After a fun morning visiting the Jolly Green Giant in Minnesota state, we crossed the border into South Dakota for lunch in the town of Brandon. This stop was notable mainly for us having a group member with the same name, causing all sorts of hilarity as we dug into our Subway sandwiches followed by some frozen yoghurt!
This afternoon we were heading towards Badlands National Park but delayed for various reasons, we arrived to late to spend any time in the park that day and instead, went straight to our KOA site to check into our cabins and do the first group cook of the trip.
That evening there were early nights all around as we prepared to get up at the crack of dawn to head into the National Park for sunrise. Those plans were abandoned the next day when we awoke to torrential rain and it became apparent that there would be no sun to view rising. Instead, we made multiple attempts to get to and from the shower blocks without getting so drenched we had to change clothes all over again before having a pancake breakfast under a marquee only just about holding up under the weight of the heavy rainfall.
Deciding the weather probably wasn’t improving any time soon, we made the decision to head into the park anyway. Luckily, as we approached, the weather started to clear up and by the time we’d spent some time in the visitor centre looking at the displays, watching a video about the Badlands and buying souvenirs, it had stopped raining completely allowing us to go hiking over the odd moonscape.
With a long drive ahead of us, we didn’t spend too long at Badlands National Park. We made a brief stop at a National Park Service Missile Silo on the way out then continued to our main stop for today, Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
Mount Rushmore was somewhere I’d wanted to visit for years but unlike many of the other recognisable US site such as the Hollywood sign and the Statue of Liberty, isn’t in one of the major cities and is therefore more difficult to get to.
As we travelled through South Dakota on our way to Mount Rushmore, we kept passing signs advertising the town of Wall Drug. The signs continued for hundreds of miles showing pictures of cowboys, ice cream, coffee and even a dinosaur! We were all intrigued and our guide informed us that Wall Drug would be today’s lunch stop.
Once there, we found a Wild West type town with plenty of places to eat and drink. We settled on a bar where many of the groups tried bison burgers while the rest of us tucked into pizza then spent the next half hour wandering through the themed stores, buying souvenirs and eating ice cream. Unsure why the town had been hyped for so far along our drive, we returned to our Trek van to continue on our journey.
Carved in to the Black Hills of South Dakota, Mount Rushmore depicts the faces of four USA presidents, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. It was a lot smaller than I expected it to be but I still took way more photos of it than I needed to and bought loads of useless souvenirs, including a Christmas bauble in the shape of Mount Rushmore, from the visitor centre.
Just up the road from Mount Rushmore, we stopped at the Crazy Horse Memorial. Currently being carved into the Black Rocks and unlikely to be finished in our lifetime, it was fascinating to see the work going on in the distance and see displays showing the progress so far and how the sculpture will look when it is finally finished.
Our overnight stop tonight was on the South Dakota/Wyoming border at another KOA, our cabins overlooked by the looming Devil’s Tower National Monument. Arriving at dusk, we went straight to the site’s cafe for dinner followed by drinks around the camp fire and a few hours sleep before an early start the next day.
Watch my Trek America adventures in South Dakota here:
After a fun day exploring Chicago, we were heading to one of those break-up-the-journey, middle-of-nowhere stops today somewhere in the state of Minnesota.
Just before leaving the state of Illinois, we stopped in the town of Des Plaines to see the Original McDonald’s but unfortunately, when we arrived we found it was closed so instead of going inside and visiting the museum, had to make do with taking photos from outside.
Our lunch stop today was in Wisconsin at a place called Wisconsin Dells. As we drove through the Dells towards the main street, we were all very excited to see various water parks, amusement rides, adventure golf courses…followed by all sorts of tacky attractions including a Mirror Maze and Museum of Torture along the main street so when we were told we’d only be getting just over an hour to explore and get some lunch, we were all a bit disappointed. We spent our time browsing in the many tacky souvenir stores with most of us grabbing lunch from The Cheesy Tomato Cafe which specialised in menu items containing Wisconsin cheese. I went for their ‘famous’ Donut Grilled Cheese – a grilled cheese sandwich but with a jam doughnut being used where the bread usually goes! It was just as sickly as it sounds.
The rest of the day mainly consisted of sitting on the van as we entered Minnesota state and drove past seemingly endless fields, farms and red barns until we reached out motel in Albert Lea.
After dinner in the motel restaurant, we went out to the cinema for evening where we were pleased to find that the bags of popcorn were just as huge as they appeared to be on TV!!
The next day was to be another long drive day as we aimed to reach the state of South Dakota but first we had one more stop in Minnesota, one that the whole group had been looking forward to. We were off to visit the Jolly Green Giant in the town of Blue Earth. Unfortunately, it was raining heavily by the time we arrived so we didn’t spend as long as we probably would have taking photos. There was a small gift store by the statue with all kids of random Jolly Green Giant themed items and we spent most of our time in there rather than outside with the Giant himself.
After seeing the giant, we were dropped off just around the corner at the Jolly Green Giant Museum, an unexpected stop. Here we learnt all about the history of the Jolly Green Giant and found more Jolly Green Giant merchandise on display than we ever thought possible! It was such a fun place to visit.
Then it was back onto the van to continue our journey through Minnesota state towards the border of South Dakota where we’d be spending the next few days of our trip.
Watch my Trek America adventures in Wisconsin and Minnesota here:
Day 4 of our coast to coast Trek America tour and we were up early to leave our Ohio KOA cabins and begin our journey to Chicago.
Our first stop to day was just across the border of Indiana state in the Amish town of Shipshewana. I’m not exactly sure what I expected but it wasn’t what we got. Shipshewana was in many ways a typical American town like any other I’d visited. Except for the occasional horse and cart rolling down the streets and the odd person in traditional Amish dress passing by. With it’s Amish market selling handmade food and crafts and the opportunity to take a ride on the traditional horse and carts, it felt like a very touristy look at Amish life rather than getting an accurate snapshot but we enjoyed wandering around and especially enjoyed the homemade ice cream we purchased before leaving to continue our journey.
We had one more stop before arriving in Chicago, Illinois – at the childhood home of Michael Jackson in the town of Gary, Indiana. The house had become something of a shrine with fan messages and gifts covering the gates around the house.
Then it was on to Chicago where we were staying at the HI Hostel in the Loop area. It was late afternoon by the time we arrived so as we got ourselves settles into our rooms – it was a really nice hostel and us girls had our own en suite dorm! – deep dish pizza was ordered in from a nearby Gino’s East area which we ate down in the common area. Having had Gino’s deep dish fresh at the main restaurant in the past, I didn’t enjoy the take out pizza as much and many of the others in the group were unimpressed.
That evening most of us had taken up the option to take a bike tour of Chicago, something I’d not done on my previous 2 visits to the city. Short on time, we caught taxis uptown to the headquarters of Bobby’s Bikes where we were each provided with hi-vis jackets, helmets and a bike before setting off to follow our tour guide. Our first stop was on the shore of Lake Michigan but unfortunately the fog had moved in over the city obscuring any views we should have had. Then we rode uptown to see some of the huge mansions including the original Playboy mansion.
We were all a bit nervous when told we’d be riding on the main road alongside all the Chicago traffic for the next section of our tour but it was less scary than it sounded and we paused for photos down by the Chicago river before cycling back lakeside and down to Millennium Park to see the amazing Cloudgate sculpture then further south past Grant Park to the museum campus where, completely coincidentally, fireworks started going off at an event being held there just as we arrived.
Bike tour over, we walked to the Hancock Tower where the rest of the group were having drinks in the sky bar. We joined them for a drink but left shortly after as the cloud meant there was zero visibility and it was an expensive place for drinks when there was no view! Instead, we walked back to the hostel and spent the rest of the evening in the common room playing table tennis and pool.
The next day we had a full day in Chicago to do what we liked. Most of us decided to use it to try and see as much of the city as we could in a day and as I’d been before and vaguely knew my way around, I lead the way. We started at Willis Tower, formerly Sears Tower, once the tallest building in the World. The queues for the viewing platform weren’t too long so we bought tickets to go up and spent some time enjoying the views over the city.
Next, we walked back towards the lake and visited Grant Park to see Buckingham Fountain. There was a food festival going on in the park so we stopped for a few free samples as we walk through towards Millennium Park. At Millennium Park, we stopped to see Crown Fountain, also known as the ‘spitting’ fountain as digital faces each end appear to spit water out at regular intervals. Then we walked back to the Cloudgate Sculpture which we’d seen on our bike tour the previous night but is always a fun place to visit in the city as you can see yourself reflected in it!
Next up was Navy Pier where we had lunch at the huge food court before taking a boat cruise on Lake Michigan. The pier has a few fair rides so as lunch had gone down, we took a ride on the flying chairs.
From Navy Pier, we walked back alongside the Chicago River to Michigan Avenue, also known as the Miracle Mile. Similar to New York’s Fifth Avenue, this is where all the big stores are and we spent a while browsing in the shops as we went past.
Getting hungry again, some of the group decided to go to the Cheesecake Factory in the Hancock Tower for food while two of us decided to give deep dish pizza another go, this time at Gino’s East restaurant. Eating the pizza at the restaurant made a huge difference and this time, it was just as good as I had remembered!
It was evening by the time we all met up again and the sunshine had disappeared and been replaced by big, black clouds. As we walked back down Michigan Avenue, it started to pour down with rain causing us to decide to call it a day and run back to the hostel to shelter. But we’d had a fun day sightseeing in the city and managed to fit a lot in in a short time.
After breakfast at the local Dunkin’ Donuts in Buffalo, it was back on the road to drive towards the state of Ohio. Once there, we’d be visiting Cedar Point Amusement Park near Cleveland, an activity I was really looking forward too!
Stops along the way we’re kept to a minimum today as we wanted to make sure we got as much time as possible in the park. We did take a slight detour to drop the American member of our group in Cleveland itself as he wanted to visit the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame there rather than visit Cedar Point.
Our base in Ohio was Sandusky where we’d be staying at the first of many KOA sites this trip. As this was a BLT (Budget Lodging Tour) rather than camping, we were staying in cabins. We checked in and dropped our luggage off and then jumped back on the van to be taken to Cedar Point.
Cedar Point is sat right on a peninsula by Lake Erie. It has some of the biggest roller coasters in the World and as we approached it we could see the tangled, colourful structures twisting and weaving through the sky ahead of us.
Arriving just after 2pm, we qualified for a reduced entry rate. The park was open til 11pm so we still had plenty of time to spend there. Not being familiar with the site, once inside, we headed straight to the nearest coasters which we’d seen from the car park, which were great but I wish we’d looked at a map and realised just how huge the park was and how many coasters were on offer rather than spending so much time in the front area riding not just the few coasters in that area but the smaller rides like the carousel.
Once we had delved deeper into the park, we were amazed by the sheer volume of coasters on offer – huge wooden coasters, the former World’s longest coaster, the former World’s tallest coast, steepest coaster…looping coasters, racing coasters, pretty much every kind of roller coaster imaginable! Thankfully the queues weren’t too long and we got to go on most of what we wanted. Highlights were the Raptor ride where you sit hanging from the track like on Alton Tower’s Nemesis and Millennium Force, once the World’s tallest, fastest coaster.
Throughout the day we’d been eyeing up a terrifying looking coaster called Dragster, debating whether or not to ride it. The ride shoots off reaching 120mph in under 4 seconds before climbing a 90 degree incline, twisting over the top and shooting straight back down the other side. The queue for it started to die down early evening so 5 of us decided to pluck up the courage to give it a go. A few minutes into the queue, one of the cars failed to make it up and over the top, causing the coaster to close for a while so we left the queue and went elsewhere. An hour before we had to leave, we decided to join the queue again and again, the coaster broke down. We were told it would only be a short closure so deciding we didn’t have time to go elsewhere we stuck it out and this time made it to the front of the queue, extra nervous about riding after witnessing the coaster fail a couple of times! We need not have worried as our car made it up and over without problem and it was an amazing exhilarating ride, totally worth the wait!
All roller-coastered out and exhausted from traipsing around the park all afternoon, at the end of the evening, we went to meet with the rest of the group choosing unanimously to go straight back to the KOA site and sleep rather than wait for the end of night firework display. Cedar Point was one of the best amusement parks I’d ever visited and I definitely wanted to return someday.
After spending the last few days getting to know each other in New York, we were all up early on the day of departure for our tour to meet the last 2 members of the group who hadn’t managed to make it into the city to meet up and our tour guide.
Our guide seemed bemused when he started a ‘get to know each other’ game only to find out that despite us being 11 solo travellers from all over the UK (plus one American!), we already knew each other pretty well! After the usual form-filling and trip rules talk, we loaded our luggage into the trailer and jumped into our home for the next 3 weeks – our Trek America van!
Advertised in the itinerary as ‘The Finger Lakes’, today was a bit of a low key day to start the tour on but the lack of exciting attractions at least gave the group time to bond further as we journeyed through New York State.
That’s not to say there weren’t any scheduled stops today. As well as the usual fuel and snack gas station stops (which are always great fun, it’s amazing what you can find to buy at these places!!), we made prolonged stops at both a winery and a waterfall!
Arriving at Taughannock State Park, on the west shore of Cayuga Lake, we took a short hike out to Taughannock Falls. The miserable weather only added to making the waterfall look and sound more dramatic and we took our first group photo of the trip in front of the cascading water.
Next up was the Crystal Lake Cafe at the Americana Vineyards. Not being a wine drinker, the highlight of the winery for me was the adorable dog enjoying all the fuss he was obviously used to receiving in the gift shop!!
We made one more stop to take photos of one of the Finger Lakes before continuing to our overnight stop at a Super 8 in Auburn, New York State where we ate dinner at a local bar.
The next morning, those of us up early enough walked to a local diner for a delicious pancake dinner before we departed for Buffalo.
Today, we’d be visiting the American side of Niagara Falls. After a Walmart stop to get food for a picnic, we arrived at the Falls in time for lunch. Picnic over, we took a trip of Maid of the Mist, a boat that takes you up close to the falls. This was an included extra on our trip meaning we didn’t have to pay any extra. The boat trip was amazing and we were all glad for the fetching blue ponchos that’s had been handed out as we boarded as we’d have got soaked by the spray from the falls without them!
How we spent the rest of our time at the falls was up to us with some members of the group walking to nearby viewing points to take photos and one even opting to walk across the bridge to Canada just to say he’d been! A few of us decided to visit the Caves of the Wind attraction where, after getting appropriately dressed in yet another provided poncho (bright yellow this time!) and provided water sandals, both of which we got to keep after, we followed a path which lead us alongside the falls, once again soaking us in the spray! This was great fun and well worth the extra cost!!
From Niagara Falls, we continued to the city of Buffalo where we checked into our hostel for the night then it was off out to a local bar for dinner. This bar wasn’t just any bar but the Anchor Bar where Buffalo Wings were supposedly invented in the 1960s! A couple of the group opted to take on the wings challenge ordering a plate of 50 wings between them and attempting (but failing!) to eat them all!
We stayed at the bar til late before taking the short walk back to the hostel and trying to get some sleep in our sweltering room. It had been a great start to the trip and we couldn’t wait to continue our adventure!
Watch my Trek America adventures in New York state here:
After taking the plunge and joining the 3-week Southern BLT with Trek America earlier in the year, I couldn’t wait to get on the road again so within weeks of returning, I booked my second adventure with them to depart that summer.
My last adventure had been in the winter months and we’d repeatedly ran into heavy snow throughout the trip so I was hoping for some sunshine and warmth this time around! Once again, I’d be travelling coast to coast over 3 weeks but this time, East to West from New York to Los Angeles through the Northern states.
With 2 months to go til the trip departed, I once again made use of the Trek America forums, posting a message asking if anyone else was taking the same trip. After getting a couple of replies, we set up a Facebook group dedicated to our trip and posted a link on the Trek site. Within a few weeks, we had found all members of our tour and were eagerly discussing our upcoming adventure on line.
As most of the group were staying in New York for a night or so prior to the tour departing, we began to make plans together in the city for those few days with me and one of the other girls even deciding to share a hotel room there to cut costs.
So in early June, I flew to New York and made my way to our midtown hotel. My group mate turned up about an hour later and, after chatting online for the last few weeks, it was as if we’d been friends for years. After freshening up, we headed out into the city to meet with another group member and walked up towards Times Square to find dinner. We settled on Applebee’s and were joined by a forth member of our group. We spent the evening excitedly chatting and our upcoming, getting to know each other and making plans for the next day.
Our second day in the city and some of the others had plans to visit the 9/11 Museum. As I had visited already just a few months ago, I instead caught the subway across to Williamsburg in Brooklyn and took a wander around the many Sunday flea markets, even finding myself a few unexpected bargains! After walking along the East River, enjoying the views of Manhattan, I caught the subway back to downtown Manhattan to meet up with my group mates and a few new members who had now arrived in the city.
We spent the afternoon at Coney Island sat on the beach chatting and riding the famous Coney Island Wonder Wheel then that evening we all went for dinner together at a pizzeria in midtown.
The next day we were all moving to our Trek America gateway hotel in New Jersey and the rest of the group would all be arriving into the US. While some of the group would be getting in late and had opted to stay in the hotel, most of the group planned on coming into the city that afternoon and we had booked tickets to go up to the newly opened Freedom Tower observation deck.
With the morning to spare before the remainder of our new friends arrived, some of us decided to walk up to Central Park and visit the zoo. Then, it was time to go and meet up with a few more group arrivals.
Before heading downtown, we made a quick stop in Greenwich Village to go and see the ‘Friends’ apartment block. Then we caught the subway down to Battery Park, finding somewhere to have dinner nearby before our sunset trip up the Freedom Tower.
After spending some time enjoying the views, those of us who’d been staying in the city all went to retrieve our luggage before meeting back up with everyone at Penn Station to catch the train out to the gateway hotel.
After a great few days in the city and with everyone already getting on great, we were all even more excited for the weeks ahead and couldn’t wait for our Trek America adventure to get properly started!
This was it. The end. After 3 weeks travelling cross country through the southern states of America with this eclectic bunch of people who had now become friends, today we would reach our final destination of New York City and say our goodbyes. But first we had today’s journey ahead of us with a stop in Philadelphia then New Jersey for our final group meal. So after a busy couple of days sight-seeing in Washington D.C., we loaded our luggage onto the Trek van’s trailer for the very last time.
En route to Philadelphia, we passed through the state of Delaware but unfortunately didn’t stop, not even for gas, leaving me uncertain as to whether I could officially say it was a state I had visited!!
Our first stop once we reached the city was on the outskirts at 9th Street where two rival Philly Cheese steak vendors sit across the street from each other. Both restaurants are popular with locals and tourists alike with queues often reaching around the block. We were given the choice of which we got lunch from and faced with an impossible decision, all ended up following our Trek guide to Pat’s. In hindsight, we should have split up, ordered cheese steaks from both and then halved them between us so we could have tried both but I guess I’ll just have to return to try a Geno’s cheese steak another time! I went for the basic sandwich with steak and cheese whizz and it was one of the most delicious things I had ever tasted !
Once we’d all eaten, it was back of the van to head to the main historic district of the city. We parked by Independence Hall and were given a hour to look around. We all joined the short queue to see the Liberty Bell. It was a lot smaller than I expected! Then we broke off into smaller groups. We wandered around the outside of Independence Hall as unfortunately, entrance was by advance ticketing only and there were no tickets available for the current time, and then walked down to the tomb of the unknown soldier before going to a visitors centre to get some souvenirs.
At the request of one of our group, we made one more stop in Philly at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This is where the famous scene from the Rocky movie was filmed and we all did our best to run to the top of the steps in one go!
From Philadelphia, we drove towards the last state of our trip – New Jersey where we’d be stopping in Jersey City at an Italian restaurant for our last group meal, pizza, and then there was just one more stop left, at Liberty Park to view the Manhattan skyline.
Unfortunately, as for much of our trip, the weather was not on our side and we arrived to torrential rain and heavy cloud obscuring a lot of the view. After one final group photo, we boarded the Trek van one last time and headed to the gateway hotel in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Only a few of the group were staying there, most of us had booked accommodation into the city. All but one group member, who had a flight out that evening, had planned to meet up in the city that evening so, our guide let those staying in New Jersey drop their luggage then took us all to the subway station.
After saying our goodbyes and thank-yous to our guide, we all caught the subway into Manhattan, briefly separating to drop bags at our various hotels & AirBnB’s before reuniting in Times Square an hour later. Not wanting our experience to end just yet, we made plans to meet again the next morning for breakfast and spend time in the city together.
The next day, the group started to shrink as one by one, members drifted away to catch flights or just do their own thing. A few of us stuck together to do as much sightseeing as we could in day before 2 members caught a flight home that evening.
We began downtown, visiting Battery Park for a slightly clearer view of the Statue of Liberty than we had had from Liberty Park the previous day then walked half way across the Brooklyn Bridge before catching a subway uptown to window shop along 5th Avenue and go for a walk in Central Park. Lunch was at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, where the singing waitstaff just happened to sing ‘Let It Go’ which had, with the weather we’d experienced, become our Trek tour anthem! Then we ended the afternoon with a trip up to Top of the Rock before saying goodbye to those who had to get to the airport.
That evening, I went alone to watch Kinky Boots on Broadway after queuing at the Time Square TKTS booth to get discount tickets and then met up with the only group member remaining in the city to take a late night trip up the Empire State Building.
The next day we met up again at Chelsea Market and after strolling through past all the food vendors, spent some time walking the Highline, one of New York’s newest green spaces formed from reclaimed land from an old elevated railway track.
From here, we took a subway to Brooklyn to explore the galleries and bookstores of the DUMBO area, take a ride on Jane’s carousel and enjoy the impressive views of downtown Manhattan before walking back across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan then it was off to Greenwich Village where we tried some cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery on Bleecker Street.
After another trip to the theatre that evening, this time with discounted tickets to see Jersey Boys on Broadway, it was time to say goodbye to the last of my Trek companions.
It was odd returning to being a lone traveller the next day, eating breakfast by myself at the IHOP and walking around the city alone. I had a few hours to spare before heading to the airport to catch my flight that evening so I decided to join a ‘free’ walking tour of Grand Central Station and the surrounding area that had been recommended t me by a friend. The tour was really interesting and we got to see inside buildings in the area that are otherwise off-limits to the general public.
Walking tour over, I strolled back to my midtown hotel to pick up my luggage then across the road to Penn Station to catch the train to Newark airport and await my flight back to the UK. It had been an amazing 4 weeks, travelling solo for the first time and joining a group tour for the first time and I was absolutely exhausted from the experience. But I had seen some incredible places and made some great new friends and I couldn’t wait do it all again!
Watch my Trek America adventures in Philadelphia and New York here:
After a fun evening in Nashville, it was a struggle all round to get up the next day and we departed for our stop in Wytheville, Virginia later than planned. Luckily, today was a bit of a nothing day and our overnight was just a middle-of-nowhere break up the journey kind of stop. Wytheville was notable for only two things – my first ever visit to a Cracker Barrel (we were all very excited at finding somewhere with proper vegetables on the menu along with potato options other than fries!) and our guide forgetting to tell us that the clocks went forward in the US that night meaning more tired faces and even some missed alarms the next morning after unexpectedly losing an hour!
We were down to the final 2 nights of our tour now and we were disappointed to find that these would be spent in a hostel, even more disappointed when our guide told us to expect rooms similar to the Austin hostel’s large communal dorms setup. Luckily, us 4 girls ended up in a 6-bed female dorm which would have been fine except for the over-powering stench of trainers/feet belonging to one of the mystery women also in the room with us. Hostel life! Not something from this trip I’d miss!!
As usual, we’d be spending very little time at our accommodation anyway and after dropping our bags, it was straight out for a monument tour given by our Trek tour guide. I’d been to Washington DC a few years before and it’s one of my favourite US cities as there’s so much to do. We walked down to the White House and took photos outside then walked down past the Washington Monument towards the Potomac River Basin, taking photos of the Jefferson Memorial across the river as the sun started to set.
From here, we walked back and along the National Mall in the direction of the Lincoln Memorial passing other monuments such as the World War Memorial along the way. Something I remembered from my last visit was how things look nearer than they are in the city when in fact, it had been a very long walk to reach the Lincoln Memorial and was then a very long walk back! We were all very ready for our group meal at a city steak house that night.
We were up early the next morning so that we could go and queue at the Washington Monument to try and get 11 of their on-the-day tickets for the entire group to go up the Monument. We were front of the queue and got the tickets without problem, all for the same late morning timeband so with a few hours to kill, we decided to explore some of the many museums along the National Mall. Another great thing about Washington DC is that most of the attractions are completely free! So our tickets up to the observation deck of the Washington Monument hadn’t cost us a penny and it was nothing to visit any of the Smithsonian group museums!
We began at the National Museum of Air and Space, a museum I hadn’t visited on my last trip to the city. The museum was excellent with displays on space travel, the moon landing and a history of air travel and we could have easily spent a lot longer there than a couple of hours but had to leave to make our Washington Monument timeband.
I had been up the Washington Monument on my previous visit to the city but as that was the height of summer and this was the middle of winter, this time the views were quite different with the National Mall recovering from heavy snow fall over the last few days.
After spending some time taking in the views from the observation deck, the group split up to do different things. We went to get some lunch before continuing to visit the many museums on offer.
Next up was the Museum of the History of America, a museum which had been closed for refurbishment on my last visit but, being pop culture related, was one I really wanted to visit. It didn’t disappoint and we saw some really amazing things on display including one of the pairs of Ruby Slippers from the Wizard of Oz film, some of the original Muppet and Sesame Street puppets, items belonging to previous Presidents of the United States and dresses worn by the First Ladies. Highlight of the visit was seeing the first flag of the United States which we viewed from behind a big glass screen while the American National Anthem played in the background.
Taking a break from the museums lining the National Mall, next we wandered up to Ford Theatre, another place that had been closed on my last visit to DC. The theatre is famous for being the place where President Lincoln was shot and killed and after seeing into the theatre and the balcony where he had sat that night, we explored the museum beneath the theatre telling the story of events and containing artefacts including the gun that was used.
My last museum of the day was the Smithsonian Natural History Museum back down on the National Mall. While smaller than a lot of other Natural History Museums I have visited in New York, Chicago and, of course, in London, this museum was still worth a look around, the highlight being the World’s largest diamond on display!
Despite it being the last official night of our Trek America tour, the group did not eat together this evening with some of the group opting to book a fancier restaurant for the last night while the rest of us went to a local Chinese before walking back down the the National Mall. There, a few of us decided to go ice skating outside the National History Museum and we followed this with concretes at Shake Shack for dessert! Then it was back to the hostel one last time.
I left Washington the next morning feeling that we’d made the most of our free day in the city and pleased that I’d got to see lots of things I’d missed out on on my last visit but I also felt that there was still much more to see and made a mental note to return for a longer visit at some point in the future.
Watch my Trek America adventures in Washington DC here:
After an amazing couple of days in the warm sunshine of New Orleans, it was time to move on to our next roadtrip destination. We were 2 weeks into our 3 week trip now so we’re on the home stretch, our final destination of New York growing ever closer, it was hard not to begin counting down the days.
But there was still much to look forward to, starting with one of the stops on our trip I was most looking forward to – Memphis, Tennessee, where we’d be visiting Graceland, home of Rock ‘n’ Roll legend Elvis Presley! Or at least that was the plan. As regular readers of this blog will know, there’d been a lot of surprises and abandoned plans along this trip and thus wasn’t about to change now! But more of that later…
Our journey to Memphis was uneventful. We made a stop for lunch in the state of Mississippi which we were just passing through before continuing on towards the state of Tennessee. Once we reached the city of Memphis, rather than going straight to our motel, we made a stop at Sun Studios for a tour. This tour was one of the included extras on our Trek America tour, meaning that unlike with most of the activities, we didn’t have to pay separately or the activity, it was covered in the price of our trip.
I’ll be honest, I had never heard of the studios prior to booking this trip and seeing the tour listed in the activities list and I hadn’t investigated any further since booking the trip. I assumed the studio would be linked to Elvis Presley in some way but didn’t know what to expect further than this.
After waiting in the gift store/cafe entrance for our tour group to be called, we were lead by our very enthusiastic guide up some stairs to a room housing displays of pop and rock memorabilia from the birth of rock n roll.
Our guide gave us a brief history of the studios and explained that a whole host of well known artists had recorded there including Elvis Presley. After being given time to look at the displays, we descended down another set of stairs to the studio itself, set up with various musical instruments and recording equipment like it would have been in the ‘50s and ‘60s. At the end of our tour we were allowed to take a picture with a replica of the microphone used by Elvis. The tour was extremely interesting and standing in a room where so many rock legends have stood and recorded songs we now hear all the time was a magical experience. I’d definitely recommend taking the tour if you are in Memphis.
As we left the studios, the staff there told our guide there was a weather warning in place for the evening and businesses were being advised to close up early so that staff could get home before the storm came in. We left and checked into our Econo Lodge accommodation in Memphis centre. It was late evening by now but there was still no sign of the bad weather everyone was telling us about. Since we left Texas, our guide had been promising to take us to another great BBQ place once we got to Memphis so once settled into our rooms, we all met up and walked down to Beale Street for dinner.
Beale Street is known as being the Memphis equivalent of New Orlean’s Bourbon Street, a lively entertainment destination lined with bars, clubs and restaurants, but tonight, it was eerily quiet. Most of the restaurants, including the BBQ one we had hoped to visit, had closed on the advice of weather forecasters along with some of the bars. Our choices limited, we ended up at Hard Rock Cafe for dinner. We emerged to find even more bars closed. Most of us decided to walk back to our motel while those who stayed were back within half an hour after the snow did indeed start to fall and the bar they had visited decided to close early too!
The next day, we awoke to a city covered in snow – and not just a bit of snow, a blanket of snow and it was still falling. This morning we were planning on visiting Graceland, something I had been excited for all trip, but at breakfast, we were disappointed to see it listed as one of the many attractions in the city that had decided to close because of the weather.
Our guide telling us not to worry, the attractions could open later in the day and if not, we could visit Graceland before departing for Nashville tomorrow, we instead wrapped up warm and walked into town while she tried to find out what was happening and what our other options for the day were. We spent the next hour building snowmen outside the baseball stadium and having a snowball fight on Beale Street before warming ourselves up with hot drinks at Starbucks – the only place we found open – where our guide told us that Graceland had now confirmed they would be closed for the entire day. Our alternative options were few but the Museum of Rock ‘n’ Soul which was just across the road from us had just opened so most of us decided to go and take a look at that.
The museum contained memorabilia from the birth of Rock n Roll through to the present day (I was most excited to see some *nsync costumes on display!) and being in no rush, we took our time going around the displays, listening to the commentaries on our included audio guide handsets.
Meeting up with the rest of the group, some of us decided to go to the Peabody Hotel to watch the famous March of the Peabody Ducks. The Peabody Hotel is a Memphis landmark which again, has links to the city’s Rock ‘n’ Roll history and Elvis Presley who signed one of his record contracts there. Now, the hotel is home to a group of mallard ducks who live in their own duck penthouse-paradise at the top of the hotel. Each day, at 11am, a ceremony is held during which the ducks descend in an elevator, walk across a red-carpet laid down in the foyer and hop into the central fountain where stay happily swimming around, until 5pm.
At 5pm, the ducks hop back out of the fountain, march back along the red carpet and into the elevator to return back to their penthouse suite! It’s just as bizarre as it sounds and we loved the pomp and ceremony of it all with the ducks being treated like little celebrities! Definitely one of those things that needs to be seen to be believed!
After watching the Peabody Ducks, we were given the option of being driven out to a nearby mall for the afternoon or just staying in the city. Those of us who decided to stay went in search of somewhere for lunch ending up at the Rum Boogie Bar, where the service was less than amazing but I’ll put that down to it being busy with it being the only place we had found open! We then spent a while walking around in the snow before deciding to go back to the motel for a bit.
Not long after getting back, the rest of the group arrived back after finding that the mall they’d visited had also closed with the snow. Some of us decided to return to the Peabody Hotel to watch the ducks march back to their room and then we wandered up to the river just as the sun started to set.
With the snow continuing to fall, dinner that evening was at Hooters, one of the few places open and was followed by an evening spent socialising back at the motel seeing as Beale Street was closed for business.
Watch my Trek America adventures in Memphis here:
Unfortunately, the conditions had not improved the following morning and the tourist attractions including Graceland and the Civil Rights Museum remained closed. Even breakfast at a local restaurant, which we’d been promised had the best waffles, had to be cancelled when again, nowhere opened up. Disappointed, we set off for Nashville, making do with a Waffle House stop along the way. The journey took a lot longer than it should with road closures and diversions around the snow but as we neared Nashville, the snow seemed to be disappearing and we were pleased to see it had mainly disappeared in the city itself.
Our accommodation at Nashville was a hostel but it was definitely the nicest hostel of the tour and we were pleased to find ourselves in a quad room with just us 4 girls from our Trek. Having just over an hour to explore before we had to meet for dinner, there was no time to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame or any of the other activities recommended on the Trek itinerary so instead we walked along Broadway, souvenir shopping then walked up to Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge for views over the river before heading back to the hostel to get ready for our evening out.
Tonight was one of the night outs I had most been looking forward to as we were going line dancing. We had a table booked at the Wild Horse Saloon, a country music live venue and restaurant. Over the course of the evening, a variety of live country music bands played interspersed with hourly line-dancing lessons which anyone could join in. The whole group got up and had a go at the dancing. There was a lot of bumping into each other at first but we soon got into it and was a really fun evening. The BBQ style food wasn’t bad either but, like the drinks, a bit overpriced and after a while we decided to move on to some of the bars along Broadway where the drinks would be cheaper.
We walked back to the hostel at the end of the night via another walk across the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge to take photos of the Nashville skyline all lit up before spending some time in the hostel common room playing pool and just chilling out.
I’d really liked Nashville and it was shame the weather had stopped us from spending a little more time there. I definitely planned on returning there at some point in the future along with Memphis to visit all the places we’d missed out on.
Watch my Trek America adventures in Nashville here:
Since our stay in Vegas – which now felt like a long time ago – this cold snap seemed to have been following us on our trip. But despite awaking to another cold morning in Texas, as we pulled over at a rest stop just across the state line of Louisiana, we couldn’t believe the change in the weather. Gone were the freezing cold air and snow spattered roads and instead there was a balmy heat!
Tonight we’d be stopping in Lafayette, just a pit stop to break up the journey between Austin and New Orleans, and our accommodation would be at the Blue Moon Saloon, a small quirky guest house. As usual, we waited in the van as our guide went to check in and we could tell as she returned that something wasn’t quite right – they’d got the booking wrong and there weren’t quite enough rooms and beds for us all. After some jiggling about and compromise – my roommate and I offered to share a double bed with another group member taking the couch in our en-suite room, another 2 members of the group had to make do with a makeshift bed in the corridor! – we were checked in and sorted. We went for dinner at a local bar down the road and then returned to the guesthouse. After been kept awake in Lubbock by the commotion outside and our late night out in Austin, many of us just wanted an early night tonight but that wasn’t to be. A band was playing at the guesthouse that night and their stage and speakers happened to back right onto the wall of our room! The room was shaking so much from the noise that a picture fell off the wall. It was the last thing we wanted but there was nothing we could do but sit it out until the music stopped at 1am!
Exhausted from 3 nights with little sleep, we dragged ourselves up and made the 7am departure time the next day. First stop was a Waffle House for breakfast before we reached the check in point for our Louisiana Swamp Tour.
It was a rainy day and as our boat picked up speed down the river, we got drenched but this turned out to be a really fun experience. Being February, we were told it was unlikely we’d see any alligators – we did as it turned out see one baby ‘gator sat on a log! – but there was plenty of other wildlife to be spotted including birds, snakes, wild hogs and a very friendly marshmallow-loving raccoon! We also found out about the history of the swamp and heard tales about the devastating effect of Storm Katrina.
Our tour over, we continued on to New Orleans where we were absolutely delighted to find our accommodation for the next two nights would be in a beautiful 4 star hotel! Arriving more or less to schedule for the first time in days, we settled in then regrouped for our guide to give us a tour of the French Quarter.
After handing us all some New Orleans beads to wear, we wandered through the French market where some of the group sampled ‘gator meat at one of the food stands (I played it safe and stuck to a grilled cheese sandwich!), walked down to catch our first glimpse of the Mississippi River, tried what our guide told us was the best praline in the city – it really was melt-in-the-mouth delicious! – and, of course, visited a few bars including the oldest bar in the city and a few along the World famous Bourbon Street.
After our busy afternoon, we had dinner at Oceana restaurant which specialised in fish along with traditional Cajun dishes before taking a ghost tour of the area – not particularly scary but actually really interesting and great fun!
Tour over, it was back to Bourbon Street where we found ourselves in a dueling piano bar – or at least those of us over the legal drinking age did, the remaining members of the group forced to stand outside and communicate with us through an open window!
Not wanting to waste our upcoming free day in the city recovering from the night before, a few of us chose to leave Bourbon Street a little after midnight and return to our hotel rather than staying out partying to the early hours. The next morning, just the 4 of us made it to breakfast at which we made the decision to get tickets for the hop on/off tour bus as our best option to see as much as the city as possible in a relatively short time and we definitely felt we packed a lot in. The bus took us out of the French Quarter, through the CBD and into the Garden District where we hopped off to take an included walking tour of the area, taking time to look in some of the local boutique stores and grab a delicious doughnut at the local District cafe while we waited for the tour to start.
The Garden District was a complete contrast to the French District of the city with its huge mansions along the tree lined streets. Our guide pointed out some of the celebrity homes in the area as well as discussing the area’s history and briefly taking us into its Lafayette Cemetery. We then hopped onto the next tour bus to continue our tour, eventually returning to the French Quarter.
For lunch, we decided to try some more of the local cuisine and opted for a cute but touristy cafe in the centre of the French Quarter where a live jazz band was keeping the patrons entertained. We had a leisurely lunch of Po’ Boy sandwiches, the braver of us sampling the ‘gator filling while I again stuck with cheese, enjoying the warm sunshine and the music playing before wandering through the streets of the French Quarter visiting some of the many art galleries we passed.
Before heading back to the hotel to get ready for our evening out, we had one more ‘must do’ item to tick off our list – trying some beignets from Cafe du Monde. Beignets are sugary pastries, similar to doughnuts, sold at many cafes in the French Quarter but Cafe du Monde is the most famous place to get them from and they’re supposed to have the best beignets in the city. Customers often queue around the block in the morning to get their beignets and coffee but being late afternoon, the queue was only short so we bought a bag of the pastries to share between us. The sugary treats were indeed delicious but after all the food we had already consumed that day, we struggled to finish them and took some back to the hotel with us to share with the rest of the group.
This evening, the whole group would be taking a dinner cruise on a steamboat along the Mississippi River. We walked up towards the river, all sharing stories of our day – some of the group hadn’t seen any more of New Orleans than the hotel’s laundry room, others had ventured out into the city to explore a bit like us. Once we arrived at the river, we waited as our guide went to pick up our tickets and watched as the steamboat played a tune on it’s steam pipe organ before boarding and taking our table in the restaurant. The food, served buffet style, was better than I had expected it to be – being a fussy eater, I was worried I wouldn’t find anything to my tastes but it was standard fare with enough options to keep everyone happy. After dinner, we were free to wander around the boat as we pleased. The New Orleans’ skyline isn’t the prettiest so there wasn’t much in the way of views and, being February, it had already gone dark with a bit of a chill in the air so we mainly chose to stay indoors. A jazz band played on one of the decks and we sat and listened for a while and it was also possible to go down to the boat’s engine room to take a look.
After the cruise, some of the group decided to head back to the bars on Bourbon Street and the rest of us decided to take a look at the other main ‘entertainment’ street in the city, Frenchman Street. A bit more laid back than the partying atmosphere of Bourbon, Frenchman Street offered a series of live music venue and we settled on a small bar where a jazz band played indiscreetly in corner allowing us to chat over drinks while still listening to the music and soaking up the atmosphere.
After another late night, we strolled back to our hotel, making the most of having a nice hotel room for the last time for a while and getting a few hours sleep before our early start. We’d all enjoyed our time in New Orleans and I definitely hoped to return and explore more in the future but for now, it was time for our adventure to continue elsewhere!
Watch my Trek America adventures in New Orleans here: