Thursday, 24 September 2015

Alm crossings: hiking in Salzburgerland

It was one of those moments on a hike that lives long in the memory. The morning had dawned grey and wet. The mountains across the valley from our hotel were obscured by a low fringe of thick cloud. We donned waterproofs - jackets and over trousers - in anticipation of a losing battle to keep out the rain. But after perhaps an hour slogging uphill there came a sense, barely perceptible, that the weather was changing. Beads of water on the ferns and overhanging pines began to glisten. We could hear the cattle long before we could see them, the melodic bells, the champing of grass. Then, suddenly, the cloud evaporated. The Alpine landscape was bathed in a soft, diffused light, brightening to sharp sunlight. Ahead of us stretched the imposing grey rampart of the Mandelwand and its highest summit, the Hochkonig. We walked on for lunch at the Arthurhaus, a restaurant where German officers had sought refuge as the Seconnd World War drew to its conclusion and where, while skiing some decades earlier, I had heard the resident dog hold its daily conversation with an echo from the mountains above. The Arthurhaus is one of the largest of a string of Almen, usually small eateries along the trail, mostly run by farmers whose cows, for example, provide milk for the cheese. There you may sit at an outside table and recharge the batteries with Gulaschsuppe or perhaps a Brettlejause - cold cuts, cheese and gherkin,served on a wooden board - and a beer.

At an Alm
There are so many of these huts that is easy to plan a walk around them. Star hike that week was from the Dientner Sattel (saddle) back to our hotel above the resort of Muhlbach in Austria's Salzburg province. We caught the bus to the start of the route, climbing first to an Alm, the Erichhutte, lingering over coffee on a sunny terrace overlooking the valley.

A little later than anticipated after that indulgence we struck out on a path which followed the contour at the foot of the mountain wall, crossing an occasional chaos of scree and always with superb views to our right, until it was time to troop down over grassy meadows for lunch at yet another Alm. There was more of the same terrain in the afternoon - until it was time to turn off and head down a narrow and traffic free road towards our hotel, the Bergheimat, which I plan to review later.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Heathrow shambles

A triumph of disorganisation at Heathrow's Terminal 3. Arrived on Virgin flights 12 from Boston this morning at around 9.15. Picked up the second of two checked bags nearly 90 minutes later - at 10.42 am. A small but irritating delay getting the air bridge to the aircraft. Utter confusion reigned in the immigration hall. UK passport holders appeared to be queuing with non EU travellers. There was nobody on hand to sort out the mess. At least the electronic passport and facial recognition equipment was working efficiently. And there was no explanation why the luggage took so long to appear on the carousel. "Almost as long as the flight", mused one passenger. Bags went around with nobody to claim them. Nobody appeared to offer help. What a first impression we create. It was nothing short of a disgrace. Time was when we moaned about long delays negotiating US immigration. Compared with Heathrow's performance today, getting through formalities on arrival at Boston's Logan airport had been as greased lightning. ESTA holders were guided straight to passport readers which asked us all the usual immigration questions, which we answered via a touch screen. We were left slightly bemused as to why we still need to queue to be grilled verbally but the process was a massive improvement on the frustrations of past years. And the luggage appeared almost immediately we reached the carousel.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Fresh soup the lazy way

Spotted in a Metro supermarket on north coast of Canada's Gaspe Peniinsula: fresh vegetables, finely chopped as a prepared mix for soup. A simple idea but - while some reader may correct me - one my wife and I couldn't recall being implemented by UK supermarkets. We bought a pack, adding them to stock from the carcase of chicken we had purchased earlier and kept in the fridge at our cabin, to use for sandwiches on our hikes in the magnificent Gapesie National Park pictured above). The cabin was separate from but operated as part of the Gite du Mont Albert, which provides the park's only accommodation other than campsites. The resulting soup, welcome after a wet and windy walk in search of sady elusive moose, was delicious. Lazy? If you like - but we had expended a fair amount of energy on the trail.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Victorian elegance in New Brunswick

North America sometimes seems to be much of a muchness - all different and all the same, as colleague once put it. But now and then you stumble across a place with a character entirely its own. Such a town is Woodstock, New Brunswick.

The only reason we stoped there was its location, midway between the north side of Quebec's Gaspe Peninsula and our base  in Boston, Massachusetts. The two legs of the jouurnney south would take around 6hrs each. It's a big continent.

I  booked a night at the Bennett House, a b&b in Woodstock, wnich turned out to be an unexpected delight. Only about 20 minutes' drive from the US border,  it was New Brunswick's first incorporated town. It sits at the confluence of the mighty St. John River and its tributrary, the Meduxnekeag. There's a pleasant, traffic free walking, running and cycle path along the St John, where, ona gorgeous, musky September evening,  I was able to uncramp muscles barely used during the long drive. 

The town is full of elegant, Victorian era buildings, of which the Bennett House is one. Built in 1878, it served first as a recory, then  as home and office of a  prominennt lawyer, as local headquarters of the Mounties - before being bought in 2005 and restored ("lovingly", of course) by Derek and Debbie Bennett. Their attention to detail, give or take a few concessiions to modern comforts, is extraordinary. A broad wooden staircase led to our room, one of four, which afforded glimpses of the main river beween rooftops and trees on the slope below. The floor was pine, the furniture in acceptable harmony wth the period. Besides a well equipped bathroom there was an antique wash basin, stand and jug, which were not intended for use) and early electric bedside lamps with engraved glass bowls, whichmost certainly were - and provided better reading light than many 21st century equivalents. Downstairs was a sitting room with a sailing theme, containing elaborate models including a beautiful replica of the Cutty Sark 

We strolled  down Main Street for dinner al fresco by the Meduxnekeag. Breakfast included fresh fruit and eggs Benediict. We were informed it would be at 8.15 am (there was no choice), which was 7.15 am according to our body clocks since New Brunswick time is an hour later tan Quebec and the eastern seaboard of the US. Confusing or what?

Befoe we hit the Interstate again we took a spin around town, past lovely, wood  balconied houses, some with a faintly tired look. 

If you fancy life in small town Canada - Woodstock's population is circa 5000,  the Bennett House is on the market. The asking pirce, at the current exchange rate, is jst under £140,000. Meanwhile, should you be passing that way, a supremely comfortable night, with  breakfast, will set you back a mere £50 or so for two. (I booked through

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Clams, beer and contentment in Massachesetts

Labour Day weekend and Crane Beach, an hour or so north of Boson, is crowded with families and teeage groups enjoying the warm sunshine of the publlic holiday that officially  marks the end of America's summer. It's part of a regular ritual when we come to stay with relatives here. First we cross the boarrdwalk over the freagile dunes. This time something new: little nesting boxes, shaped like amphorae, have been perched in a pole for the purple martins, whose numbers here have diminished. It prompts the thought that while we have fllown here  from Heathrow in less than seven hours, these gorgeously plumaged members of the swallow family travel annually from Brazil to join the dainty piping plovers that skitter by the Atalantics' dying ripples. We walk or just chill on the vast shining sands, where shameless herring gulls will snafffle your pinic if you turn your back then a late afternoon fishfest at one of ouur favourite restaurant's. Woodman's East in the Rough. It's the same as ever, even if the prices appear to have climbed a little. We queue for maybe a half hour to get in. It's always like thi on busy weekends. People come straight from the beach, in T-shirts and shorts, though with bikinis and swimmig shorts usually covered, entertained as they wait with tinny '50s hits, played over speakers.. They still have sand between theit toes. We order sweet clams, dug from the mud flats outisde at low tide, share combination dishes of the same, plus fat scallops, haddock and shrimp, all fried in a light coating of corn meal and sale our salt air thirsts with Sam Adams beers in plastic cups. he food comes in lidless cardboard boxes. It's a wonderfully democratic institution -  100 years old last year. The young,old, wealthy and of modest means all mess down and dip their "steamers" (steamed clams srved in their shells) first in water the rinse off the sand, then in melted butter. Some ore lobster from the counter outside by the road. We drive home as the twilight sky catches fire, full of seafood and contentment.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Neoclassical building to become Edinburgh hotel

Edinburgh's listed former Royal High School is to become a luxury hotel. Its location, history and architecture look certain to attract plenty of demand. To be managed by the Rosewood group, the property will be on Calton Hill, bang in the centre of the Scottish capital. The building, designed by Thomas Hamilton, was completed in 1829. Modelled on the Athens Hephaisteion, it is regarded as Scotland's finest example of the Greek revival style. Former pupils of the school included Alexander Graham Bell and Sir Walter Scott. After the school vacated it in 1968 it was earmarked twice as the seat of a Scottish parliament, which would up eventually in purpose built home. The hotel is scheduled to open in 2018 with 147 rooms - many offering views of the city - a spa, fitness centre and an indoor swimming pool.

Athens airport launches free wi fi

Athens airport has introduced free wi fi. Not having flown to the Greek capital for some time this development escaped my notice - they didn't exactly trumpet it - which enables passengers to access the internet in all areas through the "ATH Free" network. Good news. It can't be repeated too often or loudly enough: other airports which haven't already done so, please copy. According to research company GfK Ascent, package holiday bookings to Greece in the year to July were up 2% despite the recent panic sparked by the country's economic crisis. That figure is likely to look healthier when bookings for the entire summer are included, especially since Tunisia was declared off limits.

New cheap Verona flights planned

Ryanair will launch new budget flights next year from Stansted to Verona – the lovely north Italian city that is home to a celebrated annual opera festival – in time for next summer. The airline’s summer schedule will also include new services from the airport to Milan Malpensa and the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, and from Luton to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.