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Review: Great National Parks of the Western USA with Riviera Travel

Escorted Tour - Coach

Great Walmarts of the Western USA!

  • By SilverTraveller BristolTony

    1 review

  • September 2019
  • Wife

126 people found this review helpful

If this Riviera escorted tour had been our only experience of escorted tours in the USA then it would probably be our first and last. Fortunately we had travelled previously with American Sky which set a benchmark that this tour rarely came close to.

We opted for this tour because we wanted to see the Arches and Yellowstone parks, and this tour had an itinerary that didn’t overlap with destinations we had already done on American Sky’s Western Discovery tour. As a result the tour was a bit like one of those LPs that you have where the first side is pretty good but you only ever play a couple of tracks from side two. Unfortunately there are a few “fillers” in the second week.

The tour starts in Salt Lake City with a coach drive to the State Capitol building to take some photos, then back on the coach to be taken to Mormon HQ where a gaggle of “Sister” missionaries take us round various religious buildings and give us an approved potted history of the founding and practice of their religion. A somewhat one-sided “…fascinating insight into its unique history and culture”. As a non-believer, I do not go on holiday to be preached at or recruited. There is no mention of this aspect of the tour in the itinerary which I personally found offensive.

Our next 2 nights are spent at Moab at a hotel on the wrong side of a multi-lane highway across from shops and restaurants with no obvious cross-walk. The daily games of “chicken” keep both mind and body active! However in terms of landscape the tour really begins. In the Arches NP, pressure of time meant we didn’t get to see the iconic arch used in all the publicity, but that did allow time to see and get close to many more splendid arch structures and so I will credit the Tour Manager for allocating scarce time wisely, particularly as a visit to “Dead Horse Point” was squeezed in the day before. Of the options available we took the 4×4 off-road tour of Canyonlands NP – just brilliant!

Mesa Verde NP with the Native American archaeological remains was very interesting and our Tour Manager prevailed on Rangers to give us a mini-talk at several locations (they seemed willing but if you don’t ask…). The night is spent in Durango prior to taking the narrow gauge railway to Silverton. The train journey is through some splendid scenery. However a few tips: the train has a couple of open-sided carriages with the seating facing the open sides – Riviera hadn’t booked these. We were in the standard carriage which is fine as long as you get a window seat on the right-hand side. The track follows the Animas River and for most of its journey, the river is on the right hand side producing some spectacular river-mountain combination views. Unfortunately the windows have a horizontal glazing bar which is in the way of most photographs, whether open or closed. Silverton itself is not that exciting (sometimes it really is “better to travel than arrive”).

After Montrose we visit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison (River) NP. If you have never heard of it, it is stunning! Spectacular scenery and rock formations. The day ends in Denver and with photo opportunities at the “mile high step” of the capitol building. (By now capitol buildings have established a pattern of domed neo-classical structures like Washington DC – I wonder if they are all like that – no, not Hawaii!) Next day takes us through Colorado’s Rocky Mountain NP on our way to Cheyenne. It would seem that the Black Canyon, Denver and the Rocky Mountain NP have been dropped from the 2020 tour. Pity as they are worth seeing. And that ends a pretty good side one of the L.P.

Week two starts with a journey through the Black Hills of Dakota (cue musical) ending up at Mount Rushmore. Four giant statues of President’s heads carved into a mountainside. Impressive although “Why?” is never really explained and it is a pity that the richest country in the world (at the time ) could never finish it. Next day saw us visit Custer State Park, “…home to an abundance of wildlife…”, most of which stayed home rather than come anywhere near the coach and pose for photographs. The day ends with a trip to the Crazy Horse Memorial. This statue of a native American Indian astride his horse is easily as epic in scale as the four Presidents, but has been, and is being, constructed almost single-handedly by a (late) sculptor and his family. Judging by the rate of progress, several lifetimes could pass before this work is completed. The evening was spent enduring the optional Fort Hayes Dinner and Show. When the tickets were purchased it wasn’t explained that the show coincided with our hotel having a free beer and wine “happy hour” between 6.00-8.00 in the evening and encouraged guests ordering in food to eat in the bar. So when we could have been having a Chinese take-away or Pizza washed down with a cold beer we were paying $40 a head to eat a sub-Mcdonald’s meal with lemonade and watch a competent pub-band, only to discover that the bar at the hotel had closed after happy hour!

Next day saw us visit Deadwood, a former gold-rush town with Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok as its most famous inhabitants. A bus tour with an eccentric guide was the highlight of the visit. Indeed without it you’d wonder why you were there as the “historic” part of the town is just gift shops and casinos. The day is more than saved by the visit to the Devils Tower National Monument. A stunning geographical feature. “Awesome” is an overused word in the US, but not here.

The following morning we visited the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn accompanied by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic Indian guide who brought the battle to life. Despite this I am puzzled why this battle is so celebrated. It didn’t change the outcome of the Indian wars (indeed it may have hardened attitudes towards the Indians). That a small force led by an over-confident leader is overwhelmed by an army with such superior numbers should have surprised no-one. It’s as if the British should celebrate the Zulu victory at Isandlwana rather than the subsequent defence of Rorke’s Drift.

We made our way to Cody, and in a sensible change to the itinerary visited the Buffalo Bill Centre that afternoon which is well worth a visit and by doing so today gave us more time to visit Yellowstone NP tomorrow.

Yellowstone didn’t disappoint . The mud pools, geysers and mountainous landscape provided many memories. The rain and snow on both days, particularly on day two did reduce the photo opportunities with post cards and posters in the Visitor Centre showing what might have been, but the weather can’t be helped – although it can be predicted. The thought occurred that at this time of year the tour should go in a reverse direction. We had good weather in the first week in Utah, which would have been similar in the second week while we were in Yellowstone. If we had started with Yellowstone in the first week then the weather might have been kinder and still been ok for the Arches NP etc. in week two.

Anyway the tour continued with bad weather through the Grand Tetons NP ending in Jackson for 2 nights where the previously booked float trip down the Snake River had to be cancelled. Again the thought that if we’d been here nearly 2 weeks sooner on a reversed tour things may have worked out better. (Won’t be replaying all the tracks on side 2!)

Throughout the tour our tour manager gave a running commentary that consisted of our being bombarded with facts just read out from on-line sources or National Park leaflets without any editing to give the impression of ownership . Our Tour Manager was personable and when she acted in tandem with our knowledgeable and helpful driver, made decisions that benefitted the tour. It would have been nice if her commentary reflected her personality and impressions rather than just regurgitating the Wikipedia Guide to America.

The previous reference to Walmart? Every lunchtime was a sandwich stop with nowhere to have a sit-down meal, or even sit down to eat the sandwiches. I’m afraid I find US bread and rolls for cold sandwiches pretty awful so usually bought prepared salads or “self-assembly” cracker and cheese pre-packed snacks. Walmart seemed to be the location of choice, sometimes Safeway. To be struggling with packaging whilst driving along in the coach was like reliving the in-flight meals from Heathrow every day. No elbow room to eat and nowhere to put waste wrapping made lunchtimes a chore. Perhaps the distances between destinations prevented a reasonable stop at mid-day. There seemed to be ample diners along the way which would have added to the experience. Our previous American Sky tour always involved a lunchtime stop, usually with a photo opportunity so perhaps more research or route-planning needs to be done. Whatever the reason if sandwich stops are the Riviera way then I won’t be considering them again. Did I enjoy my holiday? Yes, but despite Riviera not because of them.

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This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.

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