Tuesday, November 26, 2013

This One is Under New Zealand

In every picture I've ever seen, it looks like a wonderful boat trip under the stars, but it's not.  Waitomo is a cave wonderland just outside Rotura, New Zealand, and the reason that the boat ride through it seems to be under the stars is because of the glow worms.


Thousands of the tiny glow worms live in these caves.  The caves were discovered well over 100 years ago, and are the largest concentration of these creatures in the world.  It is so unique that it was featured on the show, "Planet Earth."  The caves are completely lighted by the glow worms and it takes about 20 minutes to adjust to their light for the average visitor.  Both the walking and the boat tours are something that you will never forget.

The Spellbound Gloworm Cave and the Cave of the Spirit are the two caves featured on these tours.  There are several companies that run tours out of Rotura, and most of them are good.  So, any tour you book is probably a fun one.  The tours can take up to three hours, and give you a great chance to see these mystical little creatures in all their glory.  Now, if you're already a cavern enthusiast, there are all the stalactites and stalagmites that you would normally see in a cave system, so you won't be disappointed on either front.

Now, if Waitomo Caves isn't enough subterranean fun for you, then right in the area is something that you won't want to miss.  Ruakuri Cave is the longest underground tour in the country, and it was just reopened in 2005 after some major renovations for the clients' safety and convenience.  There is one of the longest entry ramps in the world in this place now, and it is wheelchair accessible.  That's always a plus.

Ruakuri has it all.  This place has fascinating formations, enormous caverns, winding passageways, colorful stone, and waterfalls.  That's right, there are subterranean waterfalls in this one.  That's always a plus for me.  It takes around two hours just to tour this one cavern area.  That's a big one.
Here's a great side spot.  There are bridges over crevices in this cave.  They are over the Huhunui River, which is a water rafting site.  That's right, you can go water rafting right through the cave.  Try that in a lot of other places.

Now, the caves are the draw in this particular area, but there is a Ruakuri Bushwalk too, and it's a beautiful walk.  Once again, you will be crossing little river bridges, giving you yet another chance to see the adventurers below.  This gives you a nice experience with rain forest and is a great walk if the 1.6 kilometers in Ruakuri wasn't quite enough for you.

If you're still looking for adventure, there's Aranui Cave.  It's cavernous and beautiful like the others, but a little smaller than the rest of the group.  For the avid cave adventurer, it does round out the trip quite nicely.

For the true adventurer, there is a trip with the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company.  They have several different spelunking and black water rafting trips through these caves.  It's a one of a kind experience to go into a cave to go rafting, and it's well worth the money that they charge.  It's not something that's only for the experienced adrenaline junkie.  It's an adventure for anyone.

So, whether it's Southern Edge, Legendary Black Water Rafting Company, or someone else that you decided to hook up with, the adventure of the Waitomo Caves System is great.  It's an adventure for anyone, by any standards with the wheelchair accessibility, and the expert guides for water rafting.  There are several caves to see and even a rainforest walk.  It's hard to beat.

Oh yeah, it's on the north island close to Hobbiton, so if you love the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings movies, you're in the right neighborhood.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

It's Thanksgiving Time Again!

It's that time again.  It's that time when most of us are going over the river and through the woods to gramother's house for Thanksgiving.  It's that time of year that the retail world has turned into a total fiasco so that Walmart, Target, and Kmart can have a war over who will get the most sales for the Christmas rush known as Black Friday.

As a veteran of the retail world, I would just like to say that for once Walmart is not responsible for the war that took Black Friday now into Thanksgiving evening.  Walmart did not start the opening of retail stores on Thanksgiving.  That was started by the whiners who are now complaining about being open for 41 straight hours over at Kmart.  Some years ago, while the Walmart folks were on their way to their families house to have turkey, they noticed that Kmart had opened it's doors from noon until 8 pm.  So, all you whiners over at Kmart can suck it up and go to work like all of us other retailers, because you started the ball rolling.  You have no one but yourselves to blame.

For anyone else who is whining about the current state of affairs in the shopping world at Thanksgiving, you can blame Target for the sales bumping up to Thanksgiving night.  Target took the idea of being open on Thanksgiving and decided to head start everyone with a midnight sale.  The rest just followed suit.  Don't blame the obvious life sucking Walmart for all the holiday woes.  Take a look at the history folks.  It is what it is.  Now we all shop at 6 pm on Thanksgiving and miss that last football game.  Gone are the days of seeing a great episode of Punkin' Chunkin' or the Peanuts Thanksgiving Special.  It is what it is, so let's move on to other parts of Thanksgiving as it is still one of America's most beloved family holidays.


So, speaking of Charlie Brown and the Peanuts special, I wanted to talk about some really amazing things to do on Thanksgiving.  The Macy's Day Parade is the most famous of all the Thanksgiving Parades in the country.  There are about three million people who go to see the parade each year in New York City, and it's a great time.  The thing is, you don't have to go this one alone.  There are tour companies out there that love to set you up for a great time in the Big Apple over the holiday.  They also include fabulous hotels, and a trip to Radio City Music Hall in most of the standard tours.  Take the time and have a ball in New York on Thanksgiving.

If you want a traditional style Thanksgiving, Plymouth, MA has it all.  They have the Plimouth Plantation's traditional Thanksgiving for the meal and the history and everything.  They also have a fabulous parade and all the fixins for a great day.

St. Louis, MO is the location of another of the country's favorite parades.  This town gets all decked out to welcome Santa to town for the holiday season.  St. Louis has tons of stuff planned for the visitor between Thanksgiving and Christmas and is one of the most festive locations in the country.

Hello Houston, TX and one of the most popular parades in the country.  The Thanksgiving Day Parade in Houston is labeled the H E B Thanksgiving Day Parade, just in case you're trying to look it up.  Now, Houston has tons of holiday stuff, plus it has one thing that most of the other popular destinations don't have.  It's not as cold there.  It's a great place to go if you want to get out of the cold for the holidays.

It's got it all, even the balloons.  It's the McDonald's Chicago Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Thousands upon Thousands of people line the streets of downtown Chicago for this event, and they are never disappointed.  It's a great family treat.

Charlotte, NC is more of a holiday parade than a Thanksgiving one.  It takes place around Thanksgiving instead of on it, so you get a little time with the family.  The Carousel Parade is a tradition in the Carolinas and is also a supplier of scholarships for students in those states.  So, a lot of fun and a purpose too.

That's right, Detroit, MI.  These poor folks have seen their beautiful and bustling city crumble virtually to it's foundations, but that does not keep them from loading up and going out to celebrate Thanksgiving.   America's Thanksgiving Parade is a huge event, with visitors from all over coming to take in the splendor that is downtown Detroit.  We all should take a trip out that way and show those folks some support.  They've had it tough lately.  Besides, Thanksgiving is football day in Detroit with the Lions hosting a game there every single Thanksgiving.

And last but not least, Philidelphia, PA.  It's the oldest and one of the grandest of all the Thanksgiving Day Parades.  Hundreds of Thousands of people come out for this one.  It's got it all, and of course it has Santa at the end.  It's a great time for the family, and can be combined with a trip full of culture and history as well.  This great City of Brotherly Love was once the seat of government in this country and it's a great place to spend some quality time.

 So, those are the parades.  They are spectacular and fun for everyone.  It's a great way to spend the holiday if you don't have relatives waiting for you through the woods. 

Just one more little thing to add.  In San Francisco and New York, there are dinner cruises for Thanksgiving.  This is a scenic way to spend your Thanksgiving Dinner.  It's worth a look.  It makes a great holiday even more memorable.

So, enjoy your Thanksgiving.  Most of us will be eating some turkey and running off to work nowadays, but if you don't have to do all of that, there are some fabulous options to be explored.
Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

My Secret to the Greatest Vacation Ever...Switzerland

I'm writing this, because I've been all over, and I've seen a lot of things.  I like Europe.  That's a fact.  I like mountains.  I like small towns.  I like a good view.  This entry is about the Lauterbrunnen Valley in the Alps in Switzerland.  This is the most beautiful place on Earth.  You may want to contact me and tell me how wrong I am.  If you haven't been there, then you might be wrong.  The above picture is the view that I got to wake up to every morning from Hotel Staubbach where we stayed while we were inside of this amazing postcard.

These were three of the six cows that lived outside our window in the yard at our hotel.  They were some of the happiest cows I've ever seen, and that says a lot because I grew up in farmland in the Midwest, and I saw a lot of cows over the years.  I did have a theory that cows in Switzerland are happier, because most people eat pork and lots of cheese.  Therefore, the cows do not have anything in the world to fear.  These guys love to pose for the tourists.

This is the town of Lauterbrunnen.  The name means many fountains, which is accurate.  All it has to do is sprinkle, and there are dozens of ephemeral waterfalls all up and down the valley.  Even when it's dry there are three notable waterfalls in the valley.  There is the falls by the gondola that goes to Gimmelwald and the Schilthorn.  There is Staubbach Falls, which is the glory of the town of Lauterbrunnen.  Then there is Trummelbach Falls.

Trummelbach Falls is a marvel.  It starts hundreds of meters up inside the cliff that borders the valley.  It's a tourist attraction and has been made so that people can get a good look at all of it.  When you arrive, you go up inside the cliff on a lift.  When you get out, you are almost at the top of the falls.  You walk up a little bit, inside of the mountain.  Then you start seeing all the amazing sections of this raging waterfall.  The upper half is inside of the mountain.  The lower half you can see from the outside.  There are nice safe steps and railings everywhere, so it's family friendly.  It is a beautiful waterfall, and for 10 chf per person it's a bargain.

So, the view is great.  But there are several other things going on around Lauterbrunnen.  For example, I've written about going up the Schilthorn and seeing the views, walking through Murren, and playing around in James Bond World.  It's a great day trip while you're there.  The thing that amazed me was that there were so many little towns in that valley.  Most of them were up on the edges of the cliffs.

Kleine Scheidegg is that halfway point on the cog railway ride up to the top of the 12,000 foot high Jungfrau.  I'll write another entry to cover that. This place should be deserted most of the year, but it's  not.  It's a fully functioning town with restaurants, stores and hotels.  It's also a popular spot with the ski crews in the winter months, because there are a few resorts up there at around 8,000 feet.  It is the only way to the top of the mountain, so they always have people buzzing through and around this tiny little upper Alpine village.

Another one of these amazing towns is Wengen.  It is the first stop on the way to Jungfraujoch, and it is a very popular tourist destination.  It's a fully functioning town with no vehicles, save for a couple of utility vehicles that never leave this beautiful little village.  There are hotels, stores, restaurants and all kinds of tourist things all over this little burg to keep the locals and the tourists occupied.  The people who actually live in this tiny town, keep there cars in garages at the train stations in Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen.

On the opposite side of the valley we have the town of Murren, and it's claim to fame as being the birthplace of Alpine skiing.  Is it?  Who knows, but it is an extremely popular winter spot with skiers and other winter enthusiasts.  This place also has some of the best views I've ever seen.  It hangs over the valley in just the right place to get the best views of all that the valley has to offer.  Once again, there are only a couple of vehicles floating around this town, so the only way there is by gondola on this side of the valley.  The Wengen side has trains and the Murren side has gondolas.  They all operate on a Swiss rail pass, so it's good.

A short walk or a short gondola ride from Murren is Gimmelwald.  Once again the town is tiny, the view is amazing, there are no real vehicles.  There are farms in Gimmelwald.  There are cows and goats and fields of grass for the animals.  There was even a field of what looked like potatoes up there.  This is also the place for anyone who wants to para sail.  These guys pack up there chutes, take their Swiss Pass and catch the gondola in Stechelberg, and jump right off the cliff by Gimmelwald.  I said that it rained people in that valley, because there was always someone para sailing off of that cliff.

 Here's the one that no one will tell you about.  This is Isenfluh.  This place is on the other end of Lauterbrunnen straight up a cliff.  There is a separate gondola on that end of town that will take you up the cliff to this tiny village.  There are also walking paths that can take you all the way to Murren and Gimmelwald on the other end of the cliff.  But Isenfluh is different.  There is a road up there and you can drive there.  You have to go through a windy long tunnel that takes you up inside the cliff, but it's up there and it's beautiful.  They have all the great views of the valley, hotels, restaurants, stores and cars.  It's the best of it all.

But what's the allure of Lauterbrunnen?  Maybe it's the grand old Hotel Staubbach that we stayed in.

Maybe it's the fact that everything is small town and beautiful, even the cemetery.

Maybe it's the quiet of the town, or the restaurants with their great food, or the shops where you can buy just about anything, or the local attractions that are all a must see, or the way that they even wish you well when you leave.  The place and mostly the people are something that you won't encounter anywhere else.  I met a woman named Katrin.  She worked at our hotel and she was one of the most amazing people I had ever met.  She was from Estonia, and she decided that she never wanted to leave this valley after she'd visited.  Now she lives there and she loves it.  People from all over the world visit this place whether they wish to hike, ski, jump off a cliff, or just look at the amazing views that are the valley and the mountains around.  I would have liked to have stayed longer.  I could have stayed forever.  Lauterbrunnen is the most beautiful place in the world, and everyone should not only see it, but experience it.  I don't recommend many places with this energy.  I don't tell many of my favorites at all.