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US Road Trip in a Mini: The Only Way to Travel

I booked the trip through a reputable travel agent (I don't normally use a third party, but figured with such an important holiday it was silly to entrust it to my less than perfect organisational skills. I was the person who had booked my boss onto a flight two later, and he only found out at the airport.)

So on 20th September 2011 we headed to Heathrow to catch a flight all the way to Scottsdale, Arizona. The flight was good - no problems apart from armrest issues with the Danish biker beside me.

We got to the car rental desk - a guy with sandals and white socks actually ran to the desk to get there before me. I let him go, although it was tempting to race him just for the hell of it. They'd run out of mid-size family saloons so we're given a Mini Cooper as a free upgrade as that's all that's left. We were gobsmacked. Travelling the US in a Mini - what could be better? As a friend said, "Mustang soft top? No? Mini? Yes. Brilliant"

I have to own up to navigational difficulties that first night straight off the plane. The map-reading by street name/number flummoxed me and we had to stop at a gas station. This was our first experience of a US citizen going out of their way to help out. The attendant spent a good five minutes telling us exactly how to get to our hotel when all we had asked was how to get to a particular highway. We were completely bowled over by the helpfulness and it was to serve as an indicator of how the holiday was going to develop.

Our Scottsdale resort hotel was plush and comfortable and had a golf course to look onto if you like that sort of thing. We enjoyed our stay and spent a bit of time by the pool as well as visiting Scottsdale's center and its fascinating yet homely historical museum but were happy to move on.

Next stop was Sedona. I'll never forget that drive in, passing by Bell and Cathedral Rocks, with an eternity of red landscape stretching in front of us. My partner doesn't remember this as well, as he was again driving (I don't drive. I have tried. Many times. But I don't drive.)

Sedona wasn't what I expected. I had read stories of vortices and hippies and was expecting to see all sorts of European crusty types with dogs, but instead it seemed to be popular with very respectable, middle-aged Americans. We were glad to see it though, and did a morning hike round Bell Rock and had milkshakes in the Red Planet Diner while admiring the alien-inspired dcor and wishing we could see it at night in its red-lit splendor.

Flagstaff came next, and we were scheduled to go on a day hike down the Grand Canyon with Angels Gate Tours. One of their "mild to moderate" ones. I'm glad we picked that one. I have nightmares even thinking about what one of the "difficult" ones entails. (We do walk quite a bit but it does tend to be on flat ground...)

Yours truly had mucked up again. I'd given the tour company a hotel pick-up name which had subsequently been changed,but I hadn't thought to tell them. After panicked ringing and emailing all was sorted and Karen our tour guide arrived only half an hour after she was supposed to pick us up. Could've been worse.

After the panic engendered by the sight of the rucksacks and five bottles of water and snacks we were to carry, we hiked part way down the stupendous Grand Canyon and back up again. The only obstacle to a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding day was an Australian bore called William who wasn't able to utter a sentence without the words "me" or "I" in it. He was going home with an incredible number of photographs of Arizona which featured him in every single one. To our great delight we managed to climb back out of the Canyon without the aid of a helicopter, a mule, or strong man.

Our next port of call was Death Valley. I was very interested to see what sort of temperature we would get here, and wasn't disappointed. We were in excess of 100 degrees and neither of us had felt a hot wind quite like the one that met us there. This was late September so I can only imagine the heat that builds up in that sub-sea desert in the summer. Apart from a slight frustration at the check-in at our hotel (not till after 4pm, when everyone and his granny turned up to check in and the poor woman behind the counter looked as if she was going to have a breakdown dealing with the enormous queue) we got our free ice from the general store and got to grips with our less than quiet air conditioning. Death Valley was hillier than I'd expected, and we were utterly impressed with the weird undulations of Zabriskie Point and thoroughly enjoyed romping through the Mesquite sand dunes. Fun in a giant sand pit for all the family.

We were there for just one night, and after a star gazing session where I managed to knock over my only bottle of beer in the pitch black while getting enthusiastic about the Milky Way and two shooting stars (incredible - in Britain the only place you can see the Milky Way is in the North of Scotland and it's too cold up there to sit out in my opinion) we headed off to Las Vegas.

I had done a ton of research on Las Vegas as I wasn't entirely convinced I would be happy there. Every instinct in my body tells me not to gamble and the thought of an adult Disneyland turned my stomach, to be honest. But after reading "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and some other decent literature my head was in the right place. We stayed at the MGM, which was lovely in that we walked past a picture of Cary Grant on our way to the elevators every morning and evening. This almost made up for the lack of coffee-making facilities in the room, which I guess symbolized the new attitude in Vegas. Why provide anything free when you can get people to pay for it? The town was as over the top and ludicrous as expected but we were pleasantly surprised with downtown Las Vegas around Fremont Street. A tour round the Neon Boneyard and a visit to the Peppermint Lounge (featured in the film "Casino") gave us a nice sense of the history of the place. Something that's hard to come by in a town that's constantly being rebuilt.

The best was to come. Yosemite National Park. We weren't prepared for just how breathtaking this place would be. I've read elsewhere that September is when Yosemite is at its most tired, after the summer crowds have left, and I can only imagine how even more glorious it must be in winter and spring if that's it looking tired. The views of Half Dome and its accompanying clouds were for me the ultimate. "Purple mountains majesty" popped into my head even though they're not purple. It's the "majesty" that clinches it, I guess.

We were heading home shortly, with only San Francisco to go. It was foggy and a bit chilly there, as I believe it often is, and we didn't really do it justice with just a two night stay. But after the astonishing views we'd seen on our trip, I have to say it brought us back to earth a bit and reminded us that unfortunately we'd be back to the bad old city of London for work shortly after.

We witnessed such sites and had such a thoroughly good time wizzing around in our little mini, but you know what one of the best memories of that trip was? One very tired night in Yosemite when we'd brought pizza back to our room and found a Jimmy Stewart and Ginger Rogers film on TCM ("Vivacious Lady" I've since found out), and watched it with the sound of the Merced river flowing outside our room. Bliss.