Is this thing still on….?

It’s been 2 years since my big adventure, and although I’ve had some great trips since then, I’ve been pretty lax at writing about them. So, I thought it was about time I fired this thing up again.

Not a long adventure this time though (sadly), but I’ve had a few shorter adventures in the meantime which I might catch up in blog posts if I get round to it.

So, where am I? Right now I am in a cottage on the coast in Keiss, just outside Wick in Highland, Scotland. A 650+ mile drive from Cardiff. Just spent a week here with my parents, brother and sister in law, and their doggies.

One of our party (not me) picked the cottage we’re staying in on the basis that it had a pool table. It’s actually in a lovely location, overlooking Keiss Beach, about 10 minutes north of Wick, and 15 minutes from John O’Groats.

We have been so fortunate with the weather this week. I do remember saying when we were trying to arrange a time to come that we might as well come in May as the weather can be alright, but even if it isn’t, you’re kinda not expecting it like you might in July or August so we can’t be disappointed.

I started out on Friday last week from Cardiff, not quite as early as I’d hoped as I’d had to go into the office. But nevertheless, an ok journey from Cardiff to my folks’ in east Lancashire. An early start on Saturday morning (pre 7am at the petrol station as my car drinks fuel), and we were on our way north. First stop 3 hours later just outside of Glasgow, and then onwards beyond the motorways and onto the A roads. We stopped for lunch in Aviemore, in the Cairngorms before carrying on past Inverness and on the A9 coast road up to Wick and beyond. A long old drive from Cardiff (why didn’t I fly?!) but to a beautiful location.

Aside from some inclement weather on Sunday (where I spent the day recovering from my near 700 mile drive), we were blessed with beautiful weather. On Monday we went to John O’Groats, the Castle of Mey (the Queen Mother’s residence) and Dunnet Head, the most northerly part of mainland Great Britain).

On Tuesday we all took a day trip to Orkney. Mum, dad and I took an organised coach trip around the mainland, whilst the bro and sis in law and the dogs drove themselves around. We went to Kirkwall, the main town in Orkney, and also went to Skara Brae, a Neolithic settlement roughly 5000 years old, and also the Ring of Brodgar (which sounds like of something out of LOTR), and the Italian Chapel.

It was a good trip showing us the highlights for Orkney (http://www.jogferry.co.uk/getdoc/cc44c9ff-c84b-444c-972f-bbbb9a2ff7ec/Maxi.aspx), though we could have done with slightly longer in Skara Brae.

We had a quiet day on Wednesday, just popping into Wick to have a look around. Quite a dour town, though the harbour area looks like it is being regenerated. I don’t think I could live up here, it’s a long way from a major conurbation, whilst I don’t suppose it gets very cold, it does get extremely windy, and that would get old pretty quickly I think.

On Thursday we drove along the north coast (part of the North Coast 500) to Durness, and then came back via the inland route through Lairg. Lots of stunningly beautiful scenery:

We were so lucky with the weather. It’s so beautiful up here. Honestly I’d never need to leave the UK if you could guarantee this weather!

Friday (today) has been another quiet-ish day. I went for a run this morning (got to at least attempt some fitness!), and then this afternoon we went to Noss Head and Girnigoe Castle, a ruin on the coast across the bay from where we are staying. Some striking rock formations here, and long-term readers will recall my love of geography/geology stuff.

It’s been a lovely week, and we have been blessed with beautiful spring weather. I’d definitely recommend the long journey up here, though if you live below the midlands, you should fly to Inverness and hire a car! Gearing up for the long journey south tomorrow….less than 6 weeks until my next trip.

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One last post…for now

Today marks the final day of my 6 month sabbatical from work, so I thought I’d round things off with one last blog post. The last 6 months has flown by, and yet, at times, Hong Kong and Australia seem like a lifetime since. 

A lot has happened since mum took me to Swindon station on 29th December. I’ve taken 11 flights, flown approximately 32,000 miles, been driven roughly 17,000 miles (and sometimes it was a bit rough!), taken about 5,000 photos, met so many amazing people and seen so many amazing things (yes, I’ve used ‘amazing’ twice). I’ve made friends and memories to last a lifetime. And now I’m back home and about to go back to work. The last 6 months has definitely given me a different outlook on life. I am determined to have a better work/life balance (before I went away it was just work, and for the last 6 months it has just been life), and I am also going to make more of an effort to see more of the country I actually live in. Basically just to have a bit more fun.

To round things off, here is a list of the things I have learnt/discovered over the last 6 months, some of it serious, some of it less so…:

1. Free wifi is a godsend. It was distinctly lacking in hostels in Australia and New Zealand. You do, however, get good at finding places which have free wifi, including Starbucks, Macca’s (McDonalds), libraries, banks, some towns and cities also have free wifi so it’s always worth switching your wifi on just to see.

2. Treating yourself to clean pajamas…lush!

3. The freedom of not wearing any make up

4. An eye mask and ear plugs are vital.

5. Umbrellas are not waterproof in a tropical rainstorm.

6. Neither are my ‘waterproof’ walking boots.

7. Drinking every day is not good for you. Aside from 3 weeks around Easter, I pretty much had a drink every day.

8. Power banks/battery packs are amazing. Massive thanks to work for getting me one as a going-away gift!

9. Don’t take any white clothes when you go backpacking, they’ll never be white again.

10. Hostels that provide towels are a godsend, and are very limited. I managed to lose my travel towel in San Luis Obispo, and I wasn’t that disappointed to say goodbye to it.

11. Dominos do $5 pizzas in Australia and New Zealand. That’s £2.50!!! (Or it was before the pound crashed).

12. If you listen to enough Justin Bieber, you’ll eventually like a couple of his songs.

13. Travelling on your own is liberating. You get the confidence to go to a restaurant on your own, go to the cinema on your own, drink a bottle of wine in a hostel on your own. And if you don’t want to be alone, there are always other people around who want to hang out.

14. Reading is good and I should do it more at home.

15. You will learn pretty soon to chuck all your clothes in the same wash, irrespective of colour. They’ll all emerge from it just fine.

16. Compression bags for packing are amazing – that and a battery pack were the best things I took with me.

17. McDonalds in the UK really need to start doing frozen cokes.

18. Don’t stop travelling!! There’s a big, wide world out there to explore and I very much intend to carry on exploring!

This is the end of one great adventure, but there will be more to come 😀👍✈️☀️🏝🌇🌅🏞⛰🌏🌎🌍👋

Back to New York

On our way out of Nashville we went to the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, TN. They do free tours which last just over an hour. 


After that we had a long, long drive to Wytheville, Virginia. It was probably the most scenic drive in the south. It was very lush and green and we saw mountains for the first time in weeks – the Great Smoky Mountains.

We got there fairly late, and went for a Chinese before collapsing into bed.

The next day we headed to Washington DC. First off we stopped off at Foam Henge, a replica of Stonehenge built entirely from styrofoam (like you do…)


Maybe I should go to the real one when I get home to compare!

We stopped off at Arlington Cemetery on the way. We saw the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was an immaculately observed ritual, and I was really glad I got to see it.

After that we headed into Washington DC. In the evening some of us walked around DC and went to the White House:


The Washington Monument:


The Reflecting Pool:


And the Lincoln Memorial:


We went for dinner and then walked back past the White House when it was lit up:


The next day I went for breakfast with one of the girls to Old Ebbitt’s Grill which had been recommended by one of the guys on the first part of the US trip – I had pancakes which were really good. We then headed to the Washington Monument to get a final selection of National Park stamps:


After that I went to the National Archives to see the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.

I also walked passed Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was shot.


I went to the Smithsonian American Art Museum specifically to look at Thomas Moran’s paintings of Yellowstone which are  very impressive.


After that it was time to find a pub to watch the footy. Met up with some of the guys from the camping group to cheer on both England and Wales. At least we got out of the group this time!

In the evening we all went for dinner and then went to the Jefferson Memorial to watch the sunset. The sky was amazing.


The next day was the last day of my 6 week Trek America trip. We had a delayed start as there was a problem with the van but we eventually got going and went to Philadelphia. I had a Philly Cheesesteak for lunch and then we went to see Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and we ran up the ‘Rocky Steps’.


And then it was back to Newark…where it all began 6 weeks since. We have done and seen an insane amount of things in the last 6 weeks. I have had such a great time, and have made memories that will last the rest of my life.

Once back at Newark, the rest of my group headed into Manhattan to see as much of the city as possible before most of them flew home the following day. As I was staying a couple of days in Manhattan anyway, I decided to stay in Newark and hung out with the camping group for the evening.

The next day I headed to my hotel in Manhattan. I’m staying on 27th Street this time, kinda in Chelsea. Went for a wander around Chelsea Market while I waited for my room to be ready, and then I went to see a taping of Late Night With Seth Meyers in the evening (another talk show ticked off the list…). I had tried to get Jimmy Fallon tickets but they are impossible. It was a lot of fun. After that I came back to my hotel and crashed out. I do have a cool view from my hotel window though:


Today I went on a shopping spree as I have money left and it’s burning a hole in my pocket. Aeropostale in Times Square is closing down and they have a massive sale on so I may or may not have bought some stuff from there…

My bags are packed and I head home tomorrow. Can’t quite believe where the last 6 months has gone…

Music, music, music (and some gators)

New Orleans. The place I was most looking forward to on the southern part of the trip.

It was only a couple of hours’ drive from Lafayette so we arrived at the hotel in the early afternoon. Very nice hotel on Canal Street on the edge of the French Quarter. After grabbing some late lunch in a shopping mall, some of us went on the Honey Island Swamp tour, about 40 minutes outside of New Orleans. 

We saw alligators pretty much straight away. They come right up close to the boat, and I have to say they were pretty terrifying.


The ‘swamp’ itself reminded me of the Noosa Everglades in Australia.


After that we headed back to the hotel to get ready for a big night out on Bourbon Street. First up though we went for dinner. New Orleans (which I’m going to call Nola from here on) has loads of great food with creole and Cajun influences. I had a sampler which included 3 of the dishes that Nola is famous for – jambalaya, crawfish etouffee and gumbo.


The gumbo (bottom left) was my least favourite.

After dinner we hit Bourbon Street. Every bar has live music playing. We hit a few of them over the course of the evening, and I managed to spend a lot of money on drinks. Not a cheap place to go drinking at all!!

It was a pretty late night so the next day was something of a delayed start…eventually I got going and walked down Canal Street to the river. It was extremely humid while we were there and it was pretty hot work walking around. I walked along the river front to the French Market, where I spent a while looking at the stalls and listening to the jazz that was being played in the cafes and on the street.


There was a massive thunderstorm whilst I was in the French Market so I took the opportunity to shelter and have some lunch (gator bites) while listening to some jazz. A pretty nice way to enjoy lunch!

The thunderstorm didn’t really pass so I braved the weather to walk towards Jackson Square and the Cathedral.


I walked through the French Quarter, which has some amazing architecture:


I also went to the Museum of Death which was fairly grim to be honest!

We had a quieter evening on the second evening. We went for dinner with the camping group and then some of us went to Preservation Hall for a jazz concert. They do hourly shows in the evening, and it was amazing, authentic jazz. No mikes, no amps, just a bunch of guys with their voices and instruments. A lady we met at the hostel in Austin recommended it to us and it was well worth it.

The next day was a mammoth driving day to Memphis – around 400 miles. The highlight of which was the lunchtime stop at Whole Foods! I was in my element. It was so nice to get some healthy food after eating a serious amount of fried food in the south. Serious diet required in July to fit into a bridesmaid’s dress!!

We arrived in Memphis in the late afternoon to find the humidity even worse than Nola. It was actually quite hard to breathe when you first step into it, and it was extremely hard work to walk for more than 10 minutes.

We went to Blues City Cafe for dinner where I had BBQ ribs which just fell off the bone – possibly the best ribs I’ve ever had.

We sampled some more live music on Beale Street.


The next day was a jam-packed day. It started bright and early with the England v Wales football match – I did note that all my Welsh friends were suspiciously quiet on Facebook after that 😜. We then headed off for a tour of the Sun Studio, where Elvis (among a host of others) was discovered:


It was inspiring to be in a place were so many of music’s greats were discovered.

We then went to Graceland. I’m not a huge Elvis fan but I felt that I couldn’t come to Memphis and not see it. I enjoyed it more than I expected. It’s actually quite understated, and the self guided tour is really good. I hadn’t realised he was buried there either so it made for a poignant end of the tour.


Then we headed back to downtown and some of us went to Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken place for lunch. The humidity by this point was unbearable and we were all grateful to be inside for a while. The short walk from there to the National Civil Rights Museum in the Lorraine Motel (the place where Martin Luther King was assassinated) was hot and sticky. The museum itself was excellent and contained a lot of information on civil rights in America. It is difficult to believe that this is recent history.


We rounded the day off by heading to the Peabody Hotel to watch the daily duck parade. These ducks come out of their rooms at 11am, come down the lift into the lobby and spend all day in the fountains in the lobby. And then at 5pm they walk back along the red carpet to the lift and go back to their rooms. Probably the weirdest thing I’ve seen in the states and I’ve been to Wall Drug.

The humidity really dehydrated me and I felt unwell in the evening so I stayed in the air-conditioned room in the evening while the others went for dinner.

The next day was onto the final stop on our live music tour – country music capital, Nashville!!

On the way into Nashville we stopped off at a lookout for a view of the city skyline.


We also stopped off at the Parthenon – an exact replica of the one in Greece. Don’t really know why it’s here, maybe I now need to go to Greece to see the real thing and compare!


We arrived at the hostel in Nashville by mid afternoon. It was thankfully not as humid here as it had been for the past few days and I think we were all grateful for that. I went to the Country Music Hall of Fame, which had loads of information in it. I also went to the Johnny Cash Museum which was really good.

In the evening we went to the Wild Horse Saloon for dinner and line dancing. I came to Nashville on my previous Trek America trip in 2006 and pretty much the only thing I remember clearly from that trip was coming to this bar to do some line dancing. Still lots of fun!!


We also went to the Honky Tonk Central Bar and a couple of other places. Again, everywhere had live music, mainly country this time, and as it was Friday night it was very busy. Nashville seems very popular with hen do’s and we saw lots of them whilst we were there.

We saw lots of live music over these 5 days, and while most of it isn’t music I’d generally listen to, I really enjoyed seeing so much live music.

New Mexico to New Orleans

The following day we went to the 4 Corners, which is where Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico meet. 4 states ticked off at once!

We then headed into New Mexico and onto Santa Fe. Santa Fe has a lot of Spanish influence in its architecture, and all buildings are one of several shades of brown.

We had a drink at a rooftop bar and then went to a Mexican restaurant. A few of us went out in search of live music but failed miserably and ended up in a dive bar playing heavy metal.

The next day we headed towards Carlsbad Caverns. We stopped in Roswell for lunch and I went to the International UFO Museum – biggest load of rubbish I’ve ever read! 

We were staying in the town of Carlsbad, and spent the afternoon chilling out before heading to the caverns themselves the following morning.

We walked down into the cave through its natural entrance, it took about 45 minutes to reach The Big Room, and then the walk around the main part of the caves was another 40 minutes. There are some really enormous stalagmites and stalactites in there. I really enjoyed the caves, yet again appealing to my geologic/geographic side.

It was then on into Texas. I was surprised by how green Texas was. There were times when it felt like I was either at home or in New Zealand. We spent the night in San Angelo, another place with not a lot happening at night despite it being a Friday. We did find a better level of live music than Santa Fe though.

The next day we headed to Austin. Bit of an incident on the way when we got pulled over by the police for speeding in a construction zone…I was sat in the front seat and did not massively appreciate the cop coming to my side of the vehicle. Would take running out of fuel over this any day of the week!

We arrived in Austin mid-afternoon. It was hot and sticky. I walked to the State Capitol building to meet Daniy, my roommate in Peru, who lives in Austin. We walked around the Capitol building then headed to South Congress where there are loads of bars, cafes, antique stores and other cool independent shops. We had some food here and walked around the shops for a bit.

We then headed to the Congress Bridge where, every night at dusk, all the bats that live in the bridge during the day come out to go hunting. It was slightly underwhelming to be honest. The bats are tiny, and it was quite dark by the time they came out so it was hard to see.

We then drove to a spot where you got a great view of the city skyline, and then headed to Rainey Street for some live music. So much better than Santa Fe and San Angelo!

It was great to see Daniy again. One of the best things about travelling is meeting people from all over the world who you can then go and visit on future trips!

The next day we had a late-morning departure to Lafayette. We drove through an almighty thunderstorm for about 8 hours and arrived in Lafayette around 9pm. Went to a proper all-American diner for food, and then went to bed as the next day was onto the thing I was most looking forward to in the south – New Orleans!!

The Grand Canyon and Monument Valley

We left Vegas the next morning and headed towards the Grand Canyon. We drove right by the Hoover Dam but did not stop to see it – a missed opportunity. We carried on towards Seligman for lunch. Seligman is on the historic Route 66 which meant a good photo opportunity:

We stopped at the Snowcap diner in Seligman for lunch – obviously a favoured location on Trek trips as there was a wall covered in old photos of Trek leaders. Good fun spotting pictures of those we know!

After lunch it was onwards to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. When we got there, Mike had us put blindfolds on so that we would get ‘the big reveal’. It did not disappoint:

After a quick stop for photos we then headed to the airport for a scenic helicopter flight. It was awesome, especially the first view of the canyon. You fly really low over the trees and then suddenly the Grand Canyon is disappearing right in front of you!

We grabbed takeaway pizza for dinner and headed back to the Grand Canyon to watch sunset. Absolutely spectacular:


The next day was a free day to explore the park. After JD had gone on so much about Junior Ranger in the northern part of this trip, I decided to jump on the bandwagon. They’re aimed mainly at (big) kids and so there is an activity book to complete. You get a cool pin badge too.


 I spent the day walking around and using the shuttle bus to get between the various look-out points on the south rim.

The next day we headed towards Monument Valley, making a couple of stops along the way at Colorado River Gorge:


And the ‘elephant’s feet’:


We also stopped off at the ‘Forrest Gump Road’ – awesome photo op:


Then we headed to the visitor centre which has some great views:


In the evening we went on a jeep tour with the Navajo through the valley before enjoying some Navajo tacos and traditional song and dance.



I really enjoyed these few days looking at iconic scenery. The views were mind-blowing and definitely lived up to expectations.

San Diego and Las Vegas

The next morning we met with the 4 new people who would be joining myself, Kath, Liv and Sarah for the southern half of the tour back to New York. The newbies are all girls – there is a lack of men on this part of the trip which makes for a different group dynamic.

We headed to Beverly Hills, and then onto Hollywood to check out Grauman’s Chinese Theater:

  
And the handprints and footprints:

  
We also walked along the walk of fame, and tried to make out the Hollywood sign but it was a little misty.

  
Then it was time to head out of LA and onto San Diego. I can’t say I was sorry to leave LA. It’s an enormous city that is very difficult to get around, there are lots of dirty-looking areas, and there was no sign of the typical Californian sunshine.

San Diego is only a couple of hours south of LA so we arrived in time for lunch. We went to a great Hawaiian cafe called Leilani’s, which was really nice.

Then we headed to Belmont Park and some of the group went on the rollercoaster there. Not being a fan of rollercoasters, I kept my feet firmly on the ground.

After that it was mid afternoon and time to head to the hostel in the Gaslamp Quarter. I really liked this area, lots of bars, cafes and restaurants, and a good vibe.

After we had eaten we went on a pub crawl organised by the hostel. The first stop was at the Shout House Rock and Roll Duelling Pianos bar. It was awesome. 2 guys, 2 pianos, taking requests from the audience. Everything from Miley Cyrus to Meat Loaf.

We then went to a karaoke bar that also had a bucking bronco….different, but fun to watch (you should know enough about me by now to know that I wouldn’t do either karaoke or get on a bucking bronco!).

We went to a third bar after that but I headed to bed soon after.

The next day was a free day in San Diego. Mike drove us to the Zoo in Balboa Park. Most of the group went to the zoo but I decided to go to the Air and Space Museum instead. Balboa Park has around 15 different museums so plenty to choose from.

As I walked to the museum, I passed a large line of smartly dressed people waiting to go into a building, and a number of TV trucks setting up on the road. Wasn’t sure what this was about, but it would become apparent later. The air and space museum was interesting. They had an exhibition of Leonardo Da Vinci’s inventions which was great. That man was a bit of a genius.

As I walked back towards the zoo, it became apparent what the queue of people and TV trucks were for. We are in election season in the States (though to be fair election season goes on for about 2 years), and Hillary Clinton was giving a speech in one of the buildings. There was a large crowd of people outside so I joined them and listened to her speech for a while (didn’t see her, but speakers were set up outside). Kinda interesting to see the people there, including the Bernie Sanders supporters and the odd Trump supporter.

After that we went to Mission Beach for some sunshine. I fell asleep for a bit and could feel myself burning so I went for a walk down the boardwalk. Not a lot there to be honest, but it passed the time.

We went for dinner and then a few of us went to the piano bar again. Slowly everyone drifted away and I was left on my own, but I loved it so much I stayed until 1am.

The next day we headed to Las Vegas. On the way we stopped at a ghost town called Calico. I’ve been to a ghost town before on the northern edge of Death Valley called Rhyolite which was utterly abandoned. Calico, however, has been commercialised. The buildings all house gift shops, cafes and exhibits. I think I preferred Rhyolite as it felt more authentic.

We arrived in Las Vegas in the late afternoon and after driving down the Strip we headed to our hotel in the Downtown area, just off Fremont Street. This area is where Vegas originally developed.

   

After getting showered and changed we headed out in a ‘party bus’ for a tour of Vegas. We stopped at the Little White Chapel:

  
The Las Vegas sign:

   
 
And the Bellagio fountains:

  
We hopped off at the Bellagio, and myself, Kath and Maica walked through the Bellagio, Caesar’s Palace and the Venetian (I might have fed a few $5 bills into some slot machines…) before heading back to check out Fremont Street at night. A few interesting sights to say the least!

  
The next day was a free day in Vegas. I headed back to the Strip to wander through some more of the hotels (and feed some more $5 bills into the slots). I went to Treasure Island, the Palazzo, the Venetian, Harrah’s, Paris, Flamingo, New York New York and Excalibur.

   
    
 
I headed back to the hotel in 42C heat, and also got my first Uber. 

In the evening a few of us went to see the Chippendales (ahem…), before heading to the Stratosphere so that some of the girls could go on the rides there. We also had a cocktail in one of the bars at the top. Then we headed back to the hotel and I had a successful spot of late night gambling.

  
The thing about Vegas is that you lose all concept of time. It was 2am when I rolled into bed (I’d only spent 30 mins on the slots) but I felt wide awake. In the casinos there are no windows, no clocks, people are there gambling 24/7. It’s really easy to see how you’d become addicted to it and lose a lot of money.

After a week or so of cities it was then time to head back to the peace and quiet of the national parks.