LA to the Bay Tour: Los Angeles to San Francisco Bay. 54 people. Eleven days. Six destinations. One bus.
I was invited by STA Travel to to try the LA to the Bay tour. Me, as a 32-year-old, joining what I thought could be people at least 10 years younger than me, if not more, but assured by the team that STA Travel and the LA to the Bay tour wasn’t just for students.
LA to the Bay Tour
I was nervous, I’ll admit. Visions of drunk Australians on their gap years popped into my mind as I descended into LAX Airport. They wondering what I was doing on the trip, and me looking all kinds of out of place.
D’ya know what though?
Said gap year aged Australians appeared, for reals, but so did at least 25% of our group as a few years either side of 30. It wasn’t just the Ozzies either – my group came from as far afield as China, Qatar and Brazil. New Zealand was well represented, and finally one French one German and one other English.
We were a good mix, ready for almost two weeks of fun.
Check out my LA to the Bay Tour video on YouTube
In Los Angeles
We started in LA, a few people who’d known about the group on Facebook beforehand had arrived a few days previously and met up to go to Universal Studios. I arrived late the night before we were due to leave and with the LA traffic, only just made it in time for the meeting.
I was fully on edge and touchy about the fact that I thought myself to be older. So much so that I cast my eye down the list of people we had to sign and tried to spot any born in the 80s birthdays. A few, jolly good. I noticed someone who looked about my age did it after me, although much more obviously.
It was going to be fun. But first… I showered, and slept.
In the morning I realised I’d ‘missed out’. We were staying in Little Tokyo and one of the guys in my group had got a bowl of rice tattooed in left bum cheek the night before. He was now lying face down on a sofa, with what I presumed to be his three friends, all lying in various positions around him.
They were obviously the drinkers of the group.
If you’re worried about the partiers, don’t be. Sure, there was a group of about 10 guys who just alternated between being drunk and hungover but they just got on with it themselves. Within the group of 54 of us there were plenty more people to hang out with to barely notice them.
The big welcome
Time for our welcome meeting from Kiran, our Contiki leader.
Contiki started when a guy, a chancer / entrepreneur, decided he wanted to buy a vehicle, travel to Europe and sell people the seats. Day one and he realised what a challenge he’d taken on and came out as a newb. They knew. They could tell. But they all had an amazing time anyway. Since then Contiki has specialised in bus tours all over the world.
I kind of thought of them of a one night in one country, the next in another, kind of company, but I think that’s just the one tour in Europe. Turns out they do actually delve deeper into destinations than I thought. By the end of the tour I realised I had the company wrong, and despite them having a bit of a boozey image, in my eyes anyway, that’s not all they’re about.
My 11-day LA to the Bay tour, which you can book through STA Travel, which went a bit like this…
LA > San Diego > Scotsdale > Las Vegas >
Yosemite > San Francisco
The best part of the trip
I think the best part of travelling with Contiki was having Kiran, our tour leader with us. She knew so much about where we were visiting and apart from being a great leader, she was also super chill. When I’m travelling solo I always have so many questions but there’s never anyone there to answer them.
I really enjoyed having her there to tell us what to do and where to go everyday, which started on day one when we went down to Hollywood. Quick trips to Muscle Beach, Venice Beach and followed, before we came back to the hotel to chill in time for dinner over the road. This was the big chance to make friends.
Onto San Diego
After exploring as much as we could of LA in what ended up being about 36 hours, we left early to go to San Diego. A Californian city I’ve wanted to see for a long time and only ever heard good things about.
Most mornings, the LA to the Bay tour started at around 7ish, if you wanted breakfast. So if you’re planning on drinking, keep it in mind.
In San Diego we had time to explore on our own, although Kiran did take us out both nights to different areas. I really liked San Diego and would definitely like to go back some day. I joined the speed boating trip and thrashed it around the harbour for an hour, which was great fun.
The hotel was great. A little out of town, but nice rooms with a cool café downstairs – just don’t expect anything less than 30 minutes to serve you your bagel for breakfast though.
Join the trip to Mission Beach, especially in the summer. It’s beaut.
On the bus
On the LA to the Bay tour you spend a lot of time on the bus. D’ya know what though, I really enjoyed it. Having the chance to just sit and look out the window at the unfolding landscape was pretty sweet. There was definitely no space for me to get my laptop out and work, and for once, that was ok.
Our driver Adrian was awesome too. I made him this bib on football night – looks good right?
We did play a few games as a big group on the bus – where you had to go up on the microphone and tell embarrassing stories and tell everyone a bit about yourself, but it ended up being really fun. Just get it over with. That’s what I did.
Kiran played her music on the bus every day, carefully selected for the activity and the destination. We also watched some films, mostly about American sports which definitely aren’t my thing, but The Hangover was good, especially timed for our journey to Vegas.
I was booked in with a room to myself, which I was super grateful for. I just needed that time away from the group and it really worked for me, my work and my personality. There were a few people on the trip who didn’t realise you could do that and would’ve paid the extra, so just wanted you to know.
If you’re happy to share though, or just don’t have the budget to splash on that, it’s a great way to make friends, But, you never know who you’ll end up with…
All the hotels we stayed at were so nice – I was really impressed with the room choices.
Then we went to ‘Phoenix’
I’ll admit, I was a little disappointed that we didn’t actually go into Phoenix when it was advertised. Instead we stayed in a cute place called Scotsdale, I mean, it was great, it was just that I was excited to go to Phoenix.
We were also meant to do a hot air balloon flight here, up at 6am especially to launch ourselves over the Arizona desert, but apparently the wind was too much and we couldn’t go. I was gutted. Just had to remind myself that I’d saved $200 to stay positive.
And then we went on to Sedona, and saw a hot air balloon lifting off as we did, just to rub salt in the wound.
Ever heard of Sedona? Yeah I hadn’t either. It was awesome though. One of my favourite stops. I joined the jeep tour and we went out into the Sedona National Park – definitely wouldn’t suggest this if you have any kind of back problem. We were bouncing around all over the place in the back of the jeep.
The views here were just incredible, as was our cowboy tour leader. Check out my video from my two weeks on the LA to the Bay tour to see it all in action.
THE BIG ONE – The Grand Canyon
And then it was Grand Canyon day. We arrived and it was bloody freezing. Well, especially for me seeing as I was wearing my flip flops. Driver Adrian let us watch the sunset before we went to our hotel. and it was as magical and awe inspiring as all the hype had led me to believe.
In the morning I got up early to watch sunset by myself, and congratulated myself on the decision when the skies turned multicoloured as the sun rose in the distance.
This kicked off the best day of the trip. I went up in a helicopter and explored the Grand Canyon from above. Then I joined a bike ride round the rim and took photos on the edge. And then we drank rum while admiring the semi sunset before going for pizza at the restaurant and then an early night. What a dream!
Then we went to Vegas
At the total other end of the spectrum of life, from the peaceful awe inspiring Grand Canyon, we went on to the crazy, intense Las Vegas. We passed through Route 66 to get there, with just a quick stop at the gift shop to pick up some hot sauce, in my case, and take a photo near the sign (everyone).
So Vegas. It was every bit as crazy as you’d imagine. To sum it up though > limo drives, rooftops bars, open top clubs, gambling, Elvis’, drinking, Cirque du Soleil, Planet Hollywood and almost, so nearly, Celine Dion.
I might have also got married…
There are some people in our group who I’m sure wouldn’t set foot in Nevada again, never mind Vegas, after the night they had, but I’d go back in a heartbeat. If only to see the shows, and the Bellagio, (and to drink free pour rum and cokes of course).
Time to cool off in Yosemite
And back to normality again. Sweet, beautiful, natural normality – Yosemite National Park.
While too many of the group sat indoors because it was cold, I rented a bike and rode round the park for two hours. Honesty, incredible. The huge mountains looming over you just made you feel so small, and it was overwhelming to think of how many years it’d taken to create the beauty here.
It was good being in the group for this because despite the fact I went off by myself, that’s just me. There was a group doing an epic hike, another just going for a stroll and more who did something in between. In big groups like this there’s always someone to hang around with, and if not, you’ve got yourself.
Pizza party in Bass Lake
We stayed at Bass Lake, about an hour from Yosemite. We all had lodges to stay in around Bass Lake. On the first night it was Thanksgiving and the restaurant put on a huge buffet, on the second, we turned one of the lodges into a pizza party and ordered takeaway.
36 hours in San Francisco
Our final stop. I had places to be and things to see and so only had one night in San Francisco, but any normal person would book a few nights at the end of the trip to explore the city.
I joined the bus tour round the city and then took the sunset sail out to the Golden Gate Bridge, which was awesome.
Every new stopover we landed in someone would comment how the stops weren’t long enough, how we needed longer, but the trouble is with the US there’s so much to do and see. Apart from another day in Phoenix, to actually see Phoenix, instead of just Scotsdale I think Contiki had the timings right.
You can add days to the time in LA and San Francisco, and if you like the other stops that much, well, you’re just going to have to go back and explore more.
I loved Kiran, loved Adrian, enjoyed looking out the window at the front. I thought the accommodation was great, the group was cool, the activities were fun and there seemed to be lots of food options included. I ate super unhealthily on this trip, thanks to the fast food stops while travelling, but I’m sure if you were that desperate you could find something to be healthy (I couldn’t).
If you want to see some of the most interesting and iconic places in the USA in a short time scale, without having to do all the driving so you can relax and enjoy, I would 100% recommend the LA to the Bay Tour.
– I received a place on the trip in return for a review, here it is. All views my own.
How to book
To book the LA to the Bay tour talk to STA Travel, or phone them on 0333 321 0099 in the UK. And then send the guys @STATravel a Tweet / Facebook / Snapchat to let them know you saw it here first.
More on the USA