A Travellerspoint blog

Alaska

My Alaska Itinerary was 5 days because I was saving vacation days for trip to India. Flew in to Anchorage and drove to Seward. Went on Ididaride.com sled dog trip.
Next day took a day long boat tour to Northwestern Glacier and drove back to Anchorage that evening. Along the boat tour we saw sea lions, otters, birds. We saw glacier calving. Check on the web as to which month is good for whale watching in Alaska. I think it might be June-July.
Third day took the train from Anchorage to Denali. Train path has much better scenery than road. The Alaska railroad engineers took the trouble of creating tracks that show some great scenery. In comparison, from the bus we took coming back I couldn't tell whether I was in Alaska or Wisconsin (except Talkeetna lodge). Stayed at Crows Nest in Denali which gave a cottage atmosphere - I thought Princess Lodge would have been better organized but more like a large hotel made of logs. I'd recommend taking the train to Denali and returning by bus. The Talkeetna lodge had a spectacular view of the Alaskan mountain range.
Day four took shuttle into Denali park upto Wonder lake round trip. There is a 2.5 mile trek to the lake itself which on a clear day provides the opportunity to film your family in front of the reflection of Denali in the lake - I did not do the trek. Day Five took an early morning coach from Denali to Anchorage with a stop at Talkeetna lodge - excellent spot for some great pictures of the Alaskan range. The bus dropped us off at Anchorage Museum. After spending a few hours there we took a cab to the airport. I called Alaskatravel.com for some tips and some reservations.
The Denali (Mt McKinley) is sometimes called the shy mountain. We were told only 20% of tourists get to see it without clouds. We took the first shuttle bus into the park and were lucky to get half hour before the clouds developed. I was told early morning is the best time for clear views. You can achieve that one of three ways. (1) Camping - make reservations. (2)There is a lodge inside the park - Kantishna Roadhouse - pricey and booked about a year in advance. (3) if you are in the mood to drive a lot - rent an RV at Anchorage,
drive to Seward then drive to Denali, then further to Fairbanks. Return the RV at Fairbanks and take the train back to Anchorage. That will be a lot of driving. If you have nerves of steel you can drive the RV to the Wonder Lake RV Campground - hilly road - maintain speed limit, avoid distractions. Sleep in the RV camp, watch the mountain for a couple of hours in morning then take the shuttle out for animal watching (remember you were focusing on the road while driving the RV).
If you have more time and budget you can fly to Barrow for polar bears. Check on the web as to which months are best for that. Barrow is also the place for Aurora Borealis (Northern lights). However that is in colder months. You can't get that as well as good weather for the rest in the same trip.
In August we needed a winter jacket for the boat trip to the glacier. Until July you will need a strong mosquito repellent. Rain pants will save your vacation if you encounter rain (it is an arctic rain forest technically).
Feel free to call me if you have any questions.

Posted by sgarje 19:43 Archived in USA Tagged alaska Comments (0)

Switzerland 2014

2nd leg of our trip of Paris and Switzerland

sunny 16 °C

Switzerland's train system is almost a rectangle. Most people do the top side of the rectangle - land in Geneva, Jungfrau, Titlis, Lucerne, may be Rigi, then fly out of Zurich. We were interested in taking the Glacier Express because we had liked the train we had taken in Alaska. So we did the other three sides of the rectangle.

I purchased the Swiss Rail pass (which is valid on the Glacier Express, except you need to pay a small reservation fee). Kids travel free on Swiss Rail Pass with what is known as Family Card. Once again allow time for shipping if you want to avoid the hassle of buying it there. We reached Geneva from Paris at 9:30 PM. It was 9:45 PM by the time we reached Hotel Edelweiss. The hotel owner asked the restaurant staff to accommodate us although the kitchen was closing at 10 PM. The restaurant had good choices - Fondue, candied potatoes. The hotel and the rooms were great with a log cabin atmosphere. The four bed cabin was quite large even by American standards, not just European. My family loved the room.

Day 1: Geneva: Took a tram to the United Nations. The tour entrance is behind the building, follow the crowd, although the entire crowd still had to ask for directions. After the tour was over, we took a tram back to the train station. Lunch at the restaurant in Hotel Le Montbrillant, Geneve (right behind the station). The scallops pasta was excellent. We asked them to pack three chicken sandwiches for dinner that evening on the train to be picked up at 5:30 PM. They did an excellent job with that too - packing the chicken, the bun and the fries in separate compartments so they were not soggy at 7:00 PM. After lunch we took a boat ride on Geneva lake. It is included in the Swiss Rail Pass, but you need to get tickets at the ticket office. The boat ride was from 1:30 PM to 3:00 PM. Took a train from Geneva to Zermatt in the evening. Stayed at Hotel Sunstar Style. I had booked the room with the Matterhorn view. These rooms are about $20 extra. In addition to the view, these rooms have showers rather than tubs. One idiosyncracy about this hotel (may be hotels in Switzerland) is that the shower or tub is right in the bedroom with at most a clear glass door. So kids have to go to the balcony or lobby when you are using the shower. This hotel, the staff, the restaurant and room was also excellent. No complaints. The shower was so great, we got a similar one installed in our bathroom when we returned. We ate dinner at the restaurant in the hotel.

Day 2: Zermatt: Free breakfast at the hotel Sunstar Style.
Took the electric mini-bus to Matterhorn Glacier Paradise gondola station http://www.zermatt.ch/en/mountain-experiences/Excursions-Mountains. I had booked the tickets in advance because there was a discount if purchased along with the Galcier Express reservation. Took the gondola to the top, then visited the glacier palace. On the way back on the gondola stopped at Schwarzsee (highly recommended). There is a picnic area and a restaurant (chicken tikka masala) at this stop. http://www.schwarzsee-zermatt.ch/. You get 270 degree view of the mountain range from the picnic area or the outdoor seating. Takes the phrase "do you want to sit outside" to a new elevation. Encountered a drizzle as we were finishing our lunch. Back in the town of Zermatt, we took the funicular to Sunnega (Sunnega Express). Did a quarter of the 5-Seenweg tour http://www.zermatt.ch/en/hiking. Took a train to Gornergrat, spent an hour there and took the last train back. Dinner at Restaurant Molino in Zermatt http://molino.ch/en/restaurants/zermatt.html

Day 3: Glacier Express to St Moritz: Early morning checked in large bags at the Zermat station to be delivered at Zurich Airport http://www.sbb.ch/en/station-services/services/baggage/fast-baggage.html and http://www.sbb.ch/en/station-services/services/baggage/fly-rail-baggage.html. Boarded the Glacier Express to St. Moritz. Purchased lunch and snacks on the train. Took loads of pictures and videos. Hint: hold the camera as close to the window glass as possible (when you don't have subjects in the foreground of course). Reached St. Moritz about 4:30 PM. Checked in to Hotel Soldanella. Pros: Great lake view from room window (extra charge), restaurant had good food, centrally located in town. Cons: carpet smelled of cigarette smoke but was fine after we left the window open for a couple of hours when we went out, bathroom fixtures "antique" (a slight move and the water temperature changed drastically, after a delay. Spent 2 minutes getting the temp right), shuttle had a charge. We walked around the town, shopped, took pictures, waited out the rain, ate at the restaurant within the hotel - the pasta was tasty.

Day 4: Lucerne: Breakfast at the hotel and again packed a sandwich for lunch. We took an 8 AM train from St. Moritz to Lucerne. Took a steamer from Lucerne to Fluelen http://www.lakelucerne.ch/en/timetables-fares/seasonal-timetables.html. I think it was the 2 PM ferry. The reason I chose lake Lucerne is because I think it offers a variety of vistas - as the boat changes direction according to the shape of the lake, the scenery changes - from small villages perched on hill slopes, to steep granite hills rising on the lake shore. (If I had another day, I would probably have added a stop at Rigi). We took a train from Fluelen to Zurich, then another train to Zurich airport. Picked up the bags from the SBB counter at Zurich airport and boarded our flight back.

Posted by sgarje 11:51 Archived in Switzerland Comments (0)

Switzerland 2014

2nd leg of our trip of Paris and Switzerland

sunny 16 °C

Switzerland's train system is almost a rectangle. Most people do the top side of the rectangle - land in Geneva, Jungfrau, Titlis, Lucerne, may be Rigi, then fly out of Zurich. We were interested in taking the Glacier Express because we had liked the train we had taken in Alaska. So we did the other three sides of the rectangle.

I purchased the Swiss Rail pass (which is valid on the Glacier Express, except you need to pay a small reservation fee). Kids travel free on Swiss Rail Pass with what is known as Family Card. http://www.eurail.com/destinations/switzerland#trainpasses, https://www.sbb.ch/en/leisure-holidays/holidays--short-breaks-in-switzerland/swisstravelsystem.html, http://www.swisstravelsystem.com/en/passes/swiss-family-card.html. Once again allow time for shipping if you want to avoid the hassle of buying it there. We reached Geneva from Paris at 9:30 PM. It was 9:45 PM by the time we reached Hotel Edelweiss. The hotel owner asked the restaurant staff to accommodate us although the kitchen was closing at 10 PM. The restaurant had good choices - Fondue, candied potatoes. The hotel and the rooms were great with a log cabin atmosphere. The four bed cabin was quite large even by American standards, not just European. My family loved the room.

Day 1: Geneva: Took a tram to the United Nations. The tour entrance is behind the building, follow the crowd, although the entire crowd still had to ask for directions. After the tour was over, we took a tram back to the train station. Lunch at the restaurant in Hotel Le Montbrillant, Geneve (right behind the station). The scallops pasta was excellent. We asked them to pack three chicken sandwiches for dinner that evening on the train to be picked up at 5:30 PM. They did an excellent job with that too - packing the chicken, the bun and the fries in separate compartments so they were not soggy at 7:00 PM. After lunch we took a boat ride on Geneva lake. It is included in the Swiss Rail Pass, but you need to get tickets at the ticket office. The boat ride was from 1:30 PM to 3:00 PM. Took a train from Geneva to Zermatt in the evening. Stayed at Hotel Sunstar Style. I had booked the room with the Matterhorn view. These rooms are about $20 extra. In addition to the view, these rooms have showers rather than tubs. One idiosyncracy about this hotel (may be hotels in Switzerland) is that the shower or tub is right in the bedroom with at most a clear glass door. So kids have to go to the balcony or lobby when you are using the shower. This hotel, the staff, the restaurant and room was also excellent. No complaints. The shower was so great, we got a similar one installed in our bathroom when we returned. We ate dinner at the restaurant in the hotel.

Day 2: Zermatt: Free breakfast at the hotel Sunstar Style.
Took the electric mini-bus to Matterhorn Glacier Paradise gondola station http://www.zermatt.ch/en/mountain-experiences/Excursions-Mountains. I had booked the tickets in advance because there was a discount if purchased along with the Galcier Express reservation. Took the gondola to the top, then visited the glacier palace. On the way back on the gondola stopped at Schwarzsee (highly recommended). There is a picnic area and a restaurant (chicken tikka masala) at this stop. http://www.schwarzsee-zermatt.ch/. You get 270 degree view of the mountain range from the picnic area or the outdoor seating. Takes the phrase "do you want to sit outside" to a new elevation. Encountered a drizzle as we were finishing our lunch. Back in the town of Zermatt, we took the funicular to Sunnega (Sunnega Express). Did a quarter of the 5-Seenweg tour http://www.zermatt.ch/en/hiking. Took a train to Gornergrat, spent an hour there and took the last train back. Dinner at Restaurant Molino in Zermatt http://molino.ch/en/restaurants/zermatt.html

Day 3: Glacier Express to St Moritz: Early morning checked in large bags at the Zermat station to be delivered at Zurich Airport http://www.sbb.ch/en/station-services/services/baggage/fast-baggage.html and http://www.sbb.ch/en/station-services/services/baggage/fly-rail-baggage.html. Boarded the Glacier Express to St. Moritz. Purchased lunch and snacks on the train. Took loads of pictures and videos. Hint: hold the camera as close to the window glass as possible (when you don't have subjects in the foreground of course). Reached St. Moritz about 4:30 PM. Checked in to Hotel Soldanella. Pros: Great lake view from room window (extra charge), restaurant had good food, centrally located in town. Cons: carpet smelled of cigarette smoke but was fine after we left the window open for a couple of hours when we went out, bathroom fixtures "antique" (a slight move and the water temperature changed drastically, after a delay. Spent 2 minutes getting the temp right), shuttle had a charge. We walked around the town, shopped, took pictures, waited out the rain, ate at the restaurant within the hotel - the pasta was tasty.

Posted by sgarje 11:51 Archived in Switzerland Comments (0)

Paris 2014

First leg of my trip to Paris and Switzerland

sunny 26 °C

This is a 3-day visit to Paris. Prior to leaving for Paris I purchased the Paris Pass. I bought the 4-day pass but if you plan carefully a two day pass should be enough (saves $50). Buy the Paris Pass 2 to 3 weeks in advance to allow for shipping. Note that most museums in Paris are closed on Monday.
Day 0: Arrived about 4 PM on a Tuesday, took a cab to the hotel (about 70 Euros). I stayed at Hotel de la Paix Eiffel which was a 5 minute walk from the Eiffel Tower. This way we visited the Eiffel tower all three days we were in Paris. The metro station Ecole Militaire is a 5 minute walk. It was a clean no-frills hotel. The staff was friendly. Rooms were small like most hotels in Paris. However, that was fine because we were in the room only to sleep and shower. It's not so bad once you place your suitcases by the window and on the table and use the closet for other bags. The staff was very friendly. The elevator was small - one person and one suitcase at a time. They converted the stair case landing into an elevator, hence you have to carry your bags about 5 curving stairs. You need at least one agile person in your group for that. Its a no frills hotel hence there is no breakfast included. Walked over to Ponte Neuf bridge, then to Eiffel Tower. Then took the boat cruise on Sienne. The boat tour Batteaux Parisian included in the Paris Pass leaves from across the Eiffel Tower. Ate at an Italian Restaurant. You can get restaurant recommendations from something like Rick Steve's Paris (book). I found the site visitacity.com very useful for planning the sight seeing in Paris.

Day 1: we took the Fat Tire tour to Versaille. I had purchased the tickets for this and their Eiffel Tower tour before leaving for Paris. Walked across the Eiffel Tower to their office. The tour group took a train to Versaille. Upon reaching Versaille, we purchased some bread, cheese, meat, salads and wine at the local market. The bike tour in the grounds of Versaille was both enjoyable and informative. Learned a little bit about the French Revolution. We had lunch picnic by the canal with the Versaille palace in the background. We spent 2 PM to 4 PM inside the palace, then took a train to Musee de Orsay metro stop and walked to the Louvre. Normally, after the bike tour of Versaille, you should either call it a night or do something like the boat tour which does not require walking or standing. The Paris Pass saved us about 15 minutes here. We spent a couple of hours in Louvre because the Louvre is open until 9:30 PM on Wed and Fridays. The Mona Lisa exhibit is very crowded during normal hours. As you get past 8 PM the crowd is much less. We went to the Mona Lisa about 8 PM, the crowd was only one person deep. We were able to get pictures from both sides. Parisian's will say that the walk from the Musee de Orsay metro stop to Louvre is an easy walk - that may be true for a person sitting all day at the office, not for a family that already walked or biked around all day. Bike Taxi (aka Cycle Rickshaw) is an option although you need to bargain.

Day 2: My family was so tired from the previous day that they woke up at 11:30 AM on Day 3 (Thursday). After a brunch Crepes and bread we started at 1 PM. Took the metro from Ecole Militaire to Concorde. After visiting the obelisk and Toloures garden, we walked along Champs Elyses and reached the Arc de Triomphe about 3:30 PM. We went up the Arc, then took a train to the Eiffel Tower. Our Fat Tire Eiffel Tower tour was at 5:30 PM because I wanted to get both day and night view. The Fat Tire tour saved us about 45 mins. Once again the tour guide gave us a good background on the history of Paris and France. The skip the line benefit of the tour was useful. The skip the line is only to the 2nd floor. The wait for the top of the Eiffel Tower was quite long so we decided not to go to the top. Instead we walked along the Sienne, then had dinner and returned to the Eiffel Tower by 9:30 PM. We watched the Eiffel Tower being lit up at 10:PM (every hour on the top of the hour after dusk until 1 AM. Dusk was at 9:45 PM in June).

Day 3: Our train (the TGV) from Paris to Geneva was at 6:12 PM from Gare de Lyon. We took a cab about 9 AM from the hotel to Gare de Lyon. Dropped off our bags at the Consigne (lockers). As you enter the station turn left and walk a little bit until you see the sign with a yellow suitcase and the word Consigne next to it. Follow that path. There is also a sign on the right side as soon as you enter the station - I would advise against taking that. That path goes along the loading dock where you have to jump across some sewer waste (not pretty). After storing our bags in the lockers we took a cab to the Notre Dame. You can walk 10 mins across the bridge and take a train. We were wasting some time trying to get directions for that, hence we just cabbed it. The line at the Notre Dame was long but it moved quickly, it was not bad. The Notre Dame is free (the Paris Pass is not a help - no skip the line here). After spending an hour at the Notre Dame, we took a cab to Louvre. We had lunch at the cafeteria in the Louvre. We left Louvre at 4:30 PM a good 102 minutes prior to the scheduled departure. Every single cab that passed by was occupied. We kept walking towards the Musee de Orsay metro stop while looking for cabs all along. No luck, we just reached Musee de Orsay on foot. We took a train to Paris Austerlitz metro stop, walked 10 mins across the bridge to Gare de Lyon. We were now cutting it close due to the rush hour taxi fiasco. We were sprinting a few minutes and fast walking a few minutes trying to locate the lockers and pick the bags. The Consignes are near Hall 3 (that tip should save you time because the signs for Hall 3 are more prominent than the Consigne signs). We reached the Hall 3 with our bags at 5:50 PM, just 22 minutes prior to departure. To our astonishment the platform # for our 6:12 train was not yet announced. The announcement came at 6 PM and the train left about 6:14 PM. When I had checked the Eurail site they showed some chicken sandwiches on the TGV menu - no such luck on the actual train. the only sandwiches on the train were pork and Pretzel bun sandwiches. The train route was initially through the plains of France then as we approached Geneva we got a glimpse of some mountains, lakes and valleys. It was coincidental that France and Switzerland were playing in the Futbol World Cup while we were on the train from Paris to Geneva. The conductor was announcing the score on ever goal. By the time we reached Geneva France was leading 2-0. You could tell most of the staff on the train was French :-) We reached Geneva about 9:30PM. Reached the hotel about 9:55PM, The hotel owner made a special request to the restaurant staff because most restaurant kitchens close at 10 PM for dinner menus.

Posted by sgarje 22:32 Archived in France Tagged paris culture history Comments (0)

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