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Las Vegas, Canyonlands and the California Coast

Now that our two sons were becoming more independent, my husband and I decided we could start considering holidays on our wish list, and one idea we had was to embark on an ambitious trip to the west coast of America. On my husband's wish list was a flight over the Grand Canyon and a drive down Highway 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles. So I was tasked with the job of constructing an itinerary which would allow us to incorporate both whilst including a number of other national treasures.

usa-holiday-001We flew with Virgin Atlantic to Las Vegas on 24th May 2015 as we decided that if we were to travel any later in the year it would be too hot in some of the National Parks. We stayed at the Bellagio Hotel along the Las Vegas strip for two nights in one of their fountain view rooms. It was definitely worth paying the supplement for one of these rooms as the fountain displays are famous and one of the major attractions in Las Vegas is for people to come and watch. So for us to be able to sit in our room with a glass of wine and accompanying music being played through the hotels system was rather special. We also managed tickets to the Cirque du Soleil Michael Jackson One show which certainly didn't disappoint, it was absolutely brilliant and probably one of the best shows we have ever seen. Two nights with a little dabble in the casino was enough for us and we were ready to embark on 2000 miles of driving through four states, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and California. The first stop on our itinerary was Grand Canyon taking in along the way the amazing feet of man's engineering, the Hoover Dam. Upon arrival in the Grand Canyon it is difficult to fully describe this amazing place and to think that millions of years previously the top of the canyon was once the sea bed. Our early morning helicopter flight was probably the best way to view one of the most remarkable natural wonders in the world. Photos certainly don't do it justice, it was jaw dropping to see and experience. We then hired bikes and cycled from the visitor centre to Hermits Rest where we were able to take plenty more photos. We enjoyed our 2 night stay at the historic El Tovar hotel directly on the rim of the Grand Canyon and from where after our 2nd night we could take an early sunrise walk along 'The Trail of Time' before heading off on our next stop to Lake Powell. This is a reservoir on the Colorado River straddling the border between two states, Utah and Arizona and is the second largest man made reservoir in the United States. It is a very popular holiday destination with many visitors preferring to hire house boats to discover the area. We thoroughly enjoyed a full day boat trip to Rainbow Bridge, one of the largest known natural bridges in the world. Our stay at the Lake Powell resort with a view of the lake meant that we could enjoy the stunning views from our balcony.

Two days later and we were off again this time heading to Zion National Park in Utah. The drive into the park took us via Highway 9 which is one of the most scenic drives. The road zig zags through the Virgin River valley and then enters the mile long Zion Mount Carmel tunnel. Zion national park is nature at its most eloquent. The scenery is absolutely breath-taking with its towering sand stone monoliths. We spent 2 nights staying just outside the park at the Driftwood Lodge in Springdale and were able to enjoy some beautiful walks in the park. There are excellent facilities within Zion including a free shuttle bus from where there are many stops for you to take the various trails which are offered to visitors, some easier than others depending on your disposition and enthusiasm. The one thing that stood out for me in this beautiful place is that Grand Canyon is viewed from above and Zion is viewed from within. It is difficult to put in words the sheer beauty of this National Park; again it is something that really needs to be experienced.

usa-holiday-002As we knew we had a very long day ahead we left the hotel early and drove via the outskirts of Las Vegas to Death Valley. Fortunately as Utah is one hour ahead of California and Nevada it meant that we gained a precious hour on our long drive. Death Valley is in stark contrast to the beauty we had left behind in Zion. It felt like driving on the surface of another planet. It is very flat and baron in places with volcanic peaks. We stopped at the salt plains, the lowest point in the western hemisphere. The heat was intense; 114 showing on the dashboard of our car. On getting out it felt like you were literary in an oven. You could taste the salt on your lips and the dryness of your skin as we got back into our car after only 15 minutes. I couldn't get over how strong the wind was, it nearly blew me over on our short walks at Bad Water and Artist Drive. We stayed overnight at Furnace Creek Ranch in order to break our journey as we had been travelling for over 9 hours.

usa-holiday-003We had another very long day with 300 miles in front of us to Yosemite National Park so we left early partly to avoid the heat. At 7.30 am the temperature was already 84 degrees so with another 100 miles driving through Death Valley it was a sensible decision. After a few hours where we scarcely saw another car we turned off the 395 to Yosemite via the Tioga pass. This pass is normally shut from November through to the end of May due to snow but we had checked before we left that it was open. It is an amazing drive through nature at its very best. You could easily be in Canada, Norway or other places in the world with the alpine trees and cascading streams coming from all directions. It is here that you run out of superlatives to describe the sheer beauty of this National Park, so diverse to what we had experienced the day before. We checked into the Tenaya Lodge at Fish Camp which is about 50 minutes outside the Park. It had been a long day partly due to the rest stops and taking photographs so we decided to eat in one of the restaurants at the Lodge. Our next day as with all our visits had been planned to maximize our time here. We drove to the visitors centre enjoying the scenery along the way. The road is very windy but with some amazing viewpoints. We had booked the valley floor tour which is approximately 2 hours and is in an open top trailer with seats pulled by a lorry engine at the front. The tour guide sits on a high chair facing you and we found her very knowledgeable on all aspects of the park. Lots of photos taken of El Capitan, Cathedral Spires and the Three Brothers and we found the tour gave us a good insight into the history of the park whilst being good value for money. The afternoon was again spent hiring bikes and exploring the various trails on offer but this time at our own pace. It was such a lovely way to spend an afternoon with so many open spaces with the Merced River running through it. I can't think of a better way to describe it but it is a truly special and beautiful place. If time permits I would definitely spend a minimum of 3 nights here as there is so much to see and do.

usa-holiday-004Our 5 National Park visits had now come to an end and we were heading off to San Francisco for another 2 nights. Having previously stayed here many years ago where we were fortunate enough to have seen most of the top places to visit, we decided to explore the city on foot with so much driving already under our belts. We walked to Hyde Street and took the Cable car to Union Square and from here we walked back to our hotel taking in the atmosphere of this lovely city and its shops, bars and restaurants and of course the thriving Fisherman's Wharf area. Fortunately our hotel offered a valet parking service as you certainly would not want to be driving in San Francisco. So the next day we headed off for our 4 hour guided cycling tour of the city, stopping off for coffee just before navigating the Golden Gate Bridge. Unfortunately the weather wasn't on our side as it was very windy with low cloud but at least it wasn't raining. However by the time we crossed the bridge and cycled into Sausalito the sun was waiting for us and we were able to enjoy lunch in one of the many caf├ęs. Our tour ended here but we were able to keep our bikes until 5pm which allowed us to cycle to the Old Mill Park to see some of the tallest trees, the Redwoods before heading off on a special cycle route to Tiburon. Parts of the cycle ride reminded me of Salcombe in Devon with its houses scattered over the headland trying to get the best view of the bay. We sat in the sunshine waiting for our ferry to take us back to Pier 41 before handing our bikes back to the rental company.

The next day we headed out of San Francisco and drove via the Twin Peaks. We had read reviews saying it offered amazing views of the city. I am sure this is true when there isn't low cloud but unfortunately today wasn't the day to take in the panorama views. We then managed to negotiate our way out of the city and onto Highway 1 with the help of our TomTom and road map. I would strongly recommend taking both and if you have your own Sat Nav it is much cheaper then hiring one. Sadly for us the cloud didn't really lift all day and although we made a number of stops we decided to continue on to Monterey in the hopes of finding some late afternoon sunshine and there it was waiting for us. We checked into our hotel, The Spindrift Inn where we had been allocated a beautiful room on the ground floor with the bay view I had dreamed off. Wow!!! I think it is the closest room to the sea we have ever stayed in and what was even more exciting was watching the bay seals through the hotel binoculars from our large window whilst enjoying a cup of tea. It was a truly wonderful sight and one I will remember for a very long time. If you are reading this blog you will probably understand that we are both keen cyclist as we tried to arrange bicycle hire in as many places as we could. usa-holiday-005The next morning we collected our pre booked bikes from across the road and headed along the coast to Carmel via Pebble Beach. The ride took us along 17 Mile Drive where we saw more bay seals and managed to photograph 4 deer crossing the road just in front of us. Again the only disappointing aspect was the weather and the low cloud. Arriving in Carmel we found it very busy, this was partly due to the fact that it was a Sunday. It is a very pretty place with lots of interesting shops but if you are like my husband, he couldn't wait for us to leave as shopping is definitely not high on his agenda!!! Heading back towards Monterey, we could see the blanket of cloud lifting and handed our bikes back so we could relax with a cup of tea and that beautiful view from our room before embarking on an evening whale watching tour to see humpback whales. And did we see them; about 8 miles out from the coast there they were waiting for us and doing a little display for all their visitors to photograph. We even saw a sea lion with her pup and whilst we were cold and exhausted by the time we arrived back, it was certainly worth the trip. The last part of our holiday was the drive down Big Sur from Carmel to San Simeon. It is known as the greatest meeting of land and sea and is a 90 mile stretch of rugged and awesomely beautiful coastline, that's if you are lucky enough to see it without the low cloud and sea mist obstructing the view. It reminded me so much of the Cornish Coastline although you obviously can't drive as close to the sea as you can here. There are plenty of viewing points from where you can take photos. We then drove down to San Simeon where we spent the afternoon at Hearst Castle as I had booked tickets for two of the guided tours. It was originally built as a ranch by William Randolph Hearst in 1912 and was handed back to the state in 1957 who re-named it a castle. It is definitely worth a visit and I would strongly recommend you pre book one of the tours!! Our overnight stop was in Cambria as it was too far to drive to our last location in one day. Our final 2 nights were spent in Santa Barbara shopping for presents to take home down the famous State Street, visiting the old pier which has partly been re-built having experienced a couple of fires in recent years. We also borrowed bikes from our hotel where we were able to cycle all along the promenade which stretches for a few miles. Our epic journey had finally come to an end with our drive to Los Angeles airport for our flight home.

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