Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Cruising the Breinz River from Interlaken, Switzerland

Looking back toward Interlaken across the Breinz River
Although weather can be good or bad any time of year in Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland of Switzerland, our visit in late May proved to be just about perfect. It might be a little cool and damp in early morning, but most afternoons sunshine provides the right temperature for hiking, biking, or exploring this city between the Thun and Breinz lakes (hence its name).
The boat had plenty of viewing spaces outside and refreshments inside.
The Grand Hotel perched on a hillside.
As our boat left the Interlaken Ost dock on Lake Breinz we looked back at an idyllic scene encompassing the city bridge, majestic mountains, and hanging clouds. The boat actually functions as a ferry that criss-crosses the lake, stopping at several small towns about every 10-15 minutes where passengers can get off and on.  The first stop was Goldsvil, a small village of perhaps a few hundred people built into the side of a hill (which could be walked to from Interlaken in about half an hour). Another stop was Iseltwald, where several hikers disembarked for their adventures.

Larry and I got off at Giessbach, about an hour into the boat ride, to hike to a waterfall. Not knowing where the trail started, we rode on the historic funicular to the Grand Hotel, the only transportation option up a steep path besides hiking. Set atop a hill, the Grand Hotel is a marvelous example of opulence—both for its architecture and the scenery--and many visitors come just to admire the view while enjoying lunch.
Giessbach Falls--simply stunning
But we came to see spectacular Giessbach Falls flowing from behind and high above the hotel in 14 stages. Less than half way up is a spot where the falls are especially gorgeous with water plowing down the mountainside, splashing in a wide cascade and continuing down into Breinz Lake (Breinzsee).

We walked up steps and logs to a bridge that goes behind the Falls. Although we felt spray earlier, the bridge was actually not too wet (except the path was slick from the evening’s rain and all the fallen leaves and rotting material on the ground). Although we continued walking higher for a different look, we had already seen the best views of the falls.
Infused with energy from the billowing waterfall, the path to Breinz, just over an hour away, was calling to us. We decided to walk into town and pick up the boat there for our return to Interlaken. We weren’t alone as many bicycle riders were out tackling the hills and curves of this scenic route.

Mountains form a backdrop as we approached
the town of Breinz
What could be better on arriving at our destination than chowing down on a burger and fries? Roton Bistro provided us with this classic American meal. But we Americans don’t have anything on the Swiss who really love their pommes frittas--French fries. They’re served at almost every meal/ restaurant. Having been in Switzerland for almost a week, I was saying “Enough, already!”
After a short walk into town, we saw the boat arriving from across the lake. Since Breinz was the end of the line, we re-boarded and followed the route in reverse, again stopping at small villages while crossing the river in the opposite direction. It was late afternoon, and clouds dropping down over the mountains provided a just touch of solemnity to end our journey.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

More travel stories at Striped Pot and Austin Adventure Travel


Friday, January 25, 2013

Alice Springs, little known city in the center of Australia

Driving to Alice Springs from Uluru,
we stopped at this red sand dune that leads to a salt lake.
Before deciding to visit Australia, I did not know much about Alice Springs, the largest city in central Australia. After leaving Uluru (Ayers Rock), we drove on the Stewart Highway for about six hours to reach this city of 28,000 people (stopping once at the only gas station/road house along the way). Alice Springs is a modern town with a pioneering history and hardy people: It’s a long way on a lonely highway to anywhere else, and for many, the heat, flies, and remoteness are causes enough to leave.
Why go there?

The drive between Uluru and Alice Springs includes several iconic outback parks with stunning scenery. If you want a vacation spot where you can truly get away from everything, Alice Springs is the perfect starting point from which to explore this unique and diverse region.
As we approach the city, we expect the semi-arid landscape. But we’re amazed by the magnificent and picturesque West MacDonnell MountainRanges that stretch to the east and west. These mountains form a backdrop for Alice Springs and provide many recreational and sight-seeing opportunities.

A variety of plants grow in the desert.
Visit the Desert Park
Don’t miss the Alice Springs Desert Park, one of the world's finest nature parks and a wonderful place to discover flora and fauna of this arid region. See the film called “The Changing Heart” which tells how the land developed. It ends with a dramatic lowering of the screen from the top to reveal the mountains outside--a spectacular vista previewing what we’ll see when walking through the park. Our audio devices explain that what seems to be dry and barren is actually full of life, and we begin to notice the variety of plants and animals that inhabit the desert.

Colorful birds live
in the desert, too.

Despite the heat--the temperature approaches 100 degrees near noon—the park is an excellent venue to educate visitors about the ecology of sand country, woodlands, and desert rivers. At the end of the trail we find a kangaroo area where the marsupials roam freely.
Other worthwhile experiences

Because of the city’s remoteness, the Royal Flying DoctorService opened in 1939 to provide routine medical services and evacuations to the indigenous communities in the isolated outback. “The World’s Largest Classroom,” a virtual learning center at the Alice Springs School of the Air, is another big enterprise in the city. Both of these are worth a visit.
Sculpture in Olive Pink Botanic Gardens
We walk from our hotel to Olive Pink Botanic Gardens, then follow trails through a wide array of native plants before heading to the Desert Park. We view the city from Anzac Hill, a memorial to lives lost in world conflicts, and imagine a superb sunrise or sunset view of the mountains from this vantage point. Other activities in the area include visiting historic buildings, riding mountain bikes, trekking, and dining or gambling at Lasseters Hotel Casino (check out Tuesday night specials).

Our stay was short, but if you’re there longer, you can take helicopter tours, ride emus or camels, play golf, or see the scenery from a hot air balloon. Take time to visit galleries that share Aboriginal stories through paintings and diverse artworks at Todd Mall, a downtown shopping area that covers multiple blocks.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier
Read other travel stories at Striped Pot and Austin Adventure Travel


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Choose Spain for a budget holiday

The following information and photo have been provided by Catherine Moraru, who represents Thomas Cook Tours.

Now that the winter holidays are over, it’s time to think about spring vacation or even summertime travel. For a magical getaway and the opportunity to explore a new country, keep the beaches of Spain high on your list. 

Spain is a holiday stalwart that has long provided visitors, whether families or couples, with a much-needed fix of sun, sea and sand. Skip large cities and find your paradise elsewhere. From the bright lights of Benidorm in all its cheesy glory, to the quiet elegance of Costa de la Luz, Spain has a fantastic variety of holidays to please everyone.
Punta Brava Holidays Located on Spain’s South East coastline, Punta Brava is a popular holiday resort. It features a long, attractive golden beach that is usually crowd-free, a pleasant promenade and plenty of local amenities, making it a great option for families. Sunshine for the majority of the year and stunning views make it a great location for relaxation or exploring the region on one of the walking routes.

The best part is your vacation won’t break the bank if you choose a package that includes flights, accommodation and resort transfers in one price. Knowing the total cost up front makes your trip easier to budget for and also prevents hidden surprises, such as overpriced taxi fares. Plus packaged vacations routinely drop prices close to the departure date, so you can snap up a bargain if your schedule is flexible.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Aborigine culture envelopes Ayers Rock

We first viewed Ayers Rock across the red plains from a walking trail near our hotel. We watched the sun set over the monolith on a cloudy evening. Then, after a brief early morning visit to the Cultural Center in Uluru, we actually arrive at Ayers Rock for a closer look.

Walking on one of the trails that approaches the rocks, it’s not hard to imagine the spiritual power of this place. We stand at the base, touch the rocks, and absorb power ascribed to Ayers Rock by the Aborigines who live in the Red Center of Australia. So many stories, woven into the culture and beliefs of the Aborigines, center around this desert formation.

Skip the climb
Whether or not to climb the rock is a highly contested political issue. Located in Kata Tjuta National Park, a
UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ayers Rock is sacred to the Aborigines and protected by the government. Although visitors do climb, there’s a strong movement to respect, honor, and preserve the art and cultural practices of the indigenous peoples, which could one day result in banning these climbs.

Graeme, our guide, who has lived in the Outback of northern Australia most of his life and has great respect for native traditions, recommended a helicopter ride as a better way to see the formations. “When you climb to the top, there’s really nothing to see,” he says. “The real thing is listening and understanding all it means.” There’s also wear and tear on the rocks and safety issues—good reasons to skip the climb.
So we follow his advice. We admire the 348 meter high iron-infused sandstone rock and its varied geological features. Like an iceberg, it’s estimated that two-thirds of the rock lies beneath the earth’s surface. Time doesn’t allow, or we might walk 9.4 kilometer around the base. We see chains on the path leading to the top, but the trek can be dangerous, especially in hot weather such as we’re experiencing.

We listen to storie of mythical characters Liru and Kuniya. We see waterfalls and pictographs drawn on a cave wall, and feel the spirit of Kuniya seeping through cracks in the Rock. We walk to Mutijulu Waterhole, a semi-permanent pool of water and home of Wanampi, ancestral water snake. We learn how the Aboriginal people explained life and assimilated values through these so-called “dream stories.”
At the Cultural Center we see traditions more fully explained and a demonstration by an Aboriginal woman for making glue from acacia branches. A translator relays each laborious step of the process and explains how spear tips are re-attached with this glue. We see a belt made of human hair that men wear to hold their tools and spears, and we admire the “dot” paintings, their most renowned form of art (and very expensive to purchase). We learn that visitors need a permit to go into the nearby Aboriginal community, another way of protecting the privacy of the 250 people who live there.

We leave Uluru with a deeper appreciation for this ancient culture and its inherent ties to Ayers Rock.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier
Read more travel stories by Beverly at Striped Pot and Austin Adventure Travel


Saturday, January 19, 2013

Mystery surrounds Ayers Rock in the Australian Outback

We leave Sydney on a wet, overcast day. Our destination is the Red Center of Australia, otherwise known as the Outback. We fly over dry, desolate land. Scattered scrubby trees and bushes weave a haphazard pattern through red dirt, broken only by a singular strip of paved road. I’m startled by the all-consuming redness of the landscape.

Our plane touches down on a runway carved out of the red dirt at Uluru. This is actually a semi-arid desert area because splotches of brown grass, small shrubs, and thin, sparse trees surround the small airport. Our bus takes the lone asphalt road to Ayers Resort. This is how we get to see Ayers Rock, one of the goals of our Australia trip.

The Resort is a real oasis. It includes a range of accommodations in five hotels, medical facilities, restaurants, Visitor Center, and a tiny shopping center--all in a circular complex easily reached on foot or by shuttle.

Our hotel is called Sails in the Desert, aptly named because many sail-shaped awnings shade the property, both in front and back.

We check in and head to the shopping center for a sandwich at the Red Rock Deli. At the Visitor Center we explore exhibits telling about the harsh environment, the animals that survive here, and the importance of the little rainfall that is received (about 12 inches a year).

We walk to a look-out point, scuffling feet through dense red sand. We find another trail on our way back to the hotel and walk through scratchy brush to a vantage point that offers broad views of the surrounding landscape. We’re on the lookout for geckos, rabbits, and snakes, but it’s early afternoon and too hot for these creatures to be roaming about. We decide the perfect place to cool off is at the hotel’s pool.

In the evening we take the Sounds of Silence excursion to watch sunset fall on Ayers Rock followed by a three-course dinner on white-clothed tables in the middle of nowhere. It’s cloudy, but white streaks in a blue sky form a pretty background for streaming sun rays. We sip wine and snack on canapés of kangaroo meat, smoked salmon, and pastries while waiting for a magic moment that never comes.

Don’t get me wrong: Although Ayers Rock isn’t gleaming the fire-red depicted in many pictures, just being in this isolated place, looking out over lands of extreme cultural significance to local Aborigines and absorbing mystic feelings associated with the Rock is a humbling and fascinating experience.

Meanwhile, we listen to a musician play the traditional didgeridoo, a long pipe-like instrument from which drifts an awkward melody that resembles a frog croaking. Later, he plays songs in a near-monotone that's surprisingly soothing.

After sunset, which cast an ominous glow over the Olga Mountains in the background, we walk to the remote dining area. Darkness settles, so we feast by candlelight. Still, after filling our plates with salads, vegetables, kangaroo, barramundi, fish, lamb, cream cheese brownies, and carrot cake, the sparse light really doesn’t help us identify what we’re eating. We stuff forkfuls of tasty food into our mouths and try to savor the different flavors.

Clouds completely block the stars—usually a spectacular feature of this excursion. A clear sky would have been filled with millions of twinkling stars, but tonight, instead of an astrology lesson, we hear a native Aborigine story of how the Milky Way got into the sky.  I look forward to the next day when we get up close and personal with Ayers Rock.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Climbing Sydney Harbor Bridge--symbol of the city

 Harbor Bridge in Sydney, Australia
Within three hours of setting foot on Australian soil, I’m 434 feet in the air high above Sydney Harbor, brushing back wind-blown hair and soaking up sunshine. I’m looking down at boats churning through the water from the top of the internationally famous Harbor Bridge—with the iconic Sydney Opera House just in front of me.
It’s almost unbelievable. But it’s real, and I’m enjoying every minute of the adventure.

Climbers near the top of the bridge
Our guide, Maria, asks Larry and me to stop and pose for pictures. First, we take shots about halfway up the bridge, then more at the top with the Opera House in the background. It’s good that she’s doing this because we’re not allowed to take cameras—or anything else. In fact, we’ve been quizzed about medical conditions, taken a breathalyzer test, signed release forms, emptied our pockets, and slipped on provided blue and gray jumpsuits. We’ve been outfitted with carabineers to attach to the cable on the bridge and radios to hear Maria’s commentary and instructions as we climb. And we even tackled a practice climb with stairs and ladders before heading out through a tunnel for the real thing.
We hear noise from cars cruising on the six-lane highway below—a major bit of engineering foresight because when the bridge was started in 1924, there were only five cars in Sydney. Now it’s a busy thoroughfare, and we have a bird’s-eye view between metal rafters and beams. As the longest single span arch bridge in the world, Sydney Harbor Bridge was officially opened on March 19, 1932 and remains a centerpiece of the city’s transportation network.

We're at the top overlooking Sydney Harbor with the  Opera House behind us.
Nicknamed the "Coathanger” because of its arch-based design, the bridge totally changed the character of the city. It kept people working and the economy of the city strong through a depression that hit during its eight years of construction. Residents are rightfully proud of the precision that went into building the bridge. For example, 4,000 huge granite blocks each took two weeks to cut to specifications, but when assembled into walls under the bridge not one had to be recut.
The bridge rises, then crosses over and returns on the other side.
The climb isn’t too difficult or dangerous since each participant is tethered to a cable the entire time. However, people who fear heights or strong winds might be uncomfortable, especially at the top. Still, the effort is worth every stunning view of sailboats and ferries in the harbor, the city center and skyline, and the beautiful sail-shaped Opera House.

Following our tour, we devour a pizza at a nearby pub and then walk back to explore one of four concrete and granite pylons that flank the bridge. We learn more history while climbing up inside the pylon to an outdoor viewing spot, a great place to take the photos we couldn’t get during the bridge climb.

The three and a half hour tour is well organized, and guides are very knowledgeable about bridge statistics and history. Tours leave frequently during the day, and twilight and night tours are also available. Contact for more information and rates.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier and BridgeClimb.