San Angelo, Carlsbad & Santa Fe

From Austin we moved onto a few smaller places on our way to the wonder of Monument Valley. First up was San Angelo, which if you didn’t know is one of the top 5 places for sheep and goat auctions. It’s also one of the best places to go if you’re interested in early American frontier life. Those two facts alone give you some idea of what we got up to there… not a lot. Still, our room had big double beds and the hostel had washing facilities so it served as a laundry stop if nothing else. We had dinner at a burger place that gave you a celebrity name when you ordered which they’d then shout out when your order was ready; I was Emma Stone. That really was as wild as it got. Feeling pretty tired everyone except me rejected Jack’s offer of getting drinks (although beers were had at dinner, don’t think for a minute we broke our streak of drinking every day) so we headed to pretty much the only bar in town and got educated by the most enthusiastic bartender of all time. That was the extent of our time in San Angelo, I didn’t even take any photos.

Next up was Carlsbad! I remember it being so hot here as we headed deeper into the desert. Coming directly from San Angelo we went straight to Carlsbad Caverns which is one of 300 limestone caves, is 1000ft deep, has 30 miles of passages and has “The Big Room” which is the largest underground chamber in the USA. Pretty impressive. It was used as location for the film Journey to the Centre of the Earth, if that means anything to any of you. Going down into the cave was easy and it was really interesting to see all the stalagmites and stalactites and the way the lighting was done actually made some of them look quite pretty. We took a breather when we reached the bottom of the slope and waited with some other explorers for the rest of our group to which Lynsey said “there’s more life in this cave than in San Angelo!” – which will forever be hilarious to me, but maybe you had to be there. The trek back up to the top was a killer but we did it in record time and after a quick pose to get our traditional group photo we piled back into the van and made our way to the motel, stopping only for pizza, beer and classic red cups. That evening in Carlsbad will always be one of my favourites – a sunset, pizza, great company, hysterical games of beer pong and a swimming pool with our phenomenal aqua yoga. You can’t beat it.

Our final stop along the way was Santa Fe, home to the oldest house, oldest church and the second cleanest air in America*. It gets 310 days of sun each year and is apparently the 5th most romantic city… I’m open to opinions on that.

I don’t remember doing anything there apart from going to a bar and playing shuffleboard. Half the group headed back to the hotel to make the most of the laundry facilities and enjoy a chilled evening whereas the rest of us found another bar; which felt like it hadn’t had unaccompanied girls in it since the dawn of time so we were home by 11.

Not far from Santa Fe is Roswell, featuring one of the worlds largest mozzarella factories. It’s also the birth place of John Denver and Demi Moore and of course, is home to the UFO Museum and Research Centre. This last fact is why Roswell is even on the map at all. Back in 1947 it was the site of an alleged UFO crash and has been a hub of alien and UFO themed stores, museums and restaurants (there’s even a flying saucer shaped McDonalds) ever since. As we were in the area it seemed silly not to spend $5 on the museum, however opinions of this experience did split the group. Some thought it was the highlight of the trip so far and others thought it was a waste of time. I was somewhere in the middle but I have to say it was as interesting and as weird as you’d expect it to be. The video below was probably why I was swayed.

Honestly. There really are no words. Our time in the middle of the desert couldn’t have been stranger but we loved it all the same (I think Ana loved the gift shop here more than most).

Next stop Monument Valley!

*American Lung Association 2013

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Houston & Austin, Texas

Houston was a surprise destination for all of us; the itinerary had mentioned Austin but not Houston and considering we were there the two weeks after Hurricane Harvey we weren’t expecting much. How wrong we were! Thankfully we saw almost no devastation within the city and our hostel only had minor damages – a damp ceiling and a broken toilet in our room, both of which were nothing compared with what we could have faced.

Let me back up for a minute though and tell you about about the swamp tour we went on en route to Houston. Before we left New Orleans we stopped off at Cajun Pride Swamp Tours and had a boat tour of the swamps and bayous. It was interesting, interactive and our tour guide completely loved what he was telling us so his enthusiasm was infectious. We learned about alligators and saw them up close and personal (video below) watched raccoons and got to pass round snakes, skulls, and Handbag the little alligator.

After all the excitement it was time to climb back into our trusty van, our home from home, and head on to Houston. Five hours later we arrived and quickly visited a ‘waterfall’ in the middle of a little park which was heaving with teens taking prom photos before continuing to our hostel to get ready and head out for dinner. We thought Houston would be a quiet night; dinner, drinks and bed but it turned out to be one of the best nights we had. I think it gets the award for most surprising city but perhaps it’s what we made of it.

We had dinner in an underground food market type place where you could get anything from sushi to pizza to tacos so everyone got something they loved. We then headed to the emptiest bar on the strip for a drink or two – we bagged a booth and settled in. Five glasses of wine later and the place was packed so we took it in shifts to dance so we didn’t lose the booth. Tactical. Four hours later, add in more wine, a few beers and a swimming pool and you’ve got a great night. Intellectual conversation, shared drinks and swimming under the stars with your new found best friends is unlike much else. Houston, you were pretty special.

From Houston we headed to Austin! A slightly slower morning from what I remember but three hours later we arrived at the Salt Lick, a proper Texas BBQ. The vegetarian options on the menu were zero. I got potato salad and coleslaw, neither of which looked like either I’d seen before but they tasted alright. Austin was hot hot hot so a few of the girls did a wine tasting experience while the rest of us relaxed in the sun and played boules. Since it was such a scorching day we went to Barton Springs Pool, a fresh water spring/swimming pool where we swam and relaxed for the first time in a while – activities every day are pretty exhausting no matter how fun they are. That evening we got pizza and beer (so America) and watched thousands of bats fly out from under a bridge, which sounds boring but it was actually pretty cool and there were so many people there watching with us. Maybe it just says something about Austin, that that’s the best evening entertainment they have. Just kidding, I’m sure the nightlife is great we just didn’t really get chance to sample it apart from a few drinks (a bucket full of beers for $12) here and there. Day two was spent exploring the street art that was displayed all around the city and it was pretty impressive, and very instagramable. We went to the Capitol building which was a rather nice air-con stop as well as educational of course and then we wandered the shops and tried on cowboy hats and boots once again, far more up our street and a few of us bought bandanas for our upcoming Monument Valley adventure.

Our hostel in Austin was interesting to say the least. The girls bathroom was being renovated so we had to use shared facilities but the rest of the place was nice and the lake behind the building was stunning, especially at sunset. The only issue we had with our time there was that we had a threatening sleep-talker in our room. Whether he was joking with us or whether he was serious we’re still not sure but we felt unsafe to say the least. The hostel staff were super helpful with the situation and moved us immediately but it was still a pretty odd. The screenshots of our messages to each other still make me laugh now.

Maybe I need to give Austin another chance but for now it’s not top of my list of places to return.

On to San Angelo!

New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA)

Where do I even start?! As with Nashville, New Orleans was always on my bucket list and for good reason – it’s unlike anywhere else. It has a very French/fairytale/jazz infused feel it’s impossible not to love. There’s a big interest in the supernatural; graveyards, ghosts (you can even have dinner with one at Muriel’s in Jackson Square) and clairvoyants and it’s had a reputation as a “refuge for lost souls” for many many years. If you’ve ever read A Streetcar Named Desire it’ll feel like you’re in that book as you walk round, theres an actual ‘Desire Street’ and you can go to ‘Elysian Fields Avenue’, just a casual literature reference.

When we first arrived it was the hottest it had been for a few days, hitting the early 30’s as we wandered a Lafayette graveyard filled with beautiful historic above ground tombs which was interesting to see if not a little haunting. From there we obviously headed to a bar, where we had drinks in the sunshine and threw coins into a fountain as we made wishes. After a unanimous decision, we headed to a thrift store where we picked outfits for our first night in N’Awlins. We headed to the hotel to freshen up and get ready and we were blown away by the luxury that awaited us. After many nights in hostels and motels (all of which were really good) we were in a proper hotel with walk in showers and luxurious double beds. Heaven. There was also an incredible rooftop bar with live jazz music and a view of the city which was stunning at sunset. The link to the hotel is here if you’re in need of a recommendation.

So, let the first night begin. Apart from Nashville, this was the first city that we were really able to party in and let me tell you, we were ready for it. We met at the rooftop bar with sequins, fake moustaches, pleather caps, snake hats, Mardi Gras beads and moustache suits in tow. The crazy thing? We didn’t look out of place.

We wandered the French quarter and got hurricanes on the way to dinner. A hurricane for anyone that’s wondering is a strooooong cocktail made with various rums and we got them by the litre, literally. Jazz music filled the streets as we waited for a table at the best restaurant for gumbo and other Louisiana favourites. We were waiting a while, well, long enough for the hurricanes to take effect and for a group of us to pop to the bar next door to get some more rather strong but expertly and individuality made cocktails. Delish. The alcohol laws in New Orleans are such that you can walk from bar to bar with your drinks and it’s legal. Amazing.

After dinner we wandered, dipping in and out of bars to listen to jazz performers which were amazing. Street music, dancing, spoon playing and cartwheels were happening left right and centre – and that was just from our group. I’ll insert some videos below – even they may not give the whole atmosphere but they sure make me smile thinking back to them. The rest of the night was filled with dancing and drinks and laughter and it was one of my favourite nights on the trip.

On the left is Jess cartwheeling, the top right video is me and Jack – pretty sure I blacked out for the whole thing, I had no idea what I was doing (clearly!) it was like a crazy trust exercise, “just run!”, and bottom right is Jess and Jack playing the spoons. What can I say, we’re a talented bunch…

Feeling surprisingly fresh the following morning, we headed out in the blistering heat to get breakfast. We walked a fair way and I think it nearly killed a few of us off but we made it. I ordered the bananas foster which is bananas, cinnamon, sugar, cream and ice cream and it’s way too heavy for breakfast after a night out but it’s a New Orleans classic so I couldn’t miss it. And of course we had mimosas which kind of goes without saying.

Later in the day, Ana and I went to Mardi Gras World where we learnt why and how all the floats are made as well as getting to walk round the warehouse where they’re all made. Instead of a ticket to enter the ‘museum’ you get Mardi Gras beads which both Ana and I thought was such a novelty. Before looking round the actual floats and learning about the process they go through when they’re made you get to watch a video about the history of Mardi Gras. We also got to eat cake – if your piece had a tiny plastic baby in it then you were king/queen for the day. It was called King Cake. I know, New Orleans right?

I think we went out the second night as well but in all honesty I can’t remember much about it, I think it was more chilled than the first night but no doubt drinks and jazz still featured highly. Before we left we had to stop by the market and grab some beignets, deep fried choux pastry covered with powdered sugar, which were incredible.

“Laissez le bon temps rouler” translated as “let the good times roll”, the unofficial catchphrase of New Orleans. Add it to your bucket lists now.

Just an update…

Throughout the past two months (58 days) I’ve travelled over 22,000 miles. I tried to look for an equivalent distance but google wouldn’t give me one; I know it’s a crazy long way though. I’ve currently been to 16 US states, 4 out of 6 Australian states and a two week stint island hopping in Fiji, all in the space of 8 weeks so it’s safe to say I’m more than a little exhausted (island hopping is actually more tiring than it sounds…). 

Throughout the multiple trips I’ve done there was barely time to sleep, let alone keep up a blog which is why this post is as late as it is. This may or may not be a get out clause; I will write something at some point but it might not be until I have some sort of routine because although it may look like constant cocktails and sunsets, travelling is super stressful at times. 

Thank you for all the interest in what I’m up to, it’s definitely appreciated -messages of support don’t go unnoticed and I’ll always reply so drop me a line if you want to! 

With love from across the (very big!) pond,

Sophie 

95 days and counting…

Welcome to another post that’s been a long time coming! It’s only a short one as some of you may already know about what I’m about to write but since I got to properly tell my best friends about it this past weekend I thought I’d make more of an ‘official’ post. 

Come September I will officially unemployed and ready to take on a whole new adventure! Something I’ve been planning and working towards for a couple of years, although not without its setbacks, is finally in motion. Travel. Perhaps indefinitely, but we’ll see how things pan out…

First on the list is New York – The Big Apple, The City of Dreams… spending a few days exploring and taking in the bright lights before joining an organised group tour from the East coast to the West coast. After much deliberation about which company to go with, Trek America was chosen due to the better selection of tour types and price ranges. Here is their website if you’re interested: Trek America

From New York the tour continues to:

Philadelphia

Washington D.C

Virginia

Nashville – might need an extra case for my hat and boots! 

Memphis 

New Orleans 

Louisiana 

Austin 

San Angelo 

Carlsbad Caverns National Park  

Santa Fe

Monument Valley

Grand Canyon National Park

Route 66

Las Vegas

San Diego

Los Angeles, where the tour ends after 21 days

From Los Angeles a trip to San Francisco is a must, as is a day-trip to Disneyland!! But after that I catch a flight to Melbourne where I have a weeks worth of accommodation before my plans end and (I’m hoping) spontaneity begins. Any tips and tricks for working and travelling around Australia would be much appreciated as I’ve exhausted every possible YouTube video on the subject! 

I’m hoping to blog about what I get up to as much as I can whilst I’m away, hopefully filling your timelines with wanderlust inducing posts and photos but wifi may dictate how often that happens, we’ll see. 

So there we go! Just need to pack my bag and dust off my passport and I’m good to go… well, almost… 

Southern BLT from New York

Just a quick final update…

Just a quick final update following on from yesterday… Whilst sat in Plaza de Oriente (just outside the palace) I found some wifi and Googled one of the other museum/galleries to see if it would be of any interest as I needed something to fill my time. One of them, the Thyssen-Bornemisza was another gallery, and personally I found it a little better than the Prado as it had impressionist paintings by the likes of Monet and Renoir who I actually really like. It had an exhibition on (until the 12th October) called ‘Vogue: like a painting’ which, if you love vogue like I do, you’ll find this interesting. One of my favourite photographers, Nick Knight was featured heavily as you’d expect in a fashion photography exhibition and this probably made my visit. His photos are gorgeous.

A couple of my favourites, Renior and Lichtenstein as well as the Vogue: like a painting exhibition entrance

A couple of my favourites, Renior and Lichtenstein as well as the Vogue: like a painting exhibition entrance

Towards the end of the gallery I sat down opposite a painting of Venice, I think it looked like I was in deep thought about it (which I partly was) but really I just needed to sit down. My feet are so tired.

I slowly made my way back towards my hotel and ate tapas at a nearby restaurant; the same place I had paella on my first night. This was mostly to use up some time before heading to the airport but honestly when is tapas ever a bad idea.

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And so my solo Spanish adventure had come to an end and I’d recommend it to anyone – both Spain and travelling alone. It might not be until you speak to someone else about what you saw/did that they realise your interests before you do – this happened to me on the plane home whilst sat next to two lovely people travelling with their Spanish club (hello to you if you’re reading, thank you for keeping me company!).

Now I’m back home and my brain is scheming for my next destination. Any thoughts, questions or queries are more than welcome and hopefully this can push you in the right direction if you’re on the fence about going at it alone.

Hasta lluego!

Madrid; day three

So the final day has arrived. Having seen most/all of the things I’d wanted to already I used this as more of a chilled day. Saying that I’ve still walked miles after getting momentarily lost in the banking district. Incidentally I saw “Relvo de la Guardia” which I’m guessing is like changing on the guard although a much smaller scale than Buckingham palace (I’m pretty sure it was outside a bank and since it was obviously all in Spanish I didn’t really get much clarification as to what or why or who). I don’t think the royal family were there but it was definitely someone important. The music was nice, kind of fairground mixed with dance break in a musical. I can’t fault Madrid on its music actually as it’s everywhere – the metro, the park, the street; I’ve heard ‘Hello Dolly’ played more than twice which, for anyone who knows me, knows how fine I am with that. As well as an abundance of music there’s an abundance of police which is quite reassuring. Even as I’m sat in the park there are four policemen on horses opposite me. Just a side note here – it must be about 29 degrees today, if I didn’t have a flight to get later I’d definitely be wearing shorts. That reminds, speaking of how warm it is – last night I popped out at about 10pm and firstly I couldn’t get over how warm it was, no sleeves were needed and secondly, how busy it was!! People everywhere, again with more than enough music and police.

If you haven’t visited Madrid I’d definitely recommend it for site seeing, beautiful architecture, lovely parks and gardens and of course autumn sunshine – sorry I can’t stop mentioning it, it’s like summer! I just burnt my arm on the zip of my tshirt. Hot. It’s also the perfect place for travelling alone, no one cares if you’re eating alone because so many people do it here. No one has asked if/why I’m alone so if you’re thinking about solo travel I say just go for it.

After my stroll round the banks I walked past the library which was impressive from the outside so I can only imagine the inside. I then made my way back to Retiro park from yesterday and ate paella – really good, octopus and everything, yum! I sat and listened to an Australian family discuss frozen beer while a saxophone was played in the distance. I tried to keep my cool as a wasp flew around me for the entire time I was sat there which made for possibly the least relaxing meal ever but delicious none the less.

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Now I’m sat in the sun writing this, it’s still so hot… I’ve got about 5 more hours at this point before heading to the airport so I’m planning on staying here a bit longer and then maybe doing to tour bus. I should have done that on my first day and not the last but hey! I found everything for myself instead. I even know some shortcuts now so maybe I should just stay here.
One thing I haven’t done is eat ice cream so maybe that’ll be sorted later…

Madrid; day two…

Today has probably been my favourite day. It started with a wander to find churros – I found the place everyone raves about but the queue was too long (I should have guessed!) so I went elsewhere for croissant and tea. After my little pit stop I made my way to the palace which I actually found by accident on my first evening – I thought it was just a really nice building, not realising it was the palace. Oops. The line for this was pretty huge so I took a few photos, basked in the sunshine and went on my way. Madrid is a lot smaller than I thought it was going to be, you can walk practically anywhere although the metro does come in handy for tired feet. By this time I wanted churros again since my craving hadn’t been fixed. I Churreria Chocolateria Las Farolas and the waitress gave me five churros as standard. I’m pretty sure I’ve blocked all my arteries. A cup of chocolate is also provided with a spoon – I know. They also did the best fresh orange juice which was much appreciated after such a carb-fest. The fact that they didn’t take cards should have been displayed somewhere as I got to the counter without a cent in my purse. Luckily she let me dash to the ATM and was very sweet about the whole thing but I nearly died of shame. I’m guessing from her reaction I’m not the first person to do that.

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Oops, I’m in Madrid…


Sitting alone at a restaurant really isn’t as weird or scary as I (and indeed many people on Google) thought it was going to be. I ordered a drink, which came with tapas (bonus!) and got out my notepad. As j was seated outside there were many things to watch or look at and so it was no big deal. I ordered paella too which was maybe the best I’ve ever tried – and I’ve tried a fair amount – all the while writing about the things I’d got up to so far.
I’ll tell you what they are now…

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Tuesday.
Last night I took a leisurely stroll in the area near my hotel, which turns out is pretty much the centre of Madrid. I don’t want to boast about the weather but since I left England it the rain and arrived to 28 degree heat I feel I have to. I didn’t even need sleeves. The architecture of the buildings and the little streets that dart off left right and centre remind me of Rome, every building is stunning to look at; even the apartments and hotels which line the streets are so pretty with their balcony railings and window shutters. I went to El Corte Ingles, a big departments store that felt a bit like debenhams with the added bonus of an underground supermarket. I bought the essentials – water, juice and amazing icing sugar coated pastries that may have already been demolished. Oh and I can’t forget the pizza flavoured crisps. I don’t hate them.
After a quick social media catch up it was time for bed.

Wednesday.
I’m forgetting what day it is and what time it is frequently, which is actually quite nice as I don’t really need to know either, making a change from usual. I spent today wandering to (and around) Museo del Prado. I’ve been to a far few art galleries in my time and this one was pretty standard apart from costing €14 for entry which in hindsight was too much. I took my time exploring the three floors of paintings but once you’ve seen one naked angel you’ve seen them all. There were few other subjects covered however some of the captions made me laugh to myself and I had to note some down. For example “still life with a vase of flowers and a dog”, “portrait of a gentleman” and “landscape with buildings” which all did exactly as it said on the tin. The last one did make me smile to myself as I thought those very words before even reading the name of the painting, I needn’t have bothered. One of my favourite (I use that term lightly, it was my favourite compared with the rest I saw… I wouldn’t want it in my house) paintings was called “The embarkment of Saint Paula”, I’m not sure what the story behind it was but the use of sunlight was pretty impressive, it looked like the painting had the glow of a sunrise.
A collection of paintings by J Brueghal also had this effect whilst having incredible attention to detail and colour with some of this works having paintings within the painting. One was so ornate with flowers it looked like a little fairytale world. I’m not a major still life fan but it has to be said, it was a welcome break from naked angels.

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Next on my list was the botanical gardens, just outside the Museo del Prado and cost €3 which in summer would probably be money well spent, in September not quite so much although the gardens were very tranquil none the less.

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By this time I was pretty hungry and whilst walking back to my hotel I stopped to eat the paella previously mentioned. I took a quick rest after this, mostly to let my feet recover (note to self, take plasters even if you think you won’t need them) and grab another drink and then I was out the door again. I hopped on the metro to find San Miguel market which I did and it was crazy in there! Any type of food you could imagine – fish, nuts, chocolate, gin, you name it it was there. I then tried to find El Rastro, the biggest flea market in Madrid which didn’t go so well. Considering it’s the biggest it’s darn hard to find. I think I’ll try again tomorrow though, my tiredness was probably setting in. On the way home I took a visit to Gran Via which was amazing; theatres, old cinemas hotels and shops galore. That might need a second visit tomorrow too.

Now I’m just relaxing, finishing this post and I might start my book (the most cliche of them all, Eat Pray Love). There’s an infamous churros shop nearby though so I may have to try them out, it would be rude not to…