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An Interview with Tour Guide Bryce Hill – New York City!

November 23, 2011 at 10:21 pm

California Tours features a series of interviews with the tour guides who lead our tours around the US. They’ll share funny stories, travel tips, and details about the destinations that they visit so often.

Bryce Hill is a tour guide based in the New York area, with expertise in New York City, Washington DC, Philadelphia, New England and Montreal.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
My background includes BA degrees in Speech/English/History and a MA degree in Theatre Directing.  For over 20 years I ran the theatre department at a Performing Arts summer camp.  Several of my former students are currently on Broadway.  I also got the opportunity to work at a Relais Chateau hotel property doing special events.

So how did you get started as a tour guide? 
While online looking for a new career path, Tour Directing popped up.  It encompassed several of my personal passions: directing, teaching, travel and meeting new people.  It seemed liked the perfect fit for me.

How did you end up in New York?
When I was 5 years old I saw the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV in color for the first time.  When the Radio City Rockettes arrived with Santa, I walked up to the TV screen and announced to my family that I was moving to NYC.  From that moment on it was just a matter of time.  Three of my former students are now Rockettes!

What do you like about being a tour guide?
Sharing the places I love with others and being the first to show it to them.

What is challenging about it?
Trying to remember what it was like when I first saw something and trying to give my guests that first “wow” moment.

How do you prepare your trips?
First, I get the logistics part of the trip out of the way, the nitty gritty stuff – how to get from point A to point B on time.  Then I focus on the “fun” stuff of the trip – these are the things that my guests will always remember.

What is the “creative process” for a tour guide?
This is really the best part of being a Tour Guide.  We get to bring each place to life for our guests.  It is really similar to putting on a play.  Everything has to have a beginning, middle, and end. People really want to hear the stories about each place, not just see the places.  It is the stories that they remember.

Can you recommend any getaways, outdoors or otherwise, near New York?
I recommend a side trip to West Point, the military academy, which is just over an hour away from Midtown Manhattan.  It is a beautiful drive up the Hudson River into the mountains (who knew NYC is less than an hour away from mountains!). It is beautiful any time of year.  The campus is on a dramatic cliff above the river.  The best day to go is on a Sunday, when you can have Sunday Brunch with the Cadets at the historic Hotel Thayer right on the campus.

What is your dream itinerary for New York and the surrounding area?
I would hope that you have at least 4 days, if not a week.  But the must-see places include a trip to: Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Wall Street, the World Trade Center and the 9/11 Memorial. Chinatown, Soho and Greenwich Village. Times Square, the Empire State Building, Grand Central Station and Rockefeller Center. Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And make sure to see at least two Broadway shows! If you have more time, then I would recommend walking across the Brooklyn Bridge and exploring Brooklyn. Other sights that take you out of Manhattan include Yankee Stadium, the Bronx Zoo, the Staten Island Ferry and Coney Island!

Visit these links on the travel blogosphere for more on New York:


A Hawaiian Getaway – Free and Nearly Free Activities in Oahu and Maui

November 16, 2011 at 2:49 pm

Are you looking for sun and fun adventure during the winter season? Load up on family fun without unloading your wallet! First time visitors to Hawaii and their families will want to keep this travel list handy for free and nearly free things to see and do on the islands of Maui and Oahu, Hawaii.

Photo by Hawaii Tourism Authority – Tor Johnson

Free and Nearly Free Activities in Maui


1.   Tide pooling – A wonderful early evening activity – don’t forget to bring your camera, as the spectacular sunsets are free, as well!  There are several protected tide pool areas around the island of Maui, including the Wailea area near Ulua Beach.  Take a flashlight and water shoes and prepare to find anemone, brittle stars, crabs, eels, sea cucumbers, shrimp and maybe even a baby octopus!

2.   Hiking – Maui is blessed with many hiking trails that run the gamut from highly advanced to easy, family-friendly strolls.  A favorite hike through Ko’olau Forest Reserve starts in a bamboo forest and over the course of a few miles, you’ll find yourself crawling over rocks, crossing streams and swinging from vines.

Hawaii Sunset3.   Take in a sunset – Sunset viewing is a time of gathering with family (ohana) and friends (hoaloha) to toast the close of a day. Maui’s colorful sunsets are best viewed from the south side of the island, including parks such as Kamaole III.  Residents and visitors gather on the grassy knoll and watch for the infamous green flash!

4.   First Friday – As part of the revitalization of Wailuku Town, First Friday, held the first Friday of each month, is a street festival with live music, a beer garden, local crafts and food. The banana lumpia is not to be missed!

5.   Eco-adventures – Voluntourism, as it’s been coined, offers not only free fun for the family but a sense of fulfillment and a greater understanding of the island.  Visitors may work as a farm hand on an organic farm in Kula, collect invasive species at the top of a volcano, or assist in reconstructing an ancient fishpond. You won’t get paid for your work, but the memories are priceless. For more information, check out gohawaii.com.

Hawaii Snorkeling6.   Snorkeling and scuba diving activities right off Maui’s shores – this counts as FREE only if you happen to have the equipment. However, I think it’s good to note that you don’t have to pay a lot of money for a boat dive when shore dives are easily accessible.

7.   Whale watching during the season (December- March) – the Maalaea area is best for viewing whales. They have pullouts for whale watching along Honoapiilani Road.

8.   Hookipa Lookout – It’s free to watch top windsurfers, surfers, and kiteboarders take on strong winds/waves.  (Near Mama’s Fish House)

9.   The Boo Boo Zoo – or East Maui Animal Refuge – you have to call in advance and they ask for donations but it’s free. The Boo Boo Zoo is a sanctuary for injured and orphaned animals.

10.   Some resorts offer Outrigger Canoe paddling – such as Fairmont Kea Lani and Four Seasons Maui –  free for guests. Makena Beach Resort charges $30 for 1 hour excursions.


Free and Nearly Free Activities in Oahu


Oahu is an affordable, family-friendly tropical destination with hundreds of exciting things to do, see and experience for FREE or for less than $10 per person. Visit Oahu and discover the energizing sights, sounds, art, culture, history, nature, and adventure of the island.

Photo by Polynesian Cultural Center


1.   Visit the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Resort & Spa on any Friday to experience its weekly Aloha Friday” Polynesian show featuring Tahitian drummers, hula dancers, lei making, and music.

2.   Stop in at the lei stands that line Maunakea Street in Honolulu’s Chinatown and see firsthand how these intricate lei are created.

3.   On the first Friday of every month, art galleries in downtown Honolulu open their doors from 5-9 p.m. at no charge. This event is popular with art enthusiasts of all ages.

4.   Walk the booths at the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet for affordable made-in-Hawai‘i souvenirs on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 6 a.m.-3 p.m.

5.   Enjoy locally-grown produce and meats, fragrant flowers and tasty treats at the Kapiolani Community College Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings.

6.   Watch the fireworks explode on Friday evenings in remembrance and celebration of King Kalakaua’s Jubilee at Hilton Hawaiian Village.

Photo by Oahu Visitors Bureau

7.   Drive to the North Shore for Matsumoto’s famous shave ice, a Kua Aina hamburger and garlic shrimp from a roadside shrimp truck.

8.   View the work of local artisans at the Art on the Zoo Fence along the fence of the Honolulu Zoo.

9.   Visit Ward Warehouse for free hula lessons on Thursdays, country line dance classes on Tuesdays and live Hawaiian music every first Sunday of the month. While there, check out Ward Centers’ locally-owned boutiques for affordable Hawaii souvenirs.

10.   Meet Hawaii’s local fishermen at the early morning Honolulu Fish Auction at Pier 38, where the fresh catch is displayed and auctioned off to island chefs and merchants daily at 5 a.m.

Hawaii Sunset

For more information:

Maui Visitors Bureau – Information on sights, activities, events, accommodations and more.
Oahu Visitors Bureau – Information on how to plan your trip to Honolulu and the island of Oahu.
California Tours Hawaii Vacation Packages – California Tours can arrange flights and hotel accommodations in Honolulu and Maui, as well as the Big Island!

About the Author:

Nancy Brown is a lover of all things travel-related.  She has combined her passion for travel with her professional writing career. Aside from writing for California Tours, Nancy has her own travel blog, www.Nancydbrown.com and writes the “What a Trip” newspaper column for the Contra Costa Times Lamorinda Sun, a publication of Media News Group.  She is the Lodging Editor for Uptake.com and the on-line Travel Editor for Diablo magazine.  Horse lovers will find her on the Writing Horseback blog.

An Interview with Tour Guide Alison Merrill – Southwest Specialist!

November 4, 2011 at 9:23 pm

California Tours features a series of interviews with the tour guides who lead our tours around the US. They’ll share funny stories, travel tips, and details about the destinations that they visit so often.

We begin our series of tour guide interviews with Alison Merrill. Alison has been a tour guide for 13 years and is in it for life! She specializes in tours of the American West in both English and French, and is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

I am university educated, with a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and French Literature. I went to graduate school for many, many years, in French Literature.

So how did you get started as a tour guide?

When I moved to California, I needed to work, and my background was kind of limited to academia, fine languages, and personal travel. I knew about teaching and lecturing, which is similar to leading tours. Since San Francisco is a hub for tourism, I thought I could use my language skills as a tour guide.

What do you like about being a tour guide?

I like the flexible schedule—that fits my personality. I love not being in an office, and not having to commute. I work with a lot of foreign people, so I enjoy acting as an interpreter of American culture and politics. People are somewhat familiar with American life because of movies and the media, but I can give them a very different perspective and really teach them a lot.

Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah

What are your favorite kinds of tours to give?

I work in the American West, which as far as I’m concerned is one of the most beautiful regions in the world. California is famous the whole world over, and the tours around the Southwest and Canyon country are so unique and stunningly beautiful.

When is the best time of year to go to the Southwest?

Every season has its advantages. Summertime is the most convenient for families, but it’s also the hottest time of year, so you can’t do as much hiking. Springtime is nice but there are a lot of tour buses on the road so it can get crowded. September and October are beautiful because of the fall colors. And while it snows in the winter, that too can be really beautiful. All the parks stay open in the winter so it’s a great way to see them without the crowds. It’s beautiful all year round, so I would just recommend trying to go in the off-season to get lower plane ticket prices.

Zion National Park

Zion National Park in the winter

What are the must-see destinations in the Southwest?

The Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, Lake Powell, Zion Canyon, and Arches are the most popular. Many people spend 8-10 days doing a circle starting and ending in Las Vegas—they might take day trips to Death Valley or the Valley of Fire from Vegas and then continue on to the Grand Canyon and the rest. There’s a lot of driving, sometimes 250-300 miles a day, but people on my tours often say they don’t get bored because the scenery changes from morning to afternoon and is just so beautiful. So no napping on the bus!

Lake Powell

View of Lake Powell from above

What activities do you recommend?

In Moab, Utah (near Arches), there is a wonderful Hummer tour that goes off-road and is really fun. In Monument Valley many people take the jeep tour as it’s the only way to get into the valley. If you’re looking for adventure, rafting out of Moab can be fun. Horseback riding is great in Bryce and in Page, near Lake Powell. The best way to see Arches is on a scenic air tour from Moab—very small planes with 4-9 passengers, on a 50 minute flight. Another great air tour is over Lake Powell. These are fantastic ways to see these huge places that you can’t see from a photo stop in your car, or even a hike won’t give you the perspective. In Lake Powell you get to see the contrast in colors of this turquoise blue ribbon cutting its path through the ochres and reds of the American desert.

What’s the best way to enjoy the Southwest while traveling with kids?

A great thing to do with kids is a Western-themed dinner. There will be singing cowboys on stage, and it’s a great family activity. There is one in Bryce and one in Moab. You can also get your kids cowboy hats and sheriff star badges, that makes for adorable pictures as well!

What are some good souvenirs you can find in the Southwest?

I always recommend people buy from Indian Country because many things are handmade—there is an endless selection of turquoise and silver jewelry, which are great souveniers and really unique. They also have handmade Indian dolls, pottery, baskets, statues, great wall hangings.

Do you ever get tired of working in the American West?

I’ve been doing it for 13 years, and must have seen the Grand Canyon over 150 times, but I don’t get sick of it. To me it’s the most beautiful place in the world, and I never get tired of seeing my passengers’ faces—I love watching how much pleasure they get out of their trip.

We love these travel blog posts about the Southwest — click for more!

Above the 86th Floor — The Empire State Building

October 28, 2011 at 8:27 pm

California Tours - Empire State BuildingYears before I lived in New York City and worked at the Empire State Building, I was a new tourist, navigating the overwhelming streets for the first time, my head continuously tilted back to take in the towering view above me.

My first stop in the city was the top of the Empire State Building. My mom and I got up early to be at the front of the line for the ear-popping ride up 86 floors. Immortalized in movies from King Kong to Sleepless in Seattle, the classic art deco icon stands so tall, you can walk past it on the street level without noticing. But from far away, it is a beacon, marking midtown and standing as a reminder of New York’s grand past when tall buildings, such as the Chrysler Building and 30 Rockefeller Center, were shaping New York’s skyline. In New England towns, it’s the church steeples that stick up above the rooftops and connect a town to its past – in New York, it’s the radio spire of the Empire State Building.

Now I work in the 34th floor of the Empire State Building, and the platform at the top is one of my favorite corners of the city where I frequently take visiting friends and relatives. It is on this level that you can go outside into the New York breeze above pigeon level and water towers and skyscrapers. The entire city is stretched out to the horizon and up into the sky. The old-fashioned view finders stand at the corners, witnesses to how many people must have gazed out over the city, trying to spot the distant figure of the Statue of Liberty.

The Empire State Building lights up for Christmas

The Empire State Building lights up for Christmas

Yellow dots of taxis fill the narrow streets below. You can pick out the bridges to Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and New Jersey, and point out rooftop swimming pools and restaurants. Central Park is a patch of green against the city gray; the curve of Madison Square Garden peeks around 34th St.; 30 Rockefeller Center stretches high; the top of the Chrysler building gleams. And through the buildings, just a flicker of Times Square lights flash. You can see how the skyline dips lower between the skyscrapers of Midtown and the tall buildings of downtown. At night, the lights spread for miles. In the winter, tiny moving figures glide across the skating rinks in Bryant Park and Central Park.

Tourists from around the world gather to pick out their favorite sites in Manhattan, or to see the sites for the first time – from over 86 stories up.

This is not quite the top, though. Another small, old-fashioned elevator goes into the needle. An elevator operator pulls the gate shut and takes visitors up 16 stories, answering questions if there are any. One kind operator even held my friend’s hand as she braved her way to the top, although she was terrified of heights.

The needle is smaller, enclosed, and quieter. I find it to be the most peaceful place in the city. You duck around steel beams to get a 360 degree view out the windows of the city spread below. The taxis are even smaller, the harbor even further. It is truly the highest spot you can go in the city – and the swirl of the streets is that much farther away.

California Tours - Empire State Building

The Empire State Building by day

I found a postcard of the Empire State Building from my grandfather to his father in 1936, describing in his yellowed cursive being above the clouds after the fog rolled in and covered the “wonderful view.” I imagine the view from the Empire State Building has changed dramatically since he was there – buildings have risen and some have fallen. But the Empire State Building itself seems to never change.

I often leave work late, through the quiet, polished lobby where men are buffing the floors and shining the classic adornments. They are prepping the building for another day, keeping it fresh for the next batch of new faces to pass through the halls.

Drake Lucas is a former journalist based in Brooklyn, now working in communications for a non-profit organization. She loves a good travel adventure wherever it comes, whether it’s a spontaneous safari in India or stumbling onto a movie set during a hike in Yosemite. Follow her on Twitter: @drake_lucas.

California Tours offers customizable vacation packages to New York. For more information, please visit New York Vacation Packages by California Tours.