Well hello again, Brenda here! 2013 has been a busy year for me and I wanted to share some of the wonderful family friendly destinations I have visited. Maybe you are making a bucket list? Be sure to consider these!
2013 had me criss crossing the globe & the USA to some interesting family destinations. I tried out the new Icelandic non stop flight Denver to Frankfurt and visited my son in Stuttgart, Germany for Christmas week. After years of catering to him in his youth, the tables were now turned. He prepared breakfast and dinner for me, popped the cork on a nice bottle of Slovenian wine and we enjoyed the view of the city on his terrace. What a welcome! The next day we were off to see Stuttgart. We toured the Mercedes Benz Museum, a stunning piece of architecture which was also an excellent overview of world transportation throughout the world. We hiked downtown Rubble Mt. Greg explained that right after WWII, there was so much rubble in the bombed out German cities that, rather than cart it out, the city governments built a mountain of rubble, covered it with dirt, landscaped it , created walking paths, and – voila! – it became a place of enjoyment for the locals and a solemn reminder of the horrors of war. At the top of the mountain is a pile of rubble with a multi-lingual sign reminding people that this is the result of war. From Stuttgart we did a madcap 3 day tour to Mad King Ludwig’s Castle, Baden Baden and Austria’s charming city of Salzburg where we enjoyed a superb Christmas classical concert in Salzburg Castle, the highlight of my trip. We stayed at a reasonably priced, charming hotel in the center of the Old City called Altstadt Weisse Taub, about $100.00 USD for a single with breakfast and taxes. Rooms were small but cozy, staff multi lingual and very helpful.
Since I had never been to Iceland, I decided to stop over in Reykjavik for 2 nights to enjoy New Year’s Eve with the Icelandics , before returning home. When I got off the plane, my first thought was that I had made a very big mistake. It was cold, very cold, the wind was blowing sideways, and I had great difficulty pulling my suitcase up the slight, but icy incline to the shuttle bus. Suddenly a local Icelandic appeared out of nowhere, grabbed my suitcase and escorted me to the bus. He wore a light jacket and no hat or gloves. I guess his warm heart kept him comfortable. The cheapest way to transfer 45 minutes to downtown is to take the shuttle bus. Cabs run $100.00! I stayed at the comfortable clean 3* Best Western Hotel downtown, only 2 short blocks from the main street. Rooms were small but the price was right – about $85.00 USD with taxes and breakfast for a single. That night I went across the street to a small cozy restaurant (forget the name) that served very good fish and chips and local beer. The next day I spent the few hours of daylight walking around downtown and visiting one of the world’s most unusual museums- the Phallological Museum, which houses the world’s largest display of animal penises. The whale penis was the size of a human being. A 30 minute visit to this museum will keep your family conversation buzzing for days to come.
I had pre-booked a special New Year’s Eve excursion: dinner at a chef’s home (Chef Tyffi) complete with fireworks and celebrations in the neighborhood. We were an English speaking group of 6 from France, Canada, Singapore and the U.S. Dinner was prepared and served by the chef and his son while his charming daughter and wife played hostess. First was an array of Icelandic appetizers including everything from herring to whale blubber. We all tried bits of whale blubber, which tastes like urine and is quickly followed by a shot of Icelandic schnapps. That was our Icelandic baptism! Next was a traditional main dish of lamb followed by a light and sweet typical Icelandic dessert. After that it was on with our boots, parkas and wooly hats to join the neighbors singing Christmas songs around an enormous bonfire, as the Icelandic schnapps flowed freely. This was followed by 500 tons of fireworks set off right in the residential streets. The Icelandics certainly know how to kick off a New Year with a bang! I was so delighted with my visit that I hope to return again, in the spring or summer with friends and family. There are dozens of outdoor excursions to enjoy at all levels of activity. I am considering organizing a future SPT trip to this outstanding family destination. If anyone is interested, let me know.
In February I spent 10 days touring Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro on one of those off season bargain packages. Although famous for its beautiful coastline, I was most impressed with the number of Roman ruins in Croatia. Not only are they everywhere but the locals have incorporated these magnificent structures into their daily lives. Apartments, shops, outdoor cafes, are all built in and around the sturdy Roman walls. Croatians are coffee addicts and take several “official” coffee breaks during the day. Coffee houses are ubiquitous and serve as social centers. Most offer outdoor seating with a view of the sea, not a bad way to while away an hour as you people watch. In addition to great coffee, you can also find very good wine, especially white wine in Croatia and Slovenia. Like neighboring Italy, vineyards are found everywhere: roadside, back yards, hilltops. Due to the strong Italian influence, you can also find great pizza everywhere. The beaches along the Croatian coastline are not beautiful sand beaches, like California or New Jersey, rather they are concrete or rocky with harsh sand. It is more of a sun bathing & boating atmosphere. There are many seaside walks often connecting one town to another. As we toured through the various countries, the question came up: “What about the Serbo-Croatian war? Do animosities still remain?” The standard answer was that the war was something they all wished had not happened and they want to move on. And it appears they have.
In April I flew down to Chile for my annual South America inspection trip. This time I visited Easter Island, Patagonia (Torres del Paine National Park) and some wine areas outside Santiago I had not visited before. Easter Island was a delightful surprise. A 4 hour flight from Santiago, it is the most remote island in the world. At first it seemed like what Hawaii would have been 50 years ago, mostly dirt roads, and simple structures for housing and a Polynesian population. Over time I learned of different influences. Oral history dictates that there were 2 waves of immigration: The Polynesians who came from Tahiti and nearby islands and the Peruvians who migrated from South America (called long ears for the earrings they wore which made their ear lobes grow long). Our guide was of Polynesian descent and our driver was a Long Ear and you could see the differences in their faces. There are over 1000 Moais (the huge statues) across the island. We were in awe of the size of them and the power and energy they seemed to radiate. They all represent ancestors of the Rapa Nui and were built to protect the villages. Many years ago, when times were bad and food became scarce, in a fit of anger, the Rapa Nui toppled many of the statues, blaming them for their misfortune. When Thor Heyerdahl visited the island, he arranged funding to have these magnificent structures restored to their original state. My favorite moment during my stay in Easter Island was attending Sunday mass with the locals and singing hymns in Rapa Nui. Everyone holds hands and beautiful lively music is played by a local quartet. Tourists are most welcome, not matter what religion or non- religion they follow. It was one of those great moments of travel that I will treasure.
This was my third trip to Patagonia (first time on the Chilean side) and we were fortunate to enjoy good weather during our stay. After a 4 hour flight down from Santiago (with a 2 hour delay as we landed elsewhere while the fog cleared at our destination) followed by a 4 hour land transfer, we finally arrived at our remote lodge, the new Tierra Patagonia. Designed by a new young female Chilean architect, this deluxe rustic all inclusive lodge has won many architectural awards. The lodge nestles into a bluff, almost invisible from the road and the front , with floor to ceiling windows, faces the lake and mountains. The roof is designed like an air foil so that you neither hear nor feel the famous (and sometimes fierce) Patagonia winds. The view was captivating and could be enjoyed from the lounge, restaurant and toasty warm infinity pool. We enjoyed 2 full days of hiking and glacier tours with only a little rain with evenings spent watching the sunset with a glass of excellent Chilean wine in hand. Within Torres del Paine National Park are several moderate priced “hosterias” (all inclusive lodges). All offer various activities, especially hiking and you can hike from lodge to lodge if you are so inclined. The day we departed Torres del Paine National Park, we saw a huaso (Chilean cowboy) tending his flock of Patagonian sheep complete with his dogs tending the herd. A perfect photo op.
Last, but by no means the least, we spent several holiday weekends and Sundays touring our glorious home state of Colorado. Memorial Day weekend was spent at Crested Butte, a family fun destination with an historical downtown and lots of hiking, biking and outdoor activities. Originally founded as a mining town, it went into disrepair and later emerged as a ski destination. Be sure to visit the local history museum and have a drink and snack at Montanya’s downtown rum distillery, a family friendly place, where you can watch rum being distilled while you enjoy a creative rum drink and possibly a local band. http://www.montanyarum.com/blog/tag/crested-butte We stayed at the historic Elk Mountain Lodge, a former spacious home in a quiet residential area, about $150.00 a night for 2 with full breakfast. There is an unusual bike culture in this town. You will see old Schwinn bikes left, unlocked, all over town. Grab one or two, take a ride around town and leave them whenever you want. No charge or else a small donation is requested for maintenance of the bikes.
We headed out to Southwest Colorado for July 4th weekend. Having been to Durango several times before and previously hiked nearby Mesa Verde National Park, we were focused this time on our full day excursion on the famous Durango Silverton Railroad, one of the outstanding rail trips in the U.S.A. We selected an open car for better viewing and photos. Aside from a few cinders blowing onto our clothes, we decided it was a good choice. You definitely need sunglasses to protect your eyes. The scenery was nothing short of fantastic and the train went slowly enough to secure lots of outstanding pictures. There is a 2 hour stop in the cute little mining town of Silverton. We chose to return by train, although you have the option to bus back down. You should reserve tickets in advance and sometimes kids ride free if you book online. http://www.durangotrain.com
From there we drive over an hour to Pagosa Springs for a 2 night stay. The wildfires in that area were somewhat in control in early July and roads were open but we could see the firefighters gearing up in the early morning to climb up into the remote mountains to do their dangerous work. Hand painted signs were everywhere along the road as residents proclaimed their appreciation for these hardworking brave men. Pagosa Springs is another lively family friendly mountain town. There are amusement rides, tubing down the river, right through town, and lots of hiking. For those of you interested in history, there is a small little known history museum just at the edge of town, which contains furniture from a one room schoolhouse as well as many other intriguing artifacts. Check out the western history books as well. One of the local authors works part time in the museum and is happy to engage in conversation. Ask the locals for directions. Nearby Chimney Rock National Monument offers ranger guided tours of the ancient Pueblo sites. You need to be physically fit to do the entire hike or you can quit midway through. Bring lots of water and dress for sun protection. I strongly recommend booking the ranger guided tour in advance. There is a small fee. http://www.chimneyrockco.org/
There is one movie theatre in town and going there is a cultural event. They have only one evening showing per day and you had better arrive one hour ahead, which, by fortuitous dumb luck, we decided to do. Waiting in line is a social event for the locals. About 15 minutes before showtime, the theatre opens, everybody is serviced quickly and all are seated just before the theatre darkens. Safe metered tourist parking is available across the street from the theatre.
This summer we also checked out some additional attractions in the Denver area. In the nearby western town of Golden, the Colorado Railroad Museum is definitely worth a visit and has an extensive indoor and outdoor display of history, photos, equipment and numerous railroad cars and engines you can climb into. http://coloradorailroadmuseum.org/
The Wings Over Rockies Museum , located right inside Denver, is an amazing place. Built inside a huge airline hangar, you will feel like you are stepping back in time once you enter. The music is from the 1940’s as are all the displays and aircraft. You can climb into some of the planes and even fly in a simulator. There is a separate display for the WASPs, the long unrecognized female test pilots who actually trained many of the men. Check out the video with Harrison Ford, himself an accomplished pilot. http://www.wingsmuseum.org/
For those short on time who cannot visit Rocky Mountain National Park (2 hours from Denver), try our spanking brand new Staunton State Park, only 45 minutes from Denver , located just past the town of Conifer. The park has good signage for the entrance. Lots of hiking trails from easy lakeside to moderate mountain hiking. Bring your own food and water and start early as this area tends to get early afternoon thunderstorms.
What’s coming in the future:
I hope you can join us in July of 2014 for our SPT family trip to Guatemala. And, keep in mind, our special SPT Family Safari to South Africa in coming up in 2015. Details to follow in a future newsletter.
Labor Day weekend I am heading out to Kansas for a visit to the Cosmos Museum and the underground train ride to the salt mines in Hutchinson, followed by some good Kansas City BBQ! In October I am off to a hiking trip to Big Sur and Yosemite National Park. I will be writing about those destinations in my next newsletters. In the meantime, if you have questions about any of these destinations or the SPT trip to Guatemala or South Africa, email me at Brenda@maximtours.com