Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Staying in shape on a cruise

In the past, going on a cruise meant returning with extra baggage—on the hips.  Today’s cruise ships provide a wide assortment of options to accommodate guests who want to enjoy their vacation but still feel good about it when they return. Here are common opportunities for staying fit and healthy while cruising:
  1. Exercise:  Almost all ships have extensive fitness centers--gyms well equipped with treadmills overlooking spectacular ocean views, free weights, aerobic steppers, and machines for every muscle, as well as free exercise classes or extra-fee specialty classes like Pilates. Take a good sense of humor to dance classes—whether  graceful or awkward, guests bounce to the uplifting rhythms of salsa, swing, meringue, and two-step.  
  1. Walk: Skip the elevator and take the stairs—it’s a good a workout for your legs.  Explore the ship as you walk around its perimeter on the Promenade deck.
  1. Challenge yourself:  New mega-ships have rock walls, ice skating rinks, zip lines, water slides, ropes course, and surfing simulators.  Where else can you try a thrilling activity at no extra charge and with no penalty if you decide it’s not your cup of tea?
  1. Sports:  Can’t get moving unless there’s a competition? Try participating in tournaments for ping-pong, miniature golf, and shuffleboard (okay, it is a tradition on ships but surprisingly fun). Work out in the swimming pool--some pools are designated “adults only,” and there are also pool games to indulge in if you don’t mind looking a bit silly.
  1. Shore excursions: It’s a great opportunity to prod yourself out of your comfort zone. Instead of taking a bus tour or staying onboard while in port, chose activities not on your usual agenda such as kayaking, snorkeling, or horseback riding.  Buoyant water-based activities are perfect for guests with limited physical abilities, but activities are available for any fitness level.
6. Food choices:  One of the benefits (or challenges) of cruising is round-the-clock eating opportunities, but buffets and dinners have gotten healthier.  Cruising won’t be hazardous to your waistline if you select lower calorie, heart healthy options or vegetarian meals.  Skip the bread basket and choose fruit over cheesecake for dessert. Avoid impromptu meals—chocolate buffets, ethnic food tastings, or afternoon snacks. That’s a good time for a walk.
  1. Relax: Kick back and read a book, play bridge or bingo, or attend an art auction.  Expanding your mind is okay.  Classes on cruises run the gamut from computers to art, music, or even napkin folding. Some ships offer galley tours or talks by on-board naturalists. 
With more than 11 million North Americans cruising in 2011, according to Cruise Lines International Association, physical fitness is a lifestyle that ships are happy to accommodate.  As prices fall below the $500 mark for seven day trips (even below $300 for four or five days in some markets), cruising is more affordable than ever--and you can return home in ship-shape condition.

Photos by Beverly Burmeier





Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Rhine Falls--the great European Waterfall

Boats take visitors right up to Rhine Falls.
The spray from Rhine Falls drifted in the breeze, settling fine droplets of moisture on our faces and creating a faint rainbow across the water. For centuries, tourists have flocked to Europe’s largest waterfall, awed by the wide surge of water over a limestone ledge. We joined the throngs of people at this popular site when visiting with my son’s family in Switzerland.

Located in a bend of the Rhine River near Schaffhausen in northern Switzerland, Rhine Falls can be accessed from either side of the river. It’s not the tallest falls but rather the broadest at 492 feet and the largest by volume of water that pours over the rocks. At the highest point water drops about 69 feet, but you can still feel the vibration when walking on the designated path. And it makes an excellent backdrop for photos.
Stairs lead to the top of the rock in the Rhine River.
When tectonic shifts during the Ice Age forced the Rhine River into a new riverbed, the falls were created at the transition point where hard chalk turned into soft gravel. In the middle of the river stands an imposing rock, a pillar that has survived the elements for thousands of years. A narrow winding stairway leads to the top of the rock, which so intrigued us that we took a boat ride to the rock in order to climb up. Although it was very crowded on the day of our visit, we still had great views of the falls and the lake. The turreted castle Schloss Laufen on a cliff directly above the falls added to the spectacle.

Be prepared to get wet on the observation deck.

Boats on the river offer several different cruises. One tour will take visitors to an observation deck on the Zurich side that juts out over the river for a bird's-eye view of the falls. We weren’t quite daring enough to paddle a canoe close to the falls but watched one boat take passengers right up to the surging water.
Other amenities include a visitors' centre, children's playground and the Historama, an interactive exhibition about Rhine Falls.

Stein on Rhine is a typical Swiss village.
After our boat ride we stopped for ice cream before heading back up the path and on to Stein on Rhine, a typical Swiss village with a well-preserved medieval center open only to pedestrians. The site of the city wall, which now consists of houses, and the city gates are also preserved. Since the weather was just about perfect, many people sat outside enjoying al fresco restaurants and cafes. We walked around admiring the charming gingerbread architecture, fountains, and beautiful frescoes painted on buildings—and smiled at children scaling a wall to dip their bodies into the cool river. It didn’t matter that we weren’t alone in soaking up this iconic Swiss adventure; in fact, sharing the scene made it even more likeable.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Friday, February 8, 2013

Majestic redwood trees will have you gasping in awe

Redwood forest in California
RedwoodNational and State Parks on California’s northwest coast preserve the largest remaining contiguous section of ancient coast redwood forest, including some of the world’s tallest and oldest trees.

Old-growth redwoods are immense, ancient, stately, mysterious, and powerful. From a seed no bigger than one from a tomato, California's coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) may grow to a height of 367 feet (112 m) and have a width of 22 feet (7 m) at its base. Imagine a 35-story skyscraper and you have an inkling of the trees' ability to arouse humility.

The human footprint in this park dates back more than 4,500 years. The Tolowa, Yurok, Chilula and Hupa peoples continue to rely on the park for spiritual, cultural, physical and economic sustenance. The park’s landscape holds remnants of its past logging, ranching, fishing and military history. At Redwood, you can hike among the giants, relax in fields of wildflowers and explore the beaches of the Pacific coast.

Old growth redwood tree
When redwood harvesting began in the early 1850s, over two million acres of old-growth redwood forests existed. But Euro-Americans took less than 60 years to reduce this number into hundreds-of-thousands of acres. Preservationist groups began purchasing large tracts of redwood acreage in an effort to save the quickly disappearing forests.

Fossil records have shown that relatives of today's coast redwoods thrived in the Jurassic Era 160 million years ago. The redwoods continue to thrive in California's North Coast, the only place in the world with the right combination of longitude, climate, and elevation. The cool, moist air created by the Pacific Ocean keeps the trees continually damp, even during summer droughts.

Redwood bark
By the 1960s, 90 percent of the original redwoods had been logged. After much controversy and compromise with timber companies, Congress finally approved a federal park, and on October 2, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the act that established the 58,000-acre Redwood National Park.

The park’s primeval forests, prairies, rivers, coastline, and woodlands have been cooperatively managed by the National Park Service and the California Department of Parks and Recreation since 1994 and today form a World Heritage Site.

Exactly why the redwoods grow so tall is a mystery. Resistance to natural enemies such as insects and fire are built-in features of a coast redwood. Diseases are virtually unknown and insect damage insignificant thanks to the high tannin content of the wood. Thick bark and foliage that rests high above the ground provides protection from all but the hottest fires.The trees can reach ages of 2,000 years and regularly reach 600 years.

The coast redwood environment recycles naturally; because the 100-plus inches of annual rainfall leaves the soil with few nutrients, the trees rely on each other, living and dead, for their vital nutrients.

The North Coast is often gray with a thick layer of fog, especially during summer,. When inland temperatures are high, the fog is drawn in from over the ocean. This natural cooling and moistening system is beneficial to the redwoods as fog accounts for about 40 percent of the redwoods' moisture intake.

You can participate in ranger-led activities, scenic drives, walks, and hikes. Learn more about the trees, camping, and backcountry basics at any of five visitor centers. Whatever you do, you’ll marvel at all these majestic trees have survived while admiring their unequaled natural beauty.
Information courtesy of Candace L. Tinkler, Redwood National and State Parks and National Park Service www.nps.org

Monday, February 4, 2013

Blown away in paradise: the Greek island of Mykonos

White shoreline buildings are a hallmark of Mykonos
“I’d like tell you that I don’t always look like this, but I do,” said Amaryllis, our lovely 20-something guide on the Greek island of Mykonos, whose long dark hair kept whipping across her face. It didn’t take long to understand what she meant as we struggled to keep our own demeanor during gale-force gusts that blew almost constantly across the island.
Still, wind from the Aegean Sea helps keep the climate moderate—and it adds a distinctive appeal to this old port town located five hours from Athens by ferry but only 40 minutes by plane.

Mykonos is the smallest of the group of islands known as the Cyclades, which are prominent in stories from Greek mythology. The nearby island of Delos, touted as the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, and now an uninhabited UNESCO site, has developed as a sacred center and archaeological site with remarkable Greek ruins, sights that bring many people to Mykonos.

Streets wind in a maze through town.
Tourists discovered Mykonos in the 1950s and 1960s and currently expand its population of 11,000 up to a million during the summer months. With rocky terrain and dry, windy, salt-infused air, conditions aren’t good for growing plants or animals, which means the economy depends on tourism—not difficult to achieve since the island is graced with beautiful scenery.

Despite its reputation as a cosmopolitan island, Mykonos has steadfastly avoided common traps of overpopulated destinations. You’ll find no fast food restaurants or neon signs on the island. Streets are narrow and curvy—to confuse pirates and protect homeowners in the old days—so it’s easy to lose your bearings. 

We chose a guided walking tour through the maze. For three hours we followed Amaryllis—think Sophie in Mama Mia!—whose British accent belied her life-long residency on Mykonos. After navigating safely through the city’s maze with her help, we felt confident to set off exploring on our own.

Southern beaches sport golden sand and crystal clear water, calm and sheltered from the winds.  These may be family-oriented or cater to those looking for less--clothing optional.  Gusty northern beaches tend to attract adventurous types like wind surfers or folks who prefer peaceful, unoccupied beaches.  Plentiful quaint shops and restaurants accommodate tourists and have helped build the island’s reputation for nightlife and partying.
Churches have the same look--white washed with a blue dome.
Mykonos strikes a captivating scene with its closely spaced white-washed buildings, all sporting flat roofs—conditions originally meant to keep homes cool and clean but now required by law on all new construction.  The lime wash still used to make buildings white, a stunning contrast with nearby deep-blue ocean water, is claimed to be an antiseptic that’s beneficial for people living in close quarters. Shutters and doors may add specks of color, and people have chosen mostly blue and red. 

Little Venice section of Mykonos
Among the most recognized of Mykonos’ landmarks are its windmills. Originally used to prepare grain for transport, the windmills are positioned near the harbor and at one time covered the entire western part of town. In the same vicinity, where town meets the ocean, is an area called “Little Venice” because its 16th and 17th century buildings were constructed on the edge of the sea with balconies overhanging the water.

Stunning white churches have a long history on Mykonos
Ancient chapels and the Orthodox Christian Monastery founded in the 1500s are jewels of the island.  Additionally, almost every family has a small private chapel dedicated to a specific saint. Families traditionally host large feasts and celebrations—open to the public--on their designated saint’s holy day. Festivals feature concerts, theater performances, and parties that attract visitors.

Whether you love soothing, old-world tradition or seek exciting contemporary fun, Mykonos can be your paradise.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier