The Hostel Experience – by an over 45 solo traveler

I would never pass up the opportunity to stay in a nice hotel or resort, but travelling is expensive and if you want to make your travel dreams become a reality you have to find a way for your budget to accommodate your travel plans.

When I decided to embark on an extended travel experience of  Canada and USA I wanted to do it as economically as possible, so that I could travel for as long and as far as possible.  Accommodation is usually the most expensive part of travel so I did what I had to do to stretch my dollars. During the three month trip I stayed in a total of 10 hostels and only 3 hotels and 2 B&Bs .

As a traveler in the over 45 age bracket who had never stayed in a hostel before this was going to be a new experience for me. I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Staying in hostels definitely wasn’t like staying at the Ritz but  most were clean and tidy, the beds were relatively comfortable and most provided a basic breakfast of coffee, cereal and toast, muffins or bagels to start the day.

I must confess I am a bit of clean freak and before embarking on my journey my biggest fears were cleanliness of the hostels and bed bugs. I may have just been lucky but fortunately neither of my fears became a reality.  Hostels provide you with a clean set of sheets and towels at check-in and you often have to make the bed yourself.  Before making my bed I always checked under the mattresses and crevices for bed bugs using a torch. To be honest I think most of the hostels I stayed at were quite vigilant about the bed bug/cleanliness factor.  Most hostels had mattress protectors on the beds that were clearly clean and changed regularly, cleaners were also observed cleaning floors and bathrooms every morning.

Apparently some hostels have a reputation of being a ‘Party Hostel’.  I’m not much of a night owl these days and after a full day of sightseeing I was usually ready for bed at a decent hour, and most of the hostels I stayed in were actually relatively quiet. You can usually gauge the atmosphere of a hostel by checking reviews. The key to being satisfied with any accommodation you book is to always do some research before making the booking. Trip Advisor is one of the most popular websites that provides traveler reviews, but there are many others that can be found easily if Google the word ‘review’ with the name of the accommodation you are considering.

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Other things to consider when booking a hostel are room types, facilities they offer, do they provide breakfast (if that is important to you), distance from public transport, points of interest and of course the cost. Hostels have fully equipped kitchens, so buying some basic food items and preparing at least some of your own meals is another great way to reduce costs.

Generally hostels offer rooms with either 4,6 or 8 beds set up as bunks and some also offer private rooms. You can also choose between mixed-sex dorms or male/female only dorms. Each bed usually has a personal light, power point, shelf, and locker. Some hostel rooms have dorms with en-suite bathrooms and all had additional bathrooms with showers in the hall.  The largest dorm room I stayed in was at Hosteling International Philadelphia. I didn’t realise until I arrived that they only had one female dorm room with 18 beds. I arrived about lunch time and check-in was at 4 pm. During those few hours before check-in I became concerned about staying in such I large dorm and very nearly cancelled my booking and checked into a hotel, but I was only staying for two nights so decided to give it a try. The dorm was fully booked and to my surprise it was actually very quiet and everyone was very respectful of everyone else’s personal space.

The cost of staying in a hostel can vary depending on the city you are in. The hostels I stayed in varied from US$27 per night in Denali National Park, Alaska to US$71 per night in New York.  Another way to reduce the cost if you are on an extended trip and plan to stay in few hostels is to purchase a Hosteling International membership.  For US$28 you receive a 12 month membership which includes a minimum 10% discount at all HI hostels worldwide as well as other various offers.

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Denali Mountain Morning Hostel – a peaceful place in the wilderness.

Most hostels also offer activities or day tours around the local area at reasonable cost. They are usually conveniently located either centrally or near public transport and friendly staff can offer advice on how to get around a city and what to see. Because Los Angeles is quite spread out I decided to split my time between two hostels,  I stayed four nights in Hollywood and three nights in Santa Monica.  The Hollywood hostel provided a shuttle bus that takes guests to the beach in Santa Monica a couple of times a week (a distance of about 23 km). So I decided to take the shuttle for my transfer to the Santa Monica. I was expecting to have to walk a block or two from beach drop off point, but  the shuttle bus driver from the Hollywood hostel was kind enough to drop me and my luggage at the door of the Santa Monica hostel.

I only had one unpleasant experience in a hostel.  I was staying in a small six bed dorm room and was woken up at 7.00 am to the sound of the girl in the bunk bed above me, talking really loudly in her native tongue to her friend on the other side of the room. Seriously though most people who needed to make an early start were very respectful of others in the room by preparing themselves the night before and quietly seeing themselves out in the morning.

If your traveling alone, staying in a hostel is a great way to meet people. While staying in hostels I met and had some great conversations with people of all ages and from all over the globe. Of course most of the conversations you have with people you meet in hostels is likely to be an exchange of travel stories. It doesn’t matter how old you are because the love of travel crosses all generations and you share a common interest to explore the world. It seems that travelers inspire each other to keep travelling by sharing stories of travel, adventure and further wanderlust.

HI New York

HI New York – One of the best hostels I stayed in.

While I would never give up the opportunity to stay in a nice hotel, a hostel is a good option if you want to spend some time in a city that has a reputation for being expensive or if you want to stretch your dollar a bit further so that you can travel longer.  Now that I have experienced staying in hostels I would much rather stay in a hostel than a cheap hotel.

I will finish this article with a list of the places I stayed during my travels through Canada and the USA.  If you are over 45 and young at heart you should have no problem staying in any of the hostels.

HI Seattle at the American Hotel – An old building, but clean and comfortable. Breakfast was provided. The only downside was walking up three flights of stairs every time I need to go to my room.

HI Vancouver – Dorm rooms were very small,  breakfast was provided.

Denali Mountain Morning Hostel –  A great place to stay. The hostel & cabins are in the wildness with a creek running through the property.  If you’re lucky you might see a Moose strolling by. Friendly helpful staff, a shuttle bus to and from the Wilderness Access Center twice daily.  I had the best Salmon Chowder at McKinley Creekside Café just across the road.

HI Anchorage – A comfortable hostel. A breakfast (pancakes) only provided on Sundays.

USA Hostels San Francisco – Large hostel in a nice old building in the city center. I stayed in a nice 4 bed en-suite dorm which was comfortable. Breakfast was provided.

Stratosphere Las Vegas (Hotel) – Your average Vegas hotel, the rooms were clean and comfortable. Located at the North end of the strip which was a bit out of the way, you need to take a bus or a taxi if you want to visit the fancy ‘must see’ casinos/hotels.

Excalibur Las Vegas (Hotel) – Another average Vegas hotel, there was a definite whiff of stale smoke on the gaming floor but the rooms were clean and comfortable. great location walking distance other well know casinos/hotels.

USA Hollywood Hostel – This hostel was undergoing some renovations when I stayed there so there were some minor inconveniences at the time. Staff were friendly and helpful, dorms had en-suite bathrooms, breakfast was provided, I would stay there again.

HI Santa Monica – One of my favorite hostels, recently renovated with new beds and furniture, right in the town center and one street back from the beach. Breakfast was provided.

Fairchild House New Orleans – A lovely B&B in the Garden District of New Orleans (built in 1841), close to Charles Street where you can catch the Trolley to the French Quarter or Uptown area.

HI Miami Beach – This hostel was clearly a motel in a previous life so all dorm rooms had an en-suite, it was clean and comfortable, air-conditioned (it’s hot in Miami in June), lots of great restaurants nearby.

Clarion Hotel Orlando (Motel) – a basic comfortable Orlando motel with a pool and on-site restaurant.

HI Philadelphia (Apple Hostels) – Basic hostel with only one large female dorm. Located in the downtown area of Philadelphia.

HI Washington DC – Nice hostel, centrally located, within walking distance of the White House, breakfast was provided.

HI New York – located in quieter area of Manhattan and only two blocks from Central Park. Away from the hustle and bustle of Times Square, but close enough to be there in 15 minutes via the subway. Onsite coffee shop that provides simple meals. Storage lockers available (if you want to get out of town for a couple of days and store your big backpack).  Another of my favorite hostels, will definitely stay again next time I visit the big apple.

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New Orleans

Character, Culture & all that Jazz

New Orleans is definitely a city with its own character made up of the beautiful Garden District, the popular French Quarter and of course all that Jazz music, and the culture made up of a mixture of French, Spanish and African American history.

I arrived in New Orleans to heavy rain which set the scene for a warm and steamy few days. I stayed in a nice little B&B called Fairchild House which is located in the Garden District. The home was built in 1841, has 12ft ceilings and retains the character of a home built in that era. New Orleans is notorious for its spooky history, but I didn’t have any ‘unexplained’ experiences while I was there. To be honest, because I was traveling alone I kept away from the Ghost & Vodoo stories.

Fairchild House

The shady Garden District

Getting around the tourist areas of New Orleans is very easy. A $3 ticket will get you 24 hours transport on the RTC, which includes a trolley system around the Garden District, Uptown area and French Quarter.

A New Orleans trolley

On my first day I jumped on a trolley from St Charles Sttreet and headed to Canal Street (in the Uptown area), from there I walked along the foreshore of the Mississippi River towards the French Quarter, where I took a Mule drawn Carriage ride/tour around the area and spent most of the day wandering around looking in shops , seeing the sights and hearing jazz music. The city is well known for its Jazz and you can hear it playing everywhere, on the streets, and in bars and cafes.

Joan of Arc statue, St. Louis Cathedral, Jazz music, Carriage ride.

One of the must do things to do in New Orleans is to take a ride on Steamboat down the Mississippi River. The Mississippi is the 4th longest river in the world and up to 200ft deep in parts.

Following my steamboat ride I went and had coffee and beignets at Café du Monde. Beignets are like Square donuts covered in icing sugar.

Ice coffee & beignets

New Orleans is also famous for Mardi Gras and a trip to Mardi Gras World was well worthwhile. Following information on the history of Mardi Gras and how the floats and displays are built, a tour around the warehouse is provided. The company who run Mardi Gras World spend all year preparing the floats.

Mardi Gras World

Other ‘must do’s’, when your in Louisiana is to visit a plantation as well as do a swamp tour and it was good to get out of town for a day to do these activities. I visited the Destrehan Plantation, which was established in 1787 and produced Indigo prior to becoming a sugar cane plantation. We had a tour of the home and were told about the history of the Destrehan family. But the thing I liked most about the plantation was the amazing Oak Trees surrounding the home.

During the swamp tour I saw lots of Aligators, although I was a bit disturbed to see the tour guide throwing mashmellows into the swamp to draw the alligators to the surface. The aligators are obviously used to being feed the marshmallows because you could see the swimming towards the boat when they heard the motor. One has to wonder what affect all that sugar will have on the Alligators.

Alligators in the swamp

Another interesting thing I found in New Orleans was the a statue of Bernardo de Galvez a Spanish Military Officer who was Governor of Louisiana form 1777–1783 during Spanish rule of the state. I also found Galvez street and a number of business with the name Galvez. I don’t know a lot about my Spanish family history or whether Bernardo is an ancestor, but it’s pretty impressive to think he might be.

Bernardo de Galvez & Galvez Street

Los Angeles

ARRIVED BY: Bus

DEPARTED BY: Plane

ACCOMMODATION: USA Hostels Hollywood (4 nights) and Hostelling International (3 nights)

While riding on the bus the first thing I noticed about LA was the smog all over the city. During my time in LA I heard a number of excuses for the smog . One tour guide assured me this only happens in June and he called it the ‘June gloom’. Another shuttle bus driver said it had ‘something to do with where the hills are’. But just maybe it has something to do with the number of vehicles and possibly some industry polluting the air around the city.

The best picture I could get of the Hollywood sign

I decided to split my time in LA by staying in two different locations because the city is very spread out and it can take over an hour to travel from one side to the other. There was also a number of things I wanted to see around the Hollywood area, but I didn’t want to spend all my time there so I also stayed three nights in Santa Monica.

The bus dropped me off on Hollywood Boulevard and as I began to walk towards the first hostel I realised I was walking past the Hollywood Walk of Fame and started taking photos of the stars I had heard of. The Walk of Fame actually covers a number of streets and also included a lot of people I had never heard of. My first thought while walking down Hollywood Boulevard was that someone really needs to get out on the streets with a pressure cleaner because the Walk of Fame is actually quite grotty.

A collage of some of the photo’s I took while walking along the Walk of Fame

On my first full day in Hollywood I did a Hollywood & Beverley Hills tour and visited Madam Tassauds Wax Museum. Then in the afternoon I thought, hey I’m in Hollywood,  I should try and get a ticket into the studio audience of a TV show recording. So I went online and within a couple of hours had a ticket to be in the Studio Audience of Talking Dead – Fear the Waking Dead. This was a real experience and took up most of my second day. The ticket advised to arrive at CBS Television City half an hour before the entry time and wait outside the gate. Security was high and before the audience were aloud into the building we had to walk through a metal detector, have our bags searched, hand in our phones for the duration of the visit and sign a confidentiality agreement (I expected that one). So no photo’s or further information on this.

Selfies with the stars at Madam Tassauds

Did I actually see anyone famous while I was in LA  (besides at Madam Tassauds or the Talking Dead)? Well while I was walking down the mall in Santa Monica I came across a crowd of people. When I went to  investigate what was going on I saw Gordon Ramsay filming a segment of a show called The F Word, and that was the closest I came to seeing anyone famous.

The closest I came to seeing someone famous

I also visited Universal Studios (the theme park) while I was in Hollywood. That was a lot of fun, I particularly liked the Waterworld Show, Walking Dead attraction and Studio tour.

Universal Studios

I was really happy I decided to also stay in Santa Monica while I was in LA. It is a much nicer area than Hollywood. Hostelling International Santa Monica is the also the nicest hostel I have stayed in so far during my Canada USA adventure. It is very clean and modern, two streets back from the beach and one street away from the main shopping mall.


One day when I was in Santa Monica I walked down to Venice Beach, known as the original muscle beach. When I was ready to head back I worked out how to access the ride share push-bikes and rode a bike back to Santa Monica Pier and beyond. Now that I know how these ride share bikes work I might use them in other cities.

All in all I enjoyed my time in LA.

Las Vegas & National Parks Tour

ARRIVED BY: Plane
DEPARTED BY: Bus

ACCOMMODATION: The Stratosphere (2 nights), Camping (2 nights), Excalibur (3 nights)

This post is really two in one. I visited the glamorous Las Vegas which was also the stepping stone to a National Parks tour.

I found Las Vegas a bit of a strange place. Like I ‘m sure many have said before me it is ‘a place like no other’. I didn’t catch a Hop On Hop Off bus in Vegas, because most of the sights to see such as the fancy hotels are all on the strip and it was more economical to just buy a 24 hour RTC ticket and catch the Deuce Bus (which travels up and down the strip with stops every 15 minutes). While Las Vegas is definitely worth a visit, once you’ve seen the extravagant hotels, played a few games in the Casino, maybe seen a show or two and lazed around the pool for a bit, there really isn’t much else to see and do. My four full days in Vegas was enough and it is probably the only place I’ve been so far where I haven’t left thinking there is more I’d like to see or do.

The Pink Flamingo, Caesars Palace and the Luxor

The majestic Bellagio fountain in front of the Paris Hotel and New York New York

As mentioned previously I took a 2 night/3 day National Parks tour from Las Vegas. Over the three days we travelled over 1600km through three states (Nevada, Utah and Arizona), viewed some amazing scenery and experienced extremes of temperature.

On the first day we headed to Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon in Utah. During the drive the tour guide told us some very informative and interesting stories about the Mormon stronghold and history in Utah.

Zion National Park, Utah

 

Now I am usually more of a gentle walk type person than a hiking person, but Bryce Canyon was quite spectacular and I couldn’t resist the 1500ft decent to the bottom of the canyon to experience more views. The decent was relatively easy and only took 20 minutes, but the climb back up again was a steep hike and probably the hardest thing I’ve done in a while.

Bryce Canyon

 

Following the visit to the canyon we set up our tents at the local campground. Now Bryce Canyon is actually 10,000ft above sea level and there just happened to be a cold snap the night our tour group was there. During the night the temperature dropped to -1’C and when we were woken up at 6.15am there was actually ice on the outside of our tents. By midday the second day the temperature was back up to about 38’C.

It was a cold night.

The second day of the tour included a walk through the beautiful Antelope Canyon and a visit to Horseshoe Bend.

Antelope Canyon

We spent the second night camping at Monument Valley in the Navajo Nation. Everyone on the tour woke up in time to see the sunrise over the monuments. A sight that was definitely worth waking up early for.

Monument Valley

On the final day of the tour we visited the South rim of the Grand Canyon. The rugged views and shear size of the Grand Canyon were breathtaking.

Grand Canyon

Finally we made a quick stop at a diner on Route 66 on our way back to Las  Vegas.

Route 66

Although it was really hot the National Parks Camping tour was well worth doing and the highlight of my trip to Las Vegas.

San Francisco – just what I expected

San Francisco was everything I expected it to be. When I arrived I caught the train from the airport to the downtown area which was near my hostel. The moment I exited the subway on the corner of Powell & Market Streets I could feel the San Francisco vibe. I think this gave me the energy and enthusiasm to walk to my hostel, which I thought was only going to be four blocks uphill, but turned out to be eight blocks uphill, with my 14kg back pack.

Like usual I spent the first day riding around the city on a Hop On Hop Off Bus. The many hills, bustling city streets and the architecture of the buildings all contribute to the vibe of this city which just feels alive with character.

Seeing the Golden Gate Bridge for real, after seeing it in so many pictures and on TV so many times over the years was a wow moment.

The Golden Gate Bridge from both sides

 

I also couldn’t resist the urge to find Alamo Square park and the Full House houses. The HOHO can’t take people there because it’s a residential street, so it drops you off about 2 blocks away and you can walk there (uphill again).

Houses opposite Alamo Square Park

 

You often see Fire Trucks trucks driving around the city and the HOHO guide informed us this was because 1/3 of all Fire Trucks must be out of the Fire Stations at anyone time in case an earthquake happens. When I was flying between Seattle and San Francisco I was lucky enough to be upgraded to an exit row window seat. From the sky not far out of San Fransisco you can actually see part of the San Andreas fault line, it looks like a line of cliffs where the earth breaks up onto a plateau.

The next day I took a ferry to the infamous Alcatraz Island. This was another place I had heard many stories about over the years, and it was interesting to actually go there and see the island and cell block where the prisoners where detained. Luckily I booked my ticket a few months ago. I spoke to a number of people who were disappointed they couldn’t go because they hadn’t pre-booked tickets. My trip to Alcatraz was followed by a late lunch and stroll around pier 39.

Alcatraz Island

Pier 39

 

While I was in San Fransisco I also took a tour which included the Muir Woods, the Sanoma wine region and a ferry ride between Sausalito and the pier. I wanted to see how US wineries compared to Australian wineries. The Muir Woods were lovely, but I wasn’t to impressed with the wineries. The tour visited 3 wineries and I tasted wines at two of them. Each winery charged $15 to taste 5-6 wines of their choosing, none of which were spectacular. I think I can safely say that Australia does wine better that the US.

Muir Woods, Olive Tree & Ferry Building

 

I also visited the California Academy of Sciences which is located at Golden Gate Park. There were some interesting exhibits including an Earthquake exhibit, a walk through rainforest terrarium, an aquarium and planetarium.

All in all I really enjoyed San Fransisco, it was a city with its own character.

Alaska – another uniquely beatiful place

I arrived in Anchorage Alaska on Saturday 13 May after disembarking a 7 day cruise and took a flight directly to Fairbanks. While looking out the plane window it was interesting to note that for a state covered in so much ice there are also a lot of dry arid areas. I later found out that this is because 2/3 of the state is covered in permafrost just 2-3 feet below the surface, which can make it difficult for vegetation to grow.

As I arrived in Fairbanks I realised a common pattern seems to be forming with my travels where I spend the first day in a new place just figuring out how to get around. Fairbanks is one of those very spread out towns, where a car would be really useful. But nevertheless I have now figured out how to get to most places I wanted to go using the local bus service.

So where did I go and what did I do in Fairbanks? I…

…visited the Ice Museum, where I watched a informative video about the World Ice Carving Championships. Ice Carving up here begins with big blocks of pure ice being carved out frozen lakes. After the video I literally entered a freezer (at -5’C jackets and gloves were a must) to see the ice carvings

 

…I took a Riverboat Discovery Tour which included a Dog Mushing Display, views of some really nice houses & log cabins, a visit to a mockup native Chena Village where native Alaskan guides provided information about how Native Alaskans lived prior to white man arriving, including smoking Salmon and how they used every part of the animals they hunted.


…visited the Museum of the North, which had some interesting displays …mammoth tasks, dinosaur bones, etc.


..on my last day in Fairbanks I went to North Pole which was just a 1/2 bus ride away and visited Santa’s house (which was actually just a shop but there were Reindeer outside).

I travelled from Fairbanks to Denali in a small shuttle bus with only 2 other passengers.  Luckily it was a clear day and at a particular spot on the highway I got a clear view of Mt McKinley (also known as Mt Denali) which at 20,310 feet is the tallest mountain in North America.

You can just see Mt McKinley (covered in snow) towards the background of this photo.

 

On my only full day in Denali National Park it was only 3’C (glad I didn’t forget my beanie and gloves that day).  In the morning I took a short bus trip to a place called Savage River, along he way I saw a couple of Moose (but no bears😟). Then in the afternoon I took a horse & wagon ride which included a yummy meal. I would have really liked an extra day or two in Denali as it would have been good to take a tour deeper into the park and closer to the mountain.

The following day I took the Alaska Railroad to Anchorage for another scenic journey.

I then had 3 full days in Anchorage which I spent relatively quietly (travelling can be tiring so it was time to slow down a bit). Still I did do the local trolley tour, visited the Native Heritage Centre, strolled around the local weekend market where I ate a Reindeer Burger (which was quite yummy) and finally I visited the Anchorage Zoo to see some of the Native animals I missed out on seeing elsewhere in Alaska.

Alaska Native Heritage Centre

 

Anchorage is one of those cities where all the downtown streets are named A, B, C etc and the cross streets are 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc. I always though cities with streets named like this were a bit corny and unimaginative, but as a tourist I now realise it makes it a lot easier to figure out how to get to where you want to go.

Well that’s it for Alaska for now. I came here, I learnt about the history and the wildlife, I experienced (some of) it and enjoyed the beautiful sights. Maybe I’ll be back again one day……

This is Vancouver 

I just love this city. It’s clean, easy to get around, and the weather has been glorious. Because this is a coastal town surrounded by mountains it actually rains a lot here, but I’ve only had one rainy day, so I guess I’ve just been lucky.

There is so much to see and do. The first day I was here I went for a ride on the Hop On Hop Off bus to see a few sights and help learn my way around the city.  On that day I stopped at Canada Place and watched the float planes for a while, stopped at Granville Island for a walk through the markets and had some lunch, then went for a stroll around Stanley Park.

Float Planes at Canada Place Pier

 

While in Vancouver I took a 3 night/4 day tour to the Rocky Mountains which were just beautiful. See previous post about this. http://wp.me/p8tkNS-3H and Instagram video https://instagram.com/p/BTu2tqVFLio41JwG10BXxHX7WsVGfjX9ykjkx40/

During the Rockies trip I did see some bears, but only from a distance (you don’t really want to get to close to a bear in the wild!). So when I got back to Vancouver I took a Gondola ride up to a Grouse Mountain. Besides seeing the views of Vancouver, their are also two orphaned Grizzly bears (Grinder & Cooler) that live on Grouse Mountain. So I was able to see a Grizzly Bear close up. I always new Grizzly bears were big, but I was still quite surprised at their size.


I also made a visit to Capilano Suspension Bridge, which was a bit wobbly to walk across, but also had a lovely rain forrest nature walk. https://instagram.com/p/BTwwuIol3ickgcgXOhF_dDi3Ym0gH-VcZE1R5M0/

Capilano Suspension Bridge

When visiting Vancouver it is also worthwhile taking a day trip on the ferry to Victoria and Butchart Gardens on  Vancouver Island. While in Victoria I caught this cute little water taxi to Fisherman’s Wharf for lunch and watched the seals play.

Water taxi, Victoria, British Columbia

Butchart Gardens

Finally, this is a place I would like to come back to one day.