The Grand Canyon, USA

Visiting the Grand Canyon was a non-negotiable on this part of our holiday. It was something that we had dreamed about and factored into our road trip even after we had revised our route a trillion times. When we discovered that the Grand Canyon National Park was to be closed during the government shutdown, I cried with disappointment. It was unfair – of all the weeks that we could have been in the US and doing this roadtrip, we found ourselves having to find another route and other sights to see. While the US has no shortage of incredible sights, it was still disappointing to think that we’d miss out on the Grand Canyon.

Jez and I boarded the plane from Atlanta to Las Vegas where we were to begin the roadtrip. It was a long flight made longer by my head cold and the prospect of a shortened roadtrip. An hour or so before landing in Las Vegas, the Captain spoke out on the PA urging us all to look out the windows as we were flying over the Grand Canyon. We peered across the guy sitting in the window seat and saw the Grand Canyon from above. I thought to myself that I had at least seen it from the sky.

When the shut down ended, we were overjoyed that we would be able to visit the South Rim of the Canyon park. On the morning of October 17 we woke up, dressed for a day of walking and drove to the entrance where the Ranger was just as excited to see us as we were to see them! We’d decided to walk the South Kaibab Trail down into the canyon and while the boys were adamant they could reach the bottom of the canyon and back in a few hours, we made it to Skeleton Point before turning back. It probably took us about four hours in total.

While walking along the bright red dirt track, passing switchback after switchback and looking down at the perilous drop below, you get a sense of just how tiny you are compared to this vast natural wonder. Rocks the size of small houses were perched above the walking trail and chipmunks searching for food leaped over the bushes that clung to the cliff face. As we ate lunch overlooking the deep ravines, it was pure luck that we were able to catch a glimpse of a helicopter far off in the distance. It was tiny and you couldn’t hear it at all, so big is this Grand Canyon!

It was amazing to see one of the world’s natural wonders.

The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon

Road Trip USA, Part Three

By mid-October, things were really starting to cool down. We had driven through some of the highest peaks of Colorado so now it was time to start the long swing down and back around to Vegas.

We made a bee-line for Denver, where Jez and I explored the Museum of Nature and Science for the afternoon. We saw a fabulous IMAX documentary on the Rocky Mountain Express, simultaneously in awe of the feats of engineering and planning our next holiday around this train! When the museum closed we walked back into downtown Denver and wandered along the main shopping mall. The restaurants and bars were overflowing with people, while the trees in the mall had fairy lights draped around their branches. It was a cold Saturday night but there was warmth and merriment in the atmosphere!

We continued through to Colorado Springs where we took the Cog Railway to the top of Pikes Peak. The Cog Railway has been running since 1890 and scales the enormous incline to the summit of Pikes Peak at 14,115 feet (4303 metres)! Even though the view at the top was wonderful, it took about 90 minutes to get there. The round trip took about four hours in total, including a stop for a few greasy donuts at the top. Manitou Springs, where you get on the Railway, was a beautiful town with loads of shops and places to eat. We also found what must have been one of the oldest Coca Cola vending machines in the world. Crazy times!

Pikes Peak Cog Railway

Pikes Peak Cog Railway

After Colorado Springs we drove quite a distance to Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was a very quirky and unique city with Spanish architecture and a lively art scene. We spent a morning walking down Canyon Road, an entire road of art galleries and cafes, marveling at the enormous sculptures and equally enormous price tags. I enjoyed the city and loved how friendly and welcoming everyone was. On a side note, we ate very well in Santa Fe, with incredible Mexican food in abundance!

Since we were in the vicinity, we took a detour through the city of Albuquerque. We are huge fans of the TV series Breaking Bad, which was filmed in Albuquerque, so we swung past Walter White’s house to take a few photos. The couple who own the house must be very patient – while we were there three other cars pulled up to take photos as well!

Walter White's house. Albuquerque, NM.

Walter White’s house. Albuquerque, NM.

We made a brief visit to the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History which held some interesting information about nuclear power, weaponry and the impact of nuclear warfare. It also had a small collection of planes including a B-52.

Jez with a B-52.

Jez with a B-52.

We had a busy day in Albuquerque and a long drive ahead of us but our spirits were buoyed by the end of the US government shutdown. We knew exactly where we were heading next – the Grand Canyon.

Road Trip USA, Part Two

As we started to climb into the mountain ranges of Utah, we could see evidence of the seasons changing before our eyes. The trees were golden, autumnal colours and there were patches of snow on the mountain peaks surrounding Salt Lake City.

We were surprised by Salt Lake City. We saw places of immense wealth and prosperity (such as a new $4billion shopping mall) but we saw also saw poverty and homelessness. Our time in the US really opened our eyes to these world financial problems affecting everyday people. Salt Lake City is a very religious city, being home to the Church of Latter-day Saints, and the Temple seems to be the center of city life.

When we made our way out of Salt Lake, we drove higher into the mountains to walk the Brighton Lakes Trail. Armed with waterbottles and muesli bars, we hiked through ice and mud to see a few of the high mountain lakes. We continued to Park City, a quaint and colourful town nestled in the mountains that holds many of the Sundance Film Festival’s events in January. There were loads of cafes, restaurants and quirky stores and it would become a very picturesque wonderland in the wintertime.

On our way to Aspen

On our way to Aspen

The next destination was Aspen, the incredibly beautiful ski resort of the rich and famous. Even though the Ski season wasn’t due to begin until November, there was lots and lots of snow. The US government shutdown was still in place so we were not technically able to enter the National parks, but everyone we spoke to encouraged us to hike to the Maroon Bells Lake. We hiked in the snow, kitted out with beanies, thick jackets and thermal gear. Thank goodness Jez and I bought hiking boots back in Springdale! It was so beautiful walking amongst the rocks, birch trees and pine trees covered in snow, it was magical.

Aspen

Aspen

None of us thought that we’d be spending time in Apsen during our roadtrip, but we were certainly glad that we were able to visit! We had to make our way through the mountains, across Colorado to the city of Denver and we all agreed that it was an incredible drive. Leaving the mountains, the road was covered in fresh powdered snow, as were the trees and the rocks. There were so many beautiful photo opportunities that it was hard to not stop the car every few minutes!

Leaving Aspen for Denver

Leaving Aspen for Denver

Toronto, Canada.

If we were in North America, there was no way we would miss out on a trip to Toronto, where our dearest friends Soph and Andrew are living. A catch up with these lovebirds was long overdue!

Soph and I feat. Moose

Soph and I feat. Moose

We rented an apartment for our week-long stay close to Yonge Street, the main thoroughfare for the city (and apparently the longest street in the world!). We were treated to a baseball game, a trip to the CN tower overlooking the city and lots of amazing food! There are caf├ęs and restaurants galore in Toronto and we were able to try quite a cross section. One night we dined at a famous Japanese restaurant where U2’s Bono, Pierce Brosnan and Elizabeth Taylor had declared the food worthy of a signature.

Lots of food and drink. But mostly drink.

Lots of food and drink. But mostly drink.

Even though we did a lot of eating, we did a bit of sightseeing too. We took a ferry to the Toronto Islands and spent an afternoon walking along the shore of the lake, taking photos of the skyline with the clear blue sky as a backdrop.

Toronto Skyline

Toronto Skyline

Jez and I did a day trip to Niagra Falls which included a stopover in the quaint town of Niagara-on-the-lake. Our voyage to the falls on the trusty decks of ‘The Maid of the Mist’ was wonderful, even if we came away soaking wet! There is no denying the beauty and awe that the falls evoke as water tumbles over the edge.

Maid of the Mist.

Maid of the Mist.

Toronto is a lovely city, made even more wonderful by our friends. There is nothing quite like the company of loved ones!

Washington DC, USA

We left New York for Washington DC, ready to see the nation’s capital. In hindsight, we probably should have caught a bus to get there, however we did get to see some amazing things from the air. The flight path into Washington’s airport follows the famous Potomac River and we were able to see straight down the National Mall to the Capitol building from our seats.

The Capitol Building.

The Capitol Building.

There are lots of very grand buildings in Washington. Even government buildings have an impressive aura surrounding them, solidified by the guards stationed at every entrance. It was exceptionally hot and humid when we visited so we tried not to think about the huge distances between buildings that we wanted to see.

The National Mall with the obelisk undergoing some renovations after an earthquake last year.

The National Mall with the obelisk undergoing some renovations after an earthquake last year.

We saw the White House and walked (for what felt like a very long time) to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The original Wright Brother’s plane was tucked away safely inside, as were a number of items from the decades of the US space programs.

Jez amongst the planes at the Air and Space Museum.

Jez amongst the planes at the Air and Space Museum.

Our long walk down the Mall took us to the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflection Pool where we were joined by lots of other tourists. It was a very impressive sight and my understanding of US history has certainly improved from seeing these monuments in person. Afterwards, we continued to Arlington National Cemetery. I didn’t recall ever having visited a cemetery to see important historical figures but this seemed like as a good a place as any to start.

It is situated high upon a hill overlooking the District and the city of Washington, complete with a number of lush and beautifully maintained gardens. We saw the tombstones of The Kennedy Family, a memorial to those who perished in the Lockerbie Bombings and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. By pure chance, we were also lucky enough to see the changing of the guard. While we stood there silently overlooking the ceremony and the city of Washington, we saw the president’s helicopter fly past.
We saw President Obama’s address to the nation about the issue of Syria and chemical warfare. It was interesting to be in Washington during such a tense period as the debate and discussion surrounding Syria was animated to say the least.

The few days we had in Washington wasn’t enough to see all the wonderful museums and monuments that are housed there, but what we did see was definitely impressive.

Beijing, China (Part 2)

The number one activity on my bucket list for China was the Great Wall. I had researched and planned and imagined how we could get there but nothing – no photo, video, movie, whatever – could prepare me for now incredible the Great Wall of China is.

There was a group of us who took a bus to the Mutianyu section of the Wall, about and hour and a half from Beijing by bus. This section of the wall is less crowded and touristy than some of the other sections of the wall closer to Beijing. Mutianyu has a few interesting sections, namely some very overgrown and run down sections of wall.

It took us about 3hrs to cover a few sections between the main pylons because the were some pretty steep parts to scale. There were sections that we were climbing with hands as well because they were so steep!

The Great Wall at Mutianyu

The Great Wall at Mutianyu

The Great Wall met every single one of my hopes for my time in China. I am in awe of the people and the empires that built such impressive structures but it was also so much fun to scale this national monument! This one also had a ski lift to the top and the toboggan ride downhill, but don’t worry I was much faster than I was on the last one! I wonder if there are many thing that we could apply this formulas to at home…. (Tall national monument + ski lift + toboggan = interesting tourist destination!)

Don’t think for one second that my bucket list is only about tourist sites. Oh no, it goes far beyond that! It extends quite nicely to food and other delicious adventures. The number one on my food destination list was a Peking duck restaurant. Luckily, there was a famous Peking Duck restaurant called Da Dong very close to where we were staying.

A group of us sat down for a meal of the most delicious duck you could ever imagine. Firstly, a dish of hoisin sauce, melon, cucumber, spring onion and sugar was brought out for each person as the duck was expertly carved by the chef, then, delicate crepes were brought out as well as a fine sesame bread of sorts.

Peking Duck

Peking Duck

The waitress explained to us the process of selecting ingredients to blend for each part of the duck. Lastly, she told us that the crispy skin of the duck was to be dipped in the sugar for a taste sensation. It was divine. Although there was not a huge amount of food on the table that night, we all felt full from the rich duck and delicious accompaniments.

Peking Duck

Peking Duck

It was a perfect way to wrap up our time in China. I felt a twinge of sadness as we packed our bags and made our way to the airport. China had been an eye-opening and exciting experience and it was a fantastic start to this adventure of ours.

Alcatraz

Despite his best efforts, Jez could not make me watch the Hollywood blockbuster ‘The Rock’ before our visit to Alcatraz. I mean, a jail on an island in the middle of a harbour? What’s the big deal?

Boy, was I mistaken. If there is one word that I could use to describe Alcatraz it would be desolate. The cold concrete walls and harsh San Fran weather make this place truly depressing. We used the audio-tour of the jail and listened to the commentary from people who had worked there and spend time behind bars. Surprisingly, most of the inmates were incarcerated for things like tax evasion rather than more brutal crimes.

What surprised me the most about this island was just how difficult it was to operate the jail itself. It wasn’t attached to any water mains, it wasn’t easy to get basics across to the island from the city and more importantly, the guards and their families had to live on site! It was a very expensive jail to run and so it was closed by the authorities. I highly recommend a visit to Alcatraz if you are in San Fran!