July 2017 - Starr Tours & Charters
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Cross Country By Bus Adventures – Part 2 (Eastbound)

The journey continues! Part 2 of Starr Tour Director, Gene Gray’s Cross Country report covers Days 14-26 on this incredible “Journey of a Lifetime!” Read Part 1 here.

 

Day 14: Friday, July 7, 2017

We woke up earlier than usual this morning since we needed to be on the road at 7:00 AM. Our Silverado bus arrived and after we loaded the luggage, we rolled away on time.

The Hearst Castle visit was a fabulous experience. We saw an informative 40 minute movie on the building of Hearst Castle. Then, we boarded buses for a 15 minute ride up the long and winding road to the mansion. We met our guide upon reaching the top. She spoke about William Randolph Hearst’s love for Europe as a child, particularly Spanish architecture and style. He patterned his home based on his passions by including numerous statues, ornate doors, artistic tapestries covering the inside walls, and carved ceilings. His outdoor pool was being renovated because it had been leaking 5000 gallons of water per day and when the California drought hit in 2014, the state mandated it to be fixed. It should be completely repaired and refilled by this September. We entered his living room where all his invited guests would gather to meet “The Man” and at 7:00 PM, Hearst would make his appearance through his private elevator that connected his upstairs quarters to this room. Guests would just have to mention his art collections and Hearst would happily talk for a good length. We then walked into his dining room. A long table with twelve chairs on either side decorated with (simulated) porcelain place settings regally extended the length of the room. The room looked familiar to me and my (fading) memory was confirmed when our guide told us this room was used in the Harry Potter movies as the dining room in Hogwarts. After dinner, where else did royalty go but into the smoking lounge. Everybody smoked something back then and our guide showed us the black tar on the ceiling that still remains and mentioned that one person comes in when crowds are down to painstakingly clean off the tar with a special liquid and a q-tip. Next door was his theater filled with comfortable seats for his private movies. After all, he produced more than 180 movies himself. We were shown slides of some of the famous people who visited his Castle including Hedda Hopper, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Warren Harding, FDR and countless others.  Hearst also challenged Wimbledon champs to games of tennis on his outdoor courts. Hearst loved showing off his life’s accomplishments to people. He even said he would rather spend a month on the top of his hill than be anywhere else in the world. After roaming the grounds, we caught the bus down the mountain.

We had plenty of time for lunch and strolling around the gift shop. Doug Murphy, our Silverado driver to San Francisco, was so caring of the passengers’ needs and kept feeding me information along the route to share with the passengers. Doug has a wealth of knowledge about this area.

I took the time to review my San Francisco packet with the passengers. Again, my goal is for them to have a plan for tonight and tomorrow afternoon.

Due to San Francisco Giants traffic at AT&T Park, we arrived at the Zephyr Hotel at 7:00 PM. This is a wonderful hotel with nice amenities situated in the most perfect part of San Francisco. I was so pleased that every passenger had a plan for this evening and everyone was talking about plans for tomorrow after Alcatraz. I saw many passengers hustling to Safeway to buy breakfast items while others headed to IHOP for dinner. Many went to scout out Pier 39 and have a late dinner. I took a practice walk to Pier 33, the Alcatraz Ferry, so I’d know how to lead the group. It took me 12 minutes exactly to walk there at a moderate pace. Then I went to Pier 39 and ate the most delicious New England Clam Chowder in a Sourdough Bread Bowl. I made arrangements for me to go to Muir Woods tomorrow at 2:00 PM. We are all meeting at 8:45 tomorrow morning at the Hotel entrance to walk to Pier 33. I’m also arranging for a taxicab to take our passengers who have difficulty walking to Pier 33.

Our new Starr Driver, Tom Lardani had landed in California. After taking a taxi to Solvang, he boarding our Starr bus and drove up to South San Francisco where he would spend Friday night. After dropping Buddy at the Greyhound Station, Tom headed over to the Zephyr Hotel.

 

Day 15: Saturday, July 8, 2017

We arrived at Pier 33, got our tickets and boarded the Ferry to Alcatraz. Once again, the weather was gorgeous with morning temperatures in the sixties.

It was a pleasant twelve minute ride to The Rock. The Ferry holds 300 people and this Ferry had 300. In fact, we were told that Ferries to Alcatraz are booked through the middle of August. Everyone appreciated Starr’s advanced planning upon hearing that. Upon arrival, we received a brief introduction from a Park Ranger and then headed up the switchbacks to the fourth level, The Top of The Rock. We were handed our very own set of headphones and electronic device that guided us around the Penitentiary.  We heard the excellent commentary and stories from inmates and guards alike. You felt like you were in prison and directly in the thick of everything. It was an exhilarating experience to see and learn what life was like in Alcatraz. Alcatraz really wasn’t as bad as its reputation dictated thanks in part to the first warden who wanted each inmate to have his own cell to avoid fights and disagreements, eat food that was decent since he knew that the worst behaviors took place in the dining hall based on poor food, and exercise often. For the deserving inmates, good behavior meant time outside in the courtyard to socialize and play games such as baseball and basketball. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating spending prison time anywhere.

The hour flew by. It was so entertaining and interesting. I will play the DVD “Escape from Alcatraz” tomorrow on the bus. This true story was heavily featured on today’s tour. We then walked down the hill and waited for our Ferry back to San Francisco. We disembarked exactly 4 hours since leaving our Hotel this morning.

We were now on our own until tomorrow. Many of us walked to Pier 39 for lunch while others headed for their afternoon activities. Suddenly we heard a voice behind us say, “Make way for bike riders. Join the nude bike riders.” We stopped and looked and took in the scene. Seven guys, all ages, and one lady were riding their bicycles. Only the lady was partially clothed. The guys wore nothing. They hopped off their bikes to walk in the extremely crowded walkway of Fisherman’s Wharf. All we could do was laugh while other tourists took pictures. This is San Francisco!!! We shouldn’t be surprised by anything!!! And the bike riders gave new meaning to the San Francisco freedom movement!

My passengers and I separated for the day and did our own things. I had a delicious sandwich and cup of clam chowder for lunch and then hopped on a bus for a ride over the Golden Gate Bridge to Muir Woods. I had a great time walking through the Giant Redwoods. I saw other passengers who had taken a different tour at Muir Woods as well. I returned back to San Francisco and met up with Tom Lardani for dinner so we could discuss certain details of the trip. Later, we happened to meet up with 2 of our passengers on Pier 39 and the 4 of us had dinner together at a delicious seafood restaurant named Louis. Both Tom and I ate Calamari. It was prepared to perfection. I finally returned to my room at 9:15 PM after another different, exhilarating, and fun-filled day. Tomorrow we begin our trek Eastward with our very own Starr Bus. The passengers were excited to see our bus parked outside our hotel. It’s a return to normalcy for all of us.

 

Day 16: Sunday, July 9, 2017

We departed San Francisco as Tony Bennett’s music serenaded us. Passengers loved San Francisco and the talk on the bus centered on the bicycle riders. We shared the many ways we were able to enjoy and find our way around San Francisco. Many did tours, many took the hop on hop off buses, and some rode the trolleys. Walking around and shopping was another favorite. We crossed the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge and settled onto I-80 East. I put the movie “Escape From Alcatraz” starring Clint Eastwood on the DVD player. Having seen Alcatraz yesterday, everyone could relate to the movie and most watched intently.

We passed the Donner Pass named for the Donner Wagon Train that got stuck in November snows as they were traversing the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Out of the 87 people traveling, only 48 survived and their only food supply was the bodies of those that died. The 48 survivors completed their journey to California when the snows melted.

We arrived in Tahoe City before noon and enjoyed this beautiful area for 2 hours. Passengers walked around this picturesque town, shopped in many unique shops, and ate a good lunch in a restaurant of their choice. The Boathouse Mall was very small and included 2 restaurants overlooking the Lake, one souvenir type shop, and a handful of different shops. Walking down the street for a block or 2 opened up an array of restaurants and shops. Many passengers fell in love with Lake Tahoe and hope to return here one day.

We continued traveling East through the beautiful Sierra Nevada Mountains. The scenery was so different than anywhere else we experienced. We were all taking in the rugged terrain dotted with a few Ponderosa Pine and spectacular array of color. As we entered into the state of Nevada, I played the theme song from Bonanza as we all pictured the Cartwrights riding their horses on this terrain.

Later we arrived in Winnemucca, NV for our overnight.

 

Day 17: Monday, July 10, 2017

Today was a traveling day 300 miles through Nevada and into Utah. I started the day playing “Good Morning Starshine” as our morning song. I now have passengers secretly dedicating songs to their spouses. They request a song from me, and if I don’t have the song, I’m able to download it from iTunes. There’s a lot of romance on this bus, and it’s so great to watch everyone having a great time.

After a quick, scenic rest stop, we drove another 2+ hours to lunch at the last exit in Nevada. In fact, the electronic devices all advanced one hour in time.

I showed the DVD “I Will Fight No More Forever,” the story of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians and how they were so wrongly treated by our American Government in the 1870’s. It’s a sad and heartbreaking movie. Tissues were needed at the end (especially by me) and the large majority of passengers intently watched. I would show this movie to all my classes on the last 2 days of school each year. I wanted to leave my kids with an appreciation of all people and show the horrors of discrimination. Every year, as the movie ended, the kids would look at me and say, “Mr. Gray, are you crying?” I couldn’t answer!!!

We continued traveling through the salt flats of Utah. Then, on our left, appeared the beautiful Great Salt Lake. We were able to pull into a State Park overlooking the Lake. We all walked around and took many beautiful pictures. The weather was sunny and 93° with 22% humidity. Another perfect weather day. After 20 minutes, we boarded the bus, drove to the Hampton Inn, and arrived exactly on time. Passengers had a little over an hour to freshen up before meeting the bus at 6:00 PM for dinner at nearby Christopher’s Steakhouse.

The manager greeted us at the door and we were all seated in a spacious multilevel section of the restaurant. The restaurant had a warm ambiance that was reinforced by the terrific and friendly wait staff that took our drink orders and served us a delicious plate of greens with a tasty dressing. Our main course, all 3 choices, were cooked to perfection and enjoyed by every passenger. I was never on a trip before with a large group of people where 100% were completely satisfied and had nothing but “that was absolutely delicious” and other great comments to say. The beef and chicken were very tender and juicy while the ravioli was extremely tasty. The meal was capped off with a generous portion of New York Cheesecake. Everyone was stuffed and walked out praising Starr for choosing another fabulous restaurant.

Since we were only 3 blocks away from the Salt Lake Temple, Tom agreed to drive us over to it. I gave everyone 20 minutes to walk around and take pictures. The Temple is located in a square with an art museum, the Tabernacle, and the Assembly Hall, that served as the first Mormon Temple while the main Temple was being constructed. We were allowed to enter all the beautiful buildings except the Salt Lake Temple. That is strictly reserved only for Mormons. The architecture for each structure is different and unique. Whereas each was striking and beautiful in its own way, the Mormons were not into overly ornate designs. The passengers appreciated this last minute stop and it was a wonderful way to end another very different day on our terrific journey.

 

Day 18: Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Today was a day of travel from Utah to Wyoming back into Utah then into Idaho for 10 miles and finally back into Wyoming for good. We traveled scenic Route 89A that not only weaved through the above states but also followed the meandering Snake River overlooking the beautiful mountains of the Rockies. We stopped for lunch in the small 3-block town of Afton, Wyoming.

Continuing onto Jackson Hole, we drove through more amazing scenery. The mountains were majestic with colors of whites, reds, and grays. The surrounding countryside was a lush green with pine trees growing in abundance. Cameras were snapping from both sides of the bus. We arrived in Jackson Hole ahead of schedule. The 49er Hotel was ready for us and the manager even got on the bus to greet us upon our arrival.  The Town Square of Jackson Hole is only 3 short blocks east and 1 short block north. It was an easy walk for most passengers. There were closer restaurants to the Hotel for passengers who wanted to stay local.

I walked into town and stopped in a few shops before dinner and ice cream. I saw a simulated gunfight on the streets of the square and bought a few souvenirs.

 

Day 19: Wednesday, July 12, 2017

It’s Tom’s day off today so we have hired a guided tour bus to take us to Yellowstone. We were all up earlier than usual and were pleased with breakfast at the 49er Hotel. This is a really different, but cozy, hotel. Many of us had fireplaces in our rooms. When you open the door to your room, you enter the sink area of the bathroom. And in the room were rags for cleaning shoes, removing makeup, or drying your motorcycle, as the little attached notice suggested. I used a rag to clean off the screens on my iPhone and iPad.

Our Alltrans driver/guide Jesse arrived and promptly told us that the deluxe motorcoach that he was supposed to drive us in today had broken down yesterday so they had to substitute this 36-passenger (non-deluxe) vehicle. Jesse was very personable and extremely knowledgeable. About 30 minutes into our driving tour, we heard an explosion coming from the rear right side of the bus- pieces of thin wood flew up onto passengers seated back there and the vehicle began rumbling down the road. We immediately pulled over. One tire completely blew apart in the middle of nowhere. The explosion actually blew a hole in the floor. Luckily, no passengers were injured. However, the view of the Grand Tetons was beautiful.

Jesse jumped into action and called his company. A few minutes later, a State Patrolman pulled up and inquired about our status. He was wonderful. He treated this like an accident and stayed with us throughout this long ordeal. When the new bus finally arrived (on the flatbed), the officer stopped traffic to facilitate the transfer of vehicles. After an almost 3-hour delay, we were on our way to Yellowstone (again). I am very thankful for the patience of our wonderful passengers. (Note: Each passenger received a $60 refund for this unplanned part of our trip.)

We finally reached Yellowstone Park. Jesse narrated constantly, no breaks, no coming up for air. Although his information was fabulous (I took 8 pages of notes), the passengers drifted in and out on his words. This was similar to Chris, our Los Angeles Tour Guide. I guess these one day guides must think that silence means they are not doing their job. Despite this, the passengers learned a lot and were amazed at his knowledge.

The passengers loved Yellowstone and we missed no stops. We wanted the passengers to get a full taste of the amazing geothermal activities that this region produced. That meant that we would have to extend our day by 2+ hours. At 1:00 PM, we arrived at Old Faithful. It was scheduled to go off at 1:00 PM. As we pulled into the parking area, there she blew. We saw it from the bus. The next eruption would be at 2:30 PM. So, we had an hour and a half of welcomed time to eat lunch, shop in the gift shop, and stop in the Visitor’s Center, all at Old Faithful Inn. Old Faithful was right on time, spewing water 170 feet into the air (it averages about 130 feet, so this was even more spectacular). After Old Faithful settled down, we were soon back on the bus and continued onward to the Fountain Paint Pot stop, a ½ mile total boardwalk walk that overlooked many unusual natural features. We saw and smelled bubbling and steaming sulfuric water holes, bubbling mud pits, and small mineral geysers that erupt constantly and when the wind is blowing in the your direction, you feel the calcified water hitting you. We then proceeded to the Upper Falls, our first glimpse of the mighty Yellowstone River carving out the gorge. This was spectacular. We all took pictures of each other with the powerful rushing water in the background. Then it was onto Artist Point aka The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. The scenes were breathtaking. Everyone marveled. The cameras were clicking. We stood in awe and disbelief at nature’s artistic abilities.

We arrived back at our hotel by 9:00! Once again I say, “All’s well that ends well.” It turned out to be another memorable day.

 

Day 20: Thursday, July 13, 2017

I promised the passengers that I would let them rest on the bus this morning in total silence. We each had a good breakfast and departed on time. Johnny J’s Diner in Casper, Wyoming graciously agreed to take us for lunch at approximately 1:00 PM. We have 500 miles of traveling today through some rugged terrain and beautiful scenery. After I told the passengers about our lunch stop within the first 20 minutes of our trip, there was total silence on the bus. Most were dozing off, others pondered the magnificent mountainous scenery, while some enjoyed reading and doing puzzles.

After a brief rest stop, we continued on to Casper. Johnny J’s is a nostalgic 1950’s Diner with pictures of Lucille Ball and others on the wall. They serve old-time milkshakes in those tall, thick glasses that brought me back. The food was good and enjoyed by everyone. The servers and management were very welcoming.

The passengers were more awake after lunch. I showed the 50 minute History Channel Documentary on Mount Rushmore. Since we’ll be spending time in Iowa in a few days, after our rest stop, I played Don McLean’s song, “American Pie” followed by the video “The Buddy Holly Story.” The plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and Richardson crashed in Iowa in 1959, “The Day the Music Died.”

We continued to Deadwood, SD boasting, “The Town That Keeps the Wild West Alive” as its motto. The architecture of the town is original from the 1880’s. You can envision a lawless town, with people being shot from their 2nd floor balcony, falling onto a short roof below, and onto the ground. The passengers really enjoyed walking up and down the street and learning where Wild Bill Hickok was shot and killed while playing poker. In fact, the hand he was holding, the ace of spades, the ace of clubs, the 8 of spades and the 8 of clubs, has become known as the dead man’s hand.

The Mineral Palace and Casino was the most friendly and welcoming. They provided us with our own personal wine, cheese, and meats reception. They gave us free bungee cord devices, and put a rubber duck on each of our bathtubs to take with us. Many passengers walked the town and went to bed by 10:00 PM. Tomorrow is a very early departure.

 

Day 21: Friday, July 14, 2017

Another beautiful day weather wise. Bright sunny dark blue skies, warm temperatures in the upper 70s with little humidity. A perfect day for viewing Mount Rushmore. We had a perfect breakfast (in my opinion but not the opinion of a few passengers) at the Mineral Palace consisting of pineapple, strawberries, grapes, and sweet rolls.

The ride to Mount Rushmore was an hour and 20 minutes. Anyone can describe Mount Rushmore as being sculpted in granite and be able to name the four Presidents who are immortalized in stone there, but to actually see it in person is awe-inspiring. For many of the passengers, this was the key reason they took our trip. It had been a bucket list item for them their entire lives.

Since I was here last in 1978, a Presidential Trail was built that loops around the base of the Monument. Many passengers and I walked this mile loop taking many magnificent close-ups of each President. It was here I met a group of ten to twelve year old boys who were part of a camp being chaperoned by some of their dads. Two of the boys were so eloquent in their speaking and excitedly described to me how they built their own shelter at the campground they are staying using a tarp and wood. And how the strong winds at night did not knock it down. Then, they looked up at Mount Rushmore through the sweet smelling pine trees and said, “God brought us here. We are so blessed to be here.” To which I answered, “You are blessed to see this at your age. I’m with 34 people in their fifties, sixties, and seventies who feel blessed like you do. It is their first time seeing Mount Rushmore and they are as inspired as you are.”

We had ample time to walk the loop, study the Monument, shop in the gift shop, view the ten minute movie in the Visitor’s Center, and get something to eat in the cafeteria. Next, we were off to Wall Drug Store. I’m still inspired by my conversation with the two boys.

After arriving at Wall Drug, many passengers ate immediately while others scouted out this massive department store all under one roof. We ate, walked around, shopped, and met the bus at 1 PM for departure to the Badlands.

We entered the Badlands at the Pinnacle Entrance and stopped at 5 key points that show the diversity of these beautiful sandstone formations. We enjoyed viewing the magnificent pinnacles infiltrated with brilliant reds, yellows, and whites. At one stop, we saw Prairie Dogs standing at attention and ready to ward off any intruder by its high shrill bark. Other Prairie Dogs were foraging around their holes, looking for something to eat. At the scenic overview called Panorama Point, we saw 2 Bighorn Sheep crossing the road and climbing effortlessly down into the rough terrain of the Badlands. They began eating the tumbleweed and thick brush vegetation below. We snapped pictures of both the Sheep and the beautiful scenery, which could be seen over 30 miles away on this glamorous clear day. Our final stop was a short minute bathroom stop, souvenir stop, and information stop at the Easternmost Visitors Center named the Ben Reifel Visitor’s Center. We departed after a wonderful 2 hour drive through visit. That completes our National Parks for this Cross Country Trip.

We lost another hour as our clocks jumped ahead 1 hour into the Central Time Zone at approximately the 200 mile marker on I-90 in South Dakota. The skies continued to be a perfect blue with no clouds. Temperatures were over 100° outside but extremely comfortable in the bus. No movies today. People rested, talked, and slept on this day that began at 4:00 AM for most with our personal wake-up call or alarm. We arrived in Mitchell, SD at 8:00 PM. Another magnificent day of driving for Tom, who is outstanding to work with and a wonderful driver.

 

Day 22: Saturday, July 15, 2017

We began the day with a good breakfast and departed the hotel for the Corn Palace. Once inside, we saw a 15 minute video on its history. Our guide then spoke about the huge panels of mosaics hanging on the walls completely made of corn. Fabulous artwork. The passengers enjoyed this “different” attraction that portrays Americana at its very best.

In the morning, I showed the movie, “The Three Amigos” to add some humor and levity, knowing that I was planning to show a very sad tribute movie after lunch. Many passengers enjoyed the movie while some slept through parts of it or did word puzzles.

We stopped for lunch at The Ranch Family Restaurant in Fairmont, Iowa.

As we crossed the Minnesota-Iowa border into Iowa, the state where the plane crashed in 1959 killing Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and P.J. Richardson aka The Big Bopper, I put on the movie, La Bamba. It portrayed the difficult childhood of Ritchie Valens, his rise to fame, and his sudden death in Iowa at age 17. There wasn’t a dry eye on the bus. Following the movie, I played the music of Holly, Valens, and Richardson to complete the tribute. It wasn’t long after the music ended that we entered Dubuque and were at the Holiday Inn Express. Tom did another outstanding job of driving.

 

Day 23: Sunday, July 16, 2017

We all learned a positive lesson, today. As sung by Frank Sinatra, “My Kind of Town, Chicago Is.” The skies were overcast for the first time as we left Dubuque after a wonderful breakfast. We crossed the mighty Mississippi and entered into the Land of Lincoln within 5 minutes. Iowa and Illinois were both relatively flat states with corn growing as far as the eyes can see.

I began the morning by playing “My Kind of Town” by Frank Sinatra and celebrating Marcia’s birthday with a favorite song chosen by her. I then briefly spoke about the history of Chicago, being in the most perfect location for access to the transcontinental railroad, Lake Michigan, and the Mississippi River and thus could easily ship manufactured products all over the country dating back to the 1870’s. I then discussed the Navy Pier and the Skydeck before I turned off the microphone for a while.

At exactly the 2 hour mark, we arrived at the Belvedere Rest Stop, an oasis of restaurants and shops, about 90 minutes West of Chicago on I-90. The passengers enjoyed this unexpected opportunity to shop. I took 2 great pictures here; one of the ladies shopping for jewelry and one of their husbands standing with their pockets hanging inside out with no money left. Everyone had a good laugh.

As we began to see the Chicago skyline in the distance, I played 8 classic songs from the group that shares the city’s name, beginning with “Saturday in the Park.” Tom, once again, made great time getting us into Chicago and we arrived at the Navy Pier at 11:45 AM. The passengers were told to meet the bus at 3:00 PM. They were very pleased with the amount of time they had to play on the Pier.

The Navy Pier is a most enjoyable place to just hang out in Chicago. The huge Ferris wheel stands out as the first landmark you see on approach. The skies continued to be overcast, but not a drop of rain fell. As the day progressed, the sun started to peak its way out and more people converged onto the Pier. There is a plethora of restaurants that include both fast food and sit down at the Pier. Being a baseball fan, I had to eat at Harry Carey’s, the late, great announcer for the Chicago Cubs who would always lead the Wrigley Field faithful in the 7th inning stretch rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” I actually met and dined with other passengers who had the same “need” as I. Three hours flew by and we all reconvened at the Bus Drop-off spot.

We had a short ride to the Willis Tower and the Skydeck. We all got off the bus and meandered our way inside to elevators that took us downstairs to begin our tour. There was a 10 minute looped video that many chose to see prior to taking the elevator to the top. Once at the top, the views were spectacular.  What had been a 1 mile visibility earlier was now about 30 miles. Once again, we were blessed. We got a chance to step out onto the Skydeck, a very weird feeling – almost like being suspended in mid-air. We all enjoyed taking many unique pictures. The passengers really enjoyed this wonderful experience.

Many passengers took advantage of their night in Chicago by walking around the city, eating at a suggested restaurant, or stopping in some stores that were still open on Sunday evening. Some grabbed a quick bite to eat directly across the street from the hotel at a pizza restaurant or a hamburger restaurant. Since it was Marcia’s birthday, Nancy and I took her out to the Italian Eataly in Chicago, about 6 short blocks from our Hotel. You can find anything dealing with Italian wines and foods in this 2-story grocery store/restaurant complex under one roof. It’s similar to the one in New York. We had a delicious dinner and Marcia was very appreciative. I ordered black spaghetti. It contained calamari and squid ink among other ingredients. It was very tasty but my mouth and teeth became black from the sauce. We all had a good laugh.

Before going to sleep, I completed all 34 awards for the passengers and they are now ready to hand out at our Farewell Dinner in Pittsburgh. It took me 2 hours.

Everyone loved the Fairfield Inn and its central location. The entire Fairfield Inn staff was extremely courteous and welcoming to us. Another great and memorable day was had by all. We loved our small taste of Chicago!!!

 

Day 24: Monday, July 17, 2017

We boarded the bus to prepare for another long day of travel. With the majority of our great trip behind us, I’ve overheard people beginning to look forward to getting home.

I played my morning song of the day, “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” as we pulled out of Chicago. That was followed by “Chicago” and “My Kind of Town,” both by Sinatra. I played a few patriotic tunes and one request. And then silence prevailed so people could rest. I discussed the life of Ray Kroc, owner of McDonalds, since Ray Kroc opened his first McDonalds just north of Chicago. After lunch, I showed the video, “The Founder,” the story of Ray Kroc and the founding of McDonalds. Most of the passengers really enjoyed this and it was the talk of many people once we arrived at our Hotel.

We arrived at our hotel in Canton, Ohio at 5:15 PM. I can’t believe tomorrow is our Farewell Dinner. It has been an absolutely marvelous trip and I’m so fortunate to have had this opportunity.

 

Day 25: Tuesday, July 18, 2017

After breakfast we drove to the Fannie May/Harry London Factory. Our visit included an introductory video, walking tour and time to shop. Everyone enjoyed the Fannie May/Harry London shop and factory tour. The Guide was knowledgeable and served us many samples of their delicious chocolate. She pointed out that you can tell the more experienced chocolate makers by the color of their bonnets they wore while working. She also said the factory produces chocolate Mondays through Thursdays for 20 hours a day. To cap off our tour, we each received a spoonful of gelato, either vanilla or lemon, to clean our pallets after eating the chocolate.

After, we arrived at MAPS Air Museum and broke up into 4 groups. This is one fabulous Museum. We were guided by actual Sergeants or experienced personnel from the armed forces. They focused on the type of each aircraft, when and where it was used, and a riveting story to go along with the plane while used in combat. They even spoke from their personal experiences, which is unusual for a Veteran. He then introduced us to their Museum. He spoke about women in WWII and discrimination, black people such as the Tuskegee Airmen and discrimination, and how things have improved but we still have a long way to go to reach equality.

We stopped at the food court in the Belden Mall for a fast bite to eat. I told the passengers to eat lightly since we have a 5:30 PM reservation for dinner. Everyone was wonderful as we pulled away from the Mall at 1:30 PM. Pittsburgh was a short 2 hour drive away.

We arrived at the Doubletree Hilton Hotel and shortly after headed over to The Grand Concourse Restaurant in Station Square. I made a short speech saying how much everyone has inspired me throughout the trip and I thanked them on behalf of Starr for traveling on this trip of a lifetime. I hope to see them all again on future trips with Starr. I then handed out my Cross Country by Bus statistics pages to each; they absolutely loved and appreciated this complete summary of our trip. Finally, I gave out Awards. I read each one individually and handed it to the passenger while others applauded. Every person received positive accolades from me and applause from their fellow travelers. After I gave out the last award, one of the passengers stood up and thanked me for being the best Tour Director. To which I bowed and thanked everyone for their applause. At that moment, dinner was served. The delicious salad was served first followed by our main course. The Crab Cakes were outstanding. We had a wonderful apple turnover for dessert. Everyone enjoyed their dinner and reveled in each other’s company.

 

Day 26: Wednesday, July 19, 2017

We departed Pittsburgh for home and arrived mid-afternoon. Sandy Borowsky (Alan & Renee’s daughter) greeted us with a big smile. Once all luggage and passengers were on their respective shuttles and we said our goodbye, we pulled away. It’s been an absolutely marvelous trip and I’m already looking forward to doing this wonderful Cross Country by bus trip again in September 2018!

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 du 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 du Soleil Show, “Love”
  • Saw Michael Jackson’s Cirque du 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 buses 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!