How do I even start to tell you about the awesomeness that was the iTrekHere 2017 trip? I mean really, a mammoth Trek America road trip across America’s Deep South with 7 other kickass bloggers and YouTubers? Yeah, it pretty much speaks for itself. But I’ll attempt to tell you about it anyway because that’s kinda what I do.
iTrekHere 2017: Trek America’s Deep South BLT
So what the hell is it? The iTrekHere trip is an annual press trip run by Trek America that I really wanted to be involved in. Mainly because before I was a blogger and was on my first solo trip in the USA, I took a Trek America road trip around the North East, hitting up NYC, Washington DC, Boston and Niagara Falls. And it was freaking EPIC. So imagine my delight at being invited along this year! Seriously, excited is an understatement, I couldn’t bloody wait!
I mean, the best thing about Trek America for me personally is that they always have a few local recommendations thrown in by the tour guide, so you feel like your tour isn’t just run of the mill, you know? It definitely makes it more of an adventure. Plus, this trip is one of their ‘BLT’ trips. Budget Lodging Tours = no camping, yay! (I’m getting too old for that shit, I swear).
Also, I was psyched that I was getting to tick off some big destinations on my bucketlist on this trip. New Orleans in particular was a big one for me, as well as seeing another side of the US that was a bit more country. Really intriguing I think.
Ok ok, I’ll skip to the good bit and actually tell you what I got up to out there. I’m going to do some more in-depth destination guides for some of the places we visited, but here’s a travel diary of my amazing experience in the Deep South alongside some of my fave photos. Yeehah!
Birmingham & Fort Payne, Alabama
The trip kicked off with direct British Airways flights from London Heathrow to New Orleans (score, you know I hate connections…). But it was a bit of a tease to be honest. Because we only had a matter of hours in New Orleans before leaving for Alabama! There was plenty of time to explore New Orleans at the end of the trip, but for now we were off to Birmingham, Alabama. Which, right off the bat, was really difficult to say in a British accent. Because it’s not the same as Birmingham in the Midlands, it’s BirmingHAM, Alabama, y’all.
Anyways, Birmingham is famous for the part it played in the Civil Rights Movement in the 50s and 60s. So our main activity for the day was the Monuments In Motion tour. A tour around Birmingham on Zyp bikes (kind of like Boris bikes in London) but with a history professor who made stops around the city and told us all about the Civil Rights District. It was really eye-opening actually and I would recommend it for an idea of the city’s turbulent history.
Oh and we also had a fancy dinner al fresco at a restaurant called Bottega Café and went to a secret 1920s speakeasy bar called The Marble Ring that was through a telephone box in a hotdog shop. Totally normal, right? I’d actually really recommend both places if you’re in town, folks.
The next day it was off to Tennessee but with a stop at Fort Payne for a spot of abseiling!
Now I’ll be honest, I wasn’t remotely phased by the prospect of bouncing down a cliff at first. I did it a few times as a teenager and don’t remember it being that daunting. But I forgot about the fact that the older you get, the more fear you have. It was all very scary when you’re trying to walk backwards over a cliff edge… But hey it was an adventure! And the hike back up to the top was like I was Lara Croft or Nathan Drake or something. Scaling rocks and all sorts.
Whilst we were there, we also stopped at Weaver Overlook in Little River Canyon for an epic vista of the mountains. Although, I wasn’t as brave as some of the others and stayed well away from the edge! I’m really glad we had this stop as the tour was mainly cities, so it was good to have an outdoorsy day.
Now I have to tell you about lunch. It was at a really cute little place down the way from Fort Payne called Wildflower Café. And this place was straight outta Pinterest. Think fairy lights, log cabin vibes and kitsch furniture. Plus their famous tomato pie was delicious and the peanut butter cake was out of this world. I’m not sure if you’ll ever find yourself in the middle of nowhere, Alabama, but if you do, you HAVE to go this place.
Next up? Gatlingburg!
I hadn’t actually heard of Gatlinburg before this trip. I mean, hands up, who has? It’s up in the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee but that’s all I really knew. But on the drive in, I soon realised this wasn’t your average mountain town!
We drove through Pigeon Forge, the neighbouring town and discovered that this was in fact the home of DOLLYWOOD. I wish we could’ve gone! But it was crazy to drive through this place, every building was insane, like one was upside down, one was the Titanic, one had King Kong on top of it. SO SURREAL. Seriously, Google Image it, it’s crazy.
Gatlinburg wasn’t quite as mental but just as kitsch with a main street full of themed restaurants, amusements and fun things to do. Our first night involved a Mexican feast for dinner at Loco Burro before most of the squad retired for the night and a few of us went out for some beers and country music at the Ole Smoky Brewery!
The next day we started with a hearty breakfast at Crockett’s Breakfast Camp, and we were then scheduled to have a day of hiking and cycling in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park…
But alas, havoc ensued!
Despite having lovely weather on the road trip up until this point, there were crazy winds in Gatlinburg on this particular day with gusts up to 80mph. So although we attempted to go into the park, it was closed because of the weather, and even as we tried to drive back to Gatlinburg, trees were falling all over the shop! So it wasn’t the active, one-with-nature day we had planned. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t have a fabulous time…
This was the perfect excuse to do all of the amusements on Gatlinburg’s main street!
We started with the Ripley’s Mirror Maze which was actually a lot of fun, with certain bloggers, who shall not be named and shamed, running into mirrors. LOL. Then we had a walk around the cute shops, including one that ONLY sold hot sauce. YES.
As if that wasn’t enough, we then a round of mini-golf and a bit of go-kart racing at Cooters, a Dukes of Hazzard themed place! This was my first time go-karting and oh baby, it was so much fun! I definitely need to do it again!
Finally we went over to the Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery! We had a tour of the actual distillery where we learnt how Moonshine is made and why it’s actually called Moonshine (because people used to make it at home under the light of the moon so they wouldn’t get caught!). We then headed into the bar for a tasting!
Now, we were offered 13 shots of different flavours of moonshine to try. Most people picked and chose the ones they wanted to try, but me? Obvs I tried all of them so that I could do the proper research and give you guys the real story, right… It wasn’t as bad as it sounds because most of them are flavoured so taste real delicious. Peach in particular is a treat. But saying that, a couple hours later… I projectile vomited in public in the middle of Gatlinburg.
Yep. That happened.
Incredibly embarrassing and subsequently I had to miss that night’s festivities. Stupid Booze Britain, why did I have to taste all of them?! Definitely an interesting experience nonetheless!
Now this is a big one right? Nashville was for sure on my bucketlist so I was keen to see what it was all about. Again the weather wasn’t really on our side but luckily a lot of the sights of Nashville are inside!
First up was the Parthenon, a pretty surreal replica of the Parthenon that’s part of Acropolis in Athens! It’s so random, like why is this in Nashville in the middle of Tennessee?! But I mean it was cool to have a lil walk round and get a load of the golden gal slaying inside.
After checking into Nashville Downtown Hostel (full review coming soon!) we then headed to the Country Music Hall of Fame! If you don’t like country music, then this one will be a bit weird. Honestly, I only know like Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and Taylor Swift, so a lot of it went over my head. But I DID see Shania Twain’s leopard print outfit from ‘That don’t impress me much’. I mean, that’s worth the entrance fee right there…
But I did have a lot of fun with Sabina from Girl Vs Globe, creating our own country music album covers and playing a game with magnets whereby you have to create your own song lyrics. We were basically 8 years old and had the best time, okay?
After this excitement we headed to Curb Records for a session with country music songwriter Billy Montana, who told us all about how he creates country music hits! And the best part? We got to write a song with him! Now, he says that you have to write from something real that’s happened, so we decided to write a song about something that kept happening on the tour… We kept losing Kristabel. Cue the song we sang for the rest of the trip ‘Where’s Kristabel?’. I’ll include the full video of it in my YouTube videos so keep your eyes peeled, kids!
Next, we walked around the corner to get a tour of Studio B, the recording studio where Elvis recorded over 200 of his songs and Dolly Parton recorded Jolene, amongst tonnes of other notable country music stars. But I enjoyed it so much because the tour guide was just so passionate about it. That’s infectious, right there. I even played the piano that Elvis used to play to warm up before each session, and we recorded ‘I Can’t Help Falling In Love’! I mean, I’m not a singer or a pianist, but still, pretty cool.
In the evening we had a bit of Southern Fried Chicken at Party Fowl and headed to the main street for nightlife in Nashville – Broadway. This is where all of the bars and the neon lights and the overpriced cowboy boot shops are. We went to Crazy Town and AJ’s for drinks and live music and it really was a lot of fun.
I just love that every bar in Nashville has a live band! And they always take requests and play what you want to hear which is awesome. The only thing I’d say is that it was a little tackier than I thought it would be. Like, there were a lot of hen nights going on and the street was packed full of people. It was fun but more of a country music Vegas than the authentic experience I thought it would be. Either way, it has to be seen.
The next day we headed to beautiful Memphis. Of course our first point of call was Graceland, home and burial site of legendary Elvis Presley. I enjoyed this much more than I thought I would and will be writing a whole blog post dedicated to it because there’s just too much to say here. But it was amazing and emotional and nostalgic. I’ll leave it at that.
Next, it was time for another recording studio tour, this time Sun Studios. Now Elvis may have recorded a big chunk of his songs in Nashville but it was here in Memphis where he started out and in Sun Studios where he recorded for the first time. Plus, he was part of the infamous Million Dollar Quartet right here, where he had a jam sesh with Johnny Cash, Jerry lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Pretty awesome. And obvs I got a photo with Elvis’ microphone… (I’m the biggest tourist ever, I want every cliché photo going).
When in Memphis, you have to eat BBQ food so we had ribs at Rendezvous BBQ and then headed over to the annual Beale Street Music Festival which was conveniently on whilst we were there! We got there late so only saw the headliners, Kings of Leon. But I managed to go back the next day and really experience it…
We had a free day that day you see, so we all split up to do different things. I went for an amazing brunch with Sabina at The Beauty Shop (lemon ricotta pancakes to die for) as well as grabbing delicious $2.50 Bloody Marias at an al fresco Mexican café – Café Ole. But then I met up with some others in the gang, including Jordan from The Life Of Jord, Milly from Mini Adventures and Sam Carr, to go back to the festival. We watched Ziggy Marley in the sunshine, ate corn dogs and had a jolly good evening.
Oh and before we left Memphis the next day we visited the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. It’s been perfectly preserved, avec retro 60’s cars out front, so it looks just like it did in 1968. It’s now the home of the National Civil Rights Museum but we didn’t have time to go inside, which is a bit of a shame as I learned so much about the Civil War and racial divide on this trip, I would’ve loved to learn more.
Again, I’ll do a full post on Memphis because I think this place is such a gem. Watch this space.
When I saw Natchez on the itinerary, I had no expectations. Because I had no idea where this place was or what there was to do there. Like, at all.
Well our first stop was The Country Store for Mr D’s famous fried chicken with all of the Southern extras like sweet potato and corn on the cob. But to be honest by this point, I was sick of fried chicken. And the fact that everything was covered in sugar. So I didn’t have the best meal ever here, but it may have been different if it was at the start of my trip.
We then headed to Monmouth Historic Inn which is an antebellum mansion (antebellum = pre-civil war FYI). Now I think I had expected too much from this place, as Jack our tour guide had told us all about the Civil War throughout this trip and the fact that it was all about slavery. And I was keen to know more about it. But all they said was ‘Oh that building was the slave house, but look how beautiful our property is for weddings…’ I don’t know it felt a bit weird. Like obviously they don’t want to talk about the negative side of their history but it felt like they were covering it up a bit. Like the family that owned this house were pro-slaves and on the side of the war fighting for their ‘rights’ to have slaves, but hey lets forget all that…
Maybe I’m overthinking it, it just irked me. Yes I just said irked.
The house was lovely though in its defence and they treated us to an Opera performance as it was the Natchez Festival Of Music at the time, which was amazing.
Now this is one of those things where I’m not sure how the tour would usually go, as we were essentially wined and dined by the Natchez Tourism Board at this point. I suspect this is usually a quiet stop for the night between the madness of New Orleans and Memphis. But we had a really cool night.
The ‘Visit Natchez’ gang threw us a mini party at Natchez Brewing Co complete with southern food such as hushpuppies (real nice corn-based bites), live country music and giant jenga. Because that’s a party essential, right?
There was also the most amazing sunset. I’ll give Mississippi that one, the sunset over the river was damn beautiful. We then walked down to a bar called Saloon which was like a typical cowboy-esque bar with darts and table football and live music. It was actually a really chilled and lovely night and I’ve never met so many nice people. That’s true of the whole of the Deep South actually, everyone is SO BLOODY NICE.
New Orleans, Louisiana
The final drive was to New Orleans, with the first stop being a swamp tour with Cajun Pride! Since I visitied the Malcolm Douglas Crocodile Park in Western Australia, I’ve been terrified of these beasts. But luckily these gators weren’t the huge variety. We had a lovely boat ride around the swamp and spotted aligators and racoons and cool birds. It was awesome. Although the whole time I was thinking, what if this boat sinks?
When we got into the city, I had a fab burger for lunch at Bayou Beer Garden (def recommend this place for food) and headed off for a walking tour of the French Quarter. We went to New Orleans’ oldest bar, Lafittes, and stopped for an absinthe and champagne (yep that’s a thing) at Pirates Alley Café & Absinthe House. And the best part is that you can drink on the street in NOLA! (That’s New Orleans, Louisiana, just FYI). So everything is served in a takeaway cup for you to stroll around the town with your drink. I LOVE THAT.
This was a pretty messy night, I won’t lie. NOLA is another one for its own blog post but in a nutshell, I ate steak and drank hurricane cocktails at Red Fish Grill, had a famous Pimms Cup at Napolean House, watched a brass band at D.B.A on Frenchman Street, and went to a god-awful bar called Famous Door on Bourbon Street at the end of the night!
The next day a lot of people were feeling worse for wear!
But we started the day in style with a Jazz Brunch at The Court of Two Sisters. We had a wander around the french quarter again, visiting the French Markets for souvenirs as it was our last day. We then headed over to the Garden District to explore.
The Garden District is really lovely actually with cute vintage shops and nice places to eat on Magazine Street. But we didn’t have that much time to explore so it called for a quick froyo from Pink Berry and a visit to the the Lafayette Cemetery where the graves are built up high rather than in the ground. It’s very New Orleans.
Our last stop in NOLA was Mardi Gras World! Obvs we weren’t there at the right time for the epic Mardi Gras celebrations but instead, we could tour this warehouse where they create and store all of the floats for the parades! It was so colourful and weird and wonderful and the perfect ending for our trip.
PHEW, WHAT A TRIP.
And what an epic 3,500 word blog post, am I right? Like I said, there’s so much more to the places I’ve visited and there will be lots more content to come, but I thought a travel diary of the trip would be just what the doctor ordered to kick us off.
I had such an amazing time on the trip and would urge anyone to visit these destinations, and to try out Trek America for size! If you’re liking what you’re reading, click this link for more details on Trek (this trip was called the Deep South BLT).
What do you think of this epic Trek America trip? Would you go to these destinations? Have you tried Trek America before and if so, what did you think??
Let me know in the comments below or tweet me @HeelsInBackpack!
Total Blogger Transparency: This was a Trek America press trip with complimentary flights, hotels, activities and some meals. But all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own. I wouldn’t play you like that, shorty.