Thursday, July 21, 2022

Check out historic flying boats at this Irish museum

If you visit the Ring of Kerry and Dingle Peninsula in the southern coastal region of Ireland-- probably the most popular tourist destinations in that country—be sure to stop at the Foynes Flying Boat Museum in County Limerick.

Here you’ll learn about the nostalgic era when Foynes was the center of the aviation world, from 1939 to 1945.

From seaport to air port

The small town of Foynes was an important sea port since 1846 because of its sheltered natural harbor 30 miles from the Atlantic Ocean and 24 miles from Limerick City. Early in World War II, as aviation became an important strategy, the quiet town on the Shannon River estuary was transformed into a major international air base.

After Charles Lindberg landed the first solo non-stop trans-Atlantic flight in 1927, there was hope for establishing commercial flights across the ocean.  It was a treacherous journey because planes didn’t have instruments in those days; courageous pilots navigated by sight.

In 1933 Pan Am Airlines asked Lindberg to recommend the best routes. He chose the coast of Ireland as a destination point, landing on the River Shannon, the longest river in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England. Amazingly, this feat was accomplished in spring of 1937.

Eight more round trips during the summer of 1937 proved this was a feasible operation, although there were still problems carrying enough fuel. Numerous options were tried including a double-decker plane similar to a rocket booster that separated after the main plane was aloft. That was unsuitable for passenger travel, so it only carried mail. Eventually, an American plane flew east from Newfoundland, while the British took off westward from Foynes. The two planes crossed mid-Atlantic, so neither could claim the first commercial flight.

During the peak time, Foynes was the stepping stone between Europe and North America and supported 35 flights a week. Celebrities, kings and queens, and politicians passed through Foynes on their trans-Atlantic flights.

The river as runway

Because there was no land-based runway, planes landed on the river and became known as “flying boats.” It was a very labor intensive operation because a pathway of flares had to be set on the water to guide the flying boats on landing. Local farmers were hired to ride into the villages and blow a bugle to signal when a flying boat was due in, so the flares could be set in time. The last scheduled flight from the Shannon River took off in October 1945, ending the flying boat era, although chartered flights continued till 1949.

The Foynes Flying Boat Museum is housed in the original terminal building. It opened in 1989 and features the only full scale replica of an early Boeing B314 in world.  Visitors can walk through this model, which boasts a 14-seat blue dining room from which freshly prepared seven-course meals were served to passengers—true luxury, indeed. Each pampered passenger had a regular bed, and their shoes were polished by stewards as they slept. Flight tickets during the World War II years cost $5000 one-way, and the flight lasted 16-18 hours, so only the wealthy--and adventurous--dared fly the route.

But it was fun to imagine being on this journey, a precursor to our modern-day air travels.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Hotel Metropole, oldest in Bellagio, Italy, still charms visitors

Although it’s possible to drive all the way to Bellagio, a village on a promontory jutting into Lake Como in Italy, it’s quicker, safer, and more lovely to take a ferry. At the town of Mennagio on the western bank of Lake Como, we boarded the large ferry that transports cars as well as people and crowded in with all the other passengers for our first introduction to the magical city that inspired glitzy Las Vegas.

View of Lake Como from our room at Hotel Metropole

Even though we had a map and GPS, finding the hotel we had booked online wasn’t easy—until we did find it, and then the location was surprisingly perfect. From the balcony of our room, we breathed in fresh Alpine air and inhaled the magnificent views of glimmering water sheltered by surrounding mountains and hills. As the evening sun set, we watched ferry boats come and go from our lakeside balcony and toasted our romantic getaway with a glass of Chardonnay purchased just minutes before in the nearby historic shopping district.

Hotel Metropole has aged beautifully.

Hotel Metropole, an elegant pink-toned monolithic building on the waterfront, dates to 1721, making it the oldest in Bellagio. As usually happens, the town of Bellagio developed on the lake, and until 1900 most houses overlooked the harbor. Originally a house, the hotel later became an inn and shelter for travelers coming to what was a remote area. A photograph from 1871 (electric lights were not installed until 1888) shows a beautiful building with a covered porch overlooking Lake Como.

The hotel changed hands many times but had an English owner during the mid-1990s who sparked its growth to an international clientele before selling the hotel to an Italian entrepreneur. Although the hotel has been renovated several times, during our visit a few years ago, we saw a mix of traditional and modern designs that are well-suited to Americans’ tastes (it is non-smoking, has a breakfast buffet, and includes Wi-Fi), At that time the original three-person elevator was still the only way to get to upper floors unless you take the stairs.

Gardens in the village

Original plaster ceilings and Liberty-style glass doors of the panoramic dining hall remained, and old floor tiles of local Pognana stone on the terrace overlooking the lake were kept in place. We also enjoyed other original features include decorative balustrades and floral gratings from the hotel’s early days. Hotel Metropole recently underwent additional restoration. All rooms are individually air conditioned, have private facilities, television, minibar, safe, and hairdryer.

Situated in the center of Bellagio, it is the only hotel in the village with a direct view onto Lake Como, and that includes all rooms. At the roof-top garden guests lounge, read, or sunbathe while enjoying incredible views of the shimmering lake.

View from roof top garden

Outside, purchase an ice cream or coffee at the gelateria in front, or dine at award-winning Terrazca, the adjacent restaurant where hotel guests receive a discount on meals in addition to enjoying a panorama of lake, rolling, hills, mountains, and sky.

Very Italian walkway to shops and restaurants

The hotel is located at Piazza Mazzini, Bellagio’s historic center.  From the square you’ll see characteristic Italian steps and narrow winding streets that lead to shops, galleries, and restaurants and a tourist office where you can book boat rides on the lake and other excursions. Its excellent location and an impressive combination of Mediterranean and Alpine scenery make Hotel Metropole one of the most charming places to stay in Bellagio.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier