#noregrets on Contiki’s Western Highlights tour
For a western ‘highlights’ tour, it sure is hard to decipher my own highlights of the trip. Looking back it’s all a blur of awesomeness, sugar highs, literal highs and visions of iconic scenery in between.
As a Contiki novice my expectations were mainly of nerves and what ifs - what if I don’t make friends? What if I vomit on the bus? And my most dreaded - what if I get left behind at a Walmart? Luckily, all those ‘what if’s’ never came to fruition. Friends were easily made since most people were travelling solo, I’m proud to say all but one poor love survived the trip without a bus puke and most importantly no one got left behind at Walmart.
Day one on the trip and I feel like I’m starting a new school. After a few days of exploring LA on my own, I check in at a downtown hotel at a blearing 7am and board the bus set for San Diego. Our tour guide Tyson (pictured above) runs through all that we need to know about the adventure that lies ahead. “We’re not here for a long time but we’re here for a good time,” he says as he passes around a clip board with the day’s itinerary on it. This little piece of paper is key to not being left behind and I hastily snap a photo of it on my phone every day. The great thing with Contiki is, the activities are optional, so if you’re aiming to stretch your funds for a 6 month adventure you can always opt to sit out and explore the destination in your own time. Since I’m only in the States for a short amount of time though, I opt to do it all. Yolo! Starting with jet boating at our first stop – San Diego.
Born in San Diego and with a compulsory love for Anchorman, Tyson tells us all about the history of the city and their sucky NRL team – the Superchargers, whose cheesy disco theme song becomes a drunken favourite on our trip. Following a quick stop at the beautiful Balboa Park to stretch our legs we then headed across the Coronado Bridge (where Jack Black kicked Baxter off and put Ron in a glass case of emotion) to Coronado for lunch and then down to the harbour for some speedy jet boating- no rest for the wicked on Contiki! Our captain Glen runs us through the basics of our two-man speed boat, instructing us to simply follow him like ‘mother duck’ and not drive too close to the US naval base otherwise… well who knows what would have happened to us. Luckily it didn’t happen. And instead we all had a speedy time along the harbour, driving passed lazing seals, under a huge naval ship and into the air as our light boats hit the waves from surrounding ferries. Following our high-seas stint we were then dropped off in the city for a couple of hours of exploration, then onto our hotel for a shower before hitting the town for a mean Mexican meal and margaritas at Fred’s Mexican Cantina in the old town. And that’s only Day 1!
9am the next morning and while some are nursing a piano bar induced hangover, I’m ready and raring for what lies in store for the day. Some of our group has opted to spend the day at San Diego’s zoo (Panda Watch!), but being a wannabe mermaid I’ve opted to check out Seaworld and the famous Shamu! As expected the Shamu show was without a doubt the highlight of the day, but the seal show, penguin enclosure, touch pool and manta flying roller coaster also stand out in my mind. After a big day of sea-creature fun, the bus picks us up to take us to Mission Beach. At the time I was tired and cold and sooky and not so keen on going to a windy beach, but I’m really glad I did. Especially when a group of us stumbled across cheap beach-side cocktails and wave pool at the Wave House. Most excellent. After the sun set over the beach, it was back to the hotel to freshen up, then on to Kristy’s Sports Bar for some beer pong, cheap cider and karaoke bonding before bed. You stay class San Diego. I’m Lauren Burvill?
Bright and early AGAIN the next day and after a downing of sad pancakes we hit the road bound for Phoenix. Within minutes of crossing the California boarder the scenery started to get very red, rocky and I squealed at the first sighting of a cactus. To liven up the drive we made a stop off at Walmart where the guys headed to the gun department and the girls stocked up on makeup (so cheap) and re-enacted People of Wallmart shots. And yes, the website does ring true to the reality – scary! Back on the road and finally we arrived in Phoenix. After dropping our bags off at the hotel some of us walked around to do a bit of shopping before dinner and a bull ride at the Saddle Ranch Chop House – a must if you find yourself in Phoenix. After dinner half of us continued on into the balmy night, while the rest of us headed back and tucked ourselves into bed to get ready for a ridiculously early morning.
Up before the sun, a group of us snuggled up in a van and were driven out to the desert. Most might find this scenario alarming but with the promise of a hot air balloon ride at sunrise, we sleepily went along with it all. Once we were in the middle of cacti and coyote country, there it was - a beautiful hot air balloon that took us peacefully up into the sky, 4200 feet above sea level. The view was spectacular and the feeling was surreal. After a smooth landing we were treated to a champagne breakfast while other balloons floated above. Following the ride it was back on the Contiki bus and off to the wild west - Sedona. Our group by this stage had well and truly bonded and if we hadn't yet, we were about to. Once in Sedona we joined a bunch of real-deal, gun-toting, howdy ma'am cowboys for a bumpy red rock jeep ride. With nothing but each other to hold onto, we gripped on and giggled for dear life as we navigated the rocky road. The laughs continued later on too when we stopped for a group photo and were faced with a bunch of cowboys trying to work out our different cameras. Now that’s something you don’t see every day! After our wild west adventure, it was time to finally make our way to the Grand Canyon, a spot that many of us had been looking forward to.
While we saw it briefly on the day we arrived, it was all about the Pipilion Grand Canyon helicopter ride the next morning. Split into groups and kitted out with headsets we lifted off and soared above the widest part of the canyon. This is the part where words and images can't even begin to describe the feeling, the size, the beauty - a bucket-list experience if ever there was one. Back on the ground and at our accommodation, the squirrel friendly Maswick Lodge, we tucked in to a hearty breakfast and began to make plans for the day. Some had opted to go for a bike ride while a group of us decided to go on a leisurely canyon hike - a feat that must be noted is way harder than it looks. Going down into the canyon was a total breeze. I could have done a dance along the way. Going back though? Sweet cheeses it was hard! I struggled. The air was so thin it made it really hard to breathe, which made it really hard to walk, which made me not want to do it again unless our helicopters from that morning could pick me up at any point in time. It was worth it for the photos alone though. And because afterwards we had a reason to treat ourselves to birthday pizza and birthday cake thanks to our fellow hiker Susannah's birthday. What a great place to have a birthday!
But birthday celebrations were just the beginning of what Contiki had in store for us because the next stop? Vegas! With always an appropriate soundtrack and movie choice playing, Contiki and Tyson weren’t about to let us down, this time playing The Hangover on the drive there. To break up the trip we stopped over at IN&OUT burger and the super quirky Route 66 where 50s memorabilia and crowds of Japanese tourists made for a hilarious combination. A quick roadside shot and we were on the last leg - Vegas baby! Driving into Las Vegas was surreal. Tyson on the mic ran us through the dos and don'ts of Vegas, encouraging us to visit all of the Casinos and letting us in on some helpful facts (will blog about them soon) to ensure we made the most of things. Once at our hotel, Harrahs Casino, us girls showered up and hit the shops to get glam for the night ahead. Arriving on the bus in our Sunday best we drove down the strip to snap a photo of the iconic ‘Welcome to Vegas’ sign then on to the totally quirky/cheesy Italian restaurant (pun!) Buca di Beppo for pasta, cheesecake and Contiki punch. Well and truly in the party mood now, the bus dropped us off at downtown Vegas to take advantage of the cheap drinks and the light show. Partying with Contiki also means you get sweet club hook ups too, so when it was time to party like it was our birthday we got to skip the line at XS where we then danced to Lil John on the decks (YEAH!) and drank very strong drinks and then the rest is a fun, light-filled blur.
Mornings in Las Vegas are all about buffet breakfasts which finish at around 10am which means you need to drag yourself out of bed before this time to take advantage of all of the foods. The buffet breakfast session was also a great opportunity to catch up with the rest of the group and piece together what happened the night before. No teeth had been pulled out but one of us did somehow manage to wake up in a public toilet down town. Ahhh Vegas. After breakfast a bunch of us jumped in a cab (taxis are very cheap in Vegas) and hot footed it to the shopping outlets for some retail therapy. With some damage done at the Nike and Calvin Klein stores we then set about an exhausting casino crawl that included New York New York, the Flamingo, the Egyptian themed Luxor and the Venetian. While the rides at New York New York were pretty impressive, the Venice themed Venetian complete with gondola rides was by far my favourite. Back at the hotel and we all spruced up again for a night out on the town, starting with some jaw-dropping entertainment at Planet Hollywood’s V - Ultimate Variety Show then a limo ride up the strip. This would have to be my Vegas highlight – and one of the reasons to see Vegas with Contiki; new found friends, champagne flowing, music blaring and the magical lights of Vegas whizzing by. What more could you ask for? It was the perfect way to end my time with Contiki. Well, the night didn’t exactly stop there but you know what they say. What happens in Vegas…. #noregrets