Thursday, August 29, 2013

Do Europe on Your Own

It's one of the things that once puzzled me.  How on Earth can a normal, middle income person afford to go to Europe?  We've all looked into the package tour, because it would make sense that if there were a whole bunch of people going, it should cost less.  Then we see the price and give up on that dream of seeing castles and ruins forever.

This is one of the great fallacies of travel.  I've checked out the tours myself.  They are ridiculous.  Most people take them because they worry about an interpreter, or they worry that they will have some kind of legal problems.  Pish posh.  Quit worrying and listen to some great tips on travel in Europe.

Tip #1  Research is your best friend.  Do not call a travel agent, because they will give you their best
            deals.  You probably have a computer.  Use it.  There are dozens of sites that will help you
            find what you need to accomplish your dream trip.

Tip #2 Do everything in advance.  Pay for everything you can in advance.  Book things as far in
           advance as you possibly can.  I book nearly a year ahead to do what I want for the price I
           can afford.

Tip #3 Combine your research for the best offers.  I go to a multi site, like Expedia, and look for
            airfare, hotels, and cars.  Then I get their best offer and go to the company sites to look for
            further discounts.  This does not always work.  But sometimes you do really well with this

Tip #4 Take the layover.  Most foreign airlines will offer you a great deal on your destination if you
            take a long layover in their country.  Time is something that most of us can afford.  Take the
            time and see a place that you never thought about going to.  It will surprise you.

Here's an example of taking the layover.  This picture is not from the USA.  This is in Helsinki, Finland.  On my latest trip, we took the layover both on the way over for a day and on the way back for a day, and got a great deal on Finnair.  Turns out, lots of people in Helsinki speak English, it was no problem to get around, and we saw some great stuff and learned a lot about Finland.  Make sure you do research on your layover spot, so you can enjoy it and take the extra adventure.  It's worth it.  I also have to say that Finnair treated me to the best overseas flight I've ever had.

Tip#5  Be careful what day of the week you make your bookings on.  I'm not joking.  There are good
            days and bad days for prices.  Airlines lead the pack in that idiosyncrasy.

Tip#6  Check all package deals against separate pricing.  You may be surprised to find out that by
            booking things separately, you can save money.

Tip#7  Check into transportation very carefully.  In Europe, it may be cheaper for you to use the
            train system in your country of choice.  You may wish to take trains instead of drive.  Plan
            out your transportation very carefully.

In Switzerland, they have one of the most efficient train systems in Europe and maybe the world.  There are train stations in most towns.  The cost isn't bad.  The Swiss Card will also save you money on most specialty trains and other transports.  However, if you really want to meander around the countryside, rent a car.  This is all personal choice.  I wanted to see the countryside, so we took the car.  If you would prefer to do more in town exploring, maybe the train pass would be the way to go.  It's all about choices.

Tip#8  Hotels are one of the toughest things to choose on your own.  Truth is, you don't have to
            backpack and stay in hostels to afford your trip.  Just do the same thing as air travel and car
            rentals.  Check the multi sites, check the company against it, and get your best deal.  How
            do you know if it's a nice place or not?  There are a few things you can do.  First, look at
            reviews.  People do tell the truth.  It's very helpful.  Second, look at how long it's been there.
            If it's been around a long time, it's probably all right.

Here's a real tip for you.  Make sure you get something suitable.  It doesn't have to be a chain hotel, and it doesn't have to be a traditional hotel.  In France we stayed just outside Geneva, Switzerland.  We were very close to CERN the physics research facility that is used by physicists from all over the world.  Because of this location, we found an apartment complex that is used as a hotel.  It was a great price, it was homey, and it was in a quiet neighborhood.  The visiting physicists tend to stay there.  It was great.

On the flipside of that, my big goof of the trip was booking a Holiday Inn in Helsinki.  It was a beautiful place, but I thought that it was the Holiday Inn.  In fact it was a Holiday Inn.  There are four of them in Helsinki, and I picked one far from downtown where the tourist spots are.  So, don't think that the familiar is always better.  Find out all about your accommodations and book accordingly.  Reviews will help with that.

Tip#9  Do not plan too many items on your itinerary.  If you plan everything out, you will miss
           something spectacular.  By overplanning, you can ruin your memories.  Yes, you will have
           done what you came to do, but you may have missed the whole point.  Remember, you've
           never been there.  You may just stumble onto something wonderful.  I plan a couple of big
           things that are the centerpiece for why I went to that location, and let the rest materialize.  I
           always talk to the locals, and ask the staff at the hotel about things to do and see.  I always
           ask the hotel staff where to eat.  You should not decide that one on your own.

Case and point for not overplanning.  I went to Switzerland to go up to the top of Jungfrau and to the top of the Schilthorn.  I was there for a while, so we had plenty of time to do other things.  One night, at the recommendation of the girls at our hotel, we went to the campground to a great restaurant for dinner.  We just happened to be there on folklore night.  There were all kinds of traditional dance, music, and crafts.  It was wonderful.  Had we planned everything out to the hour, we never would have seen that.

Tip#10 For my last tip on this list, I have to say to get a sat nav in your car if you're driving.  Take a
             map as well, but you will need this.  It's far easier to find your way around with modern
             technology.  I've done it in the past without it, and it's totally doable, but why bother?  When
             you get to the car rental place, and they upgrade you because no one on Earth ever has the
             car you ordered, just bully them into including it.

Now, I said to also take a map.  That's good advice.  Why?  Well, on my last adventure, we got the sat nav.  In the Alps they have a lot of tunnels.  Every time we went through one, out sat nav got confused.  It's always good to have a backup.  Technology is great until it doesn't work.

So, I've given you a few tips to start you off with.  Remember, you can do this.  I'm not rich, and I did.  I will give more tips in another entry to help with the planning of a great trip.  This is just the tip of the iceberg.  There are a lot of things that if you know about them, you can be a great traveler.  It's all about what you know.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Schilthorn, Swiss Alps

As promised, I have brought home many great tips and ideas from Europe.  Here is my favorite of all the day trips that we took over there.  This is the Schilthorn.  You may ask what that is.  It is a mountain, approximately 9,000 feet high in the Swiss Alps.  National Geographic calls this #12 on it's list of secret journeys.  I thought it was kind of funny that I bought this magazine almost immediately after returning home, and there it was, #12.

How do you get 9,000 feet up to the top of an Alp?  It's easy actually.  You take four gondolas to the top.  You can walk it in seven to eight hours, but I thought that the gondolas were a lot quicker, at about 45 minutes, and a lot more scenic.

Okay, so where is it and how is it done?  There are several ways, believe it or not that you can journey to the top of the Schilthorn.  My recommendation is that you take the package deal that you purchase in Stechelberg, a village in the Lauterbrunnen Valley in the Bernese Oberland.

The Lauterbrunnen Valley is a tiny parcel of land in the valley between several of the biggest Alps.  It's deep, narrow, and comes to a dead end in the village of Stechelberg.  From there, you can climb.  This little village, about 12 kilometers from Interlaken, deep in the Alps, is where you catch your first gondola.  There is a nice woman at the ticket booth who will sell you your package deal to go all the way to the top of the Schilthorn for 98.60 CHF.  If you have a child with you, she will suggest something that is not posted.  She will sell you a junior pass for you child that not only costs a mere 30 CHF, but will work on most of the trains and gondolas in the country for a month.  That's a good deal.

I have to say, I've taken trains up mountains.  The gondola route is so much more dramatic and the views are staggering.  Once you start up the Schilthorn, your first stop is Gimmelwald.  It's one of the many cliff villages in the Lauterbrunnen Valley.  There are maybe three cars in Gimmelwald.  I'm not sure how they got there.  I'm sure the stories must be awe inspiring.  In Gimmelwald, you switch to the next gondola.  Now, each one of these gondolas holds about thirty people, give or take a few.  They all take around 5 to ten minutes of travel time, and you spend about five minutes waiting for each one.

Murren ( sorry I can't print umlauts here) is the second stop along the way.  It's a wonderful little village that I recommend you stop to see on the way down.  When going up a mountain for that view at the top, never stop to see things on the way up.  Alpine weather is similar to the weather here in New England, and I learned  long time ago to get up the mountain while the viewing is good.  You never know when the weather will change.  You can see the other stuff on the way back.

The third stop is called the Birg.  I suppose that there is a day where you can see from here, but our day was not it.  We did not stop at this place.  There is a snack bar, an observation deck, and a gift shop for those who choose to stop along the way.  Once again, do it on the way down.  That's an important tip.

The stop at the top is the Schilthorn peak.  The building is called Piz Gloria, and it is a rotating restaurant.  It turns 360 degrees every hour, so if you go there to eat, which I highly recommend, stay for your hour and get the full view.  It's a fun way to eat lunch.

There are three separate observation decks around Piz Gloria.  There is the main one that is attached to the building, and there are two lower ones on opposite sides, to gain a different perspective.  Why is this multi perspective view important on the Schilthorn?  It's because of it's diverse views.  The Schilthorn is surrounded by deep valleys and then more Alps.  It's a very dramatic view that you can't get on other mountains.

The views are some of the most amazing that I've ever seen from a mountain top.  Also, here the views are always changing, because every time a cloud goes by, it's a whole new viewing ballgame.

Mountain views and good food are nice, but  Piz Gloria and the Schilthorn have something else going for them.  They're a very famous location.  This is the only place that I know of that you can get shot at by James Bond.

James Bond World opened in June of this year and is a tribute to all things Bond.  It has a movie specially made for the location, a bobsled simulator, a part of a helicopter to fool around in, and a lot of Bond displays.  It may seem like an odd location for such a thing, but it's really not.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service, was filmed largely on this location.  George Lazenby played James Bond for his one and only performance.  Diana Rigg was the lovely Teresa, who became the only Mrs. Bond in history.  Telly Savalas was probably the most proficient Blofeld.  James Bond World does focus on this film and it's actors, but it pays tribute to all Bonds.  The restaurant at Piz Gloria has also been preserved just as it looked when they filmed the movie.  It's a lot of fun, and a one of a kind experience for visiting the top of a mountain.

Once you have finished your visit to the top of the Schilthorn, it's time to consider all your options for the trip down.  You can enter or exit your trip at any of the gondola stops along the way.  There is also the path that you can walk all the way down.  Remember, the walk is long.  It is beautiful, but it is long.  Be prepared for that.  There are many places to stop all along the way.  In the winter, this is skiing land.  Murren claims to be the birthplace of Alpine skiing, and they have a lot of places where you can check out this theory in wintertime.  In the summer, it makes for some great hiking.

We chose to get off in Murren and walk to the next gondola at Gimmelwald.  The walk would take us right along the cliff that falls to the valley's bottom in Stechelberg.

Murren is a beautiful village that is set up for tourists.  This place is full of hotels, restaurants, and ski shops.  There are virtually no motor vehicles, because it sits on a cliff, so you can walk the streets and just take it all in.

Gimmelwald was on the other end of our walk, and it was yet another beautiful little cliff village.  This village had a very interesting little shop called the Honesty Shop.  They weren't joking.  No one watches it.  You go in and shop, buy what you want by leaving your money in a box.  They trust you.  I loved that.

In between you have the most amazing forty minutes or so of views you've ever seen in your life.  I couldn't stop staring and taking pictures.  There was nothing that wasn't worth taking a picture of.  It's the best walk you'll ever take.  Promise.  At the end of the walk is the last gondola that takes you back to the valley to Stechelberg.  It's one of the best day trips ever.

I know that it seems impossible to run off the the Bernese Oberland, and you probably have no clue where Lauterbrunnen is.  I'm going to spend a little time over the next few weeks, and I'm going to teach you what I found out on this journey.  You don't need a travel agent.  You don't need a tour package.  You don't need an interpreter.  You can do this on your own, and as I discuss all the wonderful things to do in the Bernese Oberland and other parts of Switzerland, I will be taking an entry here and there to provide tips for the traveler as to how to have a great trip all at your own doing.  I hope you will enjoy all the advice as well as the stories of the great places that are waiting for you to visit.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Theme Parks, etc. -- New England in the Summer

There is nothing like getting out in the summer in New England.  We all get so bunged up in the winter, unless we ski or have a snow machine, that when summer comes, we can't be stopped.  Even this year, with so much rain that we started building arks, we managed to get out and enjoy the wonderful weather that the northeast has in the summer months.  And there's nothing quite like going out to a theme park, or a water park, or a mountain park.  New England has them all.

Lake Compounce of Bristol, CT tops my list of must do's.  This is America's oldest theme park having been here and in operation for over 150 years.  Lots of people swarm to Six Flags and other chain and enormous theme parks, and I understand that.  They have all the best rides and huge water parks.  What does Lake Compounce have?  It has all that.  The Boulderdash is one of the most beloved wooden coasters in the country.  It's won many awards, and it goes through the woods, folks.  That's cool.  Lake Compounce has other roller coasters as well.  It also has a water park, and live entertainment.  You won't find the crowds here that you find at Six Flags, so the lines are shorter.  It's a great place to spend some time with the family.  They also have a great haunted graveyard for Halloween.


Another place that I love here in Connecticut is Ocean Beach Park in New London.  Yes, it's a beach, but it's so much more.  This is a little park.  That's true.  It not only has a great beach with a boardwalk where bands perform on weekend nights, but it has a huge arcade, rides, water slides, and a pool for those who don't wish to go in the ocean.  It's a great place to spend the day with family, and it will keep you coming back.  It's one of the areas most understated entertainment spots.

While we're on the subject of Connecticut, we also have Quassy Amusement Park.  This one has all the usual suspects as well;  roller coasters and other assorted rides.  It is however, geared more towards little kids.  If you have young ones, and think they may not be ready to enjoy a day at a full size theme park, this is a great spot.  They also have specials on various days, so check their website.

Now, there are all kinds of amusement parks in New England, but I'm talking about some of my favorites and Clark's Trading Post in Lincoln New Hampshire is one of my favorites.  They have one thing that I've never seen at any other theme park--bears.  Clark's started rescuing bears that were injured from the wild decades ago.  Somehow or another they turned it into a performance, and the trading post hit the map.  They not only have a bunch of ice cream junkie black bears to perform for you, they have rides and a train trip that will leave you smiling for days.  It's a lot of fun, especially for the kids, but us adults love it too.

Now, there are other parks in New England.  There's Six Flags in Agawam Massachusetts.  Smuggler's Notch, Vermont has a great water park.  Story Land in New Hampshire is great for kiddies.  Canobie Lake Park in New Hampshire is a hoot with rides and games.  We have plenty to do, but as I said last year, our other great contribution is the mountain parks.

Jiminy Peak in Massachusetts is my local favorite when it comes to mountain parks.  They have mountain coasters, alpine slides, zip lines, bungee swings, and rides up and down the mountain.  It's a great place to spend the day with the family and you never get tired of the activities.

But, New England loves summer, and there are dozens of mountain parks.  We have tons of ski resorts out this way, and a lot of them have made summer mountain parks for the off season from skiing.  Just stop by any of them on a warm summer day and enjoy the festivities.

And another thing.  In New England we've become addicted to zip lining.  More and more these fabulous places are popping up all over the East coast.  In Deerfield, Massachusetts they have a great place that you can go zipping through for about three hours, and they are fast being joined by a bunch of competitors.

So, here in the Northeast we love to get outdoors in summer, and we love rides, ziplines, and waterparks.  It is who we are, and if you would like to come and join us, you'll see what fun it can be.  Enjoy summer before it gets away.  Soon it will be fall and the leaves will be changing here in the great north woods.  Most of our parks, except for the water parks, will be open through at least Columbus Day.  Come and have a thrill and some fun.

Enjoy the summer, while I go off on my own adventure.  This will be the first time that I have not managed to write this weekly blog in over a year.  I will be doing some knocking around Europe for a while, and when I come back, I will have plenty more to write about.
See you soon!