To do it or not to do it, this was the question I kept toying with for three days as I scanned every piece of review on the internet for doing a west coast tour in the US. I really wanted to see the west coast but only had 7 days and there was no time to take the advice, research and plan travel to each destination by myself.
The bus tour was too attractive to ignore. The price was very good for the inclusions. But then one does get wary when there are caveats of “we reserve the right to make changes at the time of travel”. After going through all the negative feedback, I realized that it was more hypothetical as to why would one want to travel on a group tour vs feedback through actual experiences. So I decided to take the plunge. I booked myself on a 6 night 7 days tour of the west coast. The only thing I got on making the booking online was an e-ticket confirming the tour name, the price paid and a customer care number. The fun begins’, I thought to myself. I just blew up $800 and all I get is a call center number!
As the date got closer my anxiety increased till I got down from the cab at the pickup point. It was a shopping area which was desolate at 7 in the morning. I was the only person as far as I could see with an occasional car whizzing past. Finally when I couldn’t take it anymore, I called up that customer care number. They picked up in two rings and gave me the number for the tour guide, Hao. I called up Hao and was happy that he was an English speaking guide. They were on their way and within two minutes the bus arrived. ‘Not bad’ was my first reaction as I noticed that the bus was big 50 seater and there were just 20 odd people so lots of space. I had just plonked myself on the seat when Hao announced that I was the only English speaking audience on the bus and everyone else only spoke Chinese. However before I freaked out, he added that he would repeat everything in both English and Chinese even if there was only one passenger speaking the language. Phew! Some respite.
Our first destination was the Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. It took us about 4 hours to reach LA including a couple of stops in between. The place was as crowded as a walk through Lajpat Nagar in Delhi or a pavement in Andheri in Mumbai. Amidst the crowds, as we walk through the Hollywood Walk of Fame, people were looking for the names of their favorite Hollywood artists embedded in the sidewalks. It was actually fun to discover them. The moment someone would call out a name, many people would crowd around. This continued till we reached the Dolby Theatre Museum which has been hosting the Academy Awards since 2001. The columns at the theater have the names of the Best Picture winner for each year. Hao specially looked out for me in the group to show me the name of “Slumdog Millionaire”. I had to show some rush of adrenalin at this to keep up with his enthusiasm. You can also get a great view of the Hollywood sign on the Santa Monica mountains from the Dolby Theatre. After a stroll past the TCL Chinese Theatre and taking some more pictures of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, we headed to LA downtown just to get a feel of the city. It felt like any other city, nothing great to talk about. The day was getting to an end and we were also a bit tired. More than anything, I was still apprehensive of where we were going to stay. I was just praying that it did not end up being a shady place.
All my fears were put to rest when our bus parked itself at the Knott’s Berry Farm hotel. This is on the outskirts of LA but a huge property. It was right next to the Knott’s Berry theme park and I could actually view the rides from my room. The cartoon character Snoopy roaming around the premises was a cute surprise.
The next morning we headed to San Diego. This time it was a mini bus as the San Diego tour was optional and not everyone had opted for it. There were some new people in the bus though quite a few were the same as on day 1. This time there were a couple of English speaking people as well. Our first stop was the San Diego harbor. Looking at the statue of the Sailor Kissing the Nurse flanked by trees on both sides reminded me of the Bollywood actors romancing around the trees. A cruise along the harbor was very insightful as they showcased the US naval fleet. San Diego was quite warm at this time of the year (September). From the Harbor we went to Coronado Island. The ride over the Coronado Bridge gave us some great views of the blue seas. After enjoying the beaches on the Coronado Island we moved to the old town California which felt like we had entered Mexico. Our last stop for the day was Balboa Park. One day is not sufficient for Balboa Park. It’s a huge park with great flora. The Botanical Gardens had some amazing types of flowers. It’s definitely worth the visit. We came back to our hotel in LA, tired but satisfied with a day well spent.
Universal Studios L.A:
Our third day was scheduled for the Universal Studios. Again, this was an optional tour and we went there in the mini bus. The tour guide took us to 4 key rides which he absolutely did not want us to miss before letting us explore the place on our own. All the rides there are fun though the Jurassic Park and the Return of the Mummy were the ones I enjoyed the most. The Studio tour was fascinating as the tram meandered through the sets. The musical show at the water world was the last one for the day and it truly felt like watching a movie live.
On the 4th day it was time to pack our bags and head for the much awaited part of the tour- Las Vegas! We had a new tour guide. Her name was Sophie and she was pretty well versed with California. She gave us a lot of insights throughout the journey. The ride through the Mojave Desert into the state of Nevada was awesome. There were so many shades to the desert, beautiful colors of sand. Sophie checked options with us on the bus itself as to what would we like to in Vegas. She highly recommended the night tour which would take us across the major attractions of Las Vegas as well as also included a musical show. I opted for that. We checked into The Excalibur at Vegas which, like all other hotels there, was massive. Walking just to our rooms felt like eternity. One can easily get lost in the hotel itself. The entire ground floor of hotel was a casino and all of the first floor was a food court. After checking into our rooms, we headed out for the night tour of the city. Sophie was our guide on the tour too and she took us to all the major attractions including the Venetian, the Bellagio, Caesar palace, the musical fountains, the high roller and the Fremont experience. We also saw one of their legendary musical shows before calling it a day. Beyond that- what happens at Vegas stays in VegasJ.
The Grand Canyon:
The 5th day was the high point of the tour. We went to see the Grand Canyon; Arizona State. It was Sophie’s day off so we had a new guide called Angela. Angela was fun to be with. She had a good sense of humor and kept the group entertained with her quips. She booked the helicopter tour for us for those of us who wanted to do it, before we reached the Canyon. The helicopter tour is only available at the West rim of the Grand Canyon and takes you to the bottom of the Canyon where you can enjoy a short boat ride on the Colorado River. The ride down took 3-4 minutes. The views of the Canyon are much more beautiful on the way up than while going down. The Canyon is huge and while it is mesmerizing, its massive size is also scary. There is no fencing at the canyon. You can get to the absolute edge and look down from the top. Take care not to look down too much to fall down the canyon. Once you are done with the helicopter ride, there are shuttles that take you to various scenic spots of the Grand Canyon. The helicopter ride ticket also includes lunch and a certificate from the Hualapai tribe as a souvenir of your visit to the Grand Canyon. It is important to keep track of time as you roam around the Canyon to be able to get back to your bus within the given duration. On the way back from the Canyon we stopped at Hoover Dam though I did not find it much exciting, especially after the insight that that the amount of concrete used to create the Hoover dam was equivalent to what would be required to build a road from California to New York. The evening back in Vegas was free for us to explore the city.
Our 6th day was a long journey back to California. We reached Fresno in the evening where we parked ourselves at the Holiday Inn. The long ride had been tiring and all of us called in early as we had a lot to cover on our last day at Yosemite National Park.
We checked out early in the morning to head to Yosemite. Again, one day is not enough for Yosemite though Sophie tried her best to have us see as much as we could. The Giant Sequoias were the prime attraction other than some beautiful mountain views of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The park has a small food court where we had lunch before heading back to where we had started our tour, for me it was San Jose. What a tour it had been! I tried to capture as much as I could of this amazing journey in my memories and my camera. Now a few more insights about the group tour:
The tour will not have the same people throughout. Based on what itineraries people have chosen you will have new co- passengers every day. I only had 3 people who were with me throughout the 7 days.
- The guides are very helpful. If you have any doubts, questions, please ask them. Keep their phone number with you. There is a mandatory tip of $6 every day per passenger for the guide, but it’s truly worth it. They want everyone to experience as much as possible and if they are rushing you, it’s because there is more to see that they don’t want you to miss. Considering I was travelling alone, they specifically took care that I would not get lost and even when we reached back; the guide helped me strike a deal with the van operator to drop me to the hotel for much less than what the cab would have cost me.
- The bus stops nearly every couple of hours for nature breaks and food. They are huge Volvo buses and normally have half the seats occupied so there is plenty of space for everyone
- They also stop a couple of times at factory outlet malls if you are interested in shopping.
- A couple of times they stopped for lunch at a Chinese buffet but it is not imposed. There are other joints there as well if you don’t want to have the buffet but it had so much variety and was such great value for money that everyone on our tour opted for it.
- When on a group tour, you need to have respect for other people’s time so that everyone enjoys the tour. While they are all strangers, treat it just like you would treat your family. I made some good friends on the tour which made the journey even more enjoyable. Some of them did not even speak English and I did not speak Chinese yet we could communicate and got along well.
Lastly I can only say that this was one of the best decisions I took to travel across the west coast. It saved me the hassle of researching and figuring out places to stay all by myself. The quality of the services, stay and itinerary was great value for money as well as very safe. If you are on your own and want to explore US, this is highly recommended!