Friday, May 31, 2013

FIve Scenic Walks in Scotland

With such a diverse landscape of moors, woodlands, lochs, glens, sandy beaches and rugged peaks, Scotland presents walkers with a medley of options, from multi-day, rigorous treks to more leisurely strolls of just a few hours duration. But no matter the level of exertion, you'll be enveloped in this country's sublime beauty if you choose any of the five walks below:

1. The four-day Great Glen Way will bring you to Leitirfearn Nature Reserve with its myriad wildflowers and the ruins of Invergarry Castle. Of course, Loch Ness is the most iconic sight. But those who are obsessed with canals, like myself, will be able to inspect various features along the route that parallels the Caledonian Canal with the eight locks of Neptune's Staircase.

2. West Highland Way is, without a doubt, the country's most popular walking route. There's plenty of woodland stretches along this almost 100-mile route, which typically takes a week to traverse. You'll wander along Lock Lomond,  explore Rannoch Moor, a wild bogland, and climb the aptly named Devil's Staircase to some 1,800 feet.

3. On Orkney Island, a six-mile walk along the West Westray Coast
from Kirbest to Noup Headon will bring you to the 19th century Noup Head Lighthouse that stands over dramatic cliffs noted for their seabirds. In fact, this walk will delight birders. Arctic terns, puffins, guillemots are a few of the species you are likely to spot along the way, including in the Cliffs Nature Reserve.
Climbing to the top of Fitty Hills will provide panoramic views of the entire island

4.  Beinn Eighe Mountain Trail is an almost three-mile loop that brings you to the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve with its clutch of ancient pines.The mountain, as opposed to the woodland, trail affords 360° views, but it also requires negotiating steep rocky slopes with cairns marking the way.
The payoff: views of Loch Maree, the Beinn Eighe Massif and the Torridon Mountains.

5. Walking the scenic route from the hamlet of Blairmore to the Cape Wrath Lighthouse, you'll encounter few other people along a stretch of pristine coast
and the cream-colored beach of Sandwood Bay. Along the 14-mile trek, you'll climb across steep slopes, meander along cliff tops and cross several waterways. One of the most curious features of this journey is the stacks of boulders that resemble human faces
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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Tips For Adventure Travel, My Fave Parks + Much More

With summer vacations on the horizon, how do you choose an adventure-based trip? After all, you don't want to end up on a hiking trek that seems like you'll pass out as you slog up yet another mountain pass, particularly if you're at high altitude. Kinda puts a crimp in the enjoyment factor. And it can be a health hazard, especially if you have any pre-existing conditions or are just unfit or unprepared.

Not all of my trips are adventure-based, but those that are, most are memorable, such as my multi-day cross-country ski journey in Washington's Methow Valley. Then, there are those that I'd rather forget - or, rather, forget select portions - such as having to negotiate vertigo-inducing "via ferrata" in Italy's Dolomite Mountains.

For those who've never done (or even considered) a multi-day hiking, biking, cross-country skiing trek, you might wonder what's the appeal?  For me, it means focusing in on the simple things in life: food, shelter and good company.

These are just a few of the things I discussed in an interview with Don Nadeau, President of Bidon Travel

You'll learn about my favorite hikes, what other adventures are on my list, some of my favorite adventure tour operators, what travel experience related to my degree in Eastern Religion, under-the-radar gems in Spain, why I adore visiting Israel, my favorite parks and gardens around the world, and much more.

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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Zurich's Postcard Perfect Urban Wilderness

Ah, a snowy Sunday in Zurich. With so many shops closed, what's a Type A person, like myself, to do? Head to the wilderness, of course. And that couldn't be easier in Zurich where Mount Uetliberg, really a set of hills rather than one mountain, rises almost 3,000 feet above sea level. In the winter, it's a playground for sledding, walking, hiking, jogging and mountain biking. In the summer, take sledding  out of the mix and add picnicking.

Taking a train from Zurich's main station to Uetliberg, I shared my car with families and kids toting sleds. The wide open slopes as well as steeper terrain attracts everyone from young kids taking their first gentle sled run to thrill seeking teens.

My plan was a two- to three-hour afternoon hike. One family I met on the train left me with a warning, though: "Every year people get lost because they left the path. Don't leave the trail." Give the expansiveness of this urban wilderness and the vast network of trails snaking through forestland, I had no intention of leaving the path. 

Sticking with the wide paths, I found myself immersed in a true winter wonderland with snow clinging to tree limbs, needles and bushes, and coating rocks and grassy fields. Picnic tables clustered among evergreens, and benches were strategically positioned to provide postcard perfect viewpoints of Lake Zurich and the Alps beyond. Dense woodland alternates with wide open, undulating landscape that's sliced with sled tracks.

Though I didn't bring food for my trek, I found plenty of places to sample Swiss cuisine: whether the cafeteria at the train station where I disembark or other restaurants in the hills, including the glassed-in and uber scenic restaurant of the Uto Kulm Hotel set beside the observation tower (closed in winter) with panoramic views of the city and, on a clear day, Germany. The restaurant's outdoor deck is also where I would be sequestered in the summer.

From this vantage point it's an extremely steep and ice-laden staircase leading to the main walking trail along the ridge. (I only found out much later that this hair-raising situation could've been avoided by bypassing the observation tower and taking a trail that veered to the right.)

At the bottom, I was rewarded with some much needed cheese fondue at Uto Staffel, a restaurant looking out to the snow draped valley and mountains. Down the path, drinking water flows from a fountain made from a hollowed out log.

I shared the path with joggers, mountain bikers, families, couples with walking sticks, and children pulling sleds.Occasionally I'd spot the sign for my destination:
Felsenegg, the location of the cable car that would bring me back down to catch a train from the Adliswil station back to Zurich's main station.

Near the end of my 2.5 hour journey, the landscape  transforms into an even more magical land with the brush at the base of the trees glazed with ice, resembling sparkling dust.

A five-minute walk from the cable car boarding area is a cozy restaurant that serves some yummy mac and cheese, Swiss pancakes with prunes and, of course, the de rigueur apple strudel.

This is a hike that's a must for anyone who wants to experience perhaps one of the most wonderful urban wilderness options around, winter or summer. These photos are a sample of what I found:

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Beauty of Gdansk, Poland

How curious. After I told colleagues that I was planning to make a short visit to Gdansk, Poland, and, overwhelmingly, the opinions ranged from: "Skip Gdansk, it's such an ugly city," to "There's not much there, aside from shipyards and a monument and museum for the Solidarity movement."

I'm glad I didn't pay any attention to these uninformed views. Here are my recommendation based on  what I found:

• Walk the main street to take in the facades and gables bedecked with symbols. One bears the resemblance of Shakespeare because many of his plays were performed in this city during the 17th century.

Justice sits atop a nearby building sits Justice while another is topped with Neptune.

• The Town Hall with its imposing clock tower bears a sundial on its facade. A stop to visit the Red room is a must.

• For panoramic views of the city, climb the 255-foot-high tower of St. Mary's Church.  This is where Bach had once applied to be a cantor. The enormous, 15th century astronomical clock and calendar on the wall is quite complex, revealing phases of the moon, zodiac symbols, and a bell that Adam & Eve ring on the hour.

• Wander narrow Mariacka Street that's lined with mansions displaying gargoyles house amber workshops, artist atelier, cafes and even a lovely library.

• Stroll the riverfront promenade where the new section of the maritime Museum exhibits ship models from around the world and allows the kids to make a tsunami.

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