Zermatt, Switzerland

In the tradition of this blog, I’m going to write about a trip that is completely out of season to the time of year this is posted: our Christmas holiday! This is one of several posts I’m planning to write about our trip to Switzerland and the UK this past December.

As usual, our adventures start with an idea by Mum. Zermatt, Switzerland, a picture postcard perfect village in the Alps, is where we were going, and we were going to see snowy mountains.

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Zermatt, Switzerland

Coming from Los Angeles, we packed all the warm gear we had (and bought more) – down jackets, snow boots, long johns, gloves, hats, scarves – and flew via Bournemouth, UK, where we collected Mum and my brother, to Geneva, Switzerland. It was then a two hour drive in the dark to Täsch, followed by a 20 minute train to Zermatt. Because Zermatt is small and car-free, we walked from the train station to the Hotel Butterfly.

Mum had been checking the webcam in Zermatt for about two months, hoping there was going to be snow in the village, but when we arrived there wasn’t even a snowflake.  This turned out to be a Good Thing, because it was already plenty cold enough.

The next morning we decided to go straight up in the cable car and see the Matterhorn. We walked through the village in -6C temperatures and before we’d gone more than ¼ mile the Matterhorn was right there!  While there were machines creating artificial snow on the lower slopes, we could see higher up there was plenty of real snow.

At the cable car terminus we each bought a return ticket for $100 USD (ouch!) to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise – the next mountain across from the Matterhorn – and got in line with approximately one million skiers to board a cable car. Luckily, the cars were only small, so we got one to ourselves, and soon we were climbing high into the mountains.

At the first station, the doors opened but we didn’t get out because we had a really good view of the Matterhorn from where we were sitting.  At the second (or was it the third?) station we had to change cable cars. This final cable car was absolutely packed with skiers. Then finally at 12,739 feet (8,338 meters) we were at the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. We peeled away from the mass of skiers and went up to the viewing platform where it was frigid, but the views were spectacular.

It was crystal clear and the visibility must have been 50 miles. We could see the distant mountains, including Mt Blanc, clearly.

After admiring the view for a while we realized we were turning into icicles so we headed down along the long tunnel to the café. We warmed up in a patch of sun and had hot chocolates and coffee.

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Start of the ski run at Glacier Paradise

Since our extremely expensive cable car pass also gave us access to the “Glacier Palace”, we decided to check it out. The entrance was along a long tunnel that winded downhill straight into the glacier. The walls of the tunnel were made of hard ice. When we got to the bottom there were a wide range of ice sculptures on display and, strangely, an ice slide. It turned out the slide was not all that slippery unless you took a flying run at it… which of course, we did.

After satisfying ourselves we’d got our money’s worth, we went back in the cable car (empty this time!) to the mid-station. We had lunch and watched the skiers, then headed back down to Zermatt, running into a wedding on the way back to the hotel.

That evening we went for a walk around the village, comparing the price of glühwein at pretty much every bar in town (answer: they were all 6-10 Euros/glass). We eventually settled on a tiny bar that seated about 10 people, parked ourselves at the counter, and defrosted with 7 Euro glühwein. Then, thanks to my brother remembering to make a reservation, we had dinner at the Restaurant Whymper-Stube, named after the man who was the first to climb the Matterhorn.  This restaurant brings in the entire sitting at once, several times a night. Inside it was so hot that we had to strip down to our t-shirts. Dinner was excellent.

The next morning we left Zermatt (still no snow) then took a quick drive up to Verbier for lunch before Mum and my brother dropped us at the town of Montreux. Read more about that in my next post (coming soon!).

What to do near New Orleans

Continued from previous post: What to do in New Orleans

After a few days in the city, we picked up a car and headed out of New Orleans. The first thing I insisted we do is drive across the longest bridge over water in the world: the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway – at 24 miles long. Once on the bridge, it wasn’t long before we could see only road and water. The geek in me thought this was great.

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After crossing we were then on the wrong side of the lake, so we drove north, west then south and ended up all the way back around at Peavine Road. We had lunch at Frenier Landing. The deserted restaurant was decorated with creepy looking stuffed animals and had boat propellers for ceiling fans. A quick bowl of gumbo later we drove to our next stop.

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We crossed the river at the impressive Veterans Memorial Bridge and went into the Whitney Plantation for the late afternoon tour.

At the Whitney Plantation we were greeted by our guide, Ali. Ali gave a passionate and fascinating history of the slavery in the US and the work that went on at this plantation. He showed us the plantation church, the cabins, the jail, the kitchen and the ‘big house’.  The big house was large, functional, and painted to resemble marble, as was apparently high fashion at the time. The double row of trees leading from the river to the front of the house acted as an air conditioner for the house, and the floor of the ground level was tiled, to better allow floodwaters to escape. In stark contrast, the slave cabins were small, hot and sparse.

The tour was a sobering experience, and at the end, when describing how slavery was ended through the efforts of those who had nothing, Ali told us what he tells school kids that visit: “not attempting to achieve your dreams is just laziness.”

That evening we stayed at the excellent Holiday Inn Express at LaPlace, and went to the Crab Trap Restaurant for dinner where we had the obligatory boiled crawfish. We ordered about twice as much as should have, and we needed a lesson from the waitress on how to, er, deal with the crawfish. Quite a long time later, and in need of several bandages from the sharp bits of shell, we were finished. It was delicious.

The next morning, we drove the few minutes up the road to Cajun Pride Swamp Tours. We boarded the boat, and for the next two hours our guide did not draw breath as we motored through the beautiful swamp. His monologue was uninterrupted as he threw marshmallows to the crocodiles in the water and to the raccoon family on the land. The turtles were not interested in marshmallows and remained perched on their fallen logs. At one point the guide pulled out a baby crocodile from a tank hidden at the back of the boat, taped its jaw shut (“regulations”) and passed it around the 40 people on board. I got the impression it was less than impressed with the experience, but everyone on board, including us, was.

Then we disembarked, and that was the end of our trip to Louisiana. We had a fantastic time in and around New Orleans. I highly recommend you visit too!

Check out: New Orleans: food city

What to do in New Orleans

What to do in New Orleans

This was our first trip to New Orleans and during the few days we had in the city we tried to visit every single place we were recommended.

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We went across the river on the $2 ferry to Algiers. The variety of house decoration in this neighborhood was staggering: they were all colors of the rainbow, all were festooned with plants and flowers, and many had intricate woodwork. It was only after we got back we learned that Algiers has a very high crime rate.

We went up to the City Park on the tram with wooden seats and windows you could lean your whole torso out of if you chose. At the gardens, Spanish moss coated all the trees and homeless people were camped in the bushes.

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We took the tram to the Garden District and used a self-guided walking tour I found on the internet to explore the area. The tour was quite interesting but one got the impression most of the information was made up. The cemetery and the architecture in this area were fascinating. We saw beads in the trees.

We also went to the French Market for the random stalls and walked along Frenchmen Street one evening to hear loud jazz overlapping from multiple venues.

As a closet geography geek I was interested to see the city’s flood defenses up close. We found out how to get to the walkways on top of the levees (i.e. scramble up them) and saw the city and the Mississippi river from a different perspective. From here we saw houses and industry to our left, and to our right, the river and giant tanker ships. The river seemed like the focus of the city, yet somehow peripheral to it.

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Walking the streets of the French Quarter (Vieux Carré) in the relatively early morning was a contrast to the loud and crowded night-time experience. In daylight we were greeted by delivery trucks jamming the road. Men with hand carts were pushing boxes of vegetables to their destinations, and the ground was wet from owners hosing down the sidewalk from the previous night’s excess.

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The freight trains are a feature of downtown New Orleans too. We heard the horn every evening, but thought it was a ship. Then as we were heading to the Hilton’s Dragos for charbroiled oysters, and we saw a massive train trundle past.

Next post: What to do near New Orleans. We took a car to visit a plantation and a swamp.

Previous post / New Orleans: food city

Next post / What to do near New Orleans

 

New Orleans: food city

New Orleans is unlike any US city I’ve ever visited. It feels European, with its narrow streets and tall balconied buildings. Mum and I were there in May and the weather absolutely perfect: sunny every day, not too hot, and mild evenings. We stayed in the Omni Royal Crescent hotel near the French Quarter, but far enough away from the noise. It was a very easy and cheap to get around on the trams, and it was, of course, very easy to find places to eat. Which brings me to the first topic of this three-part post: FOOD!

New Orleans School of Cooking

After reviewing TripAdvisor and other places, we decided that going to watch a cooking demonstration would be a Good Thing to do. So on our first morning we turned up at the New Orleans School of Cooking for their Daily Open Demonstration Class. The room was packed and the class sat with rapt attention as instructor Pat described the foundation of New Orleans, and how the coming and going of the French and the Spanish informed the cuisine that the city is famous for.

The $32.50 fee was worth it just to listen to this history lesson, but then we got to watch Pat cook four dishes: gumbo, jambalaya, bananas foster and pralines. Then we got to eat it all and wash it down with the local Abita beer. We were given the recipes, and told if we cooked one of the dishes at home we could send off for a certificate. I bought some of the local spice “Joe’s Stuff” and cooked gumbo when we got back to Pasadena – and duly received my certificate!

And the rest

After the cooking class, and based on all the recommendations we received, we had a big list of other food we needed to try, including boiled crawfish, po’boys,  grilled oysters, and of course, beignets and chicory coffee at Café Du Monde. And naturally, each evening, we had to try a new cocktail – the more imaginative name the better (Gator Juice anyone?). Brennan‘s was the stand-out place for cocktail hour, thanks to its calm back courtyard and attentive service.

Next post: What to do in New Orleans

Maui in ten photographs

We spent Christmas 2015 in Maui, HI. It was a magical, relaxing week.

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Maui: we were staying in Wailea

The first day we went on a tour of the Road to Hana, then spent most of the rest of the week at the beach and watching sunsets. Below are my top ten photographs of the trip.

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Even flying into Maui was spectacular.

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This cove on the Road to Hana was on the eastern side of the island.  Massive waves rolled in from the Pacific and crashed through blowholes in the rock.

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On the Road to Hana waterfalls proved to be popular attractions.

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Well past Hana at this point, the volcanic nature of the landscape becomes obvious.

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The scenery was beyond breathtaking all the way around the island.

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Back near Wailea, we spent a couple of mornings at Big Beach.

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We watched the sunset each night. Never did see a green flash though.

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A colorful gecko came to say hello Christmas morning.

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An evening walk was the perfect way to end Christmas Day.