It has been too long since my last post. The lockdown prevented exciting excursions to new places which I like to discover and write about. But, all is looking much brighter. Restaurant dining is back – outdoors and indoors at 50% capacity. All stores, cinemas, gyms etc. are back in operation. Our curfew has been bumped up to 11 pm. It will vanish on June 30.
During many months of “confinement,” we were only permitted to explore and wander within 10 kilometers of our residence. We did. I took photos. Recently we were given liberty to travel within France, as well as nearby Italy with our vaccination certificate. And, soon we will be able to travel within the European Union. Eureka!
Basilica of Saint Michael Archangel in Menton
Following are random photos, mostly of our surroundings. The beauty around helped ease the pain of the lockdown.
Le Jardin Exotique (exotic garden) in Eze.
Market in Bordighera, Italy –our first visit to Italy after lockdown lifted.
More Eze Jardin Exotique, above and below.
First meal post lockdown in Italy: fabulous tuna
A wee bit of travel on the horizon: a week at a spa (terme) in Abano, Italy. This promises an interesting tale for sure. Don’t miss it. If not a Tales and Travel follower, sign up. Your address is kept private –not shared
Apero hour under palm trees, their trunks wrapped in golden lights. Reflections dancing in adjacent pools. Guests lounging in comfy sofas and chairs on an elegant, marble-floored courtyard. Multi-lingual, attentive waiters serving drinks and tasty snacks. It was impressive, pure posh.
As we soaked in the classy ambience at the Shangri-La Al Husn Resort, conversation turned to past travels. “I liked those places we went to where the roads were not paved,” Bob said. We have had many exciting adventures to third world countries where, not only are the roads not paved, but sometimes the electricity fails, hot water is non existent. We reminisced about some of our favorites: Trekking through the sand with only a flashlight to guide us through the blackness, dodging ruts and driftwood branches, to a tiny, primitive beach shack in Myanmar where the fresh fish was fabulous and the family proprietors became our friends; Riding ancient, rickety bikes through back roads of Senegal, following Abou, our congenial bicycle guide, who invited us to his wedding, a colorful, spirited event deep in the boon docks; Ducking out of our lakeside tent in Kenya for a middle-of-the night trek to the toilet on the other side of a field when a guide’s spotlight shone on a bloat (group) of hippos heading in our direction.
So, what were we doing in this 5* plus beach resort in Oman? It was our last hurrah, a final fling. We knew that with advancing age and medical issues, those adventures we cherish were no longer feasible. Bob was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s two years ago. Arthritis is taking its toll on my aging body. We decided to treat ourselves to a first class voyage. (We traveled in January. The trip was booked long before Covid 19 changed the world. )
Everything about our two-week trip was ultra – except airfare. That was, per usual, economy with extra leg room seats.
The Shangri-La Al Husn Resort and Spa is about a half hour from the new, state-of-the-art airport of Muscat, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman. The resort is part of a complex of three hotels. Our hotel, the priciest, was built atop a beachside cliff.
We booked half board at Al Husn. The all-inclusive price was expensive, but with all the over-the-top amenities, seemed reasonable.
Starting with breakfast: Mind boggling. Several rooms brimming with all manner of buffet selections to suit the tastes and customs of numerous nationalities, from Asian favorites, to smoked fish to sausage and eggs. The array of fresh fruit was gorgeous and intriguing – things I had never seen before.
There was also a breakfast menu, which, in addition to standard selections (scrambled eggs, pancakes etc.) featured specials that changed daily. I tried a different one each day. During breakfast a waiter or waitress came to offer the smoothie of the day, not to mention coffee refills.
No need for lunch after that, especially since breakfast continued until 11 a.m. You could linger on the terrace and enjoy sea and cliff views.
More pampering at the pool or beach. As you arrive, an attendant greets you and leads you to a lounge chair, presenting you with, not just towels, but a mini cooler filled with bottled water, fruit juice and a refreshing facial spray. The lounge cushions are extra thick. Some of the lounges are king bed size. In the afternoon about 3 p.m., an attendant strolls by offering sherbet, featuring the flavor of the day – strawberry, mango, banana…
Since our hotel was atop a cliff, its beach, a walk down a pathway, was small, however, its infinity pool was huge. And, we could use the wide sandy beach of the adjacent hotels along the shore
Not long after the sherbet pause, it’s time for a British break, high tea. Oman was a British Protectorate from 1891 – 1951. Tea (you can opt for coffee) is served from 3:45 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. on the same restaurant terrace as breakfast with the photo-perfect views. This time a waiter arrives at the table with a glass case enclosing three savory and three sweet treats. They were different every day, and we ate them all.
No time to work up an appetite for the aperitif snacks. Apero hour is from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Fortunately the snacks are petite, but delicious. Music is normally featured during the apero hour, but in honor of the recent death of Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, who ruled the country for almost 50 years, music was banned in the country for 40 days. Even with music, Al Husn would be quiet. No children are permitted at this hotel.
Among the three hotels, we had our choice of six restaurants. Our package included dinner and wine at a buffet restaurant with amazing selections. We dined there a few times, but also tried the others: Italian, seafood, international, Moroccan and Middle Eastern. At these, we had had a budget of 25 rial ($65) per person. We had to pay for exceeding the limit which we often did. We like wine – very costly in Oman. A glass was about $19.50. But, hey, this was our splurge trip, and we did limit ourselves to one glass each.
Al Husn means castle. We indeed felt like royalty during the 10 days we spent in this luxurious ambience. At times it seemed too much. Yet, we enjoyed the serenity, the beautiful surroundings—not to mention all those amenities.
The complex of three hotels has 640 rooms, 180 of which belong to Al Husn. The staff, from 800 to 1,000 employees depending on season, represent 44 different nationalities.
Yes, it was a major splurge, but every penny well spent. As my wonderful husband often says, “You can’t take it with you.” Covid aside, this was our last big trip and a perfect finale.
Today’s Taste, upper right, features a refreshing summer salad, Cucumbers in Sour Cream Dill Sauce. Click on photo for recipe and scroll down for more recipes.
I may be one of few who is not overwhelmed with Costa Rica. I did not dislike the beautiful country. The beaches are grand. The people are delightful. The food is good. But, I have been to too many other places that are more “me.” I had hopes of sighting interesting critters in the jungle on “safari” treks. I spotted few.
The critters are there. I suspect too many tourists have been tromping through the jungle, following guides with telescopes, sending the animals deep into the bush in search of peace and quiet.
While husband Bob spent two weeks with his daughter Kellie who has a holiday home in Costa Rica, I toured – on my own but with pre-arranged transportation between destinations. I joined guided tours through parks and to noteworthy sights during my visit last January
The Manuel Antonio National Park is Costa Rica’s most popular national park and where I joined my first guided hike. Groups like ours, all dutifully following a guide with a large telescope on a tripod, crowded the trails. Word spread quickly of a sighting. Instantly more guides, telescopes and tourists appeared.
Excitement was high at the sighting of a sloth hidden high in dense tree foliage. With the naked eye it was impossible to see anything but leaves. Those with gigantic zoom lenses (there were many) did manage to spot the creature. The rest of us relied on the guide’s telescope. Yet, even with high powered vision, all I could see was a tuft of fur.
This ritual was repeated time after time. The guide, with trained eyes and jungle experience, would spot a creature– various kinds of birds, lizards, sloths – camouflaged in the dense growth. Each of her followers then had a turn for a telescope view. And then, a keepsake photo with their cell phone camera which the guide placed, one by one, on the telescope.
It was steamy humid. I grew impatient and bored. I kept thinking of Africa where majestic creatures are often easy to spot. The tour ended on a beach where hundreds of monkeys frolicked. Monkeys may not be exotic, but they are fun and easy to see. I loved them.
More monkeys, iguanas, a rare lizard, all kind of birds, a deer – I saw them all on the grounds of the Posada Jungle Hotel adjacent to Manuel Antonio park where I spent four nights. This was better than a guided safari, and at my doorstep. The beach near the hotel was fabulous, for swimming and sunset viewing. I spent several evenings aiming for the perfect sunset shot while sipping a mojito.
Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano is a stunning sight. I was lucky. It is often hidden in clouds, but I saw it in all its glory. There have been no regular volcano eruptions since 2010. The surrounding region is popular for hiking and all sorts of rugged,extreme adventure. I opted for gentle adventure, a hanging bridge hike and another hike near the volcano.
Hanging bridges are common in the Costa Rican jungle. I was intrigued. It is exciting, even a tinge scary, to walk high above gorges on these structures which gently sway as you cross.
After the near-the-volcano hike, we set off to the Tobacon Hot Springs, a jungle wonderland of hot springs, pools, waterfalls, streams – all a bit kitschy, but crazy fun.
Birds were the star attraction during my relaxing boat tour of the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge near the Nicaraguan border. The guide entertained us with interesting facts about Costa Rica, as well as river wildlife, as we
drifted past lush rainforest and wetlands. In addition to the birds, we saw bats, a few crocodiles, a lizard… but nothing that thrilled me. I am spoiled. It’s hard to beat being up close and personal with mountain gorillas. (See previous post, “Gorillas in our Mist” Dec. 2015)
I was underwhelmed – and freezing – on the Monteverde Cloud Forest guided hike. This time it was cold and rainy. We learned a lot about various kinds of trees and vines, but – even with the telescope – spotted no exciting wildlife.
The van rides from one destination on my itinerary to the next were often long. The scenery, sometimes spectacular, and chatting with other passengers made the trips interesting. I met folks from the US, Canada, Scotland, England and Israel, including several young female backpackers en route to yoga retreats. Costa Rica is big with the yoga set. There were serious hikers and surfers. Costa Rica is also popular with surfers.
However, I did not come to Costa Rica to surf, nor to soothe my soul during a yoga retreat. Unfortunately I am too old for zip lining and canyoning. Spotting an illusive creature through a telescope did not thrill me. Granted, the beaches are super, but I do not need to travel so far for a fabulous beach
So, Costa Rica does not rank among my favorites, yet I am glad I experienced the country. And, tasted Costa Rican ceviche – a memorable culinary delight. Kellie shared her recipe. Click on photo top right.
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And the winner is — Yvonne Rouvinet. The competition: Geraniums.
Grimentz, a tiny Swiss hamlet high in the Anniviers Valley in southern Switzerland, is the Shangri-la of geraniums. The fiery red blossoms are the village claim to fame – brimming from boxes on houses, apartments, hotels, shops. Tourists clog narrow cobblestone lanes with their cell phone cameras.
Every August the village sponsors a geranium contest. This year there were over 170 entries in three categories: apartments, businesses and chalets. Rouvinet took top honors in the apartment category, beating out 130 other competitors.
Grimentz, a quintessential Swiss village, was my destination for a solo mountain break. Husband Bob stayed home with his daughter who was visiting. I miss the Swiss Alps where Bob and I had so many amazing adventures. We biked, with panniers, six of the country’s nine national bike routes. We hiked, often spending nights in gemütlich mountain lodges and huts. We skied its challenging slopes. I enjoyed several terrific press trips to different parts of the country. Those were the days. We were younger and very fit.
At times it was all too nostalgic. I could not hold back the tears when I saw cyclists loading their bikes on the trains. How many times had we done the very same thing? I hate growing old. I still yearn to soar down black runs (red would do), hike to high peaks, bike those three remaining Swiss bike routes. Merde!
Reality really set in when I set out on a hike which the guy in the tourist office recommended as “flat and easy” – supposedly an hour and half trek to the Hotel Weisshorn. I rode the funicular from St. Luc to the start of the trail. I had a backpack, but unfortunately no hiking poles. The trail was stoney. From the onset, there were ups and downs, not steep, but not my idea of flat. I progressed slowly, stopping to take photos. This was the Planets Trail with markers for the various planets along the way. After about 45 minutes I reached a large clearing where an imposing planet-like structure stood at the edge of the mountain. A woman sat on a bench underneath. I approached and asked her about it.
“Saturn,” she answered. I told her I was on the way to the Hotel Weisshorn. “Oh, it’s up there,” she said, pointing to a distant building atop a mountain. No way. This was not a “flat, easy hike.” I was devastated. I was already tired and my knees hurt.
Marie Claire is from Belgium and has been coming to nearby Zinal every year for many, many years, this time with a son. Her husband died in 2006. She hiked to the hotel two years ago, but intended to take a pass this year and head back down. Her son had charged ahead. She invited me to join her for the descent. She saved me, lending me one of her hiking poles.
We talked about our old and broken bodies. She has two knee replacements. I have one. We both have hip tendinitis. I have a decaying back. Marie Claire was also an inspiration, very positive about everything. “You have to keep moving.”
I failed at the Weisshorn hike, but certainly I could master the hike around Lake Moiry. Clement Vianin, a Grimentz native and the manager of the charming Hotel Meleze where I stayed, suggested I take the bus to the Moiry glacier, then hike the trail around the lake to the dam and bus stop at the other end. Bravo. I did it.
Like all mountain glaciers, this one has suffered from climate change and has receded significantly.
The lake is a marvel of intense, vibrant turquoise. Minerals from the glacier’s melting ice give the lake its gorgeous hue.
I relished hiking around the lake at a snail’s pace, stopping for lots of photos. I even tried macro on some wildflowers. This is the Switzerland I love.
I was in heaven the first night when I entered the cozy, woodsy restaurant of the Hotel Meleze permeated with the aromas of Switzerland – fondue and raclette. I ordered one of my favorites, the deluxe version of Croute au Fromage, bread topped with ham, Gruyere and an egg, baked so the cheese melts and the egg cooks. This called for several glasses of Fendant (Swiss white wine). During my visit I indulged in other Swiss favorites, Rosti, grated potatoes with any melange of other ingredients. I chose one with lots of melted cheese and an
egg. I had another cheese bombshell, a Risotto speciality at the Becs de Bosson restaurant. Parmesan is pounded smooth in a big bowl as you watch. Grappa is added, then the hot rice. That was my Swiss cheese farewell. I savored it all, but by then I had had enough cheese and was ready for a return to fish from the Med.
Back to those geraniums. I plant them every summer, but mine never looked like those in Grimentz. “It’s the climate,” Rouvinet said. “Not too hot. That is not good.” She also pointed out that the old dark wood of the village buildings “gives a good effect” to the geraniums. Many of the ancient houses date from the 13th to the 15thcentury.
The villagers use a special fertilizer for geraniums. They caution against over-watering. Dead-heading the faded blossoms is also critical. Many chalets and apartments in Grimentz are not occupied year round. Thirty village volunteers visit unoccupied residences to care for the flowers.
Grimentz is in the French speaking part of Valais, a bi-lingual canton in Switzerland. The town, elevation 1,570 meters, is a ski resort as well as a geranium Mecca. It has just 450 permanent residents, but the number skyrockets to as many as 4,000 in winter when skiers arrive. Summer and geraniums bring almost that number, but many just come for the day to admire red blossoms and take photos.
Rouvinet’s prize? Not a bottle of champagne. Not a bottle of Fendant, but a bottle of fertilizer and a coupon to buy geraniums next year.
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What a jolt. Icy water was poured down my back. Ah! Ouch! And I volunteered for this? I was on board the MS Nordlys with some 300 other passengers cruising the Norwegian coast. This was our baptism, a rite of passage for crossing the Arctic Circle. It was a chilling experience, but fun with lots of laughs, shrieks and photos. Participation was not obligatory. Many, including husband Bob, passed on the baptism.
The Nordlys (northern lights) is part of the Hurtigruten fleet. “Hurtigruten is not just a cruise ship. It is a unique hybrid, a cruise ship and a ferry,” said David Lam, a member of the expedition team on the MS Nordlys. “It’s a ferry with nice facilities.”
The ship was our home for 11 days as we embarked on a unique voyage exploring the stunning coast of Norway. Our cruise began and ended in Bergen, sailing all the way to Kirkenes on the Russian border and back. Passengers representing seven different nationalities were onboard during our cruise. Many, like us, were senior citizens.
Days on ship begin with announcements in four languages (Norwegian, English, German and French) about 8:30 am. No sleeping in. If you want breakfast, it is time to get up. The ample buffet of all the usual breakfast goodies, including different kinds of smoked fish, ends at 10 a.m.
Days are filled with interesting lectures, relaxing in comfortable lounges, marveling at the ever-changing scenery, and shore excursions. Announcements alert the passing of noteworthy sights. Passengers gather outdoors on deck7 (the Nordlys has 8 decks) for explanations and photo opps. We were blessed with several warm, sunny days, as well as cool and cloudy days, but only one rainy day.We experienced rough seas once. The boat rocked. We rocked when walking as if we had had one too many — but that would have been costly on the Nordlys.
Norway is very expensive. The cruise was very expensive. Alcoholic beverages and soft drinks, not covered in the cruise price, are expensive.
When crossing the Arctic Circle and entering the region of the midnight sun and northern lights we were invited to toast the event with a glass of champagne with a strawberry. I naively thought this was gratis. No. That champagne cost 125 NOK (Norwegian krone, about $12.50).
No matter. It was fun minus champagne. The return Arctic circle crossing celebration involved a spoonful of wretched cod liver oil followed by a spoonful of a sweet liqueur. Grimaces and laughs this time. You could keep the spoon. Plus, have a glass of champagne for a price.
Entering the legendary Troll fjord, a 2-kilometer fjord with a narrow entrance and surrounded with steep-sided mountains, called for another celebration. Most cruise ships are too large to enter the fjord. Smaller Hurtigruten ships, like the Nordlys, can only enter during the summer months. It was amazing to witness the ship turn around in the tight space.
This feat was celebrated with a cup of troll coffee. Price: 99 NOK ($11) for a cup of coffee with a splash of schnapps. But, you could keep the souvenir fjord cup. I had passed on the champagne, but splurged on the coffee – shared with Bob.
“At Hurtigruten we give you the opportunity to travel with meaning. Building on our explorer heritage dating back to 1893, our explorations are grounded in the likings of people who value learning and personal growth over luxury…you won’t find waterslides, casinos or any sort of dress code,” states the Hurtigruten brochure.
We had booked an Arctic superior cabin on deck 6. It had all the necessities, including TV with CNN (important) but was miniscule. Galant Bob took the window side of the double bed. To get in and out, he had to side step.
A German woman from Augsburg told me she had taken four or five luxury cruises. “This is very different. It is not a luxury cruise, but I knew that. I am glad I came. I wanted to see Norway,” she said.
The cruise is an excellent way to see Norway, especially if one participates in some of the shore excursions. They too are pricey, but offer the opportunity to see and learn about this Nordic land. We especially enjoyed biking in the town of Trondheim, a visit to the indigenous Sami, feasting on King Crab pulled directly from the frigid waters as we watched, and several bus excursions through spectacular countryside.
In addition to organizing entertaining celebrations and leading excursions, the friendly and knowledgeable expedition team conduct lectures covering various topics; polar explorations, birds of Norway, Norway and Norwegians, and more. The latter was enlightening. Norway vies with Finland for having the happiest citizens. Dream on, DT, Norwegians do not want to emigrate to the U.S.
While breakfast and lunch were buffet feasts with open seating, we had assigned seats for the three-course dinners. The food was good, innovative and interesting, focusing on local ingredients and Norwegian specialties.
We received a menu with each meal explaining in detail the ingredients and preparation. The salmon was the best I have ever eaten, and the reindeer was a rare and delicious treat.
As mentioned, Hurtigruten is more than a cruise ship. In the late 19th century, services along the 780-mile coastline from Bergen to Kirkenes, a busy route for transportation of goods and people, were unreliable. Shipping companies were invited to submit tenders for operating an express route between Trondheim and Tromsø, or Hammerfest. In 1893, Captain Richard With’s steamer, DS Vesteraalen, established a regular sea link between the towns which was later expanded from Bergen to Kirkenes, a trip of only seven days. The connection was named “hurtigruten” – the fast route. With went on to explore other Nordic destinations.
“This marks the beginning of Hurtigruten’s adventurous and unique explorer operations,” states the company literature. Destinations now include Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and Antarctica, as well as ports along the Norwegian coast.
In addition to cruise passengers, cars, bicycles, motorcycles and some cargo were on board the Nordlys. We met many “walk-in” passengers who used the ship as a ferry from one stop to another. If their transit is less than 24 hours, they can travel without booking a cabin. Some, with backpacks nearby, stretch out on comfortable lounge chairs and sofas. They are free to use all ship facilities, including the jacuzzis.
Hurtigruten is at the forefront of sustainable tourism. The company is building the first ever hybrid-powered expedition cruise ships and has eliminated single-use plastic from all its ships and hotels. Their “Coastal Kitchen” relies on locally sourced products.
Yes, it is expensive. But, it is a beautiful and enlightening experience (minus the baptism and cod liver oil). And now I have a Polar Arctic certificate.
If not a talesandtravel follower, sign up, upper right. Your email is not shared. More about Norway to come: the amazing country, its food, photos of the splendid scenery.. I will also be posting on my trip last winter to Costa Rica. And, whatever else inspires me. Don’t miss out.
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