Monday, October 31, 2011

Day Hikes in Bavaria

The ski resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen -- really twin Bavarian towns -- is my base for several days of stunning day hikes. Surrounded by soaring peaks that rise thousands of feet above the forest clad valley -- Zugspitze, which rises to almost 10,000 feet, is Germany's highest  -- Garmisch-Partenkirchen clearly attracts those thrill seekers who savor a rush of adrenaline from navigating along craggy slopes at dizzying heights where sure-footedness is a must. But, I prefer a more easy-going approach to my aerobic activities, which is why I chose this serious of short and easy-to-moderate trails that, for the most part, can be tackled by the whole family.

1. The Philospher's Trail is aptly named. Along the three-mile path that courses from St. Anton -- with its fresco-ceilinged church --  to Farchant, you'll have plenty of opportunity to meditate on nature, whether you're gazing down at Partenkirchen from on high or settling into one of several well-placed benches that are inscribed with quotes from some of the great philosophers.

2. The Kramer Plateau offers several options, including an easy three-hour route -- that runs along the southern slopes of Mt. Kramer. After crossing wildflower speckled meadows, along the way, you'll notice chapels that were built as a soldier memorials as well as an old chapel (Alte Kirche) bedecked with 15th century wall paintings. 

3. The Slopes of Mount Wank offer lovely views of the awe-inspiring Zugspitz mountain range. This moderate hike that wanders through pastures and dense pine forests passes the thundering Kesselgraben waterfall. Taking the cable car to the summit where you can lunch at the mountain hut and then meandering on trails that network the middle and upper slopes makes for a leisurely and scenic way to enjoy this almost 6,000 foot mountain.

4. The Parnachklamm Gorge is really the best hike of the lot given that along the four-mile path you'll be walking through dark tunnels and across small footbridges along a rock ledge -- luckily, they installed a guardrail of sorts -- positioned above a cascading stream that's snuggled at the base of a sheer-walled gorge. It's a national monument that's full of sensory pleasures: you'll become wet, thanks to the tumbling waterfalls that you pass behind. Then gaze about and you'll see a window of azure blue sky above while the spray coming off the cascades provides colorful reflections of the broad bands of sunlight that penetrate this deep slit in the earth.
continue reading "Day Hikes in Bavaria"

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Review: Travel E-Books for Teens

 As a former teacher, I love it when there's the opportunity to use travel as a learning experience for kids. That's why I jumped at the chance to review a new set of travel e-books: "Planet Explorers: Travel Guides for Kids. Right now, author Laura Schaefer has written six guides to pique the interest of children and parents alike: Disney World, Disneyland, Disney Cruise Line, New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago. Each book is designed to be viewed on an e-reader, iPad or iPhone or other smart phone, making them practical when you and your kids are on the road.

But, though they are being marketed to kids 8+ years, after reviewing the NYC and Phili guides, I believe the guides are more geared for the teenager in the house, especially given some of the vocabulary words. (I'm not sure what average eight-year-old knows the words "nautical" or "pedestal" or cares about whether a cafe offers good coffee or that a restaurant has an informal dress code.) That being said, I find that the guides I reviewed are packed with such myriad facts that they not only offer what I call the "who knew" factor that kids -- me, included -- love, but they also can be used by parents and teachers to make history and  geography come alive.

In the New York City guide, even I found things I didn't know about -- and I'm a native New Yorker, like Edgar Allen Poe's cottage in the Bronx, or that the cherry trees at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden were donated by the Japanese government.

The guides are chock full of fun and useful information: New York City's Flatiron Building resembles the shape of a vintage iron; in the 19th century some 7,000 people lived in the five-storied building that's been converted into the Lower East Side Tenement Museum; the Bronx Zoo uses composting toilets to save water;  and Ellis Island was once called Oyster Island. (But who knows why?).

There are plenty of yummy food options, many that I think kids will gravitate to, including the Magnolia Bakery with its array of colorful iced cupcakes, and Peanut Butter & Company, where you can get PB topped with just about anything, from bacon to marshmallow Fluff. 

What I would've loved to have found in the NYC guide  is a section on Hudson River Park, which is perfect for biking, jogging, blading, skateboarding (they even have a skateboard park) and learning about a  host of botanicals along the landscaped route that parallels the river.

Since I'm an obvious tree hugger, I was happy to see Fairmont Park included in the Philadelphia guide. (The Schuylkill River Trail is listed as a must visit; I agree. It's perfect for the family who wants to get back to nature within the heart of a major metropolis.) Among the fun facts in this guide, I was surprised to learn that the park was owned by one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence; and that the Curtis Institute of Music is more difficult to get into than Harvard University. (Who knew?) It's also lovely to find out that the Museum of Archeology has a garden growing Egyptian papyrus. This is the kind of information that goes way beyond simply viewing ancient exhibits in glass cases.

Those who visit Phili with this guide will find out that the city is home to the nation's first medical school, the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art played a prominent role in the movie "Rocky," and that Morimoto, an Iron Chef, owns a restaurant in the city-- though, with such a rarefied, sophisticated menu, it's not one suiting the tastes of most kids, that's for sure.

Overall, I think it's worth checking out these e-book guides for the wealth of information that could be incorporated into teacher's lesson plans or used by parents and teens when traveling as a way to boost the enrichment factor.

continue reading "Review: Travel E-Books for Teens"

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Magic in Montenegro

I just returned from Montenegro's Bay of Kotor -- a dramatic landscape of craggy mountains and turquoise waters. A land where the early morning sun brushes across the towering peaks, painting a luminous broad swath across the rough limestone surface. Where the black veil of night is streaked with a zig-zag glow from the string of Kotor's medieval battlements that are lit up along their length as they snake up the steep slope.

On this trip with Ramblers Worldwide Holidays, turning a corner along many a bay brings a surprise. While I spent most of my time hiking the rocky slopes covered with fragrant macchia, oaks and conifers, the magical waters were almost always within view. And then there were those few excursions onto the mirror-like watery surface itself that brought more discoveries.

Perast is just one of several gems in the necklace of towns along the Bay that's often referred to as a fjord, but, in fact, geologically it isn't since glacial activity were not responsible for its formation. This Baroque village, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is most heralded as the birthplace of some very well-regarded sailors. With the rise in prosperity in the 17th and 18th centuries, maritime captains established themselves in palaces and villas, some which remain today, converted into houses, accommodations -- such as the Hotel Admiral, restaurants (like the Per Astra Restaurant) and even a museum.

The offshore twin islets, St. George and Our Lady of the Rock, add to the allure of Perast. Taking a ferry, we motor out towards the wee rocks, seeing the tall, monolith-like cypress trees encircling a 12th century Benedictine monastery on St. George, where the abbey was destroyed in an earthquake.

While visitors are not allowed to set foot on this island, we dock at Our Lady of the Rock, appropriately named given that, according to legend, a painting of the Virgin Mary was discovered on a tiny rock jutting from the sea at this very spot. (The artificial islet itself was created by rocks added bit, by bit, over time.) Now, in her honor, stands a brilliant blue-domed church that we tour with and English-speaking guide who points out the dozens of oil paintings, 17th century working organ, silver crowns, and many precious and domestic gifts (from irons to sewing machines) that were donated to ward off disasters at sea. Probably the most memorial item is a work of embroidery hung on a wall: a woman used silk, gold and silver threads and her own hair to sew an image of the Virgin encircled by cherubs. (It took her 25 years while her husband was at sea and, supposedly, the hair-threads turned white over time and she became blind. It's unclear if her husband ever made it home.)
continue reading "Magic in Montenegro"