Wanting to experience the south but finding the prospect of doing it ourselves a little daunting we decided to finish our USA adventure with a Contiki tour. We were all a little apprehensive about doing an organised tour especially a contiki. Everybody’s pretty much across what happens during a Contiki sojourn, the ‘contiki cough’, late nights leading into early mornings, and copious amounts of alcohol – not exactly my scene. Give me a good book and a slice of cake any day.
We started the tour in New Orleans which I covered in a previous post, our second stop was Memphis where we visited Elvis’s Graceland (a trippy experience if there ever was one) carpet on the ceiling anybody?
Most the of the meals on the tour were pre-planned with Contiki’s affiliate restaurants so most of the time it was pretty hit and miss, there were occasions when we were able to head off on our own and seek out any restaurant that took our fancy. We were advised that some of the best fried Chicken was to be found in Memphis, at the world-famous ‘Gus’s Fried Chicken’ to be exact. I’ve never been one for KFC, so fried chicken has never really held a place in my heart. But boy oh boy, was that some of the best chicken I had eaten in my life, it was slap your mumma good. I do this often, so my mum won’t be offended. About 16 of us landed on Gus’s early one evening, lines for a table were insane but when you’re on holidays you have no excuse to be impatient everything is a treat.
We were keen to try some of the side’s we don’t experience much at home, so we got one each of the ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’ and the ‘Fried Pickles’. Both served of course, with ranch sauce. The FGT were interesting but had no discerning flavour, it was very similar in taste and texture to the pickles. Which were awesome and I’m usually the one tossing my pickles on my McDonald’s cheeseburgers.
Now the reason for our visit, the chicken. Both Alex and I went for a serving of two pieces on the bone -‘Breast pieces served with fries’. The exterior was ear shatteringly crunchy, the inside moist. Most surprising was how little oil the chicken had absorbed, any experience with KFC in the past has left the usual offending oily hands/lips. None to be found here. Alex and I were also impressed by the heat in the chicken, we weren’t expecting the chilli at all but it was most welcome. We ended our last night in Memphis, also Alex’s 19th birthday with a few drinks at ‘BB Kings Club’ where we watched some of the semi-finals for the International Blues Challenge.
Dallas was our next stop and definitely not what one expects when someone thinks Texas. Where were the ‘Howdy Maams’, the cowboys, the quintessential Texas attributes? Okay I’m being very general and stereotypical here. We were surprised by Dallas and just how ‘urban’ it was. We came across quite a few boutique designer stores with exorbitantly priced goodies which Alex and I hopped in and out of for a looksie. Our first night in Dallas we had dinner at ‘Ellen’s Southern Kitchen’. We were bustled into a warmly inviting chic restaurant with bar space, that was (now looking back) deserted. Perhaps because our 50+ group took up more than ¾ of the restaurant but the food was absolutely delicious. One of our favourite meals during the Contiki ‘portion’ of our holiday.
I seemed to have gotten nostalgic on my travels and found myself ordering meatloaf a few times. Which is slightly weird because I have never eaten a traditional meatloaf at home, my mum would make the woggy version, Polpette. I had the ‘Ellens u.s.d.a prime meatloaf’ – prime angus beef meatloaf with pan gravy and crispy onions, also served with two fresh vegetables’ $13.99. I decided to go with the green beans and the mashed sweet potato. The behemoth that was brought to the table was both welcome and laughable. Things were starting to topple off the plate it was so full. Despite the enormity of the plate it was all very tasty.
Alex always a sucker for schnitzel got the hilariously named ‘Chicken Fried Chicken’ – Organic chicken, breaded then fried, topped with cream sausage gravy and served with two fresh vegetables. $12.99. This is one place I would recommend for anyone making the trip to Dallas. To end the night, we headed to ‘Kung Fu Saloon’ which offer free arcade games, giant jenga and other large-scale games for free. Also props to the handsome bouncer who told me all about his life in the army and his experiences in Afghanistan. We noticed generally that the people down south were a might friendlier than what we had experienced so far.
Our second day was spent at the John F Kennedy 6th floor museum, which was touching, mind-boggling and overwhelming. Lunch that day was a quick affair, shared a ‘Cheeseburger’ – with fries $7.75 with Alex from ‘Hoffbrau Steaks’.
Our last night in Dallas, we headed to the famous Dallas stockyards. Dinner was at ‘Risckys Barbque’. Our longing for traditional Texas BBQ of any sort, no preference for styles. Was sadly not to be the case. This was hands down the worst meal of the trip. Having heard the many murmurings of delicious slow cooked brisket, I knew that night, we were to cross paths. I opted for ‘Risckys famous sliced Beef Brisket’ served with a piece of toast, coleslaw and potato salad. $13.99. Where do I even start….The brisket, thankfully, was moist and melted in the mouth but it was cold. The main theme running throughout my meal that night was the temperature of everything. Stone cold limp toast, potato salad (that was obviously meant to be cold) but tasted horrid and the sad little mound of coleslaw. Very disappointing indeed. After dinner we went to our very first Rodeo, definitely an American experience personified. It was at times confronting, some of the ways in which the animals were handled for those not so accustomed, seemed a bit rough, but when in Rome..I was also knee-deep in a Contiki game called ‘Assasin’ whereby we were all given names of a fellow travel companion who we then had to ‘kill’ by whispering and not being overheard, the words “1,2,3 you’re dead”. Before I was caught (by a bunch of cheaters, fyi) I had a nice little collection of 8-10 names. My Bounty Hunter licence is in the mail.
We then spent one night in Amarillo, TX. Staying at the famous Big Texan Inn, which has a restaurant adjacent to the old school coloured hotel rooms. Home to the ’72 oz Steak Challenge’ seen on the reputable and classy TV show, Man VS Food, hahaha Adam Richman is my hero.
Two fellow Contiki travellers/suckers tried their hand at the 2kg+ steak and sides challenge but were beaten by the meat. The Big Texan also brew their own craft beers, that night I tried the ‘Pecan Porter’ – a dark ale, rich malty aroma of pecans, light notes of chocolate, molasses and brown sugar. On to the food, as the meals were pre-booked by Contiki, we had to choose our meals a few days in advance, so Alex and I would co-ordinate most times so we could try two options. I cannot recall the exact cut of meat I had that night. But as you would expect from a steak house, the meat was juicy and very flavourful. We were told, as we were such a large group they would be cooking all steaks medium. Beggars can’t be choosers here. Alex again went for the ‘Grilled Chicken’ which we then split.
Big Steaks = Big Beers
Onwards and upwards, the next stop on our Grand Southern Adventure was Santa Fe, New Mexico. A really interesting amalgamation of old school Pueblo Indian villages and southern charm. Driving into Santa Fe was almost an ‘other-worldly experience’. The architecture is described as ‘The Spanish Pueblo Revival look’, with prominent earth toned buildings and rounded corners. This wasn’t to be an overnight stop unfortunately, an express lunch stop and some sightseeing. Santa Fe, despite being one of the shortest visits on our itinerary became one of my US highlights. It was truly something I had never seen in my life. New Mexico’s food is a mish mash of Spanish, Mexican and Pueblo Native American, typically shying away from the standard Mexican and Tex-Mex found in other US states. After using my trusty Yelp, I happened across ‘Café Pasqual’s’, also a solid recommendation from our Contiki tour manager.
Alex had the ‘Quesadilla with Chicken’, I couldn’t find the exact item on the menu but he enjoyed it.
I had the ‘Blue Lady Enchiladas’ – jack cheese on two corn tortillas with red chile, black beans and cilantro rice. $12.75 (I added Chicken for an extra $6). This was SPICY, my eye’s may or may not have watered. Taking a bite, it pretty much put any comparable ‘Mexican’ meal to shame.
Just for pure visuals I had to mention the ‘Huevos Rancheros’ – two eggs any style with black beans on a corn tortilla with tomatillo d’Arbol salsa, melted jack cheese and scallions. $13.75. Our Contiki buddy enjoyed her offering and had a few of us on the table a little jealous.
From Santa Fe, we made our way to Albuquerque, New Mexico. We only had a few hours of daylight, when we arrived, so Alex and I made a beeline for Old Town Albuquerque. We ducked into ‘The Candy Lady of Old Town’ where we wolfed down various samples of fudge – peanut butter, chocolate covered peanut butter, peanut butter brittle and peanut butter crunch.(yes, bit of a theme here). We also picked up a little sachet of the Breaking Bad candy, ‘Blue Ice Candy’, The Candy Lady store were approached to create the ‘Ice’ for use as props for the TV show.
Another one of those moments of a lifetime was our stop in Durango Colorado, where we snowmobiled on Purgatory Mountain. After our snow filled, freezing day we made our way to our accommodation then onto dinner. The streets of Durango City were perfumed by the potent whiffs of marijuana, having been made legal on the 1st of January 2014. We happened to visit during the annual ‘Snowdown’ festival – with this year’s theme being the ‘Safari so good’, which made for some interesting sights wandering the streets. We ate that night at ‘Carver Brewing Company’. I had the ‘Navajo Taco’ – Beef chilli served on a baked flatbread topped with local turtle lake micro greens, melted cheddar, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, jalapeno’s and sour cream. $9. I was really interested in trying the Navajo taco, as I haven’t seen anything like it before. It ended up being a little disappointing, the ‘taco’ had absorbed a lot of the juices from the chilli mixture.
Alex was sitting on a different table that night but he thoroughly enjoyed his meal of ‘Carolina BBQ Grilled Chicken’ – Marinated grilled chicken breast, bacon and melted Swiss cheese topped with a honey-Dijon vinaigrette. Served with fingerling potatoes, sautéed green beans and onions.
Moving on from Durango we made our way through to the Grand Canyon via Monument Valley, a pretty awe-inspiring view. We spent two days in the Grand Canyon, sightseeing, hiking (had to stop mid-way because snow and Alex’s ‘fashion’ boots weren’t totally appropriate) and generally just relaxing. Most of our time was spent in the main lodge where the heavenly wi-fi was located.
Our Contiki Southern Adventure was everything and more than we were expecting, we met some pretty awesome people, shared some unique experiences, great food, many laughs and way way too much alcohol.
Our last stop on our tour was Vegas but thought it should have its own special post.
Photos by Alex