and bathrooms were shared rather than being en suite but it had a real charm about it and the rooms were really lovely. The whole town was like something time had forgot with its swinging saloon doors and Wild West style fronts.

About to board our small aircraft

That afternoon, some of us had opted to take a scenic flight over Wrangell-St Elias National Park so, after a bit of time to settle in to our accommodation and look around the small town, we met at the front of the hotel to be shuttled down to the local airfield and board our small aircraft.

Flying over the ghost town of Kennecott

The flight was an amazing experience with stunning views of the park below. We flew over the braided Copper River, over the ghost town of Kennecott and then over mountains and glaciers, the scenery taking our breath away as our pilot told us about the history and geography of the area and answered any questions we had as we communicated with him through our headsets. We had saved furiously before the trip to be able to do these optional extras as we knew they would be what made the trip and while this was certainly not the cheapest optional extra on offer, it was absolutely worth every penny.

Pulled pork dinner
Diet Coke summing up the trip so far!

After our flight, we were dropped back in McCarthy town and all went for dinner at local diner, The Potato, where I had an amazing pulled pork sandwich. The group was really starting to gel now and the banter was in full flow as we were all on a high from our scenic flight experience.

Day 2 in McCarthy and we were off to Wrangell-St Elias National Park for a glacier hiking experience. Once again, we were picked up and shuttled out of McCarthy, this time to the old mining town of Kennecott, now a ghost town, where we met our guide for the day and got kitted out with special grips that fitted over our shoes enabling us to walk on the icy glacier.

Starting the hike across the glacier

Taking a short hike out to the glacier’s edge, we followed the glacier trail until the rocky path disappeared to be replaced by ice. It was surreal walking across the seemingly endless icy plain which we had been flying over the afternoon before. We came across huge walls of ice and deep crevices with no bottom in sight. We stopped for snacks and drinks sat out on the glacier and stopped to fill up our water bottles from the icy springs – the clearest, freshest water I’ve ever tasted!

At the National Park Visitor Center in Kennecott

After returning to Kennecott and handing back our equipment, the afternoon was free for us to either explore Kennecott or to return to McCarthy. We decided to stay in Kennecott, grabbing some lunch and visiting the national park visitor center before signing up for a tour of the old abandoned copper mine.

The mill in the old copper mining town of Kennecott
In our protective gear to enter the old mill

The tour was really interesting, taking us through the town of Kennecott hearing all about its history and then up into the remains of the old, red mill building. Although the building had been stabilised to allow visitors in, we had to wear hard hats in case of any falling debris!

After the tour, we caught the shuttle back to McCarthy taking another trip to the Potato Cafe for dinner and relaxing after a busy day.

The next morning, we had breakfast and spent some time down by the river before we were dropped back at our tour van ready to set off for our next destination, an overnight stop in Maclaren.

Watch my vlog of my visit to McCarthy and scenic flight over Wrangell-St Elias here:

Watch my vlog of my Wrangell-St Elias glacier hike and visit to Kennecott ghost town here:

Alaska: Visiting Valdez

Alaskan Highlights Tour Days 3-4

Salmon swimming in the weir

After beginning my trip exploring Anchorage and a couple of days in Seward exploring Kenai Fjords National Park, it was back aboard our Grand American Adventures tour bus early this morning to start the long drive to our next stop, Valdez. Following a supermarket stop to grab breakfast and snacks for the day, we continued on to our next quick stop of the day, Bear Creek Weir, not far outside of Seward to watch the salmon swimming through.

Water wheel and grindstone at Moose Pass
Message board the entrance to Moose Pass

Next up was a stop at the Moose Pass Water Wheel and Grindstone which sit at the side of the highway at the entrance to the town of Moose Pass.

Continuing towards Valdez, our next stop was at a viewing point for Mantanuska River and Glacier before we stopped for lunch at the cute Sheep Mountain Lodge from which there were more beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. Having realised just how expensive Alaska was over the last few days, we had opted to buy cheese and rolls on our supermarket stop that morning and had made our own lunch to eat on the van so instead, we ordered a delicious warm cookie and ice cream dessert to share from the lodge’s menu!

Worthington Glacier

We were slowly realising that the main thing to see is Alaska is glaciers and sure enough, our next stop was a viewing point for another one, this time, Worthington Glacier.

Luckily, the views were always so beautiful, we never tired of this kind of stop to enjoy the Alaskan scenery.

As we neared Valdez, we started to pass a few waterfalls trickling down the cliffs either side of the highway. We pulled over to get a closer look at some of these and also see the Old Railroad Tunnel, a historic unfinished tunnel nearby.

Salmon at Soloman Gulch Fish Hatchery

Our last stop before we reached Valdez was at Soloman Gulch Fish Hatchery where we watched in amazement at the hundreds of salmon swimming at the weir. Then it was onto Valdez where we checked into our hotel and then went for a group dinner at Roma Italian restaurant.

Rabbits are everywhere in Valdez

The evening was ours to wander through Valdez or – in our case – do laundry!

We did find time for a quick walk around town, spotting some of Valdez’s many rabbits as we went!

Off on a kayaking adventure

It was an early morning the next day. Although it was a free day to spending Valdez as we liked, 4 of us had opted to spend it taking a full day sea kayaking tour. After checking in for our tour and getting kitted out in our thermal, waterproof gear for the day, we boarded a small boat carrying our kayaking equipment and sailed out to sea.

Kayaking out to a waterfall
Off out to sea

This part of the day was exciting enough as we sped across the waves and even passed a group of seals. Once at our destination, we boarded our kayaks and set off, paddling out to a waterfall in a calm lagoon at first before heading out to sea.

It was a long, cold day and by the end of it, our arms and shoulders ached a lot, but it was totally worth it as we kayaked out to see huge icebergs floating in the icy sea. We even saw one enormous iceberg start to roll until it was completely the other way up, sending small waves towards our kayaks. Just amazing.

Spotting some icebergs

We docked on an island for lunch and a warm cup of tea, stunning views of the icebergs in the sea in front of us before kayaking out to them again, getting close enough to touch some of the small pieces of floating ice. An incredible experience!

Not a bad place to stop for lunch!

At the end of the day we clambered from our kayaks back onto the boat which had come to collect us and take us back to Valdez where we went for a well-earned pizza and to tell the rest of the group about our adventure.

Pizza!

We slept well that night and the next morning, after a breakfast stop at Valdez’s famous Roadside Potatohead Cafe, it was back on the road to begin our journey to our next Alaska destination.

Watch my vlog of our journey to Valdez here…

and my vlog of my sea kayaking experience in Vadelz here:

Alaska: Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park

Day 1 of our Alaskan Highlights Tour

After 2 underwhelming days spent in Anchorage, the day we had been waiting for had arrived – the start of our 10-day Grand American Adventures Alaskan Highlights tour.

On our tour van
Potters Marsh

Having got the introductions and paperwork out of the way at a welcome meeting the previous evening, it was straight to loading up the trailer with our luggage, hopping on and setting off. The tour was off to a precarious start when moments after leaving the hotel, a huge moose leapt out in front of us just as we had started picking up speed down a main road. Luckily, there was nothing in the lane next to us and we managed to swerve to avoid hitting it. Danger over, we were relieved and excited to have had our first Alaska wildlife spot!

Spotting a moose

Our guide explained to us that she had a tour ‘morning song’ – a song she played as the first song of the day on the bus each morning and which we’d all get to know and be able to sing along to by the end of the tour. The song was I Got a Name by Joe Croce. It wasn’t a song I was already familiar with but by the end of the tour, we did indeed all know and love it.

Views from Potters Marsh

Our first stop of the day was at Potter Marsh Wildlife Viewing Boardwalk just outside of Anchorage. We wandered the board walks and were rewarded as we looked out over the marsh with another moose appearance!

Aerial tramway up Alyeska Mountain
View from Alyeska Mountain

Back on the bus, we continued to Alyeska Mountain where we had the option of riding the aerial tramway to the top of the mountain. Never ones to turn down the opportunity to take a gondola ride, we got our tickets along with a few other members of our tour group and soon we were at the top taking in the beautiful views of the mountains and glaciers.

Trail to Byron Glacier

We next stopped at a section of the Byron Glacier Trail in the National Forest. We followed the short section of the trail down to the glacier viewing area then returned to the bus to continue on to Seward arriving early afternoon.

Byron Glacier

Dropping us off in downtown Seward, we visited a cafe for lunch before going to check in at the motel we’d be staying in for the next 2 nights.

In Seward
Visitor Center at Kenai Fjords National Park

While in Seward, we would mainly be exploring Kenai Fjords National Park and this afternoon we would be heading to the Exit Glacier part of the park.

We were dropped off at the Exit Glacier Visitor Center where most of us decided to take the guided ranger tour to the glacier. After taking a walk in the park ourselves while waiting for the guided walk to start, we made our way back to the visitor centre meeting point. It was quite an easy hike to the glacier with plenty of stops as the ranger talked to us about the park and explained how quickly the glacier is receding.

The Yukon Bar

Dollar bills on the roof of the bar

After our hike, we all boarded our tour bus again to be dropped back in Seward where we had a group meal after which a few of us decided to head to one of the local bars, the Yukon Bar, where it was open mic night then after a few drinks, we walked back to our motel.

Inside the Yukon Bar
On the boat

Day 2 in Seward we were taking an included full day cruise into Kenai Fjords National Park. After grabbing breakfast at a cafe in town, we met with the rest of the group at the marina, spotting an adorable sea otter playing in the bay as we waited. Our cruise was lead by a National Park Ranger who pointed out where to look to spot wildlife in the area – and there was certainly plenty of it to spot! We saw seals, puffins, bald eagles and goats on the cliffs we sailed past and eventually, our patience paid off when we saw a whale swimming ahead.

Becoming Explorer Rangers!

During the cruise, the park ranger announced that they were running an Explorer Ranger programme on board, jokingly suggesting that adults could get involved as well as children. So, of course, we requested booklets and completed them to earn our Explorer Ranger badges by the end of the cruise.

Once back on dry land, the evening was ours to spend as we wished. We decided to walk in the opposite direction from the town where we found Seward Lagoon. After having a quick walk along the boardwalk, we went for dinner at Red’s Burgers where you get to eat your food sat on an old converted school bus!

School bus diner

After dinner, we walked back into town taking more pictures around the seafront then returned to the Yukon Bar for drinks at the end of the evening.

Beautiful views from Seward

It had been a great start to the tour. Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park had been really fun places to explore and now, we were excited to head to Valdez for the next part of our tour!

Watch my vlog of my journey to Seward and visit to Exit Glacier here:

and my vlog of my Kenai Fjords cruise here:

Alaska: A bear spotting trip to Lake Clark from Anchorage

My Alaskan Adventure Part 1

Having ticked off over 20 states on my Trek America Southern and Northern BLT tours along with a few I’d already ticked off on a few previous trips to the US, it suddenly became my aim to tick off all 50 states. So why not start with one of the most difficult?

Alaska had first crossed my mind while sat on the Trek America van the summer. A few of us were browsing a brochure that was lying around in there and all agreed the Alaskan BLT looked amazing. We jokingly agreed to all meet up again to take the tour the following year and for 2 of us, that joke became reality.

Alaska bound!

Planning the trip wasn’t all smooth-running. We added in a few days in Vancouver, Seattle and Portland before flying to Alaska and a trip to Denver after the tour, all carefully planned around the start and end date of the tour as soon as it was confirmed as running. The problems began when we were contacted by Trek America to say they had accidentally confirmed the tour and actually, we were the only 2 who had signed up for it so they’d rather not run it. We could, however, upgrade to a similar tour offered by their sister company Grand American Adventures instead.

The benefits of this would be that we’d be getting a more expensive tour with better accommodation than on our originally booked tour. The downside being that 1) it started a day later – and therefore finished a day later – meaning it didn’t fit in with the flight to Denver we’d already booked, 2) the itinerary was ever so slightly different, it didn’t go to Homer and we really wanted to do the ‘Bear tour’ – an optional extra for Homer on the original trip where we’d fly somewhere and go bear spotting, and, 3) Grand American Adventures tours are open age unlike Trek America who have an 18-38 age restriction. We were worried the trip would attract an older clientele and the social side of it wouldn’t be what we’d come to expect from Trek America tours.

Arriving at the airfield for our bear spotting trip

With the airline agreeing to change our Denver bound flight and the hotels also accommodating changes to our plans, we eventually agreed to swap tours. As the ‘bear tours’ also ran out of Anchorage, we decided to use the extra day we’d now have there to do that to make up for the opportunity not being on the new itinerary. And so, after a few days spent in Portland, we flew to Anchorage.

Despite landing at around 11pm, it was still light there and we were pleased to find blackout blinds on our hotel room windows so it at least felt like nighttime in there!

Off to Lake Clark

Trek America had organised for us to the ‘bear tour’ on our first day in the city through a company they had recommended after we expressed our disappointment at it not being an optional extra on the Grand American Adventures tour and so we were up and waiting for our pick up outside our hotel the next morning. We waited. And waited. And waited. Tour anxiety is not unusual whenever we book these type of tours but usually, just as you think you’ve been forgotten, the minibus turns up. But not today. We managed to get in touch with Grand American Adventures to find out what was happening and later found out they had accidentally booked us on the tour for that date but a month earlier! A different tour was running that afternoon which was still to view bears in the wild so as there were places left on it, we were quickly booked onto that!

No sign of any bears

So after grabbing some lunch, we again waited outside the hotel for our pick up. This time it arrived on time. As we headed to the airfield, we noticed the weather was changing and there was some talk about whether our tour would go ahead but soon we were boarding a small aircraft and taking off for Lake Clark National Park. The bad weather continued forcing the pilot to fly low beneath the worst of it but eventually, we arrived safely at our destination.

Waiting patiently…

After being kitted out with binoculars, we took a short drive and an even shorter hike out to an open field where we stood hidden in the trees waiting for a bear to hopefully make an appearance. It was absolutely pouring down at this point and as the weather got worse and worse, we knew that the chances of actually seeing anything out there was getting less and less. After an hour or so, we were forced to call it a day. Deflated, cold and wet, we returned to the airfield and were lead into a small cabin where a lunch – and delicious brownie dessert! – had been laid on for us before we flew back to Anchorage.

Cheering ourselves up with some cake!

The weather now clearing, it was a much more pleasant flight than the one up to Lake Clark. Unlike the company we would have used in Homer which refunded you of you didn’t see bears, the Anchorage company had no such policy in place so it had pretty much been a waste of a day and money. We knew there was a chance of this from the start but were mainly annoyed because we knew plenty of bears had been spotted on the morning tour which we should have been on if it wasn’t for the mix up.

Not the best start to our Alaskan adventure but we had at least enjoyed the scenic flight to Lake Clark and back and we were hopeful that we would get the opportunity to see bears in the wild elsewhere on our trip!

Watch my vlog of my trip to Lake Clark here:

Things I Wish I’d Known Before Embarking On A Group Tour

Day 1, group photo 1

When I quit my full time teaching position to travel more, I knew this would have to be solo as most of my friends were also teachers and were stuck with having to travel in school holidays. I’d done plenty of city breaks in the past but wanted to see more of certain countries than the obvious. Having never travelled solo before, I wasn’t confident to organise or take this kind of trip alone. I wasn’t a confident driver and had never driven abroad before but many of the places I wanted to see such as the National Parks, weren’t particularly accessible by public transport.

So after a lot of research, I decided joining a group tour was the best way forward. I’m not good with large crowds so I narrowed it down to a few small group tour providers and I didn’t want to be camping for 3 weeks so that narrowed down my search a bit more. Eventually, I booked a coast to coast tour with Trek America, the Southern BLT (Budget Lodging Tour).

As excited as I was to get on the road, in the days leading up to my tour, there were a few things I was nervous about. Luckily, it more than worked out but here’s some things I wish I’d known…

I didn’t need to worry about being a solo traveller

Maybe it goes without saying when you’re doing a group tour like Trek America but I still worried that everyone else would be there as a couple or with a friend. As it turned out, my first group tour with Trek was mainly made up with solo travellers and just one pair of friends and it was everyone’s first time doing such a tour which instantly gave us something in common!

I didn’t need to have to worried about taking too much luggage long

This was something I had looked to the internet for advice on before travelling – how much luggage was it alright to take? Would everyone else have backpacks, should I try and squash everything into a small suitcase? On my first Trek, I went for a medium sized suitcase in the end and squashed as much as possible in but I needn’t have worried. Only one person in our group had a backpack for their luggage, everyone else had a case and those cases were all a lot bigger than mine! So on subsequent tours, I have taken my larger case instead and packed more. Apart from my main case, I also took a small backpack to take on the van on a daily basis which I could put my drink and snacks in, and other essentials like my camera and portable phone chargers.

Age wouldn’t be an issue

This was quite a big one for me in choosing a group tour. I was approaching my mid-30s and was worried everyone else would be late-teens/early 20s. As it turned out, the group was a mixture of ages ranging from 20 to myself. I think choosing a budget lodging tour over a camping tour possibly lends itself to the older demographic of Trek but it was still a worry for me. Yes, I was the oldest, and on this tour (although not subsequent tours), I was the only one in my 30s but did it make a difference? Absolutely not. Again, everyone was there for the same reason, for the same shared experience and in fact, one of the group members I got on best with, and am still good friends with to this day, was one of the youngest in the group!

It wouldn’t be all partying

Night out in Birmingham, Alabama
Birthday night out in Austin, Texas

Another quite big worry for me, and kinda tied in with the age issue. I don’t really drink, I don’t like late nights out partying at bars and clubs very often so I was anxious that my fellow travellers would be heavy drinkers, out partying all the time and that this might even be encouraged on the tour (I’d read nightmare reviews of Contiki tours and the like and was worried this could be similar). Again, my worries were unfounded. If you do like to drink and party (and there were a couple of group members that did) then yes, there was plenty of opportunity for this but again, everyone had signed up for this tour for a similar reason – to travel and see new places and while socialising was a part of this (else we’d have travelled completely solo), you don’t feel up to much or want to throw yourselves into some of the amazing activities offered over the 3 weeks if you are constantly hung over so any partying was done in moderation.

Line dancing in Nashville
At the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar in Jackson, Wyoming

And for those of us that like to stick to our diet Cokes and our early nights, it was never frowned upon by anyone else in the group. That’s not to say I didn’t have any late nights out – an extremely late night out for my birthday in Austin, a fun night out on Bourbon Street in New Orleans and hitting the country music bars on Broadway in Nashville were all huge highlights of the trip and I was extremely thankful for van time the next day!!

Being a fussy eater is fine

Group meal in San Diego
BBQ food at The Salt Lick in Texas

Another worry for me was my eating habits. I’m pretty fussy. I don’t eat fish, I don’t like spicy food, I don’t like a lot of sauces, I don’t eat Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Indian… I know, I’m ridiculous but that’s the way it is, I have very plain tastes and I was worried this would be a hindrance on a tour where I expected at least, we’d be taken to a restaurant and told that’s where we’re eating today and I’d have to make do and find something I liked. Luckily, this wasn’t quite how it worked and, as it turned out, I wasn’t the only fussy eater on any of my tours.

Interesting food options at New Orleans’ French Market
Group meal on the Mississippi Steamboat

My tours have all worked differently. On the first tour I did, our tour leader favoured group meals where she’d book somewhere, or we’d just turn up somewhere, and we’d all eat together at that place. But we’d be told in advance the place she had in mind and occasionally, like when a fresh fish restaurant was suggested in San Diego, if we didn’t like the sound of the idea, we’d say so and go to an alternative restaurant instead. Being America, most of the places we went to offered something that I ate even if it was a basic pasta dish, a burger or a grilled cheese. On my New Zealand tour there was a couple of times when the group chose places I knew I wouldn’t find anything I liked at and each time, I opted to eat elsewhere – something I’d have happily done alone but each time, another group member offered to come along with me to keep me company. On one of my Trek America tours, we had someone in our group with a severe peanut allergy and everyone in the group was really accommodating and supportive. That tour, we tended to be dropped in a town with multiple eating options where we could all go off and find something suitable in small groups rather than all eating together at one place every day. Occasionally on cabin stay days, we’d cook around the campfire, again making sure that when we shopped, food was bought that suited everyone. Either way, my eating habits were never a problem on any of the group tours I’ve taken!

Van time would be fine

The only 2 awake on the van
Playing a round of Cards Against Humanity on the van

That last section brings me nicely onto ‘van time’. With a huge distance to cover on a cross-country trip in a relatively short amount of time, I was worried we’d spend most of the trip sat on a bus and not doing much else. And yes, a lot of the journey’s between each overnight stop were long but we were often grateful for those journeys. They were a chance to catch up on much needed sleep after late nights out, noisy hostel nights or early mornings. They were a chance to chat and get to know each other better and on most of my tours, the group would make an effort to switch around where we sat each day so we could spend time with different people. They were a chance for banter and silly games.

Van selfie

On one tour I did, someone had brought Cards Against Humanity with them and we played a group game while driving through the state of Georgia. And they were a time to listen to each other’s music collection and sing along to some classic tunes at the top of our voices with each group member taking it in turns to sit ‘shotgun’ and control the music for that day.

Van life

There’d be a range of weather along the way

An unexpected Grand Canyon Rim hike through the snow
Trying to keep warm around the camp fire at a KOA park in New Mexico

When I booked my first Trek America trip, 3 weeks travelling coast to coast through the Southern states in February and March, I assumed that being down south would mean mild weather. I knew from previous experience that New York would still be cold at that time so packed a couple of jumpers, hat and gloves and a big coat for the last few days of the tour travelling from Washington DC – Philadelphia – New York, but otherwise, I packed mainly summery clothes.

Pre-snowball fight on Beale Street in Memphis

Last minute, I threw in a couple of long sleeved t-shirts that I could layer under t-shirts in case it became chillier in the evenings. And it’s a good job I did because from the moment we left Las Vegas on day 5 of our trip until the end of our trip over 2 weeks later in New York, with the exception of a couple of gloriously warm days in New Orleans, we had nothing but what could be described as wintry weather. Cold, rain, SNOW! There were a few group members even less prepared than I was – some of the Australians in the group had never even seen snow before – and many of us ended up buying cheap hoodies etc from souvenir stores or Walmart stops. I certainly learnt my lesson to be prepared for all sorts of weather and now always check temperatures for all the stops along the way before going on any type of roadtrip!!

Things Might Go Wrong – anything can, and probably will, happen (but it doesn’t matter and you’ll still have a great time!)

Leading on from weather issues, this was the main cause of anything that went wrong on my first Trek trip. Not enough warm clothes was a minor issue and when the snow first fell, it was actually quite a nice surprise – who else can say they saw the Grand Canyon covered in heavy snow?! Not many people – I didn’t even know that ever happened there! But wintry weather can become tiresome after a week or so, especially when it interferes with your plans.

Making the most of the bad weather – taking in the beautiful views of snow-covered Monument Valley

Van journey’s taking twice the time and arriving in places a lot later than expected with less sightseeing time because of road closures was annoying enough but when planned activities have to dropped because of safety fears and snow closures, it’s downright disappointing. So there was no hiking down into the Grand Canyon and, worse still, no helicopter ride over it. Instead we watched a film about the Grand Canyon at the IMAX in Grand Canyon Village. And there was no visit to Graceland (or anywhere else really) after Memphis completely shut down after more heavy snowfall.

Yes, this was all disappointing – the helicopter over the Grand Canyon and the visit to Graceland were both things I was really excited for when I booked the trip – but seeing Monument Valley covered in snow, something so rare that even the Navajo were taking photos was not just one of the highlights of the trip, but a highlight of my life. A group snowball fight on Beale Street in Memphis a week or so later, a stop at a small town diner in the middle of nowhere Texas for pancakes where all the staff were fascinated to have a motley crew of Brits, Australians, Swiss and Swedes suddenly invade the premises followed by the joy of randomly finding a British store next door selling Cadbury chocolate bars – all things we look fondly back on that wouldn’t have otherwise happened!

It would be easy to keep in touch with everyone back home

Why spend group meals chatting when there’s free wifi to use?

With the extra days I had booked in LA and New York at either side of the Trek America tour, I was going to be away for 4 weeks on my first trip and I was worried that with a busy itinerary, stops in the middle of nowhere and being on the van travelling so much that it might be difficult to find time – or wifi – to be able to keep in touch with everyone back home and, at the very least, let my parents know I was ok on a regular basis. This was not a problem though. Our Trek van was equipped with wifi – this was unlimited on our first trip and although it only allowed 5 people on at time, most of the group were pretty good at limiting the time they spent online so that everyone could get on at some point.

The message we all dreaded seeing – too many already on the van wifi!

On my second trip, our group leader told us the wifi was supposed to be limited to a set amount per trip and somehow, our group managed to use up most of this allowance within the first few days.

But we were still all able to easy get online to keep in touch with those back home. Wifi is easy to come across in the US and we were usually able to find it at service stations, bars and restaurants, some tourist attractions and in motels, hostels and cabin parks!

There will be (many) ups and (occasional) downs

A rock concert plays backing onto our room at our Alouisiana accommodation

I’ve loved all my Trek America – and other group tour – experiences, I really have, but there’s always the occasional time when you feel a bit down. The first low point for me on my first Trek came just after my birthday. We were staying in my nightmare of a hostel in Austin – we’d been used to mainly staying in small dorms where it would just be us group members in a room but here we were in a huge, noisy co-ed dorm and didn’t get a lot of sleep.

Experiences along the way make it all worthwhile!

The next night, we were staying in a motel that had seen better days – filthy, stank of cigarettes and we worried for our safety after a huge argument erupted right outside our room and sirens and flashing lights started going off. A night later, we were staying at a B&B in Louisiana where a rock concert was being hosted and our room backed onto the stage area, with the room shaking so much that pictures fell off the wall, it meant another night of little sleep. We laugh about it now but at the time, we were pretty fed up. This was all forgotten about a day later when we arrived at our New Orleans’ accommodation to find we were in an actual hotel with proper rooms and beds but that feeling came back briefly again in Washington DC when we were told our hotel dorms would be similar to the huge co-ed Austin dorms and a few of us almost burst into tears and started looking up prices of local hotels!

As it turned out, we were in 6-bed dorms with each other and it was all fine and we carried on with our trip happy as anything again!

Hostel Life would be ok

Arriving at our Nashville hostel

I’d never stayed in hostels before doing group tours and going into my first trip, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like them much. But on the whole, I had a better experience staying in them than I imagined and even booked hostel accommodation for myself travelling solo in Australia a year later – a pair of ear plugs, an eye mask and a pair of flip flops to wear in hostel showers and its fine!!

Hostel life – down in the common area

For the most part, Trek and any other group tour companies I’ve used, will book dorms where you will just be sharing with those on your tour but depending on the group numbers, this doesn’t always work out. So for example, on my first group tour, there were only 4 girls so if we were in a 6-bed dorm, the other 2 beds would sometimes be given to independent travellers booking into the hostel rather than going to waste. This kinda thing almost caused an embarrassing incident in our San Francisco hostel when our group of 7 girls had to split into a 3 and a 4 across two 4-bed dorm rooms. I was in the group of 3 and as it was late, we assumed no one would be taking that last bed, sprawled our stuff out everywhere and started really making ourselves at home only to have a random late arriving guy walk in on us to take up bed 4!! I was in the shower down the hall at the time and one of my dorm mates was banging on the door to tell me about our unexpected guest. It’s a good job they did or I’d have probably waltzed back into our dorm in just a towel!

We’d see some amazing places and have some amazing experiences

Fireworks after our evening bike tour of Chicago
At the rodeo in Cody, Wyoming

Maybe this goes without saying, after all, it was the reason for travelling, for taking this trip but I don’t think anything prepared me for how amazing this element of the trip would be. I’d been to a lot of the main cities of America before and specifically wanted a tour which would take me to those harder to reach places and it delivered. The National Parks in America especially are absolutely breath-taking and I’d say to anyone, if you get the chance to visit Yellowstone National Park in your lifetime, take it, you won’t regret it! You’ll see some amazing places and you will want to go back to them in the future!

The amazing Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone National Park
White water rafting on Snake River, Wyoming

Even the cities I’d been to previously, I experienced in new way I would never had done on a city break with a friend – taking a ‘party bus’ along the Vegas Strip where we put our own music on and danced along to the Spice Girls and 5ive, cycling down a busy main road in Chicago on a nighttime tour, sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge on a catamaran in San Francisco.

Kayaking out to view icebergs in Valdez, Alaska
Stopping at the Vegas sign during our party bus ride along the Strip

And then there were the outdoor adventurous activities, the long hikes in the National Parks to spectacular view points, horse riding though the hills of Wyoming, white water rafting – something I’d never have seen myself doing! – kayaking out to iceburgs in Alaska, hurtling down over a huge canyon on a ‘Flying Fox’ zipline and black water rafting through a glowworm-filled cave in New Zealand…

A lot of these experiences are optional extras but they’re often what makes the tour so take the opportunity and do something you wouldn’t usually do, get out of your comfort zone, it’s what its all about!

I’d learn a lot

Yes, group tours can be educational! I learnt a lot about geography, about the history of the countries and cities I visited on the tour and about the cultures and people there. But it’s often the little things that stick with me like even now, if I’m back in the States visiting a National Park, or out taking extended walks anywhere else, the advice our Trek America guide gave us about hiking, tips on snacks to take, hiking at higher altitudes etc etc, always comes back to me!

I learnt a bit about myself too – that I can do without 8 or more hours of sleep a night, that I can adapt to situations and people around me, that I can hike for hours on end and enjoy it and that I can get on with different people of all ages and from all backgrounds.

I’d bond with the group quickly

One of the main reasons for choosing a group tour was for companionship while travelling. I’m not the kind of person that can walk into a bar or restaurant and strike up a conversation with someone so I knew if I travelled completely solo for 3 weeks, I’d probably not speak to anyone other than to buy/order something! I figured that in a group tour of 10 plus people there would hopefully be at least one person I’d get on with and company is better than no company but what I didn’t expect was how quickly you get to know these people and how you become firm friends fast. When you’re on the road for 3 weeks, you are around each other pretty much 24/7. I probably spent more time with my tour mates in those 3 weeks than I had with some of my ‘real life’ friends in 3 years! You’re in this little bubble with each other, pretty much switched off from what is happening in the outside World and after the first few days discussing with each other you ‘story’ – where you’re from, what you do for a living, why you’re here, now – you just start to be yourself around each other, the banter starts and it’s like you’ve all known each other for years. That’s not to say you won’t get on with some group members more than others and that there won’t be days when you want some alone time away from the group – and there are some opportunities for this on free days. But these people become your family for the length of the tour and when it comes to an end and you have to say goodbye, it can be horrendous. I’ve always found that the longer the tour, the harder saying goodbye has been and there’s been a couple of times when there’s been tears!

Final group photo of the trip in New Zealand

I’d make friends for life

On most of the group tours I’ve done, we’ve had a WhatsApp or Facebook group active during the tour where we can exchange photos of the group or each other, arrange where to meet if we’ve split up on free days etc etc. In the days after a tour finishes, this group is always at it’s most active as we miss each other and want to continue that group banter and reminisce. But a lot of my tour group chat groups are still active months and years on, even if its just a ‘Happy Christmas’ message that starts the conversation off once a year, we’re all still in touch and very much a part of each other’s lives.

Not only that but some of my very best friends now are people I’ve met on a group tour. There’s group members I regularly meet up with and those I talk to on a weekly basis. I’ve been on holiday with these people, we’ve since been travelling together on our own roadtrips across the US and Australia, I’ve been to their weddings, gone to concerts and on nights out with them, celebrated landmark birthdays together.

Our shared experiences on the group tour is a huge part of why we still communicate now but we have more than that in common and are now real life friends and will be for a long time to come.

I’d want to talk constantly about my experiences…

but most people just won’t want to listen. It’s one of those things that will forever be a milestone in your life, a real highlight but only those people who were there with you, who had that shared experience, will really ever understand and that’s why you will be forever bonded with them. A lot of my friends took a leaf out of my book and have joined group tours over the last few years and now they understand a bit more but with anyone else it can be frustrating when you get back and it’s all you can think or talk about and no one else in interested. But that’s what the group’s Whatsapp chat is for!

It’s addictive

I really wish I’d known how addictive group travel would be. Within days of returning from my first tour, I’d booked another and then another. Few of the tours I’ve done have quite lived up to those first couple but everyone has been special and exciting and amazing in it’s own way. And even now when I tend to plan my own travel with friends I met on group tours, we use our group tour experiences to guide trips, planning huge road trips full of unusual activities and experiences along the way in the style of Trek America and sometimes revisiting places we loved on our group tour.

It would be the best thing I’d ever do

So if you’re thinking of taking a group tour with Trek America or another company*, my advice is to stop thinking about it and just book it. It really will be the best thing you’ll ever do!

*While I have been a customer of small group tour companies including Trek America, Grand American Adventures, Haka Tours and Macbackpackers, all the opinions expressed here are my own.

Have you ever been on a group tour with Trek America or any other companies? Let me know about your own experiences!