Way back in 2009, I landed in Los Angeles ready for an adventure. I was nervous, but with 3 USA stamps already in my passport, the country felt strangely familiar. In fact, I had even visited Los Angeles before, but this time, there was one key difference. I was on my own…
…Well, kind of. I was going to be staying with friends and then heading out on a Trek America tour of the West, but that was as solo as my travel was going to get with my parents’ permission.
The incredible road trip itinerary would take me through California, Arizona and Nevada. They say you never forget your first time, so I was determined to make this (almost) solo trip one worth remembering. Here’s what I got up to on my month long adventure:
You might be surprised to read this, but I genuinely think Las Vegas was the highlight of my trip. I was definitely in the right demographic – aged 21 so I could drink, aged 21 so I didn’t care how much. Granted, I spent the whole of day 2 immobilised by a hangover, but the night before was worth it.
- See a show
The theatres in Vegas are the perfect place to shelter from the heat and soothe that headache. Las Vegas gets more than its fair share of unique performers, but I was more taken by a West End classic – The Lion King. But if that doesn’t take your fancy, why not try Cirque du Soleil, Blue Man Group or a riqsue cabaret? There’s bound to be something you like!
- Bellagio fountain show
Ever since watching Ocean’s 11 (the remake of course – big Brad Pitt fan here!), I wanted to visit the Bellagio, and it did not disappoint. The fountains at the end of the movie are even more moving when you see them in person, and with the water movements set to “Time to Say Goodbye” by Andrea Bocelli, I couldn’t hold back the emotion. The lights, the music, the water… everything was perfect… except I was hungry so my next visit was to…
- Bellagio buffet
Wow, wow, wow. I have never seen so much food in one place, all delicately arranged, all tastefully designed. My biggest regret in life was that I had a hangover and paid $40 to eat just one slice of pizza before feeling too sick to continue. And so my recommendation to you, dear readers, is this. If you go to the Bellagio buffet, for the love of god do it on an empty stomach and well before you’ve had too much to drink.
- Walk the strip and wander through hotels
My favourite thing to do in Vegas was just wander aimlessly. The heat of the city can make this impossible to do but, lucky for you, this city doesn’t sleep! So that jet lag is no excuse – get your “I can’t sleep because it’s 10am where I’m from” butt outside and wander the strip. My top picks are the Venetian – where you can have a ride in a replica gondola down a replica Venice Canal; New York New York – where you can ride a rollercoaster that whizzes past the Statue of Liberty’s face; and Caesar’s Palace where you can ride a spiral escalator! It’s worth it just for that. Go on, get exploring.
Except don’t gamble, because I can’t be seen to encourage that kind of thing around here.
Oh yes… Perhaps USA’s most visited natural wonder, the Grand Canyon is somewhere that photos seriously don’t do justice to. You have to go. Now! Here’s my pick of the bunch of things to do while you’re there:
- Get there in time for sunrise
Our TrekAmerica guide did something amazing. She got us all out of bed at 4:30am and tied blindfolds around our heads as she guided us to the edge. No – this wasn’t some kind of ritualistic ceremony, but a fantastic way to help us appreciate the shock and awe of seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. As soon as our blindfolds were released, we saw it. And it was amazing.
- Helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon
I cannot recommend this enough. Back then, I considered it a once in a lifetime experience, and that still rings true. I haven’t been on another helicopter since, partly because I don’t think any others would even come close, but mostly because they’re bloody expensive. Still – that feeling of seeing the Grand Canyon after watching the earth disappear beneath you is something I’ll never forget.
I’ll be honest – Los Angeles is probably one of the only cities that I wouldn’t make the effort to go back to. I found it grubby, overcrowded and, quite frankly, not very interesting. But, there are some gems to see if you know where to look.
- Walk of Fame, ending up at Mann’s Chinese Theatre
Like most of my adventures in Los Angeles, you could take or leave it. It’s fun trying to find your favourite star, or the celebrity with the same sized hands as you but, beyond that, the Walk of Fame isn’t that entertaining. However, I did enjoy a guided tour of Mann’s Chinese Theatre (the home of the Academy Awards), where we got to sit in the front row as if we were Oscars nominees. Though be warned – it’s much smaller than they make it look on TV, so you’ll never see the Oscars in the same light again.
- Saddle Ranch restaurant, Sunset Strip
Forgive me. It’s nearly dinner time and I’m hungry, so I couldn’t not mention food, right? And the Saddle Ranch on Sunset Strip is definitely worth a visit. I can’t remember what the food was actually like, or even how the service was, but what I do remember is the experience. I had such a great time talking to the cowgirl waitresses, soaking up the Western atmosphere and having a go on the Bucking Bronco. Yes – they have one dead centre in the restaurant for all to see… I’d recommend having a go before you eat. We tucked into barbecue classics, and by finishing with smores in the back yard, you couldn’t get much more American than that.
- Hollywood sign (from a distance!)
You see it on TV and in all the magazines, but is it really that special seeing it up close? No – I don’t think so. I hiked a bit of the mountain to see a massive H, but the real magic is being able to read “Hollywood” in its entirety, and for that you need to be at a distance. The sign isn’t ready for its close up just yet.
- Universal Studios
Yes, it’s tacky and probably way overpriced these days but it’s so much fun. And if you’re a blockbuster movie fan like me, you’ll love it. You can come face to face with Jaws, float down a dinosaur infested river and meet Homer Simpson all in the same place. It’s somewhere I think you should go at least once in your life, and to prove it, I’ve been twice.
Despite the fog, it’s a pretty wonderful city – probably my favourite in the USA actually. It’s got a very different feeling to it than most other cities: it’s quite laid back, eclectic and dare I say it ‘alternative’. I felt more comfortable here than anywhere else, and I can definitely see myself going back.
- Golden Gate Bridge
You can’t not, can you? Perhaps one of the most recognisable attractions in the USA, it’s worth taking your time on this one. I walked across it, drove across it, went on a boat under it, all in order to find its best angle. But, truth be told, it’s pretty epic no matter where you look at it from. I’ve never been so excited to see a bridge before, and I think you’ll be surprised by how excited you get too.
I love places with stories, and Alcatraz definitely has a few to tell. That’s obvious from the etchings of despair in the walls, the riotous bullet holes in the floor, and the bent cell bars from failed escape attempts. Despite being abandoned for nearly 40 years, the prison on Alcatraz Island still feels used – as if you’ll turn a corner and stumble across Al Capone in his cell. That’s the beauty of the museum – they’ve left it as close to real as possible, with only a few exhibits and information signs to aid your imagination.
One for you nature lovers, Yosemite National Park does not disappoint. I still look back at the photos and sigh at how beautiful it all is. Those waterfalls… that greenery… the wildlife… It’s a bit of a trek from the major cities in California, but trust me, it’s worth the journey.
- Camping in the park
Remember that I was young and so could sleep on the roughest of terrains – but I wouldn’t have done it any other way. My group had so much fun sitting around the campfire making s’mores and drinking Coors Light (I’m sorry – I didn’t understand beer back then!) You can get a surprisingly comfortable night’s sleep if you have the right equipment and are prepared to hide from the…
- Wild bears!
We were lucky enough to see a bear just metres from us… actually let me rephrase that. We were lucky enough not to get eaten by a bear just metres from us. I vividly remember the “safety briefing” we were treated to upon arrival, which said “If a bear attacks you, make yourself as big as possible, scream and shout and punch it on the nose. Whatever you do, don’t run.” Thankfully we didn’t need to follow the advice, as we were behind trees when we spotted this beautiful brown bear in a clearing. It was a sight I’ll never forget.
The only way to truly see the beauty of the National Park is on foot. Yosemite is known for its waterfalls, and hiking up from the bottom to the top of a waterfall is really special. Some of the sections are troublesome and a bit scary if you’re not steady on your feet, but there are plenty of warning signs and barriers to keep you safe. Remember – this is America – could you imagine the law suit?!
I’ll be honest – a lot of Route 66 is dull. But it’s still an incredible drive that’s worth adding to your road trip bucket list. When we weren’t staring at the open road, we were complaining about the person upfront’s music choices, carefully avoiding the donkeys that roam free or admiring the incredible scenery. Keep your eyes peeled – you never know what you might miss.
Can you remember your first solo travel experience? Where did you go and what did you do? Do you have any more tips to share on west coast USA?