After more than 25 years as a Starr Tour Director, I have noticed that the most frequently-asked question by passengers is “What is your favorite destination?” With the wide variety of options offered by Starr, it is not an easy question to answer. However, in an effort to share my experiences with you, I have narrowed down the long list of choices to my personal top three picks (not in any specific order):
Niagara Falls – My husband was born and raised in Niagara Falls, New York, and we still have relatives residing in the area. That means I have visited Niagara Falls often and have been able to experience its beauty in all four seasons. While they have “real winter” in that part of the country, the ice forming on the falls is absolutely spectacular and worth donning my long-johns to see! On the Canadian side (which I believe has the best view of the falls), the gardens in springtime are ablaze with color. Parks Canada does a magnificent job in keeping the planting beds filled with a dazzling array of plants and flowers. While summer in Niagara Falls can be hot and humid (honest!), it is also the busiest and most crowded season and a frequent family vacation destination. There are so many attractions, restaurants, and natural wonders to explore! The leaves in autumn start to turn earlier in the Niagara Region than in New Jersey, so even a bus trip in September can reveal fall foliage at its best. In short, I think Niagara Falls is a destination that can be enjoyed year round – based on your personal preferences. No matter how often I visit, the view from Table Rock (very close to the fall’s precipice) still takes my breath away! And for folks who do not have a passport, Starr now offers bus trips that stay on the New York side of the border!
Nova Scotia, Canada – This is quintessential Maritime Canada at its best! Starr offers the option of a motorcoach tour or visiting the area by cruise ship. Peggy’s Cove, a small fishing village located about an hour from the provincial capital of Halifax, provides magnificent views of the rocky coast. It is said that the best scallops in the world come from Digby, Nova Scotia – and if you like seafood, the options are endless! While the adventuresome can try the local favorites (poutine and beaver tails), there are familiar American restaurants as well – something for everyone. The scenery alone would rank a #1 reason for this bus tour, but the people of Nova Scotia are also responsible for my many visits. I have found the folks in this area to be kind, welcoming, and helpful to travelers. Several years ago on one of the bus trips I escorted, we had free time for lunch in one of the local towns and two of my passengers became confused and could not find the bus. A local woman (on her lunch hour from work) saw their distress, offered to help, and took the time to walk them back to the bus parking area. She could have ignored them or just given verbal directions, but she took the time to be of true assistance to these travelers. Last, but not least, is the Titanic connection to Halifax; there is an excellent exhibit on the ship as well as the Halifax Explosion. Don’t let different currency or the metric system scare you! Your Starr Tour Director will have you well-versed in all the details you need to know before your bus arrives in Nova Scotia.
Civil War Trails (or almost any history tour!) – On the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War (2010), Starr began offering bus tours with an historical theme and we called the series “Civil War Trails.” Over the years, these itineraries have included Gettysburg, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Richmond, Washington, DC and much more. I have had the pleasure to serve as Tour Director on these bus trips and it has been an exciting, enjoyable and educational experience for my passengers and me. These tours have much more than battlefields and always include a component relative to the people who were not fighting, but trying to survive a tumultuous time in our country’s history. In addition, I highlight something about the women of the period—often overlooked in folks’ zeal to learn about the politicians and Generals. Join me this year as we explore the Civil War History of Fredericksburg, VA!
If the Civil War is not your favorite period in our history, you still have lots of options! Starr regularly offers tours to Salem, Massachusetts, Williamsburg, Virginia and other historical areas. There are even itineraries regarding specific historical figures (Franklin Roosevelt, Harriett Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, etc.).
Personally, I did not enjoy learning history while in school. However, actually walking in the footsteps of the people who helped to shape our country has always been an exciting and illuminating experience for me – and I try to share that enthusiasm and curiosity with my passengers.
I hope that this information will be helpful as you look through the myriad of choices Starr is offering this year and select the destination of your next journey. My favorite quote from Saint Augustine, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
So… Keep traveling! And I hope to see you on a bus trip soon!
Remember that feeling in high school when you solved a tough equation? How about middle school algebra when you were trying to solve for Y? Yep, that’s what it feels like to have planned, executed and personally enjoyed a Starr Birthday Bash! And here’s the Y… OK, The WHY – Because we love our Starr Tour Guests!
So let’s start at the beginning. What does it take to find a destination for a Starr Birthday Bash?
Here’s what we look for – The “X” if you will:
A different destination than somewhere where we already offer a lot of trips to
Somewhere with a hotel that can handle 3-5 busloads of tour guests
Somewhere with a restaurant or banquet room that can hold approximately 200 guests
Then we add the “Y” or, the WHY:
Why would people want to go here?
What does this tour offer that would excite them into booking this trip?
What can we include that would make this trip different that other trips that they have taken?
Put those things together and what does it equal? A great Starr trip!
X+Y = Great Starr Trip!
I was lucky enough to join our 4 Tour Directors and Drivers and 175 Starr tour guests in Myrtle Beach this past October. We had an excellent trip and here’s why:
We picked a destination that offered beautiful weather (we ordered it!).
We picked a hotel where every room had an ocean view and a balcony! The staff was so excited to host our Starr customers and showed us warm southern hospitality!
We had a great Birthday Dinner at the Giant Crab where the buffet had 171 items-I counted! We ate birthday cake and gave away lots of prizes to over 30 lucky winners!
We saw 4 fabulous shows! Each one was entertaining and dazzled us beyond expectation!
Everyone went home with smiles on their faces and wonderful travel memories!
We’ll see 5 shows on this trip plus see the Gateway Arch and tour the Anheuser Busch Brewery! Join us! I promise you will be glad you did. We have over 30 people on board already and we’d love to have YOU!
Now it’s time to plan for 2020? Got any ideas for the “X” in the equation?
Without further ado, here is the eastbound conclusion of our epic Cross Country Bus Adventure, courtesy of Tour Director, Gene Gray!
Day 16: Sunday, September 16
It’s time to say good by to San Francisco. The luggage was once again taken from INSIDE each room this morning. So, not wanting a repeat of last year, I was carefully checking off each piece of luggage as it was brought down while Hank counted as he loaded each on the bus. Every piece of luggage was accounted for!
Nancy’s cousin in San Francisco created a welcome sign for when we first arrived and hung it on the wall behind the front desk of the Hotel Zephyr. It was a wonderful gesture and we proudly took it with us as we bid the hotel a fond farewell with Tony Bennett singing through the speakers.
We crossed over the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge onto I-80 East into another beautiful day with temperatures in the mid 60’s and light winds.
As we traveled east for the first time, our tour guests shared the great experiences they had yesterday in San Francisco. It’s so wonderful to see them breaking off into small groups and mingling among the other tour guests – almost like family. Five found their way to Chinatown and ate a magnificent meal provided by the chef himself. The restaurant was recommended by the Hotel Zephyr staff and the chef treated them like royalty. Different foods were continuously served by the restaurant staff at the suggestion of the chef. These lucky tour guests did not have to order anything – they just paid $25 each for an all you can eat feast. Another tour guest walked to Lombard Street and walked down the winding, curving hill. Another took a bus to the Golden Gate Bridge and walked across it. I am so happy for the time everyone had in this fabulous city by the bay. Later, I played the movie, “Escape From Alcatraz” starring Clint Eastwood. The movie was a great conclusion to our fabulous tour of Alcatraz from yesterday and the tour guests were all able to relate to the movie.
As we entered Tahoe City, Lake Tahoe glistened in the mid-afternoon sunshine. For lunch, I provided a list of restaurants for my 32 friends to choose from. They would eat and pay on their own today. Many went to Jake’s on the Lake and enjoyed a delicious lunch with beautiful Lake Tahoe as a backdrop. Others strolled the town and found a fine cafe or restaurant. Some hiked the trails to the water’s edge. We all enjoyed our two hours in Tahoe City, California and many commented they’d love to return here one day.
It didn’t take us long to cross the Nevada border and it didn’t take long for many to fall into a deep sleep. The scenery changed from majestic mountains to flat, dry land with parched yellow grasses as far as the eyes could see. For the next two hours, the passengers slept, read, played games and did puzzles. The bus was so quiet, one could hear a pin drop. Hank continued to do a great job driving through the desert. We stopped in the only piece of civilization that existed since we left Lake Tahoe. Located in the town of Lovelock, Nevada, the Conoco Truck Stop offered clean bathrooms and a Convenience Store. It felt great to stretch our legs.
Once back on the road, we only had a little over an hour to reach our destination – the Winnemucca Hotel and Casino. I played “The Three Amigos” for some goofy comedy relief. The tour guests enjoyed this movie but had to wait until the following day to see the conclusion – a real cliff hanger!
We pulled into the Winnemucca Hotel and the porters were waiting to deliver our luggage to our rooms. I handed out the keys to each guest and Hank agreed to do a Walmart run in 45 minutes since he also had to fuel the bus. Fourteen passengers went to Walmart. I stayed back at the hotel.
After the bus left for Walmart, one of our guests, Nancy, asked me whether all the luggage was delivered because her suitcase was not yet in her room. I answered that I thought so but we went to check with the manager and he confirmed it. So Nancy, the manager, and I knocked on every one of our “Starr” rooms with the hope that the luggage was placed in the wrong room. We knew to do this because this has happened a few times on past trips. Even rooms that were vacant were opened and checked for Nancy’s luggage. All to no avail. One room had a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door so we passed it by. The bus finally returned so we quickly double-checked to see if the luggage was still in the luggage bay of the bus – it wasn’t. Our wonderful tour guests began to offer Nancy some of their clothes. While Nancy and I continued walking around the hotel in hopes of finding it (two hours have passed since our arrival), my phone rings. Sure enough, the tour guests with the “Do Not Disturb” sign on their door returned to their room and found that Nancy’s luggage was there. The tour guest told me she always puts the “Do Not Disturb” sign up whenever she goes into her room and keeps it up. How unlucky for Nancy. But she was a great sport about it – Thank you Nancy! Here’s what happened: Nancy’s assigned room was 129 and the porter misread the number and put the bag into room 109. Simple but worrisome mistake.
Who was it who said, “These are the times that try man’s soul?” Oh, right. It was Thomas Paine in 1775 and me in 2018!
Day 17: Monday, September 17
After enjoying a relaxing, sit-down breakfast with generous portions, we departed on time for another beautiful day with sunny skies and cool temperatures.
We finished “The Three Amigos” and at its conclusion, I provided information on Winnemucca, Salt Lake City, and the history of the Mormons.
As we began our trek through the northwest section of the United States, I talked about the greatness of some of our Native American Chiefs, in particular Chief Joseph whose Nez Perce tribe once lived freely in the territory we were driving through. I played the movie “I Will Fight No More Forever” named after Chief Joseph’s famous speech “Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” The movie depicts the plight of the Nez Perce tribe following an edict from President Grant that removed them from their land. They fought and tried to outrun the US Cavalry, but were eventually caught. It is a very sad movie that shows the horrible treatment of brave Native Americans by our own government. Tissues were suggested. Over half of the passengers intensely watched the movie. Even though I’ve seen it at least 10 times, as always, tears were falling from my eyes by the end.
We stopped for lunch in Wendover, Nevada. Hank parked in the middle of this huge parking lot between four restaurants and our one hour stop was plenty of time. Since we were directly on the border of Nevada and Utah, some clocks jumped ahead one hour into Mountain Time while others took longer to adjust as we soon continued into Utah.
The western Utah countryside is a large flat desert for as far as one can see. The surface begins to appear white and becomes more consistently white as you progress further into Utah. These are the salt flats but it looks very much like snow. We passed the Bonneville Salt Flats and then the Morton Salt Manufacturing Plant as we neared Salt Lake City.
Soon we came upon the Great Salt Lake on our left, bordered by majestic mountains in the distance. We stopped at The Great Salt Lake State Park to take pictures and give some guests the opportunity to put their feet in the lake. We stayed here for 25 minutes enjoying the magnificent views in 80° temperatures and then finished our journey into Salt Lake City.
The Hampton Inn was all ready for us. I handed out the keys to the passengers and three porters quickly delivered our luggage. We had an hour to relax and refresh before Hank drove us to Christopher’s Steakhouse for dinner.
We sat in the same comfortable section of the restaurant as we did last year. We were greeted warmly and the service was wonderful. Salads and hot rolls were placed on the table. The salads consisted of green leafy lettuces, tomatoes, onions, and their house vinaigrette dressing. We all relaxed, took our time eating, and had terrific conversations. After a nice delay, the main course came out. The numbers were equally split between the delicious medium rare Filet Medallions and the superb Chicken Piccata. Each dish was accompanied by zucchini and mashed potatoes. Dessert was a generous slice of New York Cheesecake, reminding us of home. Everyone complimented the excellent food and enjoyed their dinner immensely.
I noticed one difference between running this trip in September vs July is the sunlight hours get shorter this time of year. By the time dinner was completed, it was already dark outside. Hank drove us around the Mormon Temple, and in contrast to last year, we did not get off the bus to explore Temple Square. We eventually drove back to the hotel and wished each other a good night closing out another wonderful day.
Day 18: Tuesday, September 18
I downloaded and played a few Donny and Marie Osmond songs as we drove away from Salt Lake City. It was another picture perfect day as we climbed over 7,000 feet in elevation and then descended down to 4,000 feet amidst the most beautiful mountainous scenery one could ever imagine. The passengers were taking in these magnificent terrains with its plethora of colors and irregular rock formations. Although we all know that each section of the United States has its own beauty and differences, it is amazing to actually see it before our very eyes. We made a fast rest stop within the mountains and continued into the scenic state of Wyoming.
The mountains affect weather patterns making the western part of Wyoming extremely dry. It is also flat and desert like. Many fenced in ranches make up Wyoming and we saw people on horses riding or herding their sheep and cattle. It was a good time to play my Western Music playlist that added to the realities of this area. We were soon in the one street long western town of Alton, Wyoming where we stopped for 90 minutes for lunch. Alton has nine eating establishments for us to choose from, and each was described as very good.
After lunch, we began climbing into the majestic mountains again. A small river, turquoise in color, meandered to our right as the mountains rose on all other sides. Nature is the most talented artist and this section of Wyoming certainly proves that. I played John Denver songs that enhanced our visual surroundings. By 3:00 PM, we were at the 49er Inn & Suites in Jackson, Wyoming.
The manager handed me the keys and came onboard the bus to talk about Jackson Hole – its restaurants, shopping, and the Town Square. The passengers disembarked and had the remainder of the evening on their own to explore this marvelous city.
Jackson Hole is a valley nestled in the magnificent Grand Teton Mountains. It is famous for its great powdery ski slopes as well as being the gateway to Yellowstone, 90 minutes to the north. The town of Jackson resembles a town in the Wild West with its buildings, wooden walkways, and overall architecture. The Town Square, a park in the center of the city, has four archway entrances, each made of elk horns. The stores feature Western art, Western apparel, and area souvenirs.
I’ve been in touch with Jesse, our bus driver and guide for Yellowstone National Park tomorrow. He was really excited about doing our tour and secured a newer bus for us for tomorrow. He worked tonight to prep the bus for our tour that begins bright and early at 7:15 AM.
Day 19: Wednesday, September 19
Jesse and his Alltrans Bus arrived at exactly 7:15 AM and we departed for Yellowstone ten minutes later. We continue to be blessed with gorgeous weather. Temperatures were brisk (in the mid 40’s) and the sun was bright. The Alltrans bus was cramped with very little leg room and no bathroom. Our passengers were great sports and did their best to put up with these inconveniences. Our Starr Bus was soooo much better. Even Hank complained about the leg room. It was nice to have Hank join us again on his day off from driving since he always wanted to see Yellowstone.
Jesse was passionate about Jackson Hole, the Grand Tetons, and Yellowstone National Park and knew just about everything associated with each. He told us about the wildlife that we might expect to see. As it was, we saw elk, bison, and deer throughout the day. Jesse explained in simple terms the chemical composition of the different land features in Yellowstone. I overheard some passengers reminiscing about high school chemistry class with horror. He also discussed each section of Yellowstone and the constant geological changes that continue to take place. He shared about recent fires that were actually good for the park by burning underbrush that helps the soil become more fertile in order to grow new trees. Jesse stopped every 45 minutes for a fifteen minute bathroom break at strategic spots and we arrived at Old Faithful Geyser by 10:15 AM.
Our guests were given time to shop in the gift shop and were told to be outside to watch Old Faithful erupt at 10:40 AM. Old Faithful did erupt as scheduled but it was a wimpy eruption. I was very disappointed because I wanted our guests to have a better experience. The restaurant opened at 11:00 AM so we all bought our lunch. We were supposed to be back on the bus after lunch at 12:00 PM, but before we were about to board, I found out that Old Faithful was to erupt next between 12:06 and 12:20 PM. Jesse was amenable to us staying a bit longer to hopefully experience a better show and the old geyser didn’t disappoint this time. She erupted to over 150 feet putting on a beautiful display. Now I was satisfied and my 32 friends were elated.
We drove the lower loop in Yellowstone which was 96 miles around. Yellowstone is huge with over 300 miles of paved roads. It was also our nation’s first federally protected area in 1872 and our first National Park in 1919. We noticed a field of bison near the road and pulled over to take pictures. Our next stop was the Fountain Paint Pots. Jesse lead us on the half mile circular walk on a boardwalk path to get an up close and personal look into bubbling pots of mud and sulfur, aqua colored steaming pools, and geysers. The colors and smells were striking. You were able to feel the heat coming up from the surface below.
After another bathroom break, Jesse drove us to the Upper Falls, the point where water barrels down the steep slope of the gorge with all its power and fury. The angle of the sun shining on the raging waters below created a beautiful rainbow to add to the magnificence of the scene.
We then drove another ten minutes to the Lower Falls also known as The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. The spectrum of colors on the walls of the gorge were vibrant. In the distance, you saw the raging waterfall that we had just departed from. The scene was real, but looked like another brilliantly painted canvas created by nature.
Our guests continue to be amazed at the beauty of each of our National Parks. Each Park is totally different from one another and equally as magnificent. Choosing one’s favorite is a matter of individual experiences and personal tastes. Noticing the magnificence of each is reality.
We arrived back to Jackson at 6:45 PM after an 11.5 hour day. We were all exhausted. I made the decision to postpone luggage pickup and departure 30 minutes later than planned tomorrow morning. Everyone was in agreement. The passengers disembarked the bus thinking about dinner plans and remembering an exhilarating day at Yellowstone National Park. Today’s experiences will surely last a lifetime.
Day 20: Thursday, September 20
HAPPY BIRTHDAY HANK!!!😊❤️ Our thoughtful guest Nancy provided a king’s party hat and a sash that said “Happy Birthday” and put them on Hank. We all stood outside the bus singing “Happy Birthday” and taking group pictures. Nancy also decorated the bus with a “Happy Birthday” sign. Hank was very touched!!! I told Hank I’d be sending these birthday pictures into Starr. He said, “I’m in trouble now!!” I recommend that Starr prints out the picture of Hank and give it to Cheryl to hang up in the dispatch office. (Shhh, don’t tell him I said that!) 😊 We departed Jackson just a little later than expected.
Today was the longest day of riding. I played two hours of music, mostly requests, that got us to our first rest stop. I then played “The Buddy Holly Story.” The plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper Richardson, and the pilot crashed in 1959 in the vicinity of where we were driving. This movie touched everyone and ended just as we pulled into Johnny J’s Diner in Casper, Wyoming, an authentic ‘50s diner, complete with a soda fountain counter and retro decor.
Lunch was very good. The servers treated us like royalty. Casper is rated the 8th Friendliest City in America! If the servers at the diner were any indication of the entire town, Casper is well deserving of this honor.
We were on the road again in 1.5 hours. Wyoming is a large state and it seemed endless. The passengers relaxed until our next rest stop 2.5 hours later. After the stop, I began discussing our plans for tomorrow and providing information on Mount Rushmore. I then showed the 50 minute History Channel Documentary on Mount Rushmore. It told about Gutzon Borglum’s vision and his magnificent talents as a sculptor to create this massive sculpture that honors four presidents. The passengers enjoyed this video very much and gained insights into what we will be seeing tomorrow morning.
The sun went down on the easternmost section of the Mountain Time Zone and we arrived in Deadwood after sunset. The hotel was ready with our keys and porter service. Laurie from the Mineral Palace met me at the door, handed me the keys, and stepped onto the bus to welcome our passengers to Deadwood. The hotel also provided a wine, beer, ham, and cheese reception to everyone’s delight. I suggested to my guests to explore Main Street as early as possible. There were still a few shops and restaurants open on Main Street past 7:30 PM, our arrival time, and many passengers were able to find and purchase their special souvenir for this area. They all seemed to really enjoy Deadwood and they were particularly pleased with the rubber duck the hotel placed on each bathtub for us to enjoy.
We have a very early departure tomorrow. Today was another successful day. Once again, Happy Birthday to Hank!!!
Day 21: Friday, September 21
We ate a fast continental breakfast at the Mineral Palace and purposely left before our itinerary suggested. I wanted to get a good head start on this exciting day filled with magnificent attractions and many hours of driving.
Traveling from Deadwood to Mount Rushmore took 70 minutes and we were the first bus to enter the park. We were so fortunate having crystal clear blue skies and sunny weather for optimum viewing of the monument. The passengers marveled at this masterpiece in granite, an extremely patriotic relic of our great country. Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln looked majestic and brilliant in the bright morning sunlight. We had 90 minutes to take magnificent pictures, hike to the base of the Monument, visit the Museum, and shop in the Gift Shop. To most, experiencing Mount Rushmore was the completion of a bucket list item. As with all the other sights we’ve seen on this trip, passengers commented that you could see these in books and on TV, but there’s nothing like seeing Mount Rushmore (and all the other National Parks) in person. Being there takes on a completely different meaning and is unbelievable.
Everyone was ready to leave on time. It was amazing that just as we were leaving Mount Rushmore, thick clouds of fog began rolling in. Our timing was perfect! We continue to be extremely blessed with perfectly clear and sunny weather every day of our trip.
Hank has been absolutely magnificent driving the bus. The passengers love his reserved and very funny personality. Hank proceeded to drive sixty miles east to the famous Wall Drug Store. It was here that we all ate a delicious lunch in the Wall Drug Store Cafe and had time to shop in over twenty different themed stores, all under one roof. The passengers had 90 minutes on their own here and everyone thoroughly enjoyed this lunch stop.
Hank then drove us through Badlands National Park while I did the guiding. Upon entering the park, we spotted a herd of bison grazing on a grassy field on the right side of the bus. Once in the park, we stopped at three strategic viewpoints along the 24 mile Eastern Loop; Pinnacle Point, the Great Basin, and Panorama Point. Each viewpoint was different and depicted the Badlands in its finest attire; including all the vibrant colors and brilliant natural formations. We suddenly stopped along the roadway when we spotted Prairie Dogs along with their vastly complex maze of underground tunnels in which they live. The passengers took numerous photographs. Before exiting the Park, we stopped at the Visitors Center for twenty minutes for the bathroom, shopping, and further information. The Badlands was our last look at Canyon Country and all the passengers loved its endless beauty.
Hank continued to drive east on I-90 through South Dakota. At the 200 mile marker, our clocks jumped ahead one hour into Central Time. We continued to a rest stop off of Exit 260 that included an Arby’s and a grocery store. Our timing for the day was magnificent. We arrived at the Comfort Inn in Mitchell, South Dakota ahead of schedule. The hotel, nestled among many restaurants, hotels, and a mall, was ready for us. Many passengers were eager to explore the area. The Comfort Inn is an improvement over the Days Inn we stayed in last year.
Today was another exhilarating day enjoyed by everyone with more amazing bucket list items checked off.
Day 22: Saturday, September 22
The sun was shining and the temperatures were brisk as we pulled away from the Comfort Inn on this first day of fall. We stopped at the famous Corn Palace of Mitchell, South Dakota, just ten minutes away.
Home to local events, performers, conventions, exhibits, stage shows, and Dakota Wesleyan University and Mitchell High School basketball games, the Corn Palace is a beautiful arena. The walls are covered with huge mosaics created solely with ears of corn depicting scenes from the history of Mitchell. Each ear of corn is cut in half and stapled to the wooden frame to create each artistic masterpiece. The colors are striking. I especially liked the mosaic of two color hands shaking as a sign of peace and the mural showing Mount Rushmore and Native Americans. After a short visit, we stopped in the Gift Shop before heading back to the bus.
We had a long day of traveling. After playing a few wake up songs, I showed the DVD “La Bamba.” This movie tells about the difficult life of Richie Valens, his quick rise in the music world, and the day he stepped on that fateful plane in Iowa that took his life at only 17 years old. We stopped at the Minnesota Welcome Center rest stop as we crossed the border from South Dakota. Many of our tour guests picked up a Mall of America information brochure. We have a group that loves to shop and many commented they would love two days to truly experience that mall, located just south of Minneapolis. Guests were already brainstorming ideas for Starr to create a trip to the Mall of America along with other attractions to compliment it.
We continued to our lunch stop at The Ranch Restaurant in Fairmont, Minnesota. I had made reservations with Joanne, the owner, two months ago. She called me last week to confirm, and I called today to give them our time of arrival. The restaurant was ready for us. The service was great. The food was delicious. They have a fabulous salad and soup bar that most of the passengers bought as well. Everyone enjoyed their lunch very much.
We were over 30 minutes ahead of schedule all day long. After lunch, many people slept as Hank continued to do a great job getting us safely from place to place. We rode through the “Breadbasket of America.” Fields of corn and wheat could be seen for miles all around us. “Amber waves of grain” were right before our eyes. I played a few patriotic songs prior to stopping at the “Loves” Truck Stop in Floyd, Iowa. Once back on the bus, I played the DVD “The Founder,” the rags to riches story of McDonalds’ CEO Ray Croc. Ray was living just north of Chicago when he built his first franchise restaurant. The passengers enjoyed the movie as we drew nearer to our destination.
As we neared Dubuque, Iowa, located where Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois all converge, I spoke to the passengers about the new laws in Chicago. The city enforces a fifteen minute time limit for getting off and on the bus at hotels, particularly, our Fairfield Inn tomorrow and Monday morning. I discussed our plan of action to accommodate this law.
We arrived in Dubuque 35 minutes earlier than expected. The porters came out of the hotel and immediately attended to our luggage. All the keys were ready and I handed them out to the passengers. Many passengers went out for a good dinner at one of the many fine restaurants nearby. Some ate at the Red Rocks, located in the lobby of our Holiday Inn.
Everyone continues to marvel over their great experiences throughout this tremendous trip. It’s hard to believe we only have four days to go.
Day 23: Sunday, September 23
We woke to another picture perfect day with blue skies and bright sunshine. We are surely blessed with all the beautiful weather that has followed us each and every day.
We had our own private breakfast buffet in a comfortable conference room within the hotel. It was a delicious spread of hot and cold breakfast foods. The porter service was very slow this morning which forced us to depart twenty minutes late. Once on the road, we immediately crossed over the Mississippi River into Illinois. We were officially back in the eastern section of the United States for the first time in twenty days.
I played a few morning songs and then proceeded to provide a bit of history of Chicago, the Chicago Navy Pier, and the Sears Tower (now renamed the Willis Tower). I then showed a 50 minute movie from the History Channel, titled “Sears Tower” about the building of the skyscraper, which was completed in 1973. It also explained how the Sears & Roebuck Company got its start and grew to be the largest company in America. Most of the passengers enjoyed learning all these details even though some of the documentary was a bit difficult to comprehend.
We stopped at the Belvedere Oasis Rest Stop, one hour west of Chicago. It’s a beautiful elongated building that traverses I-90 with windows on all sides including the ceiling. There are at least a dozen eating establishments, a souvenir shop, and most importantly, restrooms.
We continued into Chicago. I played many songs with a Chicago theme like “Chicago (That Toddling Town),” “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” and “My Kind of Town” (to name a few) and played my Chicago (the group) playlist which put us near the city. As the spectacular Chicago Skyline came into view, I replayed the “Chicago (That Toddling Town)” and “My Kind of Town,” both by Frank Sinatra.
Many tour guests and I agreed to go on the new Centennial Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier. Completed in 2016, this 200 foot Ferris Wheel rises 50 feet taller than the previous one. We are all excited to try this new experience. The kid in all of us continues to come out!!!
Hank dropped us at Navy Pier and drove to our hotel, The Fairfield Inn, to deliver our luggage. It was too early to pick up our keys so all luggage was stored in a locked room on the second floor. There’s that new fifteen minute time limit that a bus can stand at a hotel, so Hank had to go quickly.
Upon arrival at Navy Pier, twenty of us walked to the Centennial Wheel composed of 42 enclosed gondolas. After a short wait, we went on in groups of four or five. The 360 degree view from the top was magnificent on this clear day. Lake Michigan glistened as far as the eye could see. The Chicago skyline, made up of buildings of all shapes and sizes, created a beautiful and unique sculpture from high above. The ride was a wonderful experience.
I took a group photo of our newly named “Ferris Wheel Club.” Afterwards, we all split up and went our separate ways. Some walked the length of the pier enjoying the many views of Lake Michigan, some shopped in the large mall, while most found a fine restaurant and relaxed over lunch. Hank met us at the bus drop off at 3:00 PM and drove us to the Willis Tower for our trip to the Skydeck on the 103rd floor.
Major ground level construction circled the entire Willis Tower. Painted arrows on the the draping led us to the temporary entrance. We took an escalator down two levels to the ticket window and elevators. There were enormous lines of people waiting to buy tickets, but I walked up to the Will Call/Group Sales Window and received our tickets immediately. I then led our tour guests around a maze of switchbacks until we reached the beginning of the line waiting for the two elevators to take us to the top. Each elevator held 25 people and took 60 seconds to reach the Skydeck. We waited 35 minutes to get into the elevator so I texted Hank to adjust our pickup time to 5:45 PM to maximize our experience.
The views from the Skydeck were phenomenal. You could see for 50 miles in all directions.
Many of our passengers waited on a small line to get their pictures taken on The Ledge. They stepped out on a clear ledge offering the illusion you were suspended 103 stories above the ground. Pictures were taken. Everyone enjoyed this experience.
Once back on the ground, many walked across the street and took a picture of themselves with the “Historic Route 66” sign. We then relaxed at a small park and waited for Hank, who arrived exactly at 5:45 PM to pick us up and drive us to the Fairfield Inn.
Due to the fifteen minute law, all passengers got off the bus with all their needed belongings and walked into the Fairfield Inn lobby where I handed each their room keys. Hank left the area with time to spare and had to drive miles away to park the bus and then take a cab back to the hotel. Oh, the things Hank does for us! As I went up to my room, passengers approached me with news that their luggage wasn’t delivered. I immediately went back down to the lobby. They had forgotten to deliver the luggage once the rooms were ready. They apologized many times. One person with a cart delivered all the luggage which took about 45 minutes. Many passengers actually took their own luggage to their room.
Many of us ventured out onto the streets of Chicago to do some shopping or go to a fine restaurant. Some went across the street to have pizza or subs for dinner. Today was another beautiful day with many wonderful experiences.
Day 24: Monday, September 24
The plan to leave Chicago with the bus stopped for only fifteen minutes worked perfectly. The luggage was brought down and kept in the Fairfield Inn lobby while I watched over it. We had all 32 pieces of luggage. The passengers all finished breakfast and were waiting to board the bus with their belongings. Hank got caught in traffic and was a little late. Plus, he accidentally sliced his thumb on the bus luggage door and needed to stop the bleeding and bandage it up. Thankfully one of our tour guests is a nurse and did eventually bandage his thumb properly. As soon as the bus arrived, the luggage was loaded, the passengers got on, and we drove out.
Today is another long day of driving. We turned our watches forward one hour 70 miles into Indiana and stopped at a truck stop and convenience store to take a short bathroom break. For the first time on our trip, the skies were cloudy and rain began to fall. I showed the DVD “Rookie of the Year,” a feel good movie about a 12 year old Chicago Cubs fan who winds up pitching for his home town heroes and winning a World Championship. The passengers enjoyed this cute movie and all applauded at its conclusion. We arrived at the Wyandot Service Plaza for a fast lunch and although this wasn’t one of our nicer stops, the passengers were able to satisfy their needs.
We were now just two hours from Canton, Ohio, and our Comfort Inn. The skies opened up and it began pouring. Most of the passengers fell into a relaxing sleep with help from the rhythm of the falling rain. Dinner tonight will be in the Belden Village Mall where we’ll be able to choose between a sit down dinner or the food court.
We were driving through Akron about 4:30 PM (18 miles from Canton and our Comfort Inn) when we ran into rush hour traffic. We were bumper to bumper for the next thirteen miles and got delayed over 30 minutes. When we reached the Comfort Inn, our keys were ready and the porters began taking our luggage up to the rooms.
We arranged to be back on the bus at 6:15 PM to go to the Belden Village Mall. 29 of our 32 passengers boarded the bus. We voted on leaving the mall at 8:00 PM. Everyone enjoyed their time in the mall shopping and eating.
We’re now beginning to ready ourselves for home; however, we continue to delight in the success of this trip and the wonders of this beautiful country.
Day 25: Tuesday, September 25
Knowing that tonight will be our Farewell Dinner, most of the passengers decided to eat a lighter than usual breakfast. We had three stops in Canton this morning prior to driving to Pittsburgh this afternoon.
Our first stop was a two hour guided tour of the amazing MAPS (Military Aviation Preservation Society) Air Museum. Four volunteer guides divided us into groups of eight. They taught us about the airplanes inside the hangar such as the Sopwith Triplane with three wings from 1916 and the Blue Angels aircraft in which Navy airmen would fly in procession just 8 inches from each other. We then went outside to the newly erected Portable Hospital, similar to the Mash Unit. A former military physician who served in Vietnam in 1969 walked us through each section of the Hospital. There was an area serving as an operating room, another for a recovery room, a separate area for x-rays and blood tests, and another area with beds used as a sick bay. He emphasized that if a soldier or any person was brought to the Hospital, they were able to save their life 97% of the time no matter what it took. However, they were always concerned about the person’s mental status having to live with all their horrific memories or without a limb.
The saddest and most humbling part of our tour was when we all actually got to sit in an airplane that was used to parachute jumpers onto Normandy Beach during WWII. Thirty soldiers would sit in the plane in complete silence to their destination. They each carried two parachutes, one weighing 40 pounds and the larger weighing 90 pounds. They carried a total of 200 pounds of gear on them. They also carried a cricket, a hand held device that you would click to let someone know you were an American troop, since speaking was not an option.
When signaled by your superior, you would jump out of the aircraft in the blackness of night, possibly amidst enemy fire. In most cases, the soldiers would land totally alone. If they noticed a figure moving, they would click their cricket once. If the person was American, they would click back twice. If no clicker was heard, they would shoot to kill immediately. If the American was not in position to click back after hearing one click, he would be shot as well. Many Americans unfortunately killed other Americans this way. We learned that of the original 30 jumpers in each airplane, ONLY 2 MADE IT HOME SAFELY!!! Very sobering facts.
In conclusion of our visit to the MAPS Museum, I took a very special photo of our 6 Veterans in front of the MAPS logo. Upon entering the bus, our remaining passengers gave them a big round of applause. A very touching moment!!! The MAPS Air Museum was enjoyed by every passenger.
Our second stop in Canton was to the Harry London/Fannie May Chocolate Factory. We shopped in the store for the first half hour and then began our 40 minute guided tour. It started with a ten minute film depicting the history of each company and how they were merged in the early 2000’s. After the video, our guide led us down a hallway and explained the numerous historical pictures on their Wall of Fame. He then showed us a vat used to heat and blend the chocolate. We were led upstairs to a closed-in walkway where we were able to look down into the factory below with all the workers creating chocolate from beginning to finished product. Our guide then gave us each a piece of chocolate to eat, guided us back downstairs, and treated us to a taste of freshly made gelato.
After another brief stop at the Belden Village Mall Food Court for lunch we were back on the bus and I made THE call to our hotel for tonight, the Doubletree Hilton in Pittsburgh. Although I had called each and every hotel each day confirming our arrival and passengers’ requests, this was the call that was most critical. Last year, in 2017, the Doubletree was undergoing major renovations and failed to deliver our luggage in time for our passengers to change for the Farewell Dinner. Our guests, last year, were really upset, having brought clothes specifically for this occasion. So, when I finally did get a representative from the Doubletree on the phone, my strong remarks were, “Our time of arrival is 4:15 PM and we must have at least 2 porters to immediately deliver the luggage to all the passengers. We have an important event to attend tonight and they need to change clothes!” I was assured that the luggage would be delivered and that all their renovations were complete.
Our ride into Pittsburgh was smooth. I played my Patriotic playlist in honor of both our beautiful country and our visit to the MAPS Air Museum.
When we arrived at the DoubleTree Hilton I walked into the lobby and was handed our keys and two sets of rooming lists for the group. Three porters, two with carts, headed for the bus. By the time I had given out all keys to the passengers on the bus and the passengers all disembarked, 12 pieces of luggage were already on their way to be delivered.
The hotel was beautifully renovated. All three high speed elevators to our 14th floor worked beautifully (compared to only 1 last year). The management staff was extremely efficient and hard working. AND ALL PASSENGERS RECEIVED THEIR LUGGAGE in plenty of time to change for our Farewell Dinner. Later on, I made it a point to compliment the night manager, who actually remembered our incidents from last year, and his staff for doing a great job for us.
The Farewell Dinner at Grand Concourse was nothing short of magnificent. It was a marvelous celebration of a beautiful 26 day journey that has provided passengers with great memories and many new friendships. I began the festivities with a short and sentimental speech. I then acknowledged each person with their individual “Cross Country Award,” which they all enjoyed receiving. Finally, I gave out my “2018 Cross Country Statistics At A Glance” handout, three pages of details and memories from our trip. I believe the passengers were most appreciative of this.
Dinner was done to perfection. Hot rolls were delivered to each table followed by a delicious salad. Our hot entree followed. The servers were friendly and efficient. The food was delicious. Everyone had a terrific time. Dessert was a tasty apple turnover.
To cap off the evening, and with the permission and assistance from our servers, we all stood on the Grand Concourse staircase for a final group picture. A perfect way to end our “Trip of a Lifetime!”
Day 26: Wednesday, September 26
Breakfast was delicious and even included a chef making fresh omelets. Everyone loved the Doubletree Hilton. Our luggage was brought down to the bus and Hank and I sorted it according to everyone’s drop off point. After a brief delay we were ready to depart.
On the drive to our first rest stop, I reviewed the entire trip through music. The songs brought back some of our fondest memories. I sent a voluntary email sign up sheet around and most of the passengers provided me with their email address. I plan to keep in touch with everyone by sending updates and pictures. In turn, they have the opportunity to do the same.
Before departing from our first stop, the South Somerset Rest Area off of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I handed out the Starr Confidential Surveys for all to fill out. The weather was intermittent showers and sunshine. The high humidity was back. We all felt the change immediately when we stepped off the bus. Back to reality.
We stopped for lunch at the High Spire Rest Area on the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the 250 mile marker. We were now on our final leg of this marvelous journey.
The passengers were all eager to arrive home. Most are contemplating their next Starr adventures. I compared the Starr Catalog and its luscious trip descriptions to a “candy store for adults.” My new friends agreed. I handed out the latest Starr catalogs from August and almost every person was eager to read one. I continued playing songs related to our Cross Country trip until we reached Bensalem. Pete Borowsky, Starr’s Vice President of Operations, was there with a big “Welcome Home” sign to greet us. He also welcomed us home by handing out Philly Pretzels, a really clever gesture signifying home foods. Everyone appreciated his thoughtfulness. Pete is the husband of Sandy who saw us off 26 days ago!
It took some time to move luggage to the respective shuttle buses and for the people to disembark with all their other carry on items. We all said our goodbyes and and gave each other hugs. Parting is such sweet sorrow!
What We Learned Through Experiencing This Magnificent Trip
The people on this trip are all fun-loving people seeking a good time. We may all be senior citizens or very close to it, but we laugh and have fun with more enthusiasm than most people in their twenties and thirties. Age is only a number. It’s your inner motivation, your desire to accomplish your goals and your dreams that really matters. Complete that bucket list and then create another. The more you do, the more you laugh, the younger you feel.
If you’re a past Cross Country traveler, if you’re booked for 2019, or still considering this trip of a lifetime, you are invited to join our private Cross Country Travelers Facebook Group by clicking here! Meet others on your trip, share memories from past trips, and get advice from those that have “been there.” We can’t wait to see you there! Happy connecting!
Wishing you fond travel memories to last a lifetime,
Our annual Cross Country trip returned last week! Starr Driver Hank Lyde and Tour Director Gene Gray led 32 travelers across our great country over the course of 26 days. On each of our trips, the Starr Tour Director is responsible for providing a write up of everything that goes wrong, and right, while on the road. Gene goes above and beyond to make sure his passengers are well informed, and entertained, and even manages to keep those of us stuck in the office entertained with his Tour Director report, which does not disappoint. Like last year, Gene’s report is a fun and vivid retelling of their adventures. For your reading pleasure, here are Days 1-15. Stay tuned for the second half of their amazing “Journey of a Lifetime” this Friday!
Day 1: Saturday, September 1
Off we go! After spending hours preparing tour bus #206 for this special trip, Starr Driver Hank Lyde and I motored out of the Starr lot on this late summer morning and over to the Hamilton AMC to pick up our first group of customers. On every seat was a folder with lots of information inside – information that I had spent hours (no, days) preparing for these deserving tour guests.
Starr’s Vice President, Sandy Borowsky, met us at the Bensalem departure location laden with snacks and to wish us all a fond farewell. The passengers were all eager to get going and extremely enthusiastic to begin our journey across this great country. We have 6 military veterans on board and we honored them by playing the Armed Forces Medley. Passengers applauded proudly for each Veteran. Our group is made up of 11 males and 23 females (including Hank and I). We had siblings, couples, friends, widowers and solo travelers aboard. And everyone was looking to have the time of their lives!
Just after we pulled out, I got to work! First, I sent a piece of paper around the bus asking passengers to write down any birthdays, anniversaries, or celebrations they were having during the month for which they wanted to be acknowledged. Next, I proceeded to play some Patriotic tunes to set the mood for the trip. I also honored one couple celebrating their 50th Anniversary by giving each other this trip as their wedding present with their wedding song, “Til” by the Angels. Thankfully I get lots of itunes gift cards for the holidays! I also provided ample and important “down time” for passengers to doze, read, or do their own thing. Before we knew it, our rest stop had come and gone and we arrived at our lunch stop.
After lunch, I took the microphone and began to review my 28 page Cross Country booklet along with the other papers I had collated into every passenger’s Starr folder. It wasn’t too early to discuss possible strategies in both Las Vegas and San Francisco. I wanted them to begin the process of planning their time in both cities and I was pleased that many questions were asked.
It was now time for our first movie of the trip. Since we were all completing some items on our bucket lists by taking this trip, I chose “The Bucket List” starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. This was a big hit and enjoyed by everyone. After the movie, I overheard many people discussing their bucket list items and what they wanted to accomplish during this trip.
We completed our first day of travel by pulling into the Drury Inn in Dublin, Ohio fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. Hank did a magnificent job of driving.
The staff at the Drury Inn was friendly, courteous, and efficient. I was handed the keys immediately and was able to give them to the waiting passengers on the bus within minutes. This gave everyone a chance to go up to their rooms, drop off their belongings, and enjoy the Kickback without rushing. The Kickback offered free pasta, hot dogs, baked potatoes, and tortillas along with drinks. It was a great way to relax with the passengers and talk after a long day of travel. By the time everyone had finished eating (and some took a walk to a nearby restaurant for dinner or to the mall), the luggage had been delivered to each room. It was a perfect start to a fabulous vacation.
Day 2: Sunday, September 2
Breakfast was plentiful thanks to the Drury staff. We departed on time and continued West on I-70 towards St. Louis. I played a few songs on the bus, discussed the history of St. Louis, and showed a video from the History Channel on the making of the St. Louis Arch. Soon, we reached our lunch stop at Bob Evans in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Lunch was delicious and enjoyed by all. Many were still full from breakfast and only ate lightly. Nevertheless, the staff was extremely efficient and friendly and we were on our way within an hour and a quarter.
I played a few more songs on the bus and showed a 30 minute video on Louis and Clark’s Journey to the Pacific Ocean in 1804. After one more rest stop at the Illinois Welcome Center (where we all turned our watches back one hour), we made excellent time into St. Louis arriving a half hour ahead of schedule. I had called the Drury Plaza to inform them of our earlier arrival and they were ready with our keys and our porter service. The passengers had a good half hour to go to their rooms, get settled, and freshen up before 29 out of 32 of us boarded the Trolley for an optional fun tour of St. Louis.
We got the same St. Louis tour guide as last year! We stopped at the breathtaking Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis and took pictures both inside and out. We also stopped at the huge and impressive statue of King Louis IX of France, the King who gave land charters to the first inhabitants of St. Louis, and for whom the city is named. And our guide was kind enough to do a drop off at the famous restaurant, Sweetie Pies, a soul food themed restaurant started by Robbie Montgomery. Miss Robbie, prior to opening up her chain of three restaurants, was a back up singer to several musical artists such as Ike and Tina Turner, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, and Patti LaBelle. A collapsed lung shortened her singing career and she turned to the restaurant business, which was very difficult for a black woman in the 60s. Those that went, all enjoyed their experiences at Sweetie Pies, and checked off a bucket list item. All in all, we all enjoyed the afternoon. I am happy to see that many passengers are working to follow through on their own bucket list items and I assist them in fulfilling their wishes whenever possible.
Once we disembarked from the Trolley, two of our passengers accompanied me to the St. Louis Arch to pick up our tickets for tomorrow morning. The vast construction that plagued the area surrounding the Arch last year was completed and the Arch was reopened on July 3, 2018. The landscape and new entrance to the Arch was beautifully done. The Arch looks more magnificent than ever. It had taken seven years to complete the construction.
Many of our passengers took long walks around the city, following the map I provided, and enjoyed the city’s amenities. Others attended the Kickback in the Drury Plaza and called it a night. Carmen, Donna, and I proceeded to walk from the Arch to Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Ballpark Village that features restaurants and shops. The Cardinals had just lost a tough game in extra innings to the Cincinnati Reds, so all the fans wearing Cardinals gear were a bit subdued. We chose a restaurant, were seated immediately (I did ask whether they served Yankees fans and Carmen asked if they served Phillies fans to which the host replied with a big smile that they serve all fans). Dinner and conversation were wonderful. Following dinner, we walked back to the Arch to view it after nightfall. It was spectacular as shimmering lights reflected off of it from different angles. We strolled back to the Drury Plaza (one block away) and said good night, closing out a perfect Day Two.
Day 3, Monday, September 3
Again, breakfast was enjoyed by everyone. We all assembled a little before 8:00 AM to walk the one block to the St. Louis Arch. The cloudless sky was a deep blue. After a pleasant 5 minute walk, we had entered the newly completed entrance and were going through strict security. Belts came off, pockets were emptied, and bags were searched before we had to raise our arms up over our heads and saunter through the x-ray machine. One of our tour guests with about six pockets throughout his short pants was asked to go through the machine 5 times before he managed to empty all his pockets! Once through security, we met a Park Ranger who proudly introduced the spanking new Museum to us that also opened on July 3, 2018. She encouraged us to spend some time in the Museum after our trip to the top and we did just that.
The trip to the top of the Arch was fantastic. Whereas some found this an exhilarating experience, others with claustrophobia or fear of heights were petrified. However, I was proud that everyone in the group went to the top. Some had to work hard to overcome their fears and considered this a “one and done” experience. Most would do it again. The views from the top were breathtaking. We could see for miles and miles in each direction. The sun was casting a perfect shadow on the Arch from the East so many of our westward facing pictures included the shadow of the Arch in them. It was a unique time of day to take pictures from the top of the Arch.
After returning to the ground floor, many bought souvenirs, some sat and relaxed, and others meandered through parts of the Museum. Everyone was back at the Drury Plaza and ready to depart St. Louis at 10:45 AM. Thus began our journey southwest on I-44, parallel to Historic Route 66.
I discussed Route 66 and how it was decommissioned in 1985 due to the completion of our Interstate Highway System. Today Route 66 is making a comeback but 15% of the highway is still in disrepair from neglect. I played Nat King Cole’s “Route 66.” Then, Dennis Blevins, one of our tour guests, volunteered to sing “Old Man River.” He took the microphone and in his deep bass voice, performed a beautiful heartfelt rendition for all of us. He received resounding applause. Dennis sings bass in many choirs and performs in shows as well. It was a very special moment.
We stopped for lunch at the Cookin’ From Scratch Restaurant in Newberg, Missouri. The walls of the restaurant and adjoining shop were cluttered (in a good way) with antiques. They featured tools, cooking equipment, and signs from yesteryear. Route 66 signs and references were everywhere. The food was amazing. The specialty of the restaurant was their pan fried chicken and it was the best I’ve ever eaten; even better than the Amish. Comments I overheard from the passengers were that this was the best food so far on the trip. The owner, Tony, and the manager, Joy, were extremely welcoming. The service was excellent as well. This was Americana at its best.
After lunch, I played the History Channel DVD, “Modern Marvels: Route 66” about the history and construction of Route 66. The passengers gained much insight into this route’s importance to the success of our nation through the 1950’s.
We were 30 miles from our destination, the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Catoosa, Oklahoma when the traffic came to a sudden stop. Just ahead of us was a car smashed and wedged under the back of a truck. The police and fire fighters arrived and and 35 minutes later, we were once again on our way. However, one mile down the road, we came to another abrupt halt and just sat. Fifteen minutes passed before we began moving again, but at a crawl. The second accident involved two tractor trailers, both wrecked badly. We eventually reached the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino at 8:00 PM, an hour and a half delayed. The passengers were patient and wonderful as we listened to music, ate some cookies and muffins, and simply talked and laughed together. We have a very special group of people on this Cross Country Trip. And, Hank is a magnificent driver.
We were met at the bus by Lindsay, the newly appointed manager of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. She was lovely as she presented me with the room keys and put a lei on every passenger as they stepped off the bus (you should have heard the jokes). We soon proceeded to our rooms and wished each other good luck in the Casino.
The Hard Rock has made many improvements to their Hotel since last year. The rooms were modernized a bit since last year and they put in a huge pool adjacent to the health center with in-water lounge chairs, a hot tub, a fire pit area with comfortable seats around it, and large bar. The tour guests enjoyed their brief time here.
Day 4, Tuesday, September 4
We had a few big winners last night and everyone really enjoyed the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. However, let it be known that it is easier to go through security at an airport than it is to get into breakfast at the Hard Rock Hotel. Not only do you have to hand in your breakfast voucher, you need to sign it and show them a picture ID. It took fifteen minutes standing in line before it was our turn to be approved to enter this sacred buffet. Luckily, the breakfast buffet was very good with a great assortment of foods including an omelet station.
We were on the road fifteen minutes late as passengers were scrambling to finish their eggs and other breakfast foods (pun intended). I proceeded to present my “Who Killed JFK?” lesson as an introduction to the Kennedy Museum. I handed out the “Kennedy-Lincoln Comparison” sheet to each passenger and discussed the coincidences such as “Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy and Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln” and “Lincoln was elected President in 1860 and Kennedy in 1960.” I then discussed whether Oswald was the lone assassin. I presented the Zapruder Film that clearly shows that Kennedy was shot from the front, not the back. Most of the passengers had never seen this film and were shocked by the information presented.
We had a very smooth ride driving into Dallas. As we entered the Dallas city limits, I (and I’m a Giants fan – go figure) led everyone in singing the Fly Eagles Fly song. Joe from our 2017 Cross Country trip and who led us last year sent me the words which I read as everyone sang. Since our version wasn’t sang as strongly as last year, it seems that the Eagles just might have a difficult time repeating as Champs (remember, I am a Giants fan).
The passengers were dropped off with their map and restaurant guide of Historic Dallas in hand. Everyone enjoyed their choice of restaurant, did some shopping in the Wild Bill’s Western Store, and succeeded in being on time for their tour of the Kennedy Museum at the old Dallas Book Depository.
We were each given a smartphone size audio device and a set of headphones to guide ourselves around the 6th floor – the floor on which Oswald supposedly took the shots that killed JFK. The first Museum displays featured life in the early 60’s, JFK’s and LBJ’s campaign for the Presidency, and the major issues facing Kennedy both at home and abroad. Then the theme changed to that fateful day, November 22, 1963 and Kennedy’s trip to Dallas.
The exact spot that Lee Harvey Oswald supposedly took his shots at the passing Kennedy motorcade is blocked off in plexiglass and recreated exactly like it was, with boxes all around the open window to hide him from view. As you look down to Dealey Plaza from the nearby window at approximately the same angle Oswald had, you see a painted X on the road below at the exact spot Kennedy was shot. One soon comes to the conclusion that Oswald could never have shot Kennedy from the front, and if he did take a shot and hit him, the bullet would only go into his back. Which leads to the question, “Who really killed Kennedy?” This question continues to remain unanswered.
The passengers really enjoyed the Kennedy Museum. Meanwhile, Hank was kind enough to take our luggage to the Holiday Inn Express. We drove to the Hotel and had an hour to freshen up before going to dinner at the El Fenix Restaurant.
We all sat in two long tables and ate family style. The service was wonderful as two young ladies put a plate of crushed tomatoes, guacamole, sour cream, and cheese in front of each of us. Next came the rice and beans which we passed around. Finally, they served the chicken, steak, onions, and pepper platters along with the tortillas to share. We each made our own delicious fajitas. Today was an educational, emotional, satisfying, and very successful day.
Day 5, Wednesday, September 5
Breakfast was good. Prior to departure, we took time to celebrate Darcy’s birthday. Another passenger had party hats and birthday beads and we put them on Darcy and other passengers and took pictures off the bus. Once on the bus, Dennis, our fabulous bass singer, lead everyone in singing “Happy Birthday.” Not to outdo Dennis, Paul McCartney then sang his song “Birthday” to Darcy. Unfortunately, Paul was not able to be here in person. Darcy later shared with me it was the best birthday celebration she’d ever had, which touched me greatly!!!
I played a few songs with a Texan theme and other songs from passengers’ requests and soon we were at our first rest stop in Bowie, Texas. This stop was pure Texas and Americana. The bathrooms were clean. The shop sold everything from leather goods, boots, Texan hats, ladies and men’s clothing, and food and travel items.
We rode quietly for the next hour and a half until we arrived at our lunch stop in Vernon, Texas. This stop had something for everyone. Seventeen passengers chose to go to Walmart to shop and find something for lunch. Fifteen chose a fast food establishment on the other side of the highway. Hank dropped off and picked up in both locations. We had a little over an hour to have lunch and shop. Everyone enjoyed their time.
Once we were back on the road, I played the fabulous movie, “Hidden Figures”. It took place in the late 50’s and early 60’s about three brilliant women working for NASA in Texas. It depicts racial discrimination and how NASA overcame differences to get John Glenn safely into space and back in 1962. The movie is mesmerizing and breaks stereotypes in a positive way. Everyone enjoyed the movie and many praised it.
We had a rest stop at the “Safety Rest Area” in Donley, Texas. It is a rest area “Texas Style” complete with a chuck wagon, “Living Out on the Range” information, and signs that say “Beware of Rattlesnakes.” We spent an extra ten minutes here taking pictures. Weatherwise, we had intermittent showers while on the bus and one heavier storm. Hank was grateful because the rain cleaned the bus and windshield of all the bugs.
After a stop at our hotel, we arrived at the Great Texan Steak Ranch and I took a group picture outside in front of the giant cow. We were seated right up front, adjacent to the stage where contestants try to eat their 72 ounce steak along with 3 pieces of shrimp, a baked potato, a dinner roll, and a salad in 60 Minutes. If they succeed, they get their meal for free. If they fail, they pay $72. While we were eating, two young men accepted the challenge and both failed. A fiddler and guitar player came over to our tables and played requests such as “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” They also sang “Happy Birthday” to two of our passengers. I invited the musicians to join us for the remainder of our trip, but they made some excuse and sauntered off to another table. They don’t know what they are missing! Everyone was so thrilled to be experiencing this extremely informal Texas Style steakhouse. Passengers were taking many pictures and sharing many laughs.
After dinner, everyone had an hour to shop for Route 66 and Texas souvenirs as well as explore the unique settings in which they could take funny photos in jail and on a large high chair. Everyone had a fabulous time. As a group, we have gelled into a friendly “family,” laughing and experiencing Americana together while traveling this great country.
Day 6: Thursday, September 6
After a very good breakfast, we celebrated Ann’s birthday by taking birthday pictures outside the bus. Once on the bus, Dennis lead us in another rousing version of “Happy Birthday” and she requested Elvis’s “Love Me Tender” as her birthday song. Request accepted!
We departed another Drury Inn and drove to Cadillac Ranch. It is an artistic anomaly with 10 Cadillacs representing the years 1949 through 1966 planted front end down into the ground with the fins of the Cadillacs sticking high up into the air. It was created in 1974 by three hippies from San Francisco and a billionaire who funded the project and provided a piece of his own land for the project. Each car is spray painted in psychedelic colors and has been totally stripped over the years. There are spray paint cans lying on the ground to encourage onlookers to paint their own idea. We took a few nice pictures and were soon on our way.
Our first rest stop was in New Mexico at the Welcome Center, just across the Texas-New Mexico border. It also marked the beginning of Mountain Time and turning our clocks back one hour. I encouraged passengers to gather a free color map of Old Town Albuquerque to use today. Many found free books and pamphlets on the state of New Mexico to their delight.
As we continued driving through New Mexico, the skies were overcast with patches of sun. The terrain was flat and dry with a mixture of green and brownish vegetation. The land was becoming desert like. You could see for miles from all sides of the bus. One could almost picture cowboys on horseback galloping through this territory. Railroad tracks were adjacent and parallel to I-40 West off the right side of the bus and soon we saw endless freight trains rolling down the track pulled by Diesel engines. We counted three different long trains in all. I played some Johnny Cash, John Denver, and a few other songs. Many people were tired so the bus remained quiet until our final 15 minute rest stop, 90 minutes from Albuquerque.
Hank did a great job driving through New Mexico. We arrived in Old Town Albuquerque and everyone was happy to spend two hours exploring this pretty section of town. The maps provided were extremely helpful. There were numerous shops selling gifts, jewelry, hot air balloon replicas, and clothing. Many fine restaurants lined the Town as well. The architecture of the buildings was Spanish adobe style with light brown colors. The passengers shopped, walked, and ate lunch. They really enjoyed their time in Old Town Albuquerque.
We then drove to the entrance of the Sandia Peak Tramway. When I arrived at the ticket counter, there was an announcement that lightening was sighted at the top of Sandia Peak and the tram was temporarily closed until the lightening passed by. Thirty minutes later, the lightening passed and the tram reopened.
All but one of us boarded the Tram as we crowded close together for the fifteen minute ride to Sandia Peak. The skies had miraculously cleared and the sun was shining brightly. The views were breathtaking. We were traveling 12 miles per hour up the mountain. As we go up, another Tram goes down which creates a gravitational pulley system. The ropes and overall system is tested and checked every day. The Tram Cars are replaced every twenty years.
Passengers took many pictures from the top. We were 10,300 feet above sea level! The air temperature was reported at 52° but with the sun so bright, it was very warm and my heavier jacket was definitely not needed. We strolled around on the man made wooden platforms and took beautiful pictures at different vantage points of the breathtaking scenery. The next Tram arrived and we were soon on our way back down the mountain. It was a magnificent experience for everyone. One comment I overheard was, “this is so magnificent, I can’t see how much more beautiful the Grand Canyon can be!” I just smiled and said, “Just wait.”
The Drury Inn Albuquerque was ready for us as we arrived and everyone was on their own after getting settled in. A large majority of our group took advantage of the Kickback for complementary drinks and dinner foods. Many were excited about the Eagles beginning their season tonight (airing at 6:30 PM Mountain Time on NBC). Another wonderful day.
Day 7: Friday, September 7
The Savory Bakery delivered our wonderful boxed lunches and with the assistance of Carmen, one of our helpful passengers, I put each person’s choice of sandwich on their seat in a timely manner. The weather was gorgeous, crystal clear blue skies and mid 70’s temperatures, as we drove away. I reviewed the details of our itinerary and played a video detailing the formation of the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest. It contained many scientific facts and the passengers seemed to enjoy learning about it. Then I played the Western that won John Wayne his only Oscar, “True Grit,” also starring Glen Campbell and Kim Darby. Again, many really enjoyed this.
We have a lot going on with rest stops, time changes, and Port of Entry stops. The Navajo and Loves Truck Stop Rest Area is the best rest stop of our trip. The Navajo Center has some of the lowest prices on blankets, turquoise jewelry, and New Mexico and desert souvenirs. With the blankets from Mexico costing only $4.99, many passengers including Hank and I had no choice but to buy one, whether we needed it or not.
We continued west for 16 miles and entered Arizona. Our electronics jumped back one hour once again. We were now in the Pacific Time Zone and will remain in this zone for the next 12 days. A few more miles west, we entered the Port of Entry for Arizona. Hank had to bring all of the paperwork from the bus into the building where Arizona officials registered us and issued a permit. Continuing west another 45 minutes landed us at the Visitor’s Center in the Painted Desert Petrified Forest National Park. We used the restrooms, many bought memorabilia, and we received a short newspaper with information about the Park.
We began our 26 mile drive through the Painted Desert. I was now the Local Guide for this beautiful park with its scenic vistas and iron, manganese, and gypsum soil. It’s these three elements with varying degrees of oxygen that create all the colors of the rainbow in the rock formations and soil. We stopped at the Kachina Point Overlook and got our first breathtaking glimpse of the Painted Desert. After fifteen minutes, our next stop was Chinde Point where we found our picnic tables and ate our lunch.
After lunch, I devised a fun auction to give away 11 prizes from the generosity of Starr. I want to thank Mary and Jacque, two passengers, for doing a great job in running the auction. Every passenger received a piece of paper and wrote their name on it. Then, a prize was described. If a passenger was interested in that item, they put their name into a hat. One name was then called and the winner received the prize. The winner was now eliminated and could not put their name into the hat again. Papers were given back and then the next prize was introduced and interested passengers put their name into the hat once again. A winner was drawn and the prize was awarded. This went on until all 11 prizes were given away. The passengers all loved this.
We continued south and headed into the Petrified Forest. We stopped at three overlooks. The first, Newspaper Rock, depicted petroglyphs on rocks from thousands of years ago. The second was Agate Bridge. We saw a huge (reinforced) petrified log that spans across a water gap. The third stop, Crystal Forest, is the place where 15 of our passengers braved the warm sun and high elevation (5,826 feet) to complete a .75 mile hike into the back country of Petrified Forest National Park. We were surrounded by magnificent pieces of Petrified Logs, all sparkling like multicolored crystals. There are Petrified Logs as far as the eyes can see. The amazement and beauty of this area was appreciated by all the passengers.
Our final stop was the Rainbow Forest Museum & Visitors Center on the southern end of the Park. Passengers were able to view a video on The Painted Desert and Petrified Forest, use the restrooms before our upcoming 90 minute trip to Flagstaff, and browse the gift shop.
Hank drove the final 75 minutes into Flagstaff, Arizona, gateway to the Grand Canyon, and after checking into the Holiday Inn, passengers were on their own for the remainder of the evening. This was another perfect day.
Day 8: Saturday, September 8
After a delicious breakfast at the Holiday Inn, we departed for the Grand Canyon on a brand new All Aboard America Bus driven by our new friend, Bill Scott. Hank chose to join us for the day on his day off as he has never been to the Canyon. We were happy to have him join us as a “vacationer.”
I discussed a few facts about the Grand Canyon and the Harvey Girls and played a DVD telling about the history of the Harvey Girls. Before the documentary ended, we were entering Grand Canyon National Park.
We parked at the Desert View overlook and it was here that the passengers caught their first glimpse of the most magnificent view they will probably ever see. The sun was being absorbed into brilliantly colored rock formations reflecting a magical illusion back to our eyes. It looked like a huge multicolored mural that an artist painted with water colors. I always say that seeing is believing and seeing the Grand Canyon creates an unbelievable sense of beauty beyond anyone’s imagination. Comments from our passengers included, “I can’t believe this,” “I’ve never imagined anything so magnificent,” “it doesn’t look real,” and “WOW.” For me, once again my sensitivity came through and tears wet my eyes. I was back home!
We met our local guide, Cowboy Bob, and began our two hour tour. Bob was extremely passionate about the Grand Canyon and showed us so many fabulous secrets as we stopped at different overlooks. At one overlook, Bob pointed out holes in the Canyon Walls that were carved by Native Americans who once lived there. Whenever an invasion was suspected by another tribe, they would move their wives and children into these holes for protection. Today, these holes are probably homes for bears. At one stop, Moran Point, named after Thomas Moran who was a landscape artist at the Grand Canyon, Cowboy Bob pointed out four amazing sights: 1. a series of formations that took the shape of a Battleship, 2. another formation that took the shape of a sinking ship, 3. a view of the swiftest and most dangerous rapids on the Colorado River registering a Class 8 on the 1 to 10 scale of rapid rating (with 10 being the most difficult), and 4. Bob pointed out that certain rock exposed at this overlook was Vishnu Shiest dating back 2 BILLION years, the oldest layer of rock known on Earth. Cowboy Bob was extremely informative and very funny with a wonderful personality.
Following the tour, the passengers were on their own at the Bright Angel Lodge in Grand Canyon Village for lunch, shopping, and the opportunity to walk the rim of the Canyon. We had two hours to eat and explore this section. Some ventured down the Bright Angel Trail for a short distance to experience the Canyon from within. The Trail is one of two trails that leads hikers all the way down to the Colorado River. Others shopped in the Gift Shop desiring to bring memories of the Grand Canyon home. But no matter what activities we chose to do, we had the time to experience the Grand Canyon in our personal ways.
Once back on the bus, we proceeded to the General Store for another half hour of shopping. Our final stop for the day was the new Visitors Center Complex along with a short walk out to Mather Point Overlook and another spectacular view of the Canyon. It has been a long productive day with absolutely perfect weather with temperatures in the mid 80’s. All the passengers were fully content as we said our goodbyes to the Grand Canyon.
The shadows and sunlight paint a different portrait on the Grand Canyon from hour to hour and overlook to overlook. The magnificent views never look the same from moment to moment. This is one of the qualities that makes the Grand Canyon so unique, thus earning it the distinction of being one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
We arrived in Flagstaff and the passengers were now on their own for the remainder of the evening. Today was another spectacular day.
Day 9: Sunday, September 9
We had another nice breakfast at the Holiday Inn Express. As we were leaving Flagstaff, Dennis shared his thoughts on the grandeur of the Grand Canyon and sang an amazing rendition of “America the Beautiful.” His magnificent baritone voice resonated throughout the bus. He received a rousing sitting ovation (the bus was moving). We traveled Route 89A, the narrow winding road bringing us down 2000 feet into the beautiful red rocks town of Sedona. Shortly after our arrival in Sedona, Pink Jeep Tours took us for an exciting ride into the back country among the beautiful mountains – riding over large rocks, the famed Red Dirt of Sedona, and 30° inclines. The ride was bumpy and gently swayed us from side to side. The wonderful drivers made the experience exciting enough for each of us to get the sense of the rugged conditions of riding in the back country while keeping it gentle enough for us to thoroughly enjoy it.
Following the ride, we had two hours for lunch and shopping. I gave everyone a fun challenge to eat at Cowboy Bills and try the Appetizer Sampler. This plate consists of buffalo meat, cactus fries, and RATTLESNAKE sausage. And to my great surprise, 21 ate at the restaurant and 15 tried the rattlesnake sausage. All were happy they tried it and they had so much fun in the process. Lunch was a treat. It’s always fun to peek into the Western Stores, the fine boutiques, and the souvenir shops on both sides of Main Street in Sedona. It’s designed in a western setting and the views are just spectacular.
The stretch of highway from Sedona to Las Vegas, has no rest stops and no civilization. The first rest stop is at Exit 66 in Arizona, over three hours away. I kept the passengers occupied by first reviewing everything in their Las Vegas bag including my 11 page Las Vegas booklet. Then I showed the History Channel’s Documentary on Las Vegas, a 50 minute DVD. And finally, I played the 85 minute movie that was filmed in 1964 starring Ann Margaret and this singer from Memphis by the name of Elvis, “Viva Las Vegas.” It was an oldie but a goodie and was a perfect choice to set the mood for our two nights in the “Adult Playground.” So when we arrived at the Petro Truck Stop featuring a Duncan Donuts, we took 30 minutes to stretch our legs and shop in the store.
The Hoover Dam, originally named the Boulder Dam, lies at the border of Arizona and Nevada on Route 93 North. So as we approached the Dam, I announced to the passengers to have your cameras ready and look to your right. Hank slowed down the bus as we passed the Hoover Dam so we were able to take pictures. It is a powerful sight to behold with the solid concrete structure holding back mega gallons of water (Lake Mead) with what appears to be hundreds of electrical wires extending in all directions. One of the options for tomorrow is a five hour Tour of Hoover Dam.
My GPS along with my memory of the area helped Hank navigate the bus right into the unloading section of the New York New York Hotel. The porters were waiting for us and before I was able to return to the bus to hand out the keys to the passengers, the luggage was gone. I wished everyone good luck and told them to call me anytime if the need arose. They were now on their own until Tuesday morning at 8:00 AM.
After getting settled in my room, I met 8 passengers who wanted to see a Las Vegas show and guided them over to the discount ticket booth by the MGM. To my utter dismay and horror, I learned that the Beatles “Love” was now dark on Sundays and Mondays. The passengers laughed as I cried (all in fun), but we were all disappointed as I had built up the show. The ticket agent said “Love” had switched its dark days in June. GROAN!!!!! Instead, we were able to purchase tickets for Michael Jackson’s “One” by Cirque du Soleil for the 9:30 PM show that evening. Six of us bought tickets and made our way over to the Mandalay Bay by walking over two bridges and taking a free tram.
The show was very good. The special effects and acrobatics were a bit weak at first but really picked up later in the show. The Michael Jackson music was boooooming and you felt the vibrations throughout your body. I loved it. The visual effects were constant and came at you from all angles. It was a show that penetrated your being and expressed Michael Jackson’s music as well as his unpredictable and confused persona. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience as did Carmen, Cindy, Donna, Lina, and Sal.
We made our way back to the New York New York and went our separate ways. Craving a slice of New York pizza, I had a delicious midnight snack before turning in.
Day 10: Monday, September 10
The old adage is “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.” Having said that, my report will be quite a bit shorter today since everyone is doing their own thing. What appears below is a summary of major activities by our 2018 Cross Country Tour Guests provided to me on Tuesday, September 11:
Visited with family
Visited The Aquarium at Mandalay Bay (and my inner child came out)
Walked the Las Vegas Strip
Saw Cirque du Soleil & Michael Jackson’s “One”
Went to the Pool at the New York New York
Took the 5 hour tour of Hoover Dam
Saw the Siegfried and Roy’s Tigers at the Casino
WALKED WALKED WALKED & Laughed Laughed Laughed
Saw “Vegas, The Show” at An Old-Time Vegas review featuring acts from the 1940’s to the 1990’s including the Casinos that are no longer around.
Walked 4 Miles on Las Vegas Boulevard also known as “The Strip”
Enjoyed my comfortable bed, the relaxing pool, great fitness center and equipment at the New York New York. The fitness Center also provided free fruit.
The whole experience of Vegas is wonderful. Exploring the inside of the Casinos during the day and walking The Strip at night was the way to go. The Venetian was my favorite. My legs almost gave out.
RENEWED OUR WEDDING VOWS in the Chapel at the MGM.
Loved the Fountain Show outside The Bellagio and the Volcano at the Mirage
Rode the High Roller Wheel at Bally’s
Watched the Fall of Atlantis at Caesars Palace
Rode the Monorail
Saw the Chihuly Glass Ceiling at the Bellagio
Seeing friends for the first time in over a year
GAMBLED GAMBLED GAMBLED
Day 11: Tuesday, September 11
Today was Jacque’s birthday so we began the day on a happy note with Dennis once again leading us in singing “Happy Birthday” to her. I also wished all of our Jewish passengers a healthy and happy New Year on this Rosh Hashanah morning. Before the bus pulled away from the New York New York, I lead everyone in a moment of silence to honor the 3000 who lost their lives 17 years ago. As Hank guided us outside of Las Vegas onto I-15 South towards Los Angeles, I reviewed the horrendous events that took place in 2001. Afterwards, I played Neil Young’s song, “Let’s Roll” to honor Todd Beamer of Cranbury, New Jersey who, with others, stormed the cockpit of Flight 93 and gave their lives to prevent another disastrous attack.
Our first stop was at the Calico Ghost Town, an old silver mining town in Nevada that was active from 1881 to the middle 1890’s. The buildings have been resurrected in their exact same place as they were in 1881. The passengers enjoyed exploring this little town.
We arrived at the Sportsman’s Lodge in Studio City, California earlier than our itinerary suggested. Hank continues to do an outstanding job driving the bus and the traffic into the Los Angeles area was surprisingly light.
The weather continues to be perfect. Some passengers took advantage of the beautiful pool that sits in the center of the hotel. It also has a swim-up bar and serves food. Others were so tired that they retreated to their room. Some went out to a nearby restaurant for dinner. We are all anticipating tomorrow’s tour of the great city of Los Angeles.
Day 12: Wednesday, September 12
There was excitement in the air as Judy Parisi, our local guide and expert on everything Los Angeles, introduced herself to everyone. Judy is extremely outgoing and friendly and has a deep passion for her city. Ironically, Judy is from Passaic, New Jersey and moved out here 25 years ago.
We first traveled to the Rockefeller Center of Los Angeles, Graumans Chinese Theater, now named the TCL Chinese Theater. Judy showed us the infamous Hollywood Sign on the hill in the distance. Then, she spoke about the Dolby Theater, the Red Carpet, the Academy Awards, and how workers cover all the shoppes with fancy curtains so that viewers of the Academy Awards don’t realize the Dolby Theater is actually in a giant mall. Judy then led us down the Red Carpet steps (I don’t understand why officials did not put down the Red Carpet for us) and out to the Walk of Fame. Judy told a story about how Shirley Temple, at age 6, didn’t want anyone to notice she had lost a tooth so to take attention away from her face, she defied the rules and put her little feet in the cement, thus starting a new tradition. Stars became creative after this. Jimmy Durante, for example, put his nose print while George Burns stuck a cigar into the cement. The only couple together in one section of cement is Joanne Woodward & Paul Newman. A flower was placed at Burt Reynolds square who recently passed away.
The Tour continued as we drove past the Chateau Montmarte where John Bellushi died and the Vipor Room where River Phoenix died, the Rainbow Bar & Grill where Marilyn and Joe first dated, and famous landmarks such as the Beverly Hills Sign, the street the Clampetts drove down in the introduction of the Beverly Hillbillies, and the Jewelry Store on Rodeo Drive (we were not allowed to drive on Rodeo Drive) in which Julia Roberts was thrown out in the film, “Pretty Woman.” We also traveled on Santa Monica Boulevard and Route 66. Route 66 ends some 20 miles west at the Pacific Ocean.
We had two hours for lunch and shopping at the famous Farmers Market. Many tried the Corned Beef sandwich at famed Magees Kitchen. Blanche Magee opened the original sandwich shoppe that started a new trend. Originally, the Farmers Market was a place for local farmers to sell their products, paying 50 cents a day for the privilege. Mrs. Magee thought they might like to have lunch, so she filled a picnic hamper and started feeding them. After Magees opened, more entrepreneurs followed. Today there are over 80 eating establishments in the Farmers Market, not including the modern shops at the Grove, a single level mall adjacent to the property.
We continued our tour into South Los Angeles passing a school that was once the Ambassador Hotel in which Robert Kennedy was shot. We were shown Los Angeles’s City Hall Building that was used as the opening of the Adventures of Superman episodes in the 1950’s. Judy explained the creation of the new Disney Theater Complex and the location of the Staples Center, home of the LA Lakers and LA Kings.
Judy, our Tour Guide, was absolutely magnificent and told me she actually trained Chris, our Los Angeles guide from 2017, who has since left the company to pursue a career in voice overs.
We arrived back at the Sportsman Lodge to drop off Judy and 4 passengers who chose to relax rather than go to the Universal Citywalk. Hank and I gave the passengers 3 hours for dinner and strolling around. Everyone enjoyed this opportunity in the beautiful Southern California weather. Five of us ate at Bubba Gumps for the first time. The food was delicious and we all enjoyed each other’s company. We arrived back at the Lodge tired and fulfilled with another perfect day.
Day 13: Thursday, September 13
We packed up and drove out of Los Angeles at 8:00 AM and battled the rush hour traffic on The 101 until we were considerably north of LA. I played a few wake up songs and then, to the total enjoyment of the passengers, showed the first two episodes of the Beverly Hillbillies.
We arrived at the Santa Barbara Courthouse and eventually met our guide, Mike. The Santa Barbara Courthouse is a magnificent structure with Spanish and Moorish architecture. Brilliant artwork, open corridors, and massive hallways with high ceilings strike the visitor. Court was in session. An older, unshaven man locked in shackles was being escorted by an officer past our group. Women and men dressed in formal attire (most likely attorneys), were scurrying either into one of the many courtrooms or the huge Library to do their research. The guide spoke about the history and decor of the building. The hour passed quickly.
We were soon on our way to the equally magnificent Santa Barbara Mission. Missions are places of worship and sanctuary. Twenty-one missions were built from San Diego to San Francisco from the late 1600’s to the early 1700’s to provide a place for weary travelers to stay and to spread Christianity throughout California. Our passengers were able to complete their own guided tour at their own pace. Signs were strategically posted at every turn showing us where to walk. We saw a 10 minute introductory film in a small theater before strolling the hallowed grounds. We saw the mausoleum that continues to add to their numbers today (for a minimum of $30,000). Many passengers reflected for a short time in the large beautifully adorned church. Finally, we passed through the museum telling about the history of the Santa Barbara Mission as well as the lifestyles of the people living back then. It was a calm and serene visit, a distinct contrast to the busy Courthouse.
We traveled about 45 minutes north to the quaint Danish community of Solvang, with a population of about 7,000. With Scandinavian decor that included a large windmill, the passengers had about 20 food establishments to choose from and many different shops to walk into. Once again, our weather was perfect to walk outside with temperatures in the upper 70’s and clear blue skies. We had two hours in Solvang and everyone enjoyed this unique Viking village.
We traveled to San Luis Obispo and another Holiday Inn Express. The rooms were beautiful with brand new carpeting and wonderful amenities. After settling in some passengers left the hotel to explore San Luis Obispo. Many took the $.25 trolley into town to enjoy the Thursday Night Market and all of its food and entertainment. Some grabbed a light Italian meal or pizza across the street at Gino’s, and went back to their room. It was a productive evening and another wonderful day.
Day 14: Friday, September 14
This morning, we traveled to the magnificent Hearst Castle in San Simeon. I played a few morning songs and talked about the day. I then showed the A&E Documentary on Hearst Castle which proved to be a great introduction to the life of William Randolph Hearst. We arrived at the Visitors Center of the Hearst Castle and I effortlessly got the wrist bands and gave one to each passenger, including Hank.
I lead our group into the theater where we were treated to a 40 minute movie on the life of William Randolph Hearst. This film focused on the building of the Hearst Castle and the life experiences that young William had that influenced its furnishing and architecture. It was a great introduction to the Castle we were about to experience.
We rode the school bus to the top of the mountain where we were met by our knowledgeable tour guide. We then climbed many steps to different levels until we reached the Castle. One of our handicapped passengers was placed on the ADA bus and driven to the Castle from the school bus drop off point in a golf cart. Beautiful views, unbelievable architecture, and magnificent decor were the theme of the day. Tapestries hung from many walks. Statues stood proudly in their place. Elegant furnishings were strategically placed in each room. Hearst created a castle fit for European Royalty in a location that defied imagination.
We descended the mountain and ate lunch in the Visitors Center. We were soon on the bus and departing for a quick stop at the Elephant Seal Rookery. Before we arrived at the beach where these magnificent creatures crawl onto in order to molt, or shed, their outer skin, one passenger was extremely upset that she had left her camera back at the Hearst Castle Visitors Center. After staring in amazement at these fascinating Elephant Seals lying on the beach and rarely moving, we drove back to the Hearst Castle and fortunately retrieved the camera.
We were now on our way to San Francisco. Hank and I chose to follow both of our GPS directions that took us on the Pacific Coast Highway, Route 1. Hank did a marvelous job steering the bus through the many twists and turns of this two lane mountainside highway. The passengers relished in the absolutely magnificent scenery of the rugged Pacific Ocean, aqua in color, laden with beautiful rock formations and high cliffs. I played soft, calming music such as Lionel Richie and Johnny Mathis to keep the passengers relaxed as the bus ascended and descended the mountains for 60 miles. The passengers were very happy to have experienced the Pacific in all its glory.
At the end of Route 1, we arrived in the city of Carmel where Clint Eastwood was once the mayor. We found a shopping center with public restrooms and took a fifteen minute break. Once back on the road, I reviewed my San Francisco packet with all the different opportunities for tomorrow afternoon in San Francisco. I also discussed our walking together to the Alcatraz Pier 33 in the morning, and that I would get a cab for those passengers wishing to ride (I sent a sign up sheet around). We had 8 passengers riding. I then put on the movie “Citizen Kane,” the 1941 drama about the life of William Randolph Hearst created and starring Orson Welles. The passengers enjoyed this very much.
Once we reached The 101 North leading into San Francisco, we were in bumper to bumper traffic for 50 miles. We found out there had been a bus fire closer to San Francisco that forced the road closure. The road eventually opened. With all of our delays, we finally arrived in San Francisco at 7:20 PM.
The Hotel Zephyr was ready for us. I was given our keys and Hank and the Porter were removing the luggage. Soon the passengers were free to go to their rooms and get a quick bite to eat in one of San Francisco’s fabulous restaurants. It was a very long day, and extremely memorable.
Day 15: Saturday, September 15
The weather was sunny and 60° and visibility was clear as we boarded the ferry to Alcatraz Island. Once on the ferry, we were able to get beautiful pictures of both the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge as well as the majestic Golden Gate Bridge. Fifteen minutes later, we had completed the 1.25 mile span between San Francisco and The Rock. We learned that more than 5000 visitors a day make this trek. The large crowds are extremely well managed, kudos to our National Park Service.
Once we arrived at the Penitentiary we were handed headphones and an iPod-like device that provided step by step directions and historical information about each section of the prison with amazing sound effects that made you feel like you were right in the middle of the action. We were guided through Cell Block D also known as solitary confinement and jail cells with specific stories attached to them. Posters hung on the walls with facts on famous inmates and guards while still more posters explained breakout attempts. We were guided outside into the Recreation Yard, and finally into the Dining Hall. It took about an hour to complete the tour.
We were now on our own for the remainder of the day. Some stayed longer on Alcatraz Island while others took the ferry back earlier to make a timed tour in the afternoon. Some passengers went to Muir Woods, others hopped a trolley and rode around the city. A few took a tour of San Francisco by bus while others simply followed a map and walked. San Francisco has hills like no other city I know. My plan was to see the famous Lombard Street, and Hank decided to walk with me. So up we began climbing, one block, two blocks, panting instead of breathing. Only three more excruciating hills to go. We saw a trolley easing its way up the huge slopes and hopped on and got off three blocks later at Lombard Street. After a few amazing pictures (Lombard Street offers beautiful views of Nob Hill and other sections of San Francisco as well as its winding, steep slope), Hank and I hopped on another trolley to take us back down to bay level. San Franciscans are extremely fortunate that they never have to deal with snow and slippery roads.
It was a fabulous day in San Francisco. Everyone enjoyed their multitude of experiences. Tomorrow morning, we leave our hearts.
Passengers often ask me the same question again and again… “Do you work full-time?”
I explain that being a Tour Director for Starr is not a full-time job. (Although some times it feels like it is – while I on tour I am working 24/7!) As much as I like to think I could escort bus trips every day, in reality, there is no way I could. I travel with Starr about 50 days a year; sometimes more, sometimes less. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Before I even leave on a trip, there is information to be gathered, especially if I’ve never done the itinerary before or it’s been a long time since I’ve done it. I have to check on all the stops we’ll be making – whether they are restaurants, hotels, attractions or even rest stops. I call ahead to ask questions so I know what to expect. And even if I have been there before, I need to find out if there have been any changes since the last time I was there. I also talk to the driver who will be driving the trip. A Driver’s input is very important and helpful since we work as a team while on tour.
The history of a destination is also important and some require more study than others. For example, I enjoy going to Boston because I love the early history of our country. Seeing its historic places, such as The Old North Church and USS Constitution (Old Ironsides), gives me a thrill. I want to share that feeling with my passengers. American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” is one of the things I entertain tour guests with on the bus ride north. I only memorized half of it as a kid, so I have to read the rest!
Starr Tour Directors like to play games that have to do with the destination on trips to help the time pass by, and those games need preparation.
Preparation for a trip can take many days before we depart but it’s not done by day one. You’ve probably seen your Tour Director doing paperwork on the bus and there is also a paperwork and reports to be completed after the trip ends. In approximation, as a rule of thumb, it takes as much time to prepare for a trip as the actual trip itself!
For other trips, such as the 9/11 Museum and Memorial, a favorite of mine, I already have a lot of information that I readily share with my passengers on the way into the city because I escort this trip so often. But, I am always reading and learning more about the history as well as finding out what is new in the area… and there is always something new in downtown New York City!
Oh, and one more thing I have to do before I leave on a multi-day trip: be sure that there is food in the house and go over meal suggestions for my husband, who will be home with our dog. “Who’s babysitting who?” I often ask!
I started preparing for this year’s trips in the beginning of the year by going through my files from years past and going over the planned itineraries of any new trips I am escorting this year. Montreal and the Laurentian Mountains, October 7-10, is new this year. I love the mountains, so I am really looking forward to this bus trip. I will be spending lots of time preparing by reading up on everything we will be seeing there.
Now that you know a little about what’s behind the average trip, perhaps you’ll see your Tour Director a little differently.
I would love to know what things you do before you depart on your Starr bus trip!
See you on the bus!
Starr Tour Director