Mike Pickup

3 POSTS

There is an oft-repeated joke in Norway; a visitor asks a boy if it always rains in Bergen. The boy replies; “I don’t know, I’m only eleven!” Well we can assure you it doesn’t. We awoke in Bergen, the last port on our Norwegian cruise, to warm sunshine, the best weather we experienced during a week that included a force eight gale and thirty foot waves. Yet it was all handled so easily by our cruise ship Emerald Princess that not one cup of coffee was spilled and many guests were unaware of the conditions outside. Our cruise started in Southampton, England. There was a mix of nationalities on board including Americans for whom this was a key element in their European tour. For Londoners like us, however, in less than two hours from leaving home we had located our cabin and were enjoying lunch in the buffet.Photo 1. Cabin Later that day we headed to Vines wine bar in the ship’s central atrium for pre-dinner drinks. No ordinary wine bar, Vines offers guests the choice of Tapas or Sushi to accompany their drinks. We were tempted to stay the evening but we resisted and joined our fellow guests for a substantial dinner.  After a night-cap in Crooners bar it was hardly surprising that we slept soundly. A sea day followed and a chance to relax before getting dressed up for the traditional captain’s welcome party. The next morning, day three, found us moored in Stavanger, a small town (Norway doesn’t do ‘big’) popular with cruise ships. There were three in port that day, moored next to the old town with its quaint pedestrian cobbled streets and white wooden buildings. The new town is only a few minutes away, so there was plenty to do and see, all within walking distance. Photo 7. On the bridge We were unable to leave port that afternoon at our allotted time due to a combination of close proximity of the other ships and strong winds. When we finally left, two hours late, the ship’s master, Captain Martin Stenzel, warned us of heavy weather to come. He was right. Several hours later, sitting in our restaurant on deck five, someone commented that they had ordered fish but didn’t expect to see it swimming past the window! However, Emerald Princess took it calmly and diners even asked the waiters not to close the curtains so that they could enjoy the show nature had put on for us. The next day we arrived in Skjolden, Sognefjord, one of Norway’s longest Fjords that runs deep into the spectacular landscape of towering mountains and high waterfalls. Photo 4. Lom Church Our tour took us inland through the Sognefjell National Park, passed  huge glaciers, despite it being the middle of summer, and over northern Europe’s highest mountain pass to the town of Lom, home to Norway’s second oldest church. Completed in 1158, this wooden structure is in use today and is popular throughout Norway as a wedding venue. Lom also claims to have Norway’s best bakery and many guests felt they just had to sample the produce. Photo 5. Alesund We awoke next day in Alesund. Consisting of seven islands linked by numerous bridges it is often described as the Venice of the North. This busy port and home to the thriving North Sea Oil industry and is also well known for its fishing, primarily cod, and furniture making. In 1904 an unattended candle let to a major fire which destroyed most of the homes. They were rebuilt in the then fashionable Art Deco style, giving the city a unique architectural heritage. Remains of the old buildings were re-assembled so it is also possible to see local homes as they were before the fire. Our last port of call was Bergen. Again small enough to manage on foot, it is noted for its UNESCO Heritage site, the old Hanseatic Wharf of Bryggen with colourful buildings, narrow passageways and historic structures. The famous fish market is also worth a visit. Photo 6 Bryggen Our final day was spent at sea and included a tour of the ship, one of Princess Cruises more popular events. Our group was taken “back stage” to see how things worked. First stop was the bridge where one of the officers on duty explained the controls and navigation to us. Captain Martin Stenzel appeared, relaxed with morning mug of coffee in hand, and was happy to join in the question and answer session. We visited the kitchens to see just how the ship manages to feed meals to over three thousand guests and how food is brought on board, stored and prepared, with every meal cooked to order. We also visited the print shop where two thousand copies of the daily programme are produced, and the photo labs where the hundreds of pictures taken by the ships photographers are processed and printed. Last stop was the engine management room where the chief engineer, supported by a large screen linked to the ship’s control computers, gave us a detailed description of not just the operation of the engines but also the air conditioning, heating, fire control and water management. He told us we were safely drinking tap water that was processed from what had earlier been flushed down the toilet. In fact it was so pure that minerals had to be added to make it taste like the water we were used to. He certainly wasn’t a good salesman for bottled water! Our journey ended with a memorable meal in one of the two speciality restaurants, and after the now traditional night-cap we retired for the final time to our comfortable bed, having made new friends, enjoyed the hospitality that is Emerald Princess together with the unique and spectacular country that is Norway. For more information on Princess Cruises go to www.princess.com

A walking holiday in the second largest country in the world seemed a bit ambitious for beginners, but my wife was keen to go.

Fortunately we weren’t covering the whole country. Our itinerary encompassed Toronto, Quebec and Niagara, some of the highlights of this vast country that is home to only 35 million people, less than the population of California.

So, armed with waterproof jackets (which we didn’t need) and our most comfortable walking shoes, we set off on our adventure.

We had to delay the start of our trip. However, we met up with the rest of the group over dinner in Quebec, caught up on what they had experienced in Montreal and Sacacomie and immediately made new-found friends.

The next morning we boarded our coach to the toughest walk of our trip. A short drive took us to the Jacques-Cartier National Park, 260 square miles of mountains, lakes, rivers and walking trails. Blessed with almost cloudless blue skies, warm sunshine and trees turning to their Fall shades of red and gold, we chatted to our new-found friends as we walked the steep inclines through the forest. As the going got tougher and trails became staircases, conversation ceased and it became a struggle for us two beginners to keep up the pace. Thankfully our guide, Jean-Francois, made regular stops to admire the view and allow us to catch up. Those views were fantastic and well worth the climb, and as the trail started to descend we felt we had already achieved something special.

We stopped at the Visitors Centre and Jean-Francois produced picnic lunches for us all at a spectacular location, right on the water’s edge. It couldn’t have been better.
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Later that day we had some free time to explore the city. Old Quebec has a strong European feel and is the only fortified city in North America north of Mexico. It is divided into the higher and lower towns, the latter being right at the water’s edge of the St Lawrence Seaway and offering moorings to an increasing number of cruise ships. We enjoyed walking along part of the fortification walls and gates that stretch nearly three miles around the edge of the old city. The streets are lined with buildings of great character, none more imposing than the Chateau Frontenac. It claims to be the most photographed hotel in the world and we could see why.

We walked along the boardwalk past the hotel to the Citadel and the Plains of Abraham where, in 1759, the English and French armies, under Generals Wolf and Montcalm, battled it out. The Plains are now a spacious urban park and being right in the City are easily accessible to locals and tourists alike.

After a short flight the following day we found ourselves in Toronto. Originally named York, it changed its name in 1834. Situated on the northern shore of Lake Ontario, towering new skyscrapers and ongoing re-development are evidence of the rapid growth the city is experiencing. Tallest of the structures is the CN Tower and the best way to get an overall view of the city is from its revolving restaurant and viewing platform around 1,150 feet (351m) above the ground. If you are brave enough you can also venture onto the vertigo-inducing glass floor – great for selfies.

Toronto is the commercial hub of Canada and home to the Canadian Stock Exchange as well as its five biggest banks. This contributes to not only a high standard of living but also high housing costs and high-rise accommodation.

The city is culturally diverse with more than 80 ethnic groups. Street signs often proclaim the nationality of the immigrants who built their community there.

However, it’s not all concrete and glass skyscrapers, some older building survive including the famous ‘flat iron’ building and the St Lawrence Market, an indoor market founded in 1803 and full of stalls selling fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. Toronto is also a major Arts centre and boasts theatres, concert halls and galleries as well as the University of Toronto which dates back to 1827.

After two days of city walks we needed some open spaces, and where better than our next destination, Niagara Falls.
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Many people think that the Falls are in a remote area but they are in the city and the hotels are in walking distance. There are in fact three falls that flow into the Niagara River which forms a natural boundary between Canada and the US, but the Canadian falls, the Horseshoe Falls, are the biggest. The other two falls are the American falls and the much smaller Bridal Veil falls, separated from the American falls by Luna Island, a mere 130ft (40m) wide. All three falls are best viewed from the Canadian side but recent passport controls have reduced the number of people walking or driving over the Rainbow Bridge that links the two countries.

The area along the waterfront consists of well manicured gardens and smart hotels but just behind this area, downtown Niagara Falls and particularly the Clifton Hill area, looks more like an amusement park with a range of attractions, lower priced accommodation and eateries catering for families. Attractions such as the upside down house, Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum and several wax works can keep kids, young and old, amused for hours.

No visit to Niagara would be complete without a boat ride into the whirlpool at the foot of the Horseshoe Falls. All passengers are provided with hooded plastic ponchos to help keep out the water which, as you get closer to the falls, feels more like driving rain. It is from the foot of the Horseshoe Falls, cascading half a million gallons of water a second into the Niagara River, that you really appreciate the might of the second largest waterfall in the world.
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Whilst the Falls are the central attraction, the area boasts numerous vineyards, many of which are happy to welcome visitors in the hope that you might buy a bottle or two. There is also the famous Welland Canal, allowing cargo ships to sail between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, its seven locks allow ships to navigate the Niagara Escarpment which, in 1990, was designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. It is part of a network of canals linking the Great Lakes that allows cargo from both Canada and US cities like Detroit and Chicago to reach ocean-going vessels at ports such as Montreal and Quebec.

Nearby townships such as Niagara on the Lake and Jordan provide picturesque places to visit and the nearby Balls Falls Conservation Area, one of the earliest settlements in this part of Canada, includes the Grist Mill dating back to 1809 and St George Church, built in 1864.

Our final walk was along part of the famous Bruce Trail. The trail follows the Niagara Escarpment for over 500 miles (800km) and is the longest marked trail in Canada. It’s paths and bridges are maintained by a number of clubs that have sprung up along its route. For many hikers around the world it ranks as a ‘must do’ trail.
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This is just a slice of what Canada has to offer, from big modern cities to wide open plains, forests and mountains. One thing all the places had in common, however, was the warmth and friendliness of Canadians themselves who, from the assistant in a local Subway to the staff at the smart city hotels, were genuinely pleased to see us, happy to help and keen to hear about our experiences in their great country. We had walked many miles along trails, sometimes steep and rocky, along canals and through cities; we had enjoyed great exercise, fresh air and making new friends with our fellow hikers. Truly a trip to remember.
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For more information on this and other walking holidays around the world, go to www.hfholidays.co.uk, email info@hfholidays.co.uk or contact their US partners Fugazi Travel Agency Inc, email info@fugazitravel.com tel: (415) 393 1588.

Just 51 miles long and 35 miles wide, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is one of the smallest countries in the world, yet it has all the ingredients of a large country, from modern euro-city to wooded countryside.

Confusingly Luxembourg is the name of the capital city as well as the country, but more of that later.

Our base for the trip was the picture-perfect village of Vianden, thirty miles from the capital and just six miles from the border with Germany. Its main attraction is a gloriously theatrical medieval castle perched on an outcrop overlooking the town. The castle has been the subject of considerable renovation and is well worth the walk up the steep streets or, in summer, a ride on the chairlift.

A great centre for touring on foot, bicycle, car or coach, it is famous for the nut market, usually held on the second Sunday in October. This celebrates the area’s history of walnut production. At one time, a fifth of all Luxembourg’s walnut trees grew in Vianden`s orchards. Now all kinds of walnut based products are on sale at the market including, walnut milk, walnut confectionary, walnut cheese, walnut bread, walnut sausages and (the very potent) walnut liquors and brandy. Indeed, these are so potent that all leave is cancelled at the nearest hospital and a fleet of ambulances stands at the ready on the edge of the village, which is closed to traffic during the event.

French author Victor Hugo stayed in Vianden on several occasions between 1862 and 1871 and during those times was inspired to record its beauty and setting in poetry and prose. In modern day PR terms, Hugo did a good job of promoting Vianden’s attractions to the outside world.
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Less than an hour’s drive brought us to the capital, Luxembourg City, which evolved from a 10th century fortress on a rocky promontory with steep drops to the river below. We had a guided tour of the sights including the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall). Originally a monastery for Franciscan Monks, it was re-modelled in 1838 for its current purpose.
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Another building worth seeing is the Grand Ducal Palace, a modest chateau and official residence of Grand Duke Henri, the reigning monarch. It is guarded by a single soldier, a reflection perhaps that this city is renowned for its safety. It is also a great place for some retail therapy but ladies would do well to forget the heels and wear flat shoes, the cobblestones can be hard to negotiate otherwise.

Luxembourg is well known as a world banking centre and home to the European Court of Justice. This part of the city is built across a bridge on another plateau and full of modern glass and concrete edifices. It was interesting to take a look but there is so much more this country has to offer.

The Moselle river forms a natural 25 mile natural boundary between Luxembourg and Germany and we hopped over to the ancient town of Trier, arguably Germany’s oldest city and dating back to the first century BC. It contains many fascinating buildings from its Roman past, perhaps none more spectacular than the ‘Porta Nigra’ or black gate, which was built around 200 AD.
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The banks of the Moselle contain many vineyards, the main product of which is Riesling, for which Luxembourg is famous. Some of this wine is turned into a smooth sparkling wine called Cremant, using the ‘methode champenoise’. We visited a vineyard, saw the wines being produced and were offered generous samples. The locals are very hospitable. It was a good job we were on a coach trip!

Just when you think this little country has run out of surprises, up pops another. On our way back from the vineyards we drove through an area called Little Switzerland. No, it doesn’t have any mountains, just some rocky outcrops, woodland and a much photographed waterfall.
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It’s a great place to enjoy the fresh air while crunching along the woodland trails, or for the more adventurous, hiking or mountain biking. The Perekop rock is almost 130 ft high, overhangs the road and daredevils can take the staircase carved out of a narrow crevice in the rock to its summit. Watch out if you are driving!
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For such a small country, Luxembourg really does pack in a wide variety of attractions and scenery and, despite being bordered by the much larger France, Germany and Belgium, it is proud of its individuality. The country’s motto is, ‘Mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir sin’ (‘We want to remain what we are’). A strong motto for a small land, but then the Grand Duchy is very much its own country.

For more information, visit www.luxembourg.com