Northern BLT Days 12-14: Jackson, Wyoming

The view after leaving Yellowstone National Park
Hiking at Grand Teton National Park

After an incredible few days, we were all feeling a bit down as we drove out of the south entrance of Yellowstone National Park but this didn’t last long as we were suddenly met with stunning views of snow-capped mountains ahead of us. Pulling over so we could take photos of the beautiful view, we were told that these were the Grand Tetons and our next stop that day would be at the often over-looked Grand Teton National Park. Most of us had no idea that this was even on the itinerary and were excited at the prospect of visiting another National Park straight after Yellowstone.

Views while hiking at Grand Teton National Park

We arrived at Jenny Lake Visitor Centre mid-afternoon and after looking around, grabbing some souvenirs and trying some of the local huckleberry products, we embarked on a lakeside hike to Hidden Falls. The easy trail provided us with more stunning views of the Grand Tetons and of the lake itself and we even spotted a few deer along the way. Rather than hiking the entire perimeter of the lake, once we reached Hidden Falls, we took the park’s shuttle boat across the lake back to the visitor centre.

Dinner in Jackson, Wyoming

Unfortunately that was all we had time for at the park but I made a mental note to return and explore more at some point in the future. From the park, we drove south to the town of Jackson, Wyoming. As we drove through we were all quite excited to see some well-known branded cafes and stores such as Starbucks as we’d been out in the middle of nowhere a lot since Chicago! We didn’t stop but continued on to our KOA site a few miles out of the town centre to check in, freshen up and have a bit of downtime.

The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar

It was Saturday night and this evening we were going to be dropped back in to the town on Jackson for dinner and a night out at the famous Million Dollar Cowboy Bar – something many of us girls were particularly excited about! Once back in Jackson, some of the group decided to eat at a nice steak house just off the main square while the rest of us chose the cheaper option of a small diner further down the high street and we arranged to meet after inside the cowboy bar.

After dinner, we entered the bar to find the bar stools were saddle seats! We all took turns to sit on them for a photo opportunity before ordering our drinks and finding a table. We spent the rest of the evening enjoying the live country music band which was playing and watching the two-stepping taking place on the dancefloor while trying (and failing!) to attract the attention of some of the younger local cowboys!

The next morning, most of the group had booked to go white water rafting along the nearby Snake River. This was something I was actually quite nervous about but had no reason to be as it was one of the most fun things I did all trip! With 8 of us in the raft and an experienced guide steering at the back, we navigated our way through the rapids, all managing to stay firmly in the boat – until we reached a still water area and were invited to jump in for a swim in order to earn a wristband!

Rafting along Snake River

Being a water lover, I was first in before the guide had even finished talking. The water was freezing and I was clambering back on board within seconds or at least attempting to, as climbing back onto the raft was a lot easier said than done! Once we were all back on board, we continued to ride the remaining rapids until we reached the exit point where a shuttle met us to take us back to our KOA.

Jackson Square

Soaking wet and exhausted from the effort, we quickly made use of the KOA showers and changed before heading back into Jackson for the afternoon to meet back up with the remaining group members and tell the about all the fun they had missed!

The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the town, visiting countless souvenir shops and cowboy apparel stores and eating ice cream sat out in Jackson Square before dinner at a local brewery then returning to the KOA for an evening sat around the campfire talking and drinking.

Some of us were up bright and early the next day to go horse riding at the OK Corral Stables just across the road from the KOA site. I hadn’t been on a horse since I was a child but the guided trails are set up for beginners to enjoy and once we had been assigned our horses and climbed on we were lead along the road to a trail leading up into the mountains. This was such a fun activity and once we had made it to the top of the trail, the views over Wyoming were absolutely beautiful making the early start to the day more than worth it. Once back at the stables, we said goodbye and thank-you to our horses and returned across the road to our KOA to meet back with the rest of the group, load our things onto the trailer and jump back on the van to say goodbye to the beautiful state of Wyoming as we began our journey to our next destination.

Northern BLT Day 9-10: Cody, Wyoming

Devil’s Tower seen from our KOA park

Having seen Devil’s Tower looming in the distance from our KOA overnight stop, we set off after breakfast on site (during which we were told ordering tea with milk was the ‘funniest thing’ our waitress had ever heard!) to visit it close up. Though not technically on our tour itinerary, our guide told us it was silly not to go there when it was right next door to the site.

Devil’s Tower is a National Monument, a huge rock sacred to Native Americans, sat just across the Wyoming border as you enter from South Dakota. After arriving we were pointed in the direction of the trail head of the circular walk around the rock and after a visit to the Visitor’s Center and gift shop, set off to hike the perimeter.

The hike took longer than expected purely because we repeatedly stopped to gawp at the huge rock and to take photos of the amazing views across South Dakota and Wyoming along the way. Definitely a worthwhile deviation from the tour schedule!!

Next stop was just outside of the Devil’s Tower park at a roadside prairie dog ‘village’. Here, we spent many minutes watching and giggling as the burrowing rodents scuttled around and popped in and out of the many holes they had dug connecting the vast network of tunnels they live in below. They caused much amusement and we could probably have stayed watching them for hours but after taking so long on our hike, we were already way behind schedule and eventually were made to get back on the bus!

We spent the rest of the day playing catch up so we could make it to our overnight KOA site in Cody in time to attend the rodeo that evening. The drive through Wyoming was beautiful and we stopped a few times to stretch our legs and admire the views along the way.

At the rodeo

We eventually made it to Cody a lot later than planned, missing the free shuttle bus put on by the KOA to take us to the rodeo meaning our Trek guide would have to take us! After dropping our luggage in the cabins and quickly freshening up, it was back onto our tour bus to head to the rodeo.

It was a great atmosphere at the rodeo and some of the horse riding was really impressive but I’m not sure how I felt about seeing some of the animals chased around and lassoed purely for entertainment purposes, often feeling sorry for them. It was certainly an interesting experience though and the food truck snacks were delicious and definitely a highpoint!!

After a night at our Cody KOA, we began the short journey to Yellowstone National Park stopping first in Cody town at Old Trail Town, an outdoor Wild West museum which was an included extra on our tour. The museum houses a collection of historic buildings and artefacts from Cody’s Wild West days and it was fun to wander around and peer inside the old buildings.

We left Old Trail Town to continue on to Yellowstone National Park, a part of the tour that the whole group was excited for!

Northern BLT Day 7-8: South Dakota

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.

Northern BLT Day 6-7: Wisconsin and Minnesota

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.

Walking along Braodway at The Dells

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.

Minnesota

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.

Popcorn!

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.

Northern BLT Day 4-5: Chicago

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.

Horse and cart on the streets of Shipshewana
Exploring Shipshewana

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.

Shipshewana, Indiana

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.

At Bobby’s Bike Hire in Chicago

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.

The Cloudgate sculpture in Millennium Park

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.

Fireworks at the end of our tour

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.

Chicago River
Willis Tower

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.

Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park

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.

Ride on Navy Pier

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.

Beach on Lake Michigan
Gino’s East

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.

Southern BLT Day 21: The End of the Road

Philadelphia and New York City

My first Trek America Experience Part 8

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!

Going It Alone My first solo travel adventure Southern BLT Day 1-4

Southern BLT Day 5-7 Southern BLT Day 8-10 Southern BLT Day 10-12

Southern BLT Day 12-14 Southern BLT Day 15-17 Southern BLT Day 18-20

Southern BLT 18 -20: 2 days in Washington D.C.

My first Trek America Experience Part 7

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!

On the road again

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!!

National Monument, Washington DC
The Washington Monument

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.

Sunset in Washington DC
The sun setting over a frozen Potomac and the Jefferson Memorial

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.

The National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC

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.

The Museum of the History of America

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.

The Ruby Slipper on display at the Museum of the History of America, Washington DC
A pair of the ruby slippers

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.

The gun that shot Abraham Lincoln

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.

A diamond at the Natural History Museum

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.

Ice rink at the Natural History Museum

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.

Going It Alone My first solo travel adventure

Day 1-4: LA, San Diego and Vegas

Day 5-7: Grand Canyon and Monument Valley

Day 8-10: New Mexico Day 10-12: Texas

Day 12-14: New Orleans Day 15-17: Memphis and Nashville

Southern BLT Day 15-17: Memphis and Nashville

Exploring the Deep South

My first Trek America Experience

Sun Studio, Memphis
Sun Studios in Memphis

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…

Sun Studio, Memphis

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.

Sun Studio, Memphis
Entering the Studio Tour

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.

Beale Street, Memphis
Beale Street, 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.

The Peabody Hotel foyer, Memphis
At the Peabody Hotel

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!

Back at the Peabody Hotel waiting for the ducks to leave the fountain

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.

The Peabody Ducks
Celebrity ducks posing for photos on the red carpet

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.

Entrance to our Nashville Hostel
The Batman Building, Nashville
The ‘Batman’ building in Nashville

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.

On Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge

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.

Concentrating in a line-dancing lesson

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.

Nashville at night
City view from the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge

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.

Going It Alone

My first solo travel experience

My first small group tour travel experience Part 1

My first small group tour travel experience Part 2

My first Trek America Experience Part 3

My first Trek America Experience Part 4

My first Trek America Experience Part 5

Southern BLT Day 12-14: 36 hours in New Orleans

My first Trek America adventure – Part 5

Entering the Deep South

Our Layfayette accommodation

Snow and freezing cold weather.

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!

Band playing at our guesthouse

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!

At the Waffle House

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.

A nice hotel at last!!

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!

Bourbon Street

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!

A delicious doughnut from District

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.

Po’ Boy lunch

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.

Jackson Square

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.

Out on Frenchman Street

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!

Going It Alone

My first solo travel experience

My first small group tour travel experience Part 1

My first small group tour travel experience Part 2

My first Trek America Experience Part 3

My first Trek America Experience Part 4

Southern BLT Day 10 -12: Travelling through Texas state

My first Trek America Experience Part 4

Lubbock and Austin

Texas is a huge state which I often forget I’ve even been to despite spending a few days of our trip travelling through it. After our entry to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico was delayed, we continued to make slow progress to the night’s stop in the Texas city of Lubbock, finally arriving to a snow covered car park in the dark.

Our first impressions of Texas didn’t get off to the best start when the motel was less than ideal – our room had seen better days to say the least. Walls were cracked with small holes in the bathroom making us uneasy, food was visibly crumbled into the carpet and, despite it being a non-smoking room, the air was thick with smoke. We didn’t have long to dwell on it as we had 5 minutes to drop our bags and cases before meeting back at the van to go for dinner before everywhere closed but we mentioned it to our tour guide on the way out.

Dinner in Lubbock

Dinner was at a lovely Italian diner a short drive away and when we returned to the motel, our guide came into reception with us to complain about our room. The receptionist seemed annoyed and offered us a bottle of air freshener. When we pointed out this only (partly) dealt with one of the issues, she begrudgingly gave us a different room. This one was slightly better and we decided we could manage for one night but just after we settled to bed, we were disturbed by an almighty argument going on seemingly directly outside our room which ended in sirens and flashing lights appearing in the car park! We were more than a little relieved to leave Lubbock the next day!

Our Brunch stop

Today was my birthday! More snow had fallen overnight and not long into our journey, we hit a roadblock due to an accident caused by the snow and were forced to take a long diversion. With lunch time approaching, our guide looked for somewhere to stop only to find most places closed due to the bad weather! We eventually found ourselves in the town of Abilene where the Flippin’ Egg diner was open and the staff were more than a little excited to have international visitors! After a delicious pancake brunch, and a visit to the British Shoppe a few doors down to stock up on some Dairy Milk chocolate, we were back on the snow-covered road to Austin, Texas.

Again, with the weather causing us to arrive later than we’d hoped, there was little time for sightseeing. Instead, we went straight to our out-of-town hostel and checked in. We were more than a little dismayed to find ourselves in a huge communal co-ed dorm of 20 but we’d not be spending a lot of time here. We had half an hour to get ready before we’d be heading out to dinner followed by a night out in the city.

Dinner was at the Salt Lick BBQ restaurant, a place that our guide had been raving about since the trip started and it certainly didn’t disappoint. After, we were driven into central Austin where we headed straight to the bars on 6th Street where we stayed until 2am.

Visiting South Congress Avenue

Before leaving Austin the next day, we stopped at South Congress Street and walked around some of the quirky stores. We then continued our dive through Texas with one last stop in the state, Buc-ee’s, the biggest truck stop I have ever seen. Souvenirs, snacks and even lunch all bought, it was time to say goodbye to Texas and hello to the next state on our trip, Louisiana.

Going It Alone

My first solo travel adventure

Hollywood, San Diego & Las Vegas – My first Small Group Tour Travel Experience Part 1

Grand Canyon and Utah – My first Trek America Experience Part 2

New Mexico – My first Trek America Experience Part 3