Monday, 25 May 2015

John Wayne museum may prove fast on the draw

Iowa might be a bit off the beaten track - but lovers of Western movies may now be tempted to make pilgrimages there. From Stagecoach and Red River to True Grit and The Shootist, the 50 year career of Marion Robert Morrison - aka John Wayne - is celebrated at a new museum which has just opened there. The museum is in the town of his birth, Winterset, Madison County. The county is famous for its covered bridges, which gave their name to another film in which Big John did not star. On show will be memorabilia including original film posters and outfits the Duke wore on screen.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Newcastle - New York flights take off

Non stop flights from Newcastle to New York took off for the first time today. United Airlines will operate five times round trips a week to and from Newark, New Jersey, an alternative to JF Kennedy Airport as a gateway to the Big Apple. The service will run until September 7. David Laws, Newcastle Airport chief executive says the flights have not only proved popular with passengers heading for New York itself but to destinations across the US - from Boston to San Francisco. His staff have also been working with partners in the US to promote travel to the North East of England, Cumbria and North Yorkshire. Newcastle is a convenient jumping off point for Americans who have already done London and are keen to see areas such as the Northumberland coast and the Holy Island of  Lindisfarne, the Lake District and the North Yorks Moors.

Hermione - Lafayette ship reborn - nears Virginia

Hermione, the ship that sailed "like a bird" according to the Marquis de Lafayette, is scheduled to make landfall in Yorktown, Virginia, less than two weeks from now. Her astonishing replica, that is, built in France and now recreating a voyage made 245 years ago. She set sail last month from Port des Barques, at the mouth of the River Charente, where Lafayette departed in 1780 after persuading the French King Louis XV1 to back the cause of American independence.

Like the original, the reconstructed, three masted frigate was built in the former Royal Dockyard at Rochefort in the French Poitou-Charentes region. She measures more than 200 feet and has a mainmast towering 177ft above the bottom of the hull. Built of oak from French forests, she deploys 16,000 square feet of sail. One tonne oft oakum was needed for the caulking. Twenty six canon were installed.

The ship is due in Yorktown from June 5 -7. After that she will sail up the north east coast of the United States, calling at Mount Vernon, Alexandria and Annapolis (all in Virginia), Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York Greenpot (NY) Newport (Rhode Island), Boston, Castine in Maine and finally to Canada and Luneburg in Nova Scotia. Dates and full details can be found on the project website. The Hermione will be back in Rochefort at the end of August.

Friday, 22 May 2015

BA flights to Kuala Lumpur set to start

British Airways  will start flying direct to Kuala Lumpur again on Wednesday (May 27). The airline last operated the route in 2001. It  will operate daily flights to the Malaysian capital from Heathrow's Terminal 5,  using extended range Boeing 777-200 aircraft with first, business, premium economy and economy cabins. Outbound flights will depart at 8.15pm, arriving 12hrs 45mins later at 4pm local time. London-bound services will leave at 11.05pm, arriving at 5.25am next morning. BA has a long history of flying Malaysia. It first operated to the then Malaya as Imperial Airways from Croydon Airport in 1933 The flight made 22 stops on the way to Alor Star (now Alor Setar). Its inaugural service to Kuala Lumpur was in 1956 - outbound by Canadair Argonaut in 1956, back by Lockheed Constellation.

More than a pinch of salt: must see in Krakow

Going down a salt mine may sound like a dour, take it or leave it experience. But if you get the opportunity to visit the Wieliczca mine near Krakow in Poland, take it. You won’t regret it. Trust me   this is one of Europe’s most riveting attractions.

And if you’re there on June 7 your visit will coincide with the Salt Festival. The Saltworks Castle courtyard will become a medieval town centre. The history of salt and its present uses will be explored. There will be salt evaporation demonstrations, beer brewing and rope making workshops.

The Wieliczca mine was among the first sites to be accorded World Heritage status. It produced salt from the 13th century until the 1990s and has been open to tourists for over 200 years.

Salt was once brought to the surface by a lift system powered by horses plodding in a circle. The walls of its galleries glisten with salt. There are underground lakes in which visitors floated until a accident persuaded a switch to boats on rails laid beneath the water. There’s even a chapel made entirely of salt – altar, reliefs, floor tiles, everything.

Among its celebrity visitors have been the German polymath Goethe and the composer Chopin. That latter may have come because his respiratory problems. The air in the mine is full of micro elements. There’s a rehabilitation and treatment centre 135 metres down where people come to exercise and breathe it.

British Airways recently launched a new service from Heathrow to Krakow.

French Canada - where a foodie gold strike is always on the cards

For foodies, Quebec is full of surprises. I had come to expect the innovative and delicious in the capital of French Canada, where there so many good restaurants you could stay a week and barely scratch the surface. But now I know you may also strike gold in the boondocks. So it was in Tadoussac.

Tadoussac is some three hours’ drive from Quebec City along the north bank of the wide St. Lawrence river, navigated so brilliantly by Wolfe’s fleet in 1759, and a short car ferry ride across the mouth of the Saguenay Fjord.

It’s well established on the tourist map. The orginal Tadoussac Hotel, opened in 1864, not long after the future King Edward VII was carried to safety when caught out by the tide while salmon fishing on the nearby Sainte Marguerite river. The hotel’s more recent, red roofed incarnation is still the town’s centerpiece. Visitors come for the whale watching and some, like us, for the walking.

We combined both at Baie Ste Marguerite, not far from where the King got into trouble, in the Sagenay Fjord park. Well, we think we did. You can see the glinting backs of beluga whales from a look out platform there, though it can be to distinguish them from the whitecaps of chopped waves. This is the southernmost concentration of the mammals, whose ancestors became isolated from their Arctic cousins some 8000 years ago at the end of the Ice Age. 

Hiking high above the fjord I disturbed a bull moose, complete with majestic antlers, browsing by the trail. Before I could alert my companions it took fright, clattering off into the forest, defying our prolonged attempts to track it down.

A little further up the St Lawrence from Tadoussac we descended a mighty sand dune and hiked back to town on the shore. The receptionist at the small hotel where we stayed had checked that the tide would be out. It was a walk of only about one hour but was memorable. The wind whipped our faces, rock pools shimmered on the sand and shingle.

Fresh air and exertion sharpened the appetite for a second visit to Chez Mathilde. 
A couple of nights earlier we had eaten there by chance. At first we were turned away (it pays to book) but having found nowhere else that had space or took our fancy we returned later, when a table had become free. It proved a worthwhile wait. My starter of lobster.  shrimp and yellow beet, topped with smoked salmon was followed by a wild mushroom risotto so wonderful it had me purring with delight. My enjoyment was heightened when I asked the waiter to identify the fungus: two kinds of chanterelle and pieds de mouton, known in the UK as hedgehog mushrooms, she replied without a moment's hesitation.

Other visitors have praised the crab, the lobster, the steak and stuffed quail. Me? After that hike by the St Lawrence I insisted we went back - just so I could eat that risotto again. 

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Where to walk near Calais - a wetland walk in Northern France

The Marais Audomarois, said a friend who explored it with us, was a landscape he didn’t know existed.  Tourists tend to drive straight past it en route for more dramatic French scenery. It’s their loss. This flat wetland near St Omer, a hop and a skip from Calais, is a fascinating place to take a boat trip – or go walking.

A flat expanse of fields, canals and lagoons, its was drained and made habitable as log ago as the 10th century, mainly by monks. Its early inhabitants, known as Brouckaillers, dug pea. Over 50 different vegetables are now grown there, including cauliflowers and winter endive. Already designated an area of importance under the international RAMSAR convention, it was recognized as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 2013.

The impressive looking visitor centre in St Martin au Laert, whose recent opening I have already reported, turned out to be a disappointment. It's a good starting point for guided boat trips but staff couldn’t provide details of hiking routes. There was an exhibition, but you had to pay to get in and they told us it would take an hour. How many visitors would react as we did, I wondered It was a gorgeous morning and we wanted to take a quick look before getting out into the spring air again. 

Windmill by the visitor centre

We parked at La Grange Nature, near the village of Clairmarais. There’s a cafĂ© where you can get something to eat – and a beer at the end of the walk. But if you’re looking to buy a picnic, best stop at a boulangerie on the road from St Omer, a few kilometres away. There’s also a small shop.

Walking tracks are well marked but we took IGN map 2302 O for reassurance, starting on the Sentier de la Cuvette, a 16 kilometre route in the Romelare natural reserve, but eventually playing it by ear. Mostly we walked on paths by canals or along gravel tracks under skies of East Anglian proportions and between pastures which might have been painted by Dutch landscape artists. 

Of some 200 species of birds we spotted only a few – grey heron, lapwings, moorhens with chicks, a stonechat and a chiff chaff on telephone wires. Skylarks and reed warblers were heard but not seen. Hawthorn was in spectacular blossom. Verges were splashed with buttercups, thick with comfrey. The water was blotted with lily pads, their flowers yet to emerge, noisy with frogs.

This was easy walking, punctuated by a lunch of thick cut ham and a baguette in the shade of an oak tree.  The countryside was so flat that even the slightest rise was a topic of conversation. The only minor difficulty was managing a small ferry boat – secured to both banks by a chain – across a small canal. 

Save for a few fishermen, a lonely tractor driver harrowing and a group of schoolchildren sketching, we saw hardly anyone.  A few minutes away,  at the end of the afternoon, we were plungd into the crawling traffic of the St Omer rush hour. It seemed an abrupt change of worlds.