Thursday, July 26, 2012

Mountain Parks vs. Theme Parks

I'm one of those people who likes to ride rides and do stupid stuff in the name of fun.  I've spent a lot of my life climbing mountains, riding motorcycles, riding mountain bikes, and riding fun things in theme parks.  Back in the 1980's however, I discovered something completely different.

Mountain adventure parks are created in the same locations as ski resorts.  They're different from anything else.  They are seasonal, and they tend to have more dangerous rides than a theme park. Personally, I like that, and so do a lot of people. These parks do really have their perks though.  I can't say enough good about them.

My local mountain adventure park is Jiminy Peak, on the Lanesborough/Hancock city line in northern Massachusetts.  This place is fun.  That's the simplest way to describe it.  They have two parks within the resort.  They have the mountain adventure park with the alpine slides and mountain coaster, along with bungee jumps for the kids and scenic ski lift rides and Segway tours for the older folks in the crowd.  They also have a giant swing that really gives you some butterflies in the stomach.  The other park is the aerial adventure park.  This place lets you climb through the trees on ropes, cables, hanging logs and ladders and such.  It also has zip lines and a zip line ride, just for the fun of it.  This one is for the in good shape crowd, but it's a lot of fun.

Now, the good thing about these rides is that you are always in control.  Alpine slides are speed controlled by the rider.
Mountain coasters are driven by gravity.  You are hauled up by a tow line and then you glide down the mountain and you control the brakes.  The aerial park you choose your course and go at your own speed.
I find that the lines are shorter, in part because the parks are not as heavily advertised as the theme parks are.  The other perk of the mountains parks is that you can leave and come back.  If you want to go down the road and get a burger instead of paying the higher prices at the restaurants in the park, you can do that and return without having to pay to get back in.  All you have to do is keep your bracelet on.  It has that sense of freedom that you don't have in a theme park.

Then there's the best reason for me to choose a mountain park over a theme park.  The view.
As the economy gets more demanding, more of the ski resorts are turning to a summer park to keep things rolling year round.  If you live in an area where there are ski resorts, check out their summer activities and see what's going on.  You'll be glad you did. 
Just look up a resort in your area, and see what they have to offer!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

It's Nothing Like You Thought Iceland Would Be

It doesn't look like much.  Things in Iceland really never look too impressive.  Nature is the biggest show in the country.  This is where I spent a lot of time in Iceland.  This farmhouse is only used by it's owners twice a year.  Once to let the sheep out to run free for the summer, and the other in the fall to round them up.  In the summer, hikers like me, rent it.
Why?  Because Iceland is more than just Reykjavik.  Because Iceland is a beautiful place that seems like something out of a dream.  It's completely different from anywhere else on Earth.  Oh yeah, and there aren't any trees.  There are a few, but the Icelanders put in an awful lot of work to get them to grow there.  A barren yet beautiful landscape is what Iceland is all about.  And waterfalls.  Lots of waterfalls.

This one is right in back of the house.  It was in a narrow gorge 50 feet from the door and it was about 30 feet high.  It was amazing.
 I have to say, the main reason that I came out to the highlands of Iceland was to hike in The Eldgja, a national treasure that is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been.  This area is rumored to be 15 miles long and is the site of a volcanic eruption.  It's a rift across south central Iceland.  It kind of looks like the Grand Canyon, but unique and amazing.
 It's worth the walk through absolutely nowhere.  The walk to the Eldgja is amazing.
 It seems like the road to nowhere, but the scenery is something that you can't see anywhere else in the world.  The quiet is so tranquil that you forget that the rest of the world is out there.  
 The bridges are for people.  The vehicles have to drive through the rivers.  There are signs with instructions on how to drive through a river.  It's surreal and exciting.
 Then, out of the blue, there's a sign telling you that you've reached the EldgjaIt's perched alongside the dirt road like it's the most normal thing in the world.  It is the only sign marking it in this region of Iceland.
I know that most people shy away from vacation spots like Iceland.  That is one of the reasons that it so appealed to me.  But, I guarantee once you've seen this place, you'll want to come back again and again.  Sure, The Blue Lagoon is nice, but the highlands is an experience that you'll never forget.
If you come during the round up time, you'll definitely never forget it.  There are many places that take you on a round up as a vacation tour.  It's worth every penny.
You need another reason to come to the highlands of Iceland?  Beyond the beauty, the quiet, the waterfalls, the surreal landscape, and the unexpected adventure?  Well, if you come in the summer, it never fully gets dark, and that's just incredible.
Try this one on for size.  You won't regret it.  You can spend a little time at the Blue Lagoon too if you want.  It's pales by comparison to the highlands.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Trains Don't Go Up, Do They?

This is the Mount Washington Cog Railway in New Hampshire.  It was built in 1866, and still runs today.  It is one of the only surviving Cog Railways in the world.  And this train goes up.
Mount Washington is the highest of the White Mountains in New Hampshire, and it is the highest mountain in New England.  
Mount Washington is also known as having the worst weather in the world. This highest wind ever recorded, over 230 miles per hour, was recorded on this mountain.  It has snowed on every single day of the year at some point.  There is a permanent weather station at the top of the mountain that operates every single day of the year to try and figure out the weather patterns of this great mountain.  
Mount Washington stands 5, 288 feet tall.  That's high for the northeast.  The temperature can be hot at the bottom and cold on top.  There are a million reasons not to go up that mountain, mostly because of the completely unpredictable weather, but there is one amazing reason to go.

The reason to go is the view.  It's amazing.  You'll never see anything like it.  The most amazing part is the worst part.  You can see the bad weather coming to engulf it as you look out over the other mountains in the Presidential Range.

The top of the mountain has many surprises.  There is a wonderful visitor center, with a restaurant, the weather station, a museum, a gift shop and a rooftop observation deck, complete with giant view masters.  There is also Tip Top House, which is an old guest house made into a museum.  There is the shuttle bus building where you can catch a van to the bottom or you can catch it at the bottom and come up.  There are several viewing areas.  There is an emergency shelter for hikers.  There are several parking areas for cars that brave the trip up the mountain  road.  And there is a train platform where the Cog Railway stops.
Now, as I said, there are several ways to get to the top of Mount Washington.  You can walk, unless you're over the age of 30 and don't wish to climb Everest.  You can drive your car, which puts about 40,000 miles worth of wear and tear on it.  You can take the shuttle bus, which means that you don't trust your car and makes you feel inadequate.  Or, you can take the train.  It's the most expensive way, so you know that you're in it for the experience, and not because you chickened out on some other mode.
 It's truly not for the feint of heart.  This train goes straight up a relatively steep, tall mountain.  The starting point for the journey is in the middle of nowhere down a long narrow road.  It was the decision of the builders that this was the safest place to try a thing like a cog railway.  That was 150 years ago, and it still runs today.  That's pretty impressive.
 It's old and elegant.
 They have distinguished porters, just like they did 150 years ago.  It's like a trip back in time to see what it was like to travel the mountain in the 1800's.  In a unique way, it's the trip of a lifetime.  It's definitely a great way to spend three hours of your time.  You'll never forget it.
And when you're done, there is a museum, a restaurant, and a gift shop at the station.  It's something that everyone should take the time out to do just once.
So, while you're spending your time in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, going on tramways such as Cannon, playing on waterslides at Attitash, or hiking the Flume Gorge in Franconia Notch, take some time out and take a ride on the original Cog Railway and see Mount Washington through 150 year old eyes.


Thursday, July 5, 2012

They call it Wieliczka

Wieliczka is a centuries old salt mine just south of Krakow, Poland.  That's the short story.  The longer story is amazing.  If you ever wanted to see something truly different while on vacation, Wieliczka is the place.
Now, I can tell you for sure that Krakow is a great place to visit.  They have Wawel Castle, which is a great medieval walled village style castle.  It's beautiful with it's many buildings and it's brick wall.  There is also the Rynek or the Market Square, which has many wonderful booths and buildings to investigate, as well as museums and even an underground piano bar.  Krakow is a beautiful city with river cruises, parks, shopping and plenty of entertainment.
And then, there's Wieliczka Salt Mines.  They're one of a kind.

This is a chandelier almost entirely made of salt.  It's in the grand hall, where they still hold concerts once in a while.

Do you want your photo to be published here? Contact wish my pictures could do it justice like this one does.
Wieliczka is one of the most amazing places I've ever visited.  There are several levels of amazing artwork and areas where people used to stay and visit and gather and whatever else they did down there.  Reportedly there was and may still be a spa to help arthritis and asthma patients with their afflictions.  Wieliczka was the first place to market the salt lamps that are supposed to help relieve arthritis.  They also provided a haven for people who were suffering the effects of terrible pollution a few decades ago.
Just the idea that 60 some odd meters below the surface you will find this.
And this:
And even this.

It's a truly amazing place, and it only takes about two hours to see the best parts.  But, don't take my word for it.  After you're done seeing castles and Auschwitz, take a walk down in the salt mines and see works of art and remnants of an amazing lifestyle. 


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Oranienbaum, The Overlooked Palace of Russia

The Chinese Palace at Oranienbaum is one of St. Petersburg, Russia's greatest secrets.  There is a whole park with many palaces and great buildings overflowing with history.  My favorite is the Chinese Palace, because it belonged to Catherine the Great.  She built it as a haven to get away from her slightly insane husband, Tsar Peter III.  She didn't spend much time in that palace, but she furnished it to be a homey, yet museum worthy estate.
The interior of the palace has been undergoing a grand renovation for several years.  It was one of the few areas not invaded by the Germans in WWII, but it was neglected, nevertheless, and now is in need of work.

Grand Menshikov Palace, Oranienbaum (Lomonosov), St. Petersburg, Russia
There are many buildings on the grounds at the Oranienbaum Park.  Menshikov Palace was built by Prince Alexander Menshikov, Peter the Great's right hand man.  He built it to rival his lord's palace at Peterhof.  He spent ten years on the project, going bankrupt in the process, but it is a magnificent palace, nevertheless.
Peterstadt is what this is called.  Tsar Peter III was eccentric to say the least, and this was one of his tiny little projects.  It was called the Joke Castle, and Peter used it to play with his soldiers while visiting the estate in summer.
 Oranienbaum (Lomonosov), St. Petersburg, Russia
Sliding Hill or Katalnaya Gorka is one of the more interesting buildings in the park.  It was one of the entertainment estates held by Tsar Peter III.  It is magnificent, and out in back you will find something really unusual.  It's a primitive roller coaster.  That's right, you went up on the roof to board it, and gravity did the rest.  Amazing in the 18th century.
There are many palaces in Russia.  There are many palaces in St. Petersburg, and you'll spend all day in crowds to see them.  Take the time to travel along the coast a few miles.  Stop at Peterhof another day.  This place will tell the tales of one of the most intriguing royal relationships in history.  Catherine the Great stole the throne from her immature German loving husband, and made the largest empire on Earth.  This estate is part of that amazing story, and should not be missed.  From Chinese decor to roller coasters and housing for toy soldiers.  From palaces meant to rival Peter the Great's to a canal that used to lead right up to the door for convenience, it's a very interesting place that is almost completely overlooked on the usual tourist route.
Oranienbaum or Lomonosov as it is called more recently, is more than just a palace.  It's a park, and even a port town.  It's well worth stepping off the beaten path
There isn't much out there about Oranienbaum.  You would have to contact a travel agency or Russian guide service to find out more about visiting.  I would feel that this is an imposition, but you have to work with a travel service to get a Russian Visa anyway.  Most guide services are perfectly willing to take you wherever you wish to go and will arrange just about any itinerary you ask for, so look on infohub, or just do a search and find a great company to help you.