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Cross Country By Bus Adventures – Part 1 (Westbound)

Our 26-Day Cross Country trip returned earlier this week after driving over 7,300 miles across our great nation and seeing dozens of historic sites, iconic places, national parks, and more. After each trip, the Starr Tour Director is responsible for providing a write up of everything that goes wrong, and right, while on the road. Starr Tour Director, Gene Gray’s report is a fun and vivid retelling of their Cross Country adventures. For your reading pleasure, here are Days 1-13. Stay tuned next week for the second half of their amazing “Journey of a Lifetime!”

 

Day 1: Saturday, June 24, 2017

I had been anticipating this trip for over 6 months and the day was finally here! The heavy rains poured down on us as we pulled away from the Starr garage and headed to our first pick up in Hamilton. Once in Bensalem, we met our 3 shuttles from our outlying pickup locations. Finally, when everyone arrived and all bags were accounted for, Starr’s owners, Alan and Renee Glickman bid us a fond farewell (with some snacks) and off we went into the sunset, err, sunrise (the skies were actually clearing and we saw the first sun of the day).

I went over the safety regulations, welcomed everyone through song and speaking, and before we knew it, we found ourselves pulling into our first rest area on the PA Turnpike.  We then continued west. The trip was smooth with no traffic as we left Pennsylvania, drove briefly through West Virginia, and proceeded into the state of Ohio. I showed the epic 1962 movie, “How the West Was Won” throughout this part of the journey.

We arrived at the Drury Inn hotel in time for their “Kickback” (free food and drinks) and everyone seemed very pleased! Our first day was a successful one. We have a diverse group of wonderful, friendly people who are extremely pleased and excited to be on this “Trip of a Lifetime.” Our driver, Buddy Maphis, did a magnificent job behind the wheel. Tomorrow we continue on to St. Louis.

 

Day 2: Sunday, June 25, 2017

After breakfast, as we were heading westward, it wasn’t long before passengers in the middle and back of the bus began telling me about how bouncy the bus was for them. I went to the back and sat, and sure enough, I began leaving my seat on certain stretches of the road. I immediately told Buddy about this and he took control of the problem from there. During our lunch stop, Buddy was able to contact Starr’s mechanics who found a company to fix the problem. A 6am appointment for Monday morning was made to bring the bus in to a shop that specializes in Prevost busses. Lucky for us!

After the Cracker Barrel we had planned to stop at for lunch had an unexpected crowd, we continued traveling west while I scampered to find a place for us to eat lunch. Thanks to my copy of The Next Exit, the wifi on the bus, and my iPad, I found a Bob Evans just fifteen miles away. I called and they were very happy to accommodate us. The service and food were very good and the passengers enjoyed it. We were soon on our way to St. Louis.

We arrived in St. Louis at our next Drury Inn right on time. After placing our personal belongings in our rooms, 30 of us boarded the tram for our optional 90 minute tour. The Guide was very knowledgeable and interesting as we drove through the streets learning about the old mansions, Forest Park where the 1904 World’s Fair was located, as well as the Budweiser Brewery. After the tour, the passengers enjoyed another “Kickback” for dinner. Later, some went for a walk to the Arch, some walked to Cardinals vs. Pirates ESPN game of the week at Busch Stadium (just down the block), while others decided to relax in the comfort of their room. I walked to the Arch and was able to secure our tram tickets for tomorrow.

 

Day 3: Monday, June 26, 2017

Buddy drove the bus to the garage while I met our passengers for another fine breakfast. During breakfast, Buddy called me from the garage and said the bus had been fixed! It had “snapped a pin” (probably from a large pothole) near the shocks in the rear of the bus. The bus was repaired, checked thoroughly, and given routine maintenance.

Meanwhile, I handed out the tickets for the tram ride to the passengers and organized a walk to the Arch. The tram ride to the top was unique, with 5 of us squeezed into this tiny cubby (but we became good friends afterwards). The view was spectacular and the passengers who did not suffer from height anxiety loved this excursion. After we returned back down to civilization, passengers enjoyed the gift shop, some viewed the movie, and then took a slow walk back to the hotel. Buddy had already returned, loaded our luggage, and soon we were on our way to Oklahoma, right on schedule.

We had a delicious buffet lunch on Route 66 in Rolla, Missouri at the Sirloin Stockade’s all-you-can-eat buffet. Upon pulling out of the restaurant parking lot, I played the song, “Route 66,” and showed a History Channel documentary on Route 66 to the delight of the passengers. Upon entering Oklahoma two hours later, I played more music (“Oklahoma”) and showed half of the movie.

We arrived at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Catoosa (Tulsa) at 6:15pm. The casino provided each passenger with a casino package and we were on our own for the remainder of the evening.

 

Day 4: Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Breakfast began with most of us (including me) having to return to our room to get our driver’s license in order to be allowed into breakfast! In addition, we had to sign that breakfast coupon in 2 places. We all began making jokes that next, they’d prick our fingers and require blood samples. Even with these strict regulations, we realized the Hard Rock was an adult playground and was fun for one night.

Back on the bus, my passengers surprised me by singing “Happy Birthday.” I felt extremely touched. In just a few short days, I’m feeling the close bonding of a wonderful group of people. We headed to Dallas through isolated rainstorms until we reached the Texas border where the weather cleared, but it was a hot and a humid 87°. I presented the passengers with a Kennedy lesson composed of 2 parts. First was the Lincoln-Kennedy comparison titled “Does History Repeat Itself.” The second was titled “Who Killed Kennedy” and featured the Zapruder film. The passengers loved it and based on their enthusiastic discussions, it was the perfect introduction to our day at the Kennedy Museum Sixth Floor Depository where Oswald supposedly killed Kennedy.

Our passengers are comprised of an equal number of Eagles, Giants, and Cowboys fans. However, upon entering Dallas, one of the Eagles fans sang the Eagles Fight Song and all joined in on the fun.

The passengers were all instructed to view the map I provided on Historic Dallas and have a plan for themselves when they got off the bus. Their one stipulation was they had to find their way and walk to the location of the Book Depository to begin our Tour of the Kennedy Museum at 2:45. I had a delicious lunch at the Spaghetti Warehouse while others ate at their choice of about 15 establishments. And, to my delight, everyone found their way back to the Depository on time.

We were given headphones and an iPod-like device that would constitute our guided tour. It turned out to be fantastic as everyone went through the Museum at their own pace and interest level. For me, I’ve been teaching about this for 40 years and couldn’t believe that I was actually in Dealy Square in Dallas. I got very emotional. The Museum was even better than I imagined. The best part is when you looked out of the window at the angle Lee Harvey Oswald shot his rifle and realized that he could never have been the one to kill Kennedy. Many passengers who were first realizing this too became upset, angry, and bewildered. And they wanted to know more. It was a great experience.

Our driver Buddy, as always, was wonderful. While we were playing in Dallas, he drove our luggage to the hotel and got our room keys. So, when we arrived at the hotel we were able to relax in our rooms for a solid hour. Dinner at El Fenix Restaurant was delicious. We talked and shared food family-style and laughed for over 2 hours.

I told the passengers they all successfully completed their first test today and passed. They were on their own in a strange city and were able to orient themselves and find their way. I emphasized the importance of this skill because they’ll have many more opportunities to find their way in strange places in days to come. They were proud.

 

Day 5: Wednesday, June 28, 2017

This morning we took a leisurely ride “Deep in the Heart of Texas” to Amarillo. (You can guess which songs I played today.) By leisurely, I mean that we stopped at a really neat rest area for 30 minutes with plenty of Texas style shopping available. And, we stopped at a great shopping center for lunch with a Super Walmart for lunch and shopping across the street. The weather was beautiful, about 90° with 23% humidity. I showed the magnificent 2017 Academy Award winning video, “Hidden Figures.” It takes place in Texas (Houston) and was extremely uplifting for all (no pun intended since it had to do with the brilliant minds working for NASA at the time of John Glenn’s space flight).

We arrived in Amarillo with time to relax before dinner at the Big Texan Steak Ranch. After taking a group photo by the giant bull, we were seated. The atmosphere was all Texas. Stuffed buffalo heads and deer with antlers hung from the rafters overlooking a giant room packed with tables and people. Straight ahead of us, in front of the kitchen, was the raised platform for customers taking the 72 oz. Steak Challenge. A young woman soon climbed up to the table on the platform and was ceremoniously announced as the next contestant. She was served and the timer began – she had 60 minutes to finish or pay $72. Meanwhile, most of us ate a 16 oz steak with baked potato and string beans (others ordered chicken or the veggie platter). I believe I was the only person to finish the entire steak (groan). It was delicious and the evening was a lot of fun with time to shop and take pictures in their unique settings.

By the way, the young woman ate a quarter of the steak and took the rest home.

 

Day 6: Thursday, June 29, 2017

Five minutes into our ride this morning, we noticed the Cadillac Ranch on our left and stopped for pictures. Ten Cadillacs were buried halfway with their front ends sticking up at an angle by two hippies in 1974. They are continuously spray painted in psychedelic colors and are a clever representation of art on the prairie. Bruce Springsteen has a song about it, “Cadillac Ranch,” which I, of course, had to play.

We continued on I-40 into Albuquerque, NM. The scenery has begun to change. Red mesas and buttes began popping up and the ground was parched. Route 66 ducked in and out to our right. I played the video, “True Grit,” the 1969 western starring John Wayne and Glen Campbell.

We arrived in Old Town Albuquerque for lunch and shopping. The temperature was 96°, the humidity was 3%, making it feel a comfortable 89°. It was a delightful change from our 90° and 90% humidity at home. Old Town Albuquerque had the feel of a Mexican or Spanish market with Native American relics thrown in the mix. People were actually selling jewelry from blankets placed on the sidewalks. The passengers once again used their maps and found their way nicely.

At the Sandia Peak Tramway, we caught our tram to traverse the mountain. During the 15 minute ride, the scenery was magnificent as we ascended to the 10,000 foot mark in elevation. We then stepped off of tram at the peak and walked around the top for 15 minutes until the next tram made its way up to bring us down.

We arrived at our next Drury Inn exactly as scheduled and the passengers were on their own for the evening with a mall across a small street to walk to if they wished. Tomorrow we hit Canyon Country!

 

Day 7: Friday, June 30, 2017

Everyone woke up anticipating a great day at Petrified Forest National Park and they certainly got what they were expecting and more. The weather was warm with no humidity, about 86° without a cloud in the sky. Breakfast at the Drury Inn was wonderful and enjoyed by all.

We left Albuquerque and made our way to Arizona. I explained a few facts about the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert and then showed a 20 minute documentary to reinforce the ideas. We stopped at a rest area in Gallup, NM that featured a Navajo Welcome Center and a Loves Truck Stop. The ladies excitedly commented that this was the best rest area as they walked out with Turquoise earrings, necklaces, and bracelets for 60% off the regular price. The men weren’t commenting, but they bought a few things as well. Once back on the bus, we crossed into Arizona and our electronic devices jumped back one hour. I explained to the passengers about why Arizona stayed in standard time (because of the heat, they did not want to extend the daylight hours further into the evening). I also explained that the Hopi Reservations in Arizona did change to daylight saving time. The bus went through Arizona’s Port of Entry and we arrived at the Petrified Forest National Park.

As we pulled in, our electronic devices jumped ahead one hour. We must have been near a Hopi Reservation Tower. We all got a kick out of that. Buddy began our tour through the National Park with me as his copilot. We stopped at 2 of the first 3 scenic overlooks and couldn’t believe the beauty. The vivid and contrasting colors were striking. The passengers and I were excitedly taking many pictures of the scenery as well as family and group pictures for each other. The enthusiasm was a sight to behold. We are becoming a close knit group and caring about each other.

We stopped for lunch at a fabulous picnic spot under a metal awning. Passengers took their boxed lunches from The Savory Fare Café and really enjoyed their sandwich and all the extras that came with it like fruit salad, macaroni salad, chips, and a brownie. It felt awesome picnicking in 86° temperatures with no humidity in such a magnificent landscape.

We continued our tour of the Park arriving at the Petrified Forest half. Each stop had its unique features; a Bridge of a large Petrified log over a vast cliff, small Petrified pieces scattered for miles, and finally, the greatest of all, Petrified wood all around us so that we could walk up to each piece, touch it, and take pictures. There was also a ¾ mile walk into the badlands that 7 of us took. The Petrified logs were spectacular along this trail being all different shapes, sizes, and brilliant colors. Nature is the greatest artist of all. We all took many pictures and the walk was just what we needed. The exercise felt invigorating and the day was exhilarating, to say the least.

We passed Winslow, AZ on our way to Flagstaff on I-40, so I had to play “Take It Easy” by The Eagles. Upon our arrival at the hotel, the gentleman handling our luggage met us immediately and got to work. The keys were ready for me and I handed them out to the passengers on the bus as is now customary. Buddy was going to Walmart for supplies and graciously took passengers who needed some things with him. Others went to dinner at one of the suggested restaurants. The restaurants were very close to the hotel and the passengers were able to walk without incident. Some passengers did a load of laundry before retiring for the night. A great day was had by everyone.  We are all excited about seeing the Grand Canyon tomorrow.

 

Day 8: Saturday, July 1, 2017

Today was as exhilarating as it was an exhausting day. Breakfast was superb with a spread of many different varieties of breakfast foods. We boarded the All Aboard America Bus as Buddy was washing our bus inside and out. It was his 8th day of work and thus his mandatory day off. I am not sure Buddy knows what a “day off” is! I begged him to rest today and he assured me he would after finishing up. Jan Duncan was our driver. He was very friendly and personable. He was a very good driver as well and enjoyed being with our group.

We met our Grand Canyon Harvey Girl Guide, Gail Solis, at 9:30 AM at the Desert View Watchtower Overlook. This was a perfect and beautiful view point for our passengers to first lay their eyes on the grandeur of the Grand Canyon. They could see the mighty Colorado River meandering through the colorful gorge and climb to the top of the watchtower to get a different perspective of the Canyon.

Our guide took us to 3 overlooks, all spectacular, while imparting many facts and stories about the Grand Canyon. For example, there exists a reserved area under lock and key for people who secure a permit to hold their wedding ceremony overlooking the Canyon rim. She also explained the differences among the 3 major types of trees along the rim; juniper trees, pinion pines, and Ponderosa pines. She then took us around the Grand Canyon Village telling us the history of the Bright Angel Lodge, the El Tovar Hotel, and the Hopi House.

I gave the passengers 2 hours to roam around the Village area (which had different spectacular views of the Grand Canyon) and the hours seemed to vanish in minutes. We all ate lunch, shopped for souvenirs, and viewed the Canyon in all its glory. Lunch in the Bright Angel Lodge was delicious. I joined 2 Starr couples and enjoyed eating and chatting with them.

We then drove to the newly built Visitor’s Center Complex which included the Visitor’s Center, another Grand Canyon Store, a Museum, and bathrooms. Upon leaving the bus to walk into the Visitor’s Center, I spotted a huge elk nibbling on grass just a few feet away so I alerted a Park Ranger. About 20 minutes later, the elk had been escorted to safely frolic in a remote section of the park, but we were able to snap a few pictures before he left.

I purchased a video at the Canyon about the history of the Harvey Girls and showed the video during our trip back to Flagstaff. The passengers seemed to enjoy it. We arrived at our hotel exhilarated and exhausted after a full day of sensory stimulation.

 

Day 9: Sunday, July 2, 2017

After a great breakfast we began rolling and headed south towards breathtaking Sedona, AZ. Traveling on Route 89A was beautiful and hair raising as the right side of the bus was adjacent to a cliff as we meandered down this steep decline. Passengers feared looking out the window but Buddy kept us safe! I was playing Arizona songs including the song, “Sedona” by Donna Loren which helped everyone relax. We arrived at the Pink Jeep Tour to embark on our badlands tour of Sedona. Six passengers chose not to ride the Jeep Tour so they strolled around the quaint shops in town.

After meeting our Pink Jeep Drivers, we broke up into groups of 6 and climbed up into our jeeps, buckled our seat belts, and drove off the blacktop and up into the hills of Sedona. Each driver/guide spoke about the history of Sedona as we turned right, up a hill, and then a left onto a dirt, rocky road. And the bouncy bouncy began. Our driver identified the different trees along the road as the jeep’s tires, which are made of the same material as a bulletproof vest, rolled over rock after rock while swaying us from right to left and back to the right again. The driver showed great driving skills to keep the Jeep from rocking too badly over this rugged terrain. It was great fun and everyone enjoyed the experience.

We stopped at the halfway point to get out, stretch, and take some pictures of the Jeep and wondrous landscape. The Drivers were kind to organize a group photo and took all of our devices and snapped away. The dirt we were standing on was the famous and sacred red Sedona earth, filled with iron. The dust got onto our shoes and I told everyone to be proud of your now reddish tinted shoes. That was Sedona dust!!!

The return trip was just as bumpy as our driver skillfully maneuvered our Jeep over the rocks. He spoke about the animals that live in the area as well as the geology of the area (same as the Grand Canyon). He told us Sedona has used up 93% of its legal building land and cannot grow much more or build more homes. That’s why the average home costs $500,000 and since the average income for a family in Sedona is only $45,000 per year, most workers live away from the city. We reached the blacktop once again and soon our Pink Jeep Tour was over. The passengers all loved the experience and felt that they accomplished something unique in their lives (and survived).

We had 2 hours for lunch and shopping in this quaint 3-block town nestled beneath these gorgeous red rock sculptures in the distance. One of our passengers, challenged me to join him and his wife for lunch at the Cowboy Club. He was going to try rattlesnake sausage, buffalo meat, and cactus fries. Being in the frame of mind to try new foods, “When in Rome…..” I shrugged my shoulders as to say “Why not?” and walked across the street to the Cowboy Club.

The menu said, “Appetizer Sampler: Cactus Fries, buffalo skewers, rattlesnake sausage, with prickly pear sauce.” After hemming and hawing, I ordered it. And 15 minutes later, this plate of “food” was set in front of me. The server explained each item and he said to enjoy. Each food was actually delicious. The rattlesnake sausage tasted like a mild pork sausage and by dipping it into the prickly pear sauce, added a mildly hot after taste. The most mouth-watering was the buffalo. It tasted like a tender steak with a mild lime sauce. I ate the entire platter. And 6 hours later (while writing this), my stomach feels great.

I did some shopping, met up with many of our passengers, and soon walked back to the bus. Our next rest stop wouldn’t be for 3.5 hours (since there’s no stop anywhere in the Desert until Kingman, AZ). It was an absolutely beautiful day in Sedona, 85°, 6% humidity, and a mild breeze. And we were on our way to VEGAS!!!

I took the time to review my 12-page Las Vegas packet with the passengers. My goal is for them to have a plan for tonight and tomorrow. Some booked the Hoover Dam Tour while others began finding exact change for the Deuce shuttle. I then spoke briefly about the history of Las Vegas and showed a 50 minute History Channel video on Las Vegas. The trip on I-40 was long, the land was a big desert filled with tumbleweed plants, dry and flat, with very little scenery. When the video concluded, I let calm pervade the bus for a while. About an hour later, I put on the video, “Sunset Boulevard.” Some watched, some read, some slept. Finally, we saw a rest stop in the distance. Was it a mirage or a real form of civilization? It was real so we made a stop!

We passed the Hoover Dam 30 minutes from Las Vegas on the Nevada Highway and Buddy slowed down  so passengers could take pictures. He has done an absolutely marvelous job. Not only is he a great driver, he cares so much for the welfare of the passengers. He’s constantly keeping the bus clean in every way. Everyone’s comfort is his main objective.

We arrived at Las Vegas’ New York New York Hotel & Casino at 7:00 PM. After going up to my room, I made plans with 10 passengers to get tickets for tomorrow night and then travel by the Deuce to Downtown Las Vegas at Fremont Street. We got tickets for Cirque de Soleil’s “Love” featuring the music of the Beatles. I’m scratching off another from my bucket list.

Downtown Fremont Street under the 500 yard projection screen was wild!!! Four live concert bands were performing on stages, including an Elvis impersonator. Many individual performers displaying their talents included artists, guitar players, and contortionists. Restaurants and bars stood at every angle. And, I’d rather not describe the attire of some young ladies and men. They received their tips taking photos with the gawkers. A fun time was had by all. We took the Deuce back to the hotel and returned after midnight.

 

Day 10: Monday, July 3, 2017

Today was our day in Vegas. I met a friend from my past who moved to Las Vegas 20 years ago and he and I went out for brunch. At 4:00 PM, 5 passengers and I who bought tickets for “Love” were planning to meet and take a nice walk to the Mirage.

It was a relaxing walk to the Mirage. It was hot, but not unbearable. We chose a wonderful Italian Restaurant in the Mirage and enjoyed our dinner. At 9:00 PM, the doors to the theater opened. The next 2 hours whizzed by. “Love” by Cirque de Soleil was the most indescribable show I’ve ever seen. The spectacular acrobatic performers, the ultra-amazing special effects, and the fabulous music by the Beatles were described by another passenger as a “Magical Mystery Tour.” Masterminds created the most unique interpretations of the Beatles songs in movement, acrobatics, and special effects.  It was truly a sensory explosion!!!  I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Following the show, we decided to walk back to the hotel. We caught the Fountain show outside of the Bellagio and arrived at the New York New York Hotel after midnight…again!

 

Day 11: Tuesday, July 4, 2017

At 7:45 AM, many sleep deprived passengers and one sleep deprived Tour Director boarded the bus for our ride into Los Angeles. I asked the passengers to voluntarily jot down (I sent around 2 clipboards and pens) their highlights in Las Vegas. After compiling them, the following were the highlights our passengers shared regarding their accomplishments in Las Vegas:

  • Saw the Beatles Cirque de Soleil Show, “Love”
  • Saw Michael Jackson’s Cirque de Soleil “One”
  • Visited Fremont Street in Downtown Old Las Vegas “Under the Giant Projection Screen”
  • Went to the Mob Museum off of Fremont Street
  • Walked through the different Hotels including the Bellagio, Caesars Palace, Mandalay Bay, MGM, Mirage, Venetian, Paris, the Wynn, and the New York New York
  • Accomplished the CSI Experience
  • Took the half day tour to the Hoover Dam
  • Saw the show “Legends in Concert”
  • Saw the show “Motown Hitsville USA” at Planet Hollywood
  • Ate at Pamas Brazilian Grill at Planet Hollywood
  • Good dinner on Fremont Street at the Paradise Cafe
  • Dinner at Portofino’s at the Mirage

As we rolled away from Las Vegas, I honored America’s Birthday by playing 4 patriotic tunes that included “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “God Bless America,” and “God Bless the USA.” I was texted 4 more requests from passengers on the bus! Soon, we entered California and I played “California Here I Come” by Al Jolson. I spoke to the passengers about the history of Calico, our next stop. We arrived at Calico Ghost Town and had plenty of time to walk into the Museums, the quaint shops, and the food establishments for lunch. The passengers enjoyed Calico, even though the temperatures were in the upper 90’s. At 1:00 PM, we were on the road to Los Angeles. I put on the movie “La La Land” for the passengers to enjoy before arriving at the Sportsmen’s Lodge.

The Sportsmen’s Lodge is a wonderful and picturesque hotel and the passengers were on their own for the evening.

 

Day 12: Wednesday, July 5, 2017

I had 8 hours of sleep, and it was greatly needed. The passengers commented that they were out as soon as their head hit the pillow. The “Adult Playground” of Las Vegas does that to you.

I met our Los Angeles Tour Guide from Tucker Tours, at 8 AM and we planned out the day. Chris is a 5-year employee, 25 years old, and is a wealth of knowledge about every section of Los Angeles including Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Sunset Strip, Century City, and Hancock Park. We got off the bus 3 times throughout the day; first, at the Chinese Theatre where Chris actually guided us around to the Dolby Theater, home to the Academy Awards and the infamous Red Carpet. The Stars’ “Walk of Fame” and the “Hollywood Sign” were also part of this stop. Chris commented that anyone deserving of a star, and about fifteen new ones are chosen each year, must pay $25,000 each. The money goes to daily maintenance including power washing and cleaning.

We rode all around Hollywood, the Sunset Strip, and Rodeo Drive. Many streets with famous homes are blocked off and it’s illegal for a bus to drive down them. In fact, it was Lucille Ball who fought hard for her privacy from tour busses and eventually won in court. The law is known as The Lucille Ball Law.

We arrived at the Farmers Market and Chris told us his top 3 places to eat. I joined Chris, Buddy, and about a third of our passengers at McGees, the first eating establishment to open at Farmers Market in 1934. It served the most delicious corn beef sandwich I’ve eaten in a long while. It was lean and not salty at all. We then strolled around the Farmers Market and The Grove, shops adjacent to the Market.

We continued our bus tour of downtown Los Angeles and passed places like the beautiful stainless steel Walt Disney Concert Hall built in 2004 and the current Robert Kennedy School, an Elementary, Middle, and High School complex which was built on the exact location of the Ambassador Hotel where Bobby was assassinated in 1968. Our last stop was the Mexican Market on Olvera Street.

It was a magnificent day as Chris and Buddy worked brilliantly as a team to teach us more than we ever knew about The City of Angels. Buddy commented that Chris, by far, was the most complete and knowledgeable Los Angeles Tour Guide. The passengers greatly appreciated Chris’s knowledge and delivery of information. He was very interesting to listen to. I took 10 pages of notes!

We returned back to the Sportsmen’s Lodge where they offer a free shuttle to Universal Studios including the Universal Studios CityWalk that borders the park. CityWalk features many fine restaurants, shops, and a food court and it’s free to walk around. Some passengers and I took the shuttle. We had a light dinner, did some shopping, and returned back to the Lodge in the early evening.

It is so heartwarming how we have gelled as a group with everyone caring for and respecting each other. Passengers make it a priority to meet time deadlines every day. We are all having a tremendous experience.

 

Day 13: Thursday, July 6, 2017

We departed LA right on time and drove to the Santa Barbara Courthouse. Cubby took us around for an hour telling us how the Courthouse was designed to reflect a Spanish castle and explained the meaning of the beautiful frescoes that adorned their main meeting room.

Our next stop was the Santa Barbara Mission. I gave each passenger a brochure with a map and they were on their own to explore. It was an easy tour to follow as signs always pointed you in the right direction. There was an 18 minute video and then an easy walk. The walk took us to the mausoleum, cemetery, church, and museum. It was very solemn and peaceful there.

The weather continues to be perfect. Temperatures in the mid-80s with low humidity. Santa Barbara is another beautiful city that many passengers would choose to live. They’ve said that about most cities on our tour thus far.

We boarded the bus for our 40-minute trip to Solvang and lunch. Buddy was not feeling well so, after dropping the passengers off in this quaint Scandinavian style town, I accompanied Buddy to a nearby hospital to get checked out.

I stayed with Buddy and kept in touch with the passengers via text and phone from the hospital. Tests were done and since the doctor could not guarantee that Buddy was 100% well enough to continue driving, we started developing a plan B. Naturally Buddy was upset. As he lay in the ER, he kept thinking of possible solutions and the welfare of the passengers.

I’ve only been with Starr for less than 2 years and the work ethic, connections, and the ability of management and employees to solve problems in a timely manner ceases to amaze me. Within 2 hours, Starr secured a new Starr bus driver (Tom Lardani), a plan to have him meet us in San Francisco, hotel rooms for both Buddy and Tom in Solvang, and most important, transportation for our group from Solvang to our hotel in Santa Maria and then transportation from Santa Maria to the Hearst Castle and onto San Francisco on Friday.  As far as the passengers were concerned, our itinerary will continue as planned and they were given 2 extra hours in Solvang while we waited for the Silverado driver/bus that our company hired.

When I knew Buddy was stable, I used my Lyft App to get a ride to where our passengers were waiting. I wanted to be with them when the Silverado Bus arrived. After boarding the bus, I directed the driver to the hospital where our Starr Bus was parked. Luckily, many passengers volunteered to help transfer the luggage from our Starr bus to the Silverado Bus. We then realized the greatness of porter service at each hotel and not having to drag our heavy luggage around!

We got settled in at the Radisson in Santa Maria at 7:00 PM and many of us had dinner in the hotel’s restaurant. The passengers, despite the upheaval, were in good spirits, concerned about Buddy’s health, and content that there will be no gaps in their trip.

This day, therefore, can be summed us as “Great teamwork all around,” by Starr, Silverado, and Passengers on this marvelous Cross Country Adventure. We all love Buddy, will miss him, and wish him good health!!! (Note: Buddy made it back home – via Greyhound as he doesn’t fly – and is feeling much better. He hasn’t been released to drive yet but we expect he will be soon!)

Great Spots for Kids in the Tri-State Area

If you’re lucky enough to live in the PA – NJ – NY tri-state area, you know that you have a world of options at your fingertips for everything from the shore to the mountains with attractions centered on history, science, entertainment, and more! With summer vacation in full swing this convenience is especially handy as there are so many kid-friendly destinations that make great day trips.

Here are our favorites for a kid-friendly outing:

New Jersey:

Liberty Island & Ellis Island; Ferry departs from Liberty State Park, Jersey City, NJ – Recommended: 4 hours
Lady Liberty, a symbol of freedom that once welcomed immigrants into the harbors of NY, now welcomes visitors to her shores. On Ellis Island, discover your own history. Travel there on a bus trip with Starr!

 

Liberty Science Center; Jersey City, NJ – Recommended: 2 hours
Experience more than 250 interactive exhibits focused on invention, environment, and health as well as the nation’s largest IMAX screen.

Adventure Aquarium; Camden, NJ – Recommended: 2 ½ hours
Named “America’s Most Touchable Aquarium,” children and adults will delight in all that this great aquarium has to offer.
Grounds for Sculpture; Hamilton, NJ – Recommended: 2-3 hours
An extensive sculpture garden displaying works by established and emerging American and international sculptors in a variety of styles and media. The grounds stretch over 42-acres with ponds, cafes, picnic areas, and interactive/touchable pieces.
 
Cape May County Zoo
; Cape May, NJ – Recommended: 2 hours
Over 250 different species make up the 550 animals on Cape May County Zoo’s 85-acres of exhibits. Be sure to check out their Tree to Tree Adventure Park.

 

Pennsylvania:
Amish Country; Lancaster, PA – Recommended: 1 day
Travel through Amish Farmlands and experience Amish history, clothing, customs, and culture. Go there on a bus trip with Starr!
Hersheypark & Hershey’s Chocolate World;
Hershey, PA – Recommended: 1 day
Experience Hershey’s Great American Chocolate Tour ride, complete with your own free Hershey’s sample, then head over to Hersheypark for over 60 rides and attractions. Hershey, PA is one very sweet destination!


Turkey Hill Experience
; Columbia, PA – Recommended: 2 hours
Explore Turkey Hill’s history while highlighting its ice cream and iced tea making processes. The Experience includes interactive exhibits, including a chance to make your own virtual ice cream flavor, a gift shop, and lots of other fun things!

 

Philadelphia Zoo; Philadelphia, PA – Recommended: 3 hours
Experience this 42-acre garden that is home to more than 1,300 animals, many of which are rare and endangered.

 

Franklin Institute; Philadelphia, PA – Recommended 3-4 hours
Located in the heart of Philadelphia, the Franklin Institute is one of America’s most celebrated museums – a renowned leader in science and technology.

New York:

Madame Tussauds Wax Museum
; New York City, NY – Recommended: 2 hours
Get up close and personal with over 200 historical figures, world leaders, celebrities, and more!

Intrepid Sea, Air, & Space Museum
; New York City, NY – Recommended: 2 ½ hours
On the aircraft carrier Intrepid, experience interactive exhibits and events providing a snapshot of heroism, education, and excitement.

 

American Museum of Natural History; New York City, NY – Recommended: 2 ½ – 4 hours depending on activities
The museum serves as a field guide to the entire planet and presents a panorama of the world’s cultures.


Top of the Rock
; New York City, NY – Recommended: 1 hour
Standing 70 stories above the city, you will find an unobstructed 360° panoramic view of Manhattan and surrounding areas.
 
NBC Studio Tour
; New York City, NY – Recommended: 75 minutes
Visit the NBC Sharp Globe Theater, Broadcast Operations, the Make-up Room, and even produce your very own news and weather program in the High Definition Mini-Control Studio!

Your kids will love any of these attractions, and you will, too! Make this the best summer yet for your whole family.

What tri-state area attractions would you recommend? Share in the comments below!
The Importance of Traveling With Your Children

The Importance of Traveling With Your Children

One of the greatest gifts you can give your children and grandchildren is the opportunity to get out of their comfort zone and experience the myriad of adventures that await them beyond their hometown. Travel provides not only the opportunity to see new and exciting things, but offers many valuable life lessons and skills as well.

Here are just a few ways that traveling with your children will enrich their lives:

Taking your kids on a trip with you demonstrates their importance to you.  When you actively show that you want to spend your time with them by choosing to take them along with you, they begin to understand their own value as individuals. Children learn more through your actions than your words and demonstrating that you are willing to spend your most valuable resource – your time – with them conveys their importance far more than the habitual “I love you.”

Travel teaches kids about diversity. Simply traveling to another state gives children insight into how others’ lives differ from their own. They get exposed to different foods, different living situations, even different accents and people. Interaction with a diverse population of people over the course of their childhood helps them become more accepting and open minded adults.

Travel helps kids overcome their fears. Venturing out of your comfort zone and into a new place can be daunting to anyone. Imagine doing so as a child with endless wonder and imagination. Children are safely led to confront all sorts of new experiences while traveling from new foods to new places to sleep and everything in between. When they safely confront and conquer a new experience, their confidence grows and their willingness and capability to tackle new challenges increases.

Engaging them in the planning process is a fantastic learning experience. Problem solving skills, map reading, decision making, budgeting, and scheduling are just a few of the lessons your children can learn as you include them in your trip planning and these are all important life skills that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Including your children in the planning process helps them become engaged with the trip and the itinerary. They have a hand in the adventure and learn what is possible, how to make things happen, and then to embrace the outcome.

Traveling fosters independence. Allowing your children to be responsible for packing their own bag (with supervision) enables them to plan out what they need and what they don’t. Holding your children accountable for keeping track of their own belongings, making sure that their luggage isn’t too heavy for them to carry, and packing efficiently fosters critical decision making skills and living with the outcomes of your decisions. Helping them to plan ahead to save money to buy their own souvenirs and perhaps leaving one or two items behind to save room for those souvenirs also fosters these skills.

Traveling with your children builds communication. Getting away from the regular routine of school and extracurricular practices and into new and different experiences brings up a vast array of conversation points. Instead of asking about their day at school, you can actively engage them in a conversation about what they learned that day at the museum, or the aquarium, or the battlefield, etc. You can ask them how they felt to learn this, if it changed their minds about what they thought about life, how they will describe the experience to their friends when they get home, their favorite part of the day, the guide they met. The opportunities are endless and the value of having a deep and meaningful conversation about new discoveries is priceless.

 

Traveling with your children is an invaluable experience for them and for you! While traveling with little ones can be stressful, it doesn’t have to be. Starr offers a Kids Sale every summer that makes traveling with your children and grandchildren even more affordable and we offer great bus trips with a mix of planned activity and opportunity to explore on your own. Call us, or check out our website for more information on all that we have to offer! We look forward to welcoming you and your children on our bus trips!

For tips on Preparing Tiny Travelers for Big Adventures, check out our blog post!

All is Not Lost!

Traveling on a bus trip with Starr is an exciting experience, and you’ll want to bring all sorts of things to help you enjoy it; cameras to capture the scenery, hats to shield your eyes from the sunny skies, iPads and e-readers to pass the time, and of course souvenirs to remember your Starr Vacation!

 

Sometimes, however, these items don’t quite make it home with you, whether they fall out of a pocket, get left in a hotel room, forgotten in a theater, or fall to the back of a Starr bus’ overhead bin. That’s where Starr’s Lost and Found comes in. We see a vast assortment of items including souvenirs, shoes, alcohol, and laundry, which could be returned to their owners if a few simple steps had been taken before the traveler left for their trip. Here are some tips which could help return your belongings to you after a Starr Vacation!

 

Before Your Trip

  1. Label Important Items
    Print out a small piece of paper with your name and phone number, and attach it to important belongings, such as a phone, iPad, camera, book, glasses case, car keys, a medicine bottle, or wallet. This is the easiest way for us to contact you. Alternatively, attach an address label to each item.
  2. Bring Labels with You
    Pack a sheet of address labels, a stack of business cards, or several pieces of paper with your contact information in your luggage. These can be used to label your water bottles, souvenir bags, etc.
  3. Take Photos of Your Belongings and your Driver’s License
    In the event that you’ve lost or misplaced something, you can send us a picture of the item so we know exactly what to look for. You can ALSO take a picture of your driver’s license! As we scroll through the pictures on lost, unlocked devices, we are looking to see if we can recognize anything, and a driver’s license is very recognizable.
  4. Tell Siri/Google Who You Are
    Sometimes returning an iPhone is as easy as asking “Call my wife!” If your iPhone, iPad, tablet, or Android device can connect to the internet without wifi, leave that function on. Even if we can’t unlock your device, we can use a few smart built-in features like Siri or the Google Assistant to ask who the device belongs to! To help this work, make sure you have told Siri or your Google contacts who you are, who your spouse is, who your children are, and your home phone number.
  5. Find My Phone Function
    If you have an iPhone, consider activating the “Find my iPhone” function; and if you have an Android device, activate the “find my device” function alongside your GPS. Both of these can allow you to remotely lock and locate your phone should it be lost.¹

 

During Your Trip

  1. Look Around
    As you get on and off the coach, check on your seat, under your seat, and in the overhead bins carefully to ensure you have everything that belongs to you.
  2. Souvenir Bags
    If you purchase souvenirs, place a business card, address label, or slip of paper into the bag along with the souvenir. If that is not immediately possible, write your name and phone number on the receipt. Consider putting the souvenir directly into a carry on or luggage if possible.

 

At the End of Your Trip

  1. Look Again
    Check again on your seat, under your seat, between the seat, in the seat back pocket (if your bus has them), in the overhead bin, and into adjacent seats. These are also checked by your escort and the driver at the end of the trip, and by the cleaners when the coach returns to our garage.
  2. Is That Your Bag?
    If you did buy souvenirs, check your bags to make sure they are YOUR bags and not someone else’s! We have had situations where people have taken the wrong souvenir bags home—and yes, they did get back to their original owners!
  3. Where Did You Sit?
    Remember the bus number and where you were sitting, the dates of your trip, and where you were going. If you were part of a large group of buses, perhaps for a charter, try to remember your driver’s name or some of their identifying attributes.
  4. Was there a Shuttle?
    If you have to take a shuttle to your final destination, take note of what kind of shuttle you have: whether it is a car limousine, a Starr van, another Starr coach, etc.

 

Where did my Item Go?

If you did leave something on the bus, it would be seen one of two different groups of people.

  1. Driver/Escort: They check EVERYWHERE before they get off the bus. They may even contact you before you get back home. If they can’t reach you, they’ll label which coach it comes off of and deliver it to the office along with their tour materials.
  2. Bus Cleaners: If the cleaners find it, it goes into a bag along with items from other coaches. A day or two later, it is delivered to the Starr Receptionists who handle the cataloging and processing of lost and found. Oftentimes, these items have no identifying information, which is why labeling your items is helpful to us!

 

Finding your Items

When you call our office to ask about your lost item we will ask you the following:

  • Give us a detailed description of the item
  • The dates of your trip
  • The coach number (or the driver’s name)
  • The group, the charter number, the trip, or where you were going
  • Your seat number, or where you were sitting (and if you changed seats during the trip)
  • If the item was on/under your seat, in the overhead bin, in the baggage compartment, or the seatback pocket.
  • If the item was in a paper or plastic bag
  • And if the item was a cell phone, what the number is so we can call it and listen for the ring

 

Please also keep in mind:

  • Our coaches have a high turnover rate in the busy season, and there is a chance that the coach you rode on over the weekend was cleaned overnight and is already out on the road again and can’t be checked right away.
  • We will make every effort to look for each item that you call for, but we are not responsible for items you have misplaced while on our coaches, and you may not get a call back from us if we are unable to locate your item.
  • If we DO find your item, we will call you back. It is then your responsibility to call us and arrange how you wish the item to be returned.
  • We keep all lost and found items that come to us for several months, and document them as they come in. If you realize a month after your trip that you lost an item, there is no harm in calling the office and asking if we have it.

 

Don’t let a fear of losing your items keep you from traveling. More often than not, Starr travelers are very proactive about keeping tabs on all of their belongings! The moral of the story is, LABEL your important things with your telephone number and your name at the very least.

 

Bon Voyage!
Ally Berger, Starr Receptionist

 

¹The author of this article has used Google’s function on a recent trip abroad to locate and erase a stolen smartphone, and can confirm her information was not compromised!

Favorite Picnic Recipes from Starr

Summer is upon us and that means the season of picnic potlucks has begun!

Here are some favorite, go-to crowd-pleasers from Starr:

Paula Deen’s Broccoli Cole Slaw
This is always a big hit when I make it for BBQ’s – Lisa Lande, Human Resources

 

Slaw Ingredients:
2 (3 oz) bags of Ramen Noodle Soup in Oriental (other flavors will work, too)
3/4 stick of butter
1/4 cup slivered almonds
2 (12 oz) bags broccoli cole slaw
1/4 cup sunflower seeds
chopped green onions for garnish

Dressing Mix:
3/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup brown or white sugar
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 Ramen Noodle seasoning packet

Directions:

Put the Ramen noodles in a bag and crush them with a rolling pin while melting butter in a large skillet over low/medium heat. Add the crushed noodles and slivered almonds to the skillet and saute, stirring occasionally (keep temperature at low/medium heat). Meanwhile, whisk together all the dressing ingredients in a small bowl. Place the shredded broccoli into bowl and toss with the noodles, almonds, and sunflower seeds. Pour dressing over salad and toss to coat. Garnish with chopped green onions.


Orzo Salad
This Orzo Salad is always a hit at a party or gathering. Someone always asks for the recipe! – Diane Gillispie, Executive Assistant

Ingredients:
12 oz. Orzo pasta
2 tablespoons + 1/2 cup olive oil
1 1/2 cups crumbled seasoned Feta cheese
1 cup chopped red bell pepper
1 cup chopped yellow bell pepper
3/4 cup pitted kalamata olives
4 green onions, chopped
2 tablespoons drained capers
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

Directions:

Cook Orzo according to package directions. Drain; rinse with cold water; drain well. Transfer to a large bowl. Toss with 2 tbs. olive oil. Add crumbled Feta cheese, chopped bell peppers, Kalamata Olives, green onions, and capers.
Combine lemon juice, vinegar, garlic, oregano, and mustard in a small bowl. Gradually whisk in the remaining 1/2 cup olive oil. Season dressing to taste with salt & pepper.
Add dressing to Orzo mixture and toss to blend.
Can be prepared in advance. Cover and refrigerate.


Baked Beans
Friends & family love this baked beans recipe.  Whenever I made them for parties/picnics – I got wonderful compliments.  It’s delicious – especially piping hot!! – Linda Ruggieri, Tour Services

Ingredients:
2 (16 oz) cans of baked beans
1 onion – chopped
½ cup of brown sugar
½ cup of maple syrup
¼ cup of spicy mustard
¾ cups of ketchup
8 slices of bacon

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
In a large bowl, stir together the baked beans, onion, brown sugar, syrup, ketchup and mustard.
Pour into a 9×13 inch baking dish.
Lay strips of bacon across the top.

Bake for 45 minutes in the preheated oven, until the bacon is browned and the beans have thickened.


Pigs in a Blanket
There isn’t much to this recipe, but they’re my favorite! – Cassie Coate, Sales Assistant

Ingredients:
8 frankfurters
8 slices American cheese
1 (10 oz) package of refrigerated biscuit dough

Directions:

Preheat over to 350 degrees F. Wrap cheese around each frankfurter, then the biscuit around that. Put on a cookie sheet with the overlap of the biscuit faced down, so you don’t have to use toothpicks. Bake in preheated oven until biscuits are brown, about 10-15 minutes.


South Carolina Sweet Vinegar Coleslaw
Among the South’s great flavormates are barbeque and coleslaw. This favored rendition – a sweet but tangy combination of shredded cabbage and onion – provides the perfect foil to smoky meats or stews. It also is a welcome addition to another Southern favorite, the vegetable plate. This salad is best made the day of serving. – Carole Brown, Starr Tour Director

Ingredients:
2 green bell peppers, seeded and finely chopped
1 large head green cabbage, about 3 lb., cored and shredded
2 yellow onions, finely chopped
4 carrots, grated
¾ cup sugar
¼ cup vegetable oil
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
½ teaspoon celery seeds
Thinly-sliced red bell pepper rings for garnish

Directions:

In a large nonreactive serving bowl, combine the chopped bell peppers, cabbage, onions, and carrots and set aside.

In a small nonreactive saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar, oil and vinegar.  Add the mustard, salt, pepper and celery seeds and stir until well blended.  Bring to a boil and then remove from the heat.

Pour the hot dressing over the cabbage mixture and toss until well blended and evenly coated with dressing.  Let cool to room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours before serving to allow the flavors to blend.

To serve, garnish with thinly sliced red bell pepper rings, if desired.  Serve chilled or at room temperature.

(From The South: The Beautiful Cookbook: Authentic Recipes from the American South, HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1996, pp. 40-41)


Antipasto on a stick
This goes really well with a glass of wine (I recommend a nice Rose) and Italian bread! – Randi Charen, Retail & Group Travel Advisor

 

Ingredients:
Fresh Basil
Small mozzarella balls
Grape tomatoes
Assorted Italian meats
Olives
* you can substitute for your taste preference

Directions:

Place food onto a long toothpick in any order you choose
Lay on a plate
Drizzle with balsamic glaze and EVOO, pinch of kosher salt and pepper
Refrigerate and enjoy.


Star Spangled Dip from Tostitos
I love making food that looks like something else! When you’re finished, this layered bean dip looks like the American flag. – Dawn Nachbaur, Tour Services

Ingredients:
1 bag of Tostitos Bite Size Tortilla Chips
1 jar of medium salsa
2 cans of Fritos bean dip
2 cups of shredded cheese
2 cups guacamole
1 bunch of chopped scallions
1 (24 oz) container of sour cream
35 grape tomatoes, sliced in half lengthwise
50 sliced olives – drained on a paper towel

Directions:

Evenly spread your bean dip on the bottom of a 13×9 casserole dish. Generously sprinkle the cheddar cheese and scallions on top.
Add a layer of salsa.
Layer on the guacamole, and top it off with a sour cream layer. Use as much sour cream as you need to give your flag a white base.
Build the rows of tomato and Tostitos chips, alternating tomato and chip until you have 3 rows (stripes) of tomatoes, and 3 rows of chips.
When you get to the third chip row, start placing your olives on the top left half (corner). Be sure your olives are “dry” so that the juice doesn’t run on the sour cream. The spacing of the olives is a row of 6, then a row of 5, until there are 9 rows and 50 “stars.”
Continue making the tomato and chip stripes on the right side until you have finished your flag.


Beef Hamburgers
These simple burgers are always a crowd pleaser! – Margie Mangione, Travel Advisor

Ingredients:
1 lb. ground beef
1 package of Hidden Valley Ranch dry dressing & seasoning mix
2 onions
a handful of chopped parsley

Directions:

Mix all of the ingredients together and form hamburgers. Poke a small hole in the center with your finger and toss on the grill.


Marilyn’s Green Salad
This recipe from my grandmother is from the good ol’ days of Jello salads and was always my favorite as a kid! It’s sweet, refreshing, and lightly savory.  – Shana D’Attilio, Marketing

Ingredients:
1 large package of lime jello
1 1/2 cups hot water
2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup of cottage cheese
1 small can of crushed pineapple
1/2 cup of mayonaise
1/3 cup canned Cowden milk

Directions:

Dissolve the jello in the hot water and add sugar. Add the remainder of the ingredients and refrigerate until firm.


Rice Pudding
I was never a fan of rice pudding, until I tried this recipe. It’s to die for! – Nancy Reese, Product Development

Ingredients:
3 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 cup of rice
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup of heavy cream
1 teaspoon of vanilla

Directions:

Heat milk, 1/4 cup of sugar, and cinnamon stick. Stir in rice; reduce heat; cover and simmer for 40 minutes.
In a separate mixing bowl, whisk egg yolks, cream, and remaining sugar and vanilla.
Stir in rice mixture. Bring to a boil; cook; stirring for 2 minutes.
Transfer to a serving dish; cool and serve.

 

Share your favorite picnic recipes in the comments below!