Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sailing Through the Andes Drinking Pisco Sours

It’s not easy to go east from Chile.

A string bean of a nation, Chile stretches 2,580 miles from north to south, but averages only 110 miles in width. It’s like taking a land mass slightly larger than Texas and rolling it into a thin pencil that is twice as long as California.

Running down the entire eastern side of Chile and separating it from Bolivia and Argentina are the great Andes Mountains – the longest mountain range in the world. There are only 42 passes over the mountains from Chile to Argentina, but perhaps the most spectacular is called the Cruce de Lagos – the “Cruise of the Lakes.”

About 175,000 people take this spectacular lake passage through the Andes Mountains every year. It is the mountain route that Che Guevara takes in the movie Motorcycle Diaries.

Today, the full-day tourist excursion requires taking four buses and three ferries as you alternate between bus rides up jagged mountain passes and ferryboat cruises across the chain of three fiord-like lakes, each one ringed with volcanoes and tumbling waterfalls.

Located 650 miles south of Santiago, the area is called Chile’s Lake District and with its lush green valleys and sawtooth mountains it looks like the German or Swiss Alps. It can sound that way too, since many of the original settlers were from Germany. They still speak the language and even have their own local German radio stations.

For hundreds of years, the lake passage was used as a way across the Andes by the Huilliches, the native people of Southern Chile. Later, the Jesuits of Chiloe used this passage when they founded missions in the area.





In the early 1900s, a young Swiss explorer named Ricardo Roth recognized the scenic beauty of the lakes passage and began operating tourist excursions. At that time, it was necessary to row across one of the lakes and a one-way journey could take days. Today, descendents of the Roth family run a modern operation that uses sleek catamaran ferries and a fleet of colorful blue buses to complete the 117-mile journey between Puerto Mott, Chile, and the ski resort of Bariochie, Argentina, in a leisurely 8 hours.

While this is one of the most scenic routes in South America, most people take it to see the views and experience the Andes, some stopping like we did to spend three days in the middle of the trip in the ecological village of Peulla (population 120), the center of Parque Nacional Vicente Perez Rosales, Chile’s first national park.

Peulla has an end-of-the-world feel to it, and with good reason. It’s not the easiest place to get to. From the west, there is only one way in -- a 20-mile boat trip across Lago Todos Los Santos (All Saints), regarded as the prettiest of the lakes in the region. The sheer mountains and cliffs lining the lake prohibit building any road.

It takes two hours to sail the lake and the scenery never stops. In one direction, there are sweeping views of the Volcano Osorno, which Charles Darwin watched erupt from the decks of the Beagle in 1835. Looking the other way, you get a glimpse of towering Volcano Tronador, at 11,450 feet, the highest peak in the area.

Arriving at the Peulla ferry dock, it’s a half-mile walk to the two lodges located here. Because this is the center of 970 square mile Vincent Perez Rosales National Park, development is limited. The 71-room, historic Hotel Peulla was built in 1890 and has a German Alps feel to it. Hallways and some of the public rooms can be a bit bleak, but there are pretty gardens surrounding the hotel and a lovely view from the bar’s outdoor deck, where you can sit, look at mountains and hear the ever-present roar of a nearby waterfall. This region receives 260 days of rain a year and because of the steepness of the mountains and the quietness of this remote region, you are always in hearing distance of a cascading waterfall.

And for drinks on the deck? Well, as you’d suspect, Chile’s beer is good German lager with Cerveza Cristal and Escudo being the two main brands. Kuntsmann also has a decent lager as well as a bock beer. But the drink of choice in Chile is the Pisco Sour, the national cocktail containing Pisco (a regional brandy), lemon or lime juice, egg whites, simple syrup and regional bitters. You wouldn’t want to have a half dozen of these and in the tulip shaped glass it’s a bit too refined for outdoor decks, but it’s tasty enough for a pre-dinner cocktail.

Next door to the Hotel Peulla, the same owners have opened Hotel Natura, a more upscale, 45-room, four-star hotel. The rooms feature natural native woods and have cable television and Internet connections, while the lobby has a roaring wood fireplace and two floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Andes. The four-star dining room offers Chilean steaks and seafood with a good local wine selection, but the meals are heavy and the lunch and dinner menu are the same with no daily specials. After two days, you’ll be heading for the sandwiches served in the Hotel Peulla bar.

A tour operator, Aventura en Peulla, offers a series of day adventures, from a safari in a 4x4 vehicle up into the mountains to the Argentina border, lake and river cruises to horseback riding and sailing. Packages can be purchased that include the ferry, hotel, meals and your choice of adventure activities.

The horseback riding is spectacular. They dress you in knee length half chaps that give everyone a dashing gaucho-like appearance as you splash your trail horses across the shallow Rio Negro to the foot of the Andes. Overhead, condors and kingfishers circle in the sky, while the distant roar of a waterfall drifts down on a breeze from the high, snowcapped crags above.

They also have an 11-station canopy experience that crosses streams and ravines and is, of course, terrifying. But if you can take your mind off the fact that you are flying at outrageous speeds on a wire a hundred feet above the ground, the scenery will take away what little, if any, breath you have left.

IF YOU GO:
The Lake District is popular recreation destination for both international tourists and the Chilean people and offers a milder Andes Mountain alternative to Patagonia. The climate is similar to the American Northwest, and you should be prepared for rainfall. The best time to visit is October to March. The airport in Puerto Mott has regular daily connections to Santiago. Puerto Mott is a rugged fishing town with an Alaskan feel. This is only natural since it marks the southern end of the Pan American Highway, the Southern Hemisphere version of Prudo Bay, Alaska where the highway begins 16,000 miles to the north. Puerto Mott is best known for its fish market and seafood restaurants. A more comfortable tourist base is Puerto Varas, 12 miles north on the shores of Lago Llanquihue. Puerto Varas has nice shops and restaurants, colorfully painted homes and (amazing in such a remote location) a modern casino. The casino is an attempt by the Chilean government to increase tourism to the region. The Cruce de Lagos excursion leaves from either town. Most people will spend a day or two on the way in Santiago. Bellavista is a fun neighborhood filled with dozens of bars, cafes and nightclubs, many with live music.
Cruce de Lagos: TurisTour offers day trips to Peulla, overnight trips to Peulla and a variety of other packages with food and recreation adventure options included. http://www.turismopeulla.cl/ Rooms at the Hotel Peulla: http://www.hotelpeulla.cl/ The full Cruce de Lagos crossing to Argentina runs year-round with more options and times available during heavy season, September through April (the Chilean summer). For information, visit: http://www.crucedelagos.cl/. For hiking, rafting, kayaking, technical climbing and other adventures in the Lake District, visit: http://www.lagosyvolcanes.com/

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Island Hopping Along the Coast of Croatia

Many Americans were surprised in 2005 when Lonely Planet guidebook selected Croatia as the world’s number one dream vacation site. To geographically and historically challenged Americans, Croatia was a war zone, some far off Eastern European country.
Even today four years later, when Croatia has become one of the hottest destinations for European travelers, there are still very few American visitors, other than those who see the country on day trip from cruise ships. Which is a shame, because Croatia is an amazingly beautiful, sophisticated -- and cheap destination.
There are more than a 1,000 miles of spectacular, rocky shoreline dotted with beaches, red tile roof fishing villages and imposing fortresses. It is like the French or Italian Riviera in the 1960s -- one of those rare places that actually lives up to its tourist office billing – “the Mediterranean as it used to be.”
On ten days of traveling through Croatia by ferry and car, we encountered no difficulties. Almost everyone in the tourism industry speaks English and every village and town has a multi-lingual tourism office to assist with rooms, maps and guides. Prices are about half what you would pay in nearby Italy.
Some particulars: Croatia is the long, skinny country that is on the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea, directly across from Italy, which it resembles in climate and appearance. It is one of six new countries that came from what was formerly called Yugoslavia. The war has been over since 1995 and peace and tourism are flourishing.
There is an in-land portion of the country that includes the capital city of Zagreb, but it is the coast …and the famous islands of Croatia…that are the main attraction. Croatia has 1,185 islands, all of them surrounded by beautiful Mediterranean blue sea. Sixty-six of the islands are inhabited and connected by a large fleet of ferries, making it possible to island hop up and down coast, staying each night on a different island.

Split is the largest city on the Croatian coast with direct flights to London and Paris and the natural starting point. It’s an industrial city of 170,000 people, unattractive around the airport, but the old town has a palm-lined harbor and Diocletian’s Palace, the most imposing Roman structure in the world and a Unesco World Heritage site.
Calling it a palace is a bit misleading since the site consists of more than 200 buildings and is still home to 3,000 people. Think more along the lines of a fortified Roman town contained within high walls. Built of white stone that resembles marble, it is maze of narrow streets and alleys, lined with chic boutiques, galleries, restaurants and outdoor cafes. A number of museums tell the history of the palace, which dates to 245 AD, but it’s most fun to just wander through the alleys, turning a corner to find a plaza lined with Greek columns and an elegant café. It’s particularly magical at night when the marble sidewalks reflect the lights of the cafes and shops. Split is a major terminal for ferries with boats arriving and leaving almost hourly. Jadrolinija is the main ferry line and we caught their morning boat to Hvar Island, an hour and a half away.
Hvar bills itself as the greenest and sunniest of all Croatian islands. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful with high mountains falling down to the shore. Buses meet the ferry for a short trip to Hvar Town, a 13th Century walled village with traffic-free marble streets, dockside restaurants and a yacht harbor, all topped by a Napoleonic fortress looming over the bay. Residents meet the arriving buses and speak just enough English to offer rooms in their houses about $60, which is what we paid for a room with a bath and terrace overlooking the harbor.
It’s a long climb to the fortress, but worth it for the view from the bar on top. There are paths along the shoreline for miles and the town has several small museums, but this is a resort area and just hanging out at the beach or in town is the most popular activity. The food along the coast in Croatia resembles Italy with pizza and spaghetti dishes, mixed with local seafood cooked in garlic and olive oil. Try the whole calamari, grilled in olive oil and served tableside in black pots, with a side of fries and a liter of excellent chilled local white wine. The local beer (called pivo) is very good and served ice cold.
The next morning we caught the main inter-island ferry for a three-hour voyage to Korcula. The $10 ferry is like a small cruise ship with restaurants and many decks for viewing the constantly changing scenery of mountains and sea. In Croatia, you are never out of sight of a mountainous, rocky shoreline with terraced vineyards clinging to the hills.
Korcula first appears like a dream – a walled town ringed with palm trees and topped by a sea of red tile roofs. It’s a sleepy little place in the day as most people take water taxis to nearby beaches, stroll the miles of trails along the shore, or relax at one of a dozen outdoor cafes that form a line along the walls overlooking the bay.
The next day’s ferry continues on to Dubrovnik, the jewel of the Adriatic. This is one of the great walled cities of the world. The massive stone curtain surrounding the town rises as high as 82 feet and is more than 6,000 feet long. There are 10 semicircular bastions, two pocket fortresses and one outdoor bar guarding the flanks (the bar faces the sea and is entered through a sally port through the high walls). It’s possible to walk the entire way around on top of the walls that date back to the 10th Century, but it’s no easy task and involves lots of stair climbing.
Below, the buildings within the walls date mostly to the late 1600s. The center of town is a wide, marble street, Placa, lined with outdoor cafes, bars and shops. Even though Dubrovnik is traffic free, when the cruise ships are in, the town can be maddeningly crowded. Better to avoid the mid-day crush by taking a water taxi across the bay to Cavtat, an attractive Mediterranean resort with an old stone harbor lined with rustling palm trees and outdoor cafes. It’s like an undiscovered Saint Tropez. The calm waters in the bay mean that you can enjoy a relaxing waterside lunch with the sea practically lapping at your feet and return to Dubrovnik in mid-afternoon when the cruise ships move on.
At night, the marble streets glow with a sheen that makes it look like it has just rained, while the walls are lit from dramatic angles. During the civil war in 1991-1992, Dubrovnik was hit by more than 2,000 shells and guided missiles, which damaged the roofs in 68% of the 824 historic buildings in old town. A war museum has fascinating photos from this time, while maps located throughout the city show the location of where every shell hit. All of the damage has been repaired, but it’s easy to spot the new roofs. It’s an amazing thing to see photos of the main street burning just 15 years ago, then step outside to see lines of people at the gelato stands.
From here, it’s a spectacular drive along the coast back to Split. As part of the peace settlement, Bosnia obtained a 15 km stretch of the coast so you’ll have to drive through Bosnia, but tourists are waved right through.
A highlight along the coast are the tiny villages of Ston and Mali Ston, known for their oyster beds and more than a dozen seafood restaurants. The wall above town is 5 km long and was the longest fortification in Europe when it was built in 1333. Climb up to one of the towers, then relax with oysters and chips under the shade of a tree-lined café. There are a dozen seafood restaurants in the small town.
The so-called “Makarska Riviera” is a string of beach resort towns that are all rather unattractive along the highway, which is lined with high-rise housing. But head to the harbor and the towns become beautiful with beaches, palms, yachts and cafes, backed by high mountain vistas.
One last island that must be visited is located just two kilometers from the airport – the walled village of Trogir. This too is a Unesco World Heritage site, a 15th Century town with twisting streets, hidden plazas, a medieval castle and a wide waterfront promenade, all squeezed on to a tiny pedestrian island. It’s the perfect place to relax, unwind, have an ice cold pivo and ignore the occasional jet carrying people back to reality.

IF YOU GO: Croatia has been discovered by Europe and is reportedly almost impossible in July and August. Restaurants in tiny Korcula stay open all night for crazy Italians who want to have dinner at 3 a.m. We traveled in mid-May and found the country nearly deserted, rooms available everywhere for about $50-60 a night. We traveled without a single reservation and found rooms in private houses either from the tourist office or from local residents meeting the ferries. Hotels are expensive. Temperatures were pleasant and in the high 70s in May, but it is too cold to swim until June. Seafood is excellent and pizzas are delicious and a bargain and every village has several gelato stands. Beer is cheap, but there is not much variety beyond European lagers. The red wines are top quality and run about $10 a bottle in stores. The best deal in restaurants is to order a liter or half liter of house wine served in a carafe. For information on Croatia.
http://www.croatia.hr/ is the official tourist office site.
http://www.hr/wwwhr/tour/index.en.html had more than a dozen links for specific information on Croatia.
http://www.jadrolinija.hr/default.aspx?lang=2 offers the Jadrolinija ferry schedules. You need to plan ferries carefully in the off-season because there is not daily service to all islands and you can get stuck on an island for several days.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Drinking Your Way Through the English Countryside

There’s no better way to see the English countryside than by walking from village to village on public footpaths, strolling across rolling green hills dotted with sheep and dry-stone walls. And of course, no hike in England is complete without stopping now and then for a rewarding pint of beer, served fireside in a cozy country pub.
The difficulty is getting to the trailhead. Driving on England’s narrow country roads can be frightful and expensive with gas selling for $8 a gallon. The solution is to do what the locals do and take independent day-trip excursions to the countryside by train and country bus. You can hike from one rail station to another, visit a number of country pubs along the way and be back in the city for dinner and theatre.
Train schedules are easily obtained online or at the station and country bus schedules are usually posted in the center of the village, near a pub or town hall. The buses are timed to meet trains and locals are helpful in providing advice. Should you miss the last bus, country taxis are available and since the distances are small, they are relatively inexpensive. However, be warned: country buses don’t run on Sundays.
Here are three easy hiking by train and bus excursions.

The Cotswolds from London
The Cotswolds are the England of calendars and picture books – a green and pleasant land filled with honey-colored stone cottages covered with climbing roses, lush hillsides crisscrossed with a maze of dry-stone walls, tiny villages with wood smoke curling from the chimneys and everywhere you look, sheep. It was wool that made these villages prosperous, but the wool trade is long gone and without direct rail connections, most of the villages in this rural area have remained unchanged for hundreds of years.
The easiest rail connection from London to the Cotswolds is to take the train to Moreton-in-the-Marsh, an easy 90-minute trip from Paddington Station with trains leaving every hour or so. Buy the one-day return ticket to save money. Moreton has been a working market town since the 13th century and is one of the least touristy in the Cotswolds. It’s just a short walk from the station to the wide streets of the town center, which are lined with butcher shops, gift stores and of course pubs. At the Market Hall you can catch buses to a number of the Cotswolds’ most famous villages. Copy the schedule down because Moreton is the only Cotswolds town with rail connections and you’ll need to get back here on the last bus.
From Moreton, it’s easiest to take the bus to Broadway. This is one of the classic honey-colored stone Cotswold villages, lined with contemporary (and expensive) shops and tearooms. It’s a big tourist center, but worth a look around. Try the Horse & Hound for an early fireside pint of beer.
England has a number of long-distance paths that wind for hundreds of miles through the countryside. The 100-mile-long Cotswold Way is one of these, and you can pick it up in Broadway for a four-mile hike to Chipping Campden. The hike begins from the west side of town with a steep climb to Broadway Tower, a folly that was built in 1797 to look like a medieval castle. On a clear day, you can see 13 counties from here – one of the grandest views in the area. The path continues northeast along the ridge through fields and woods, dropping down at last into the pleasant stone village of Chipping Campden.
In the Middle Ages, this was one of the most prosperous towns in the area. The Gabled Market Hall dates to 1627 and the High Street is lined with elegant stone buildings that now house chic antique stores, shops and pubs. The Eight Bells pub just off High Street was built in the 14th century and is a wonderful place for a pint. Or walk along the road to nearby Broad Campden to see some quaint thatch-roofed cottages and have a pint in the delightful Bakers Arms.
From the plaza in front of Market Hall, it’s possible to catch a bus going to Burton on the Water, perhaps the most touristy of the Cotswold villages, but with good reason – the town is simply gorgeous. The river Windrush flows quietly through the center of the village and is spanned by a series of elegant arch stone pedestrian bridges. Swans and ducks swim in the stream and there are a number of pubs with pleasant outdoor patios overlooking the water. Try the Kingsbridge Inn or the Old Manse Hotel. There are tourist attractions here – a miniature model of the village and a motorcar museum – but there are also public footpaths that leave the village for quiet walks away from the crowds. If you’ve been moving fast, it’s possible to squeeze a two-mile walk to Lower Slaughter, yet another picture perfect stone village, and still be back to Burton for the last bus to Moreton.
Since the last bus is in the late afternoon, you can be back in London by early evening…or stop off in Oxford on the way back and have dinner in this beautiful university town. Your round-trip train excursion ticket allows you to get on and off as often as you like in the same day.
Train schedules: http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/
Bus schedules: http://www.pulhamcoaches.com/

The Peak District from Manchester
One-third of Britain’s population lives in the industrial area around the cities of Manchester and Sheffield, but surprisingly, right in the center of these two metropolitan areas is the Peak District, Britain’s first National Park. Unlike America, most of the land in British national parks is privately owned, but it is protected and open to hiking through a series of public footpaths.
The Peak District is an area of rugged beauty with steep vivid green valleys (called vales), tumbling rivers, and gray stone villages, all mixed with high, brooding moors and some of the country’s highest peaks.
A great train hike from Manchester is to take the 8:44 a.m. Hope Valley Line from Manchester Piccadilly Station to the tiny village of Hope. The ride through beautiful green countryside takes 50 minutes. From the station, it’s a 20-minute walk along the main road to Hope, a village of two pubs, a post office and a medieval church dating to 1200. Just past the church, take a left and in a short while there is a level public footpath that winds beside a stream for three miles through sheep fields to the beautiful village of Castleton.
This quiet tourist center has more than 50 public footpaths, a number of tearooms, six pubs, a looming ruined castle built by Henry II in 1157 and a collection of shops that sell the famous Blue John stone – a purplish-blue form of fluorspar that is found only here. Tourists have been coming to Castleton for 300 years to visit nearby Peak Cavern.
The Peaks District National Park has an information center in town, where for 40 cents you can purchase the Walks Around Castleton leaflet that details seven walks lasting from two hours to a full day. Plan your hike while you have a pint by the fire in The Castle pub, or down the road in the flower-covered Cheshire Cheese, which proudly proclaims on their hiker’s pub sign that “muddy boots are welcome.”
A pleasant four-mile hike from Castleton climbs up a ridge to Hollins Cross, from which it’s an easy scramble to the summit of Mam Tor. At 1,695 feet, it is one of the highest peaks in the area. From here you can drop down the other side of the ridge to the pretty village of Edale and a rewarding pint of local Cumbria Ale at the Old Nags Head. This is a famous hiker’s pub because the 250-mile long Pennine Way begins in their car park and zigzags north all the way to the Scottish border.
Cute Edale has two pubs and another National Park information center. Trains leave every two hours for the return trip to Manchester.

The Lake District from Windermere
England’s most rugged hiking area is too remote for day trips from a city, but the town of Windermere has easy rail connections and an abundance of b&b’s. It is about two hours by rail from Manchester.
From this lakeshore town, you can travel by local bus, lake steamer excursion boat or by foot out into some of England’s most lovely countryside – all without the hassle of a car or driving.
The beauty of this area of mountains, lakes and valleys was immortalized in the poetry of William Wordsworth and in Beatrix Potter’s stories such as “Peter Rabbit.” Both of them lived here and you can tour their homes.
No place in England offers more possibilities for pub walks. There are at least a dozen guides that suggest hikes from Windermere and the other Lake District town centers, most of which can be reached by local bus. The Stagecoach Mountain Goat line offers a bus and ferry route to the attractive nearby villages of Hawkshead and Coniston. Their Web site www.lake-district.gov.uk/map offers suggested hiking trails in the area. A 10 a.m. coach from Bowness (Windermere’s adjacent sister town) will have you in Hawkshead by 10:30. This is a cute village of whitewashed buildings with four pubs, hanging flower baskets, twisting narrow alleys, some nice shops and a wide variety of hilly hiking trails. If the weather is clear, stop in the King’s Arms for a fireside pint and directions for the steep two-mile climb up Latterbarrow – a hilltop with a rewarding 360-degree view of Lake Windermere and the surrounding area.
Hourly buses continue on to Coniston, yet another quaint stone village with riverside pubs and gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains. Here, you can catch a boat to the far end of the seven-mile-long Coniston Water and hike back to town along the shore.
Another option from Windermere is to board an old lake steamer at Bowness and sail north to the far end of Windermere Lake to Lakeside, where the pretty Lakeside Inn has fine hand pulled ales and picnic benches overlooking the water.
There are several easy hikes from here, or take a bus a few miles west to Skelwith Bridge, where you can pick up the Cumbria Way, another of Britain’s long distance footpaths. The trail here is easy as it follows a meandering stream with mountain views of the Langdale Pikes, before heading back to the bus stop at Skelwith Bridge Hotel.
Wherever you go, good hiking shoes and rain gear are required as the weather can change in a moment, and trails usually have some wet areas. A good Ordinance Survey map will help, but there are many, many trails and not much signing so even with a good map, it’s easy to get lost. Just relax. A warm pub is never far way and fellow hikers are friendly and can provide assistance and directions.