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Bumbling Through Belgium

September 12, 2013 by · Comments Off on Bumbling Through Belgium 

While I consider myself a seasoned world traveler, Carol Skipper had only been out of the country once before, but it seemed like I was the one making all the mistakes.  I arranged to meet Carol’s flight at the Amsterdam airport, a destination I’d flown into the week before.

Debi and Carol

Debi and Carol in Bruges

 

Carol arrived in the morning and we transferred our belongings to the airport hotel. Then we returned to get a bus for Keukenhof, Holland’s premier tulip garden covering 80 acres.  But when I reached to get my cell phone out of my zippered pocket, it was gone. I’d been pick-pocketed in those few moments.

 

 

 

 

Feeling naked and without my link to the world, I tried to forget about it. I struggled feeling like someone had violated my personal space and I kept kicking myself for not being more attentive. Nonetheless, we bought our tickets and then missed hearing our group being called. I was so frazzled and Carol was in that haze of an overnight flight, so neither of us had even been aware. Fortunately, another bus left in a half hour and we redeemed the mistake.

 

Keukenhof Tulip

Keukenhof Tulip

 

 

The sprawling gardens and the day were spectacular and we got down to using our macro and telephotos lenses trying to isolate flowers. We meandered through the greenhouses, around a lake and up a windmill. When the hungries hit, we bought a waffle, a typical afternoon snack for Dutch and Belgians. That may seem like a boring statement to include, but not when it was the best waffle you’d ever eaten. We became hooked and these dense, sugar crusted gems became once-a-day treats for the rest of the trip.

 

We lost track of time and when we arrived at the bus loading area, it was mobbed as thick as the pregame swarm waiting to enter the Florida/Georgia game. Where had all of these people come from and where was the line we needed? We hoped for the best and got in a queue among the orderly mass (quite civilized compared to US crowds). Eventually we made it back to the airport, then took the hotel shuttle and ended our first day together- exhausted and happy.

 

 

Amsterdam

Amsterdam

 

The next morning we wanted to catch the hi-speed train for Brussels. Another snag – our EuRail passes required an extra fee for this direct train.  We were okay with paying more, but there were no open reservations. Lesson learned. Instead, we boarded the train requiring us to makes transfers. “No problem,” said the conductor, just cross the platform.”

 

We did just that, lugging our suitcases and camera gear and got on the next train across the platform.  Except the next train was not the 10:12, it was the 10:07. Who knew trains were so exact.  We soon realized we were on the wrong train and would have to get off and transfer once again.  Whew!

 

Brussels Grand Place Illumination

Brussels Grand Place Illumination

Alas we made it to Brussels and immediately discovered a waffle vendor. One bite and our troubles were over. We checked into the wonderful Royal Windsor Hotel which was within walking distance (thanks Belgium Tourism). This place was gorgeous, one of the perks of my being a travel writer even if just for one night. But, we were not here to relax in a hotel room, no matter how nice.

 

We had pre-paid for a city tour including a stop at a chocolate factory. Off we went with our cameras and met the group; toured the Grand Place, which was indeed a grand collection of Gothic, Baroque and Flemish architectural wonders including city hall. We saw much of the newer districts – the capitol of the European Union, the royal palace and visited the former site of the 1958 World’s Fair to capture the Atomium – a very cool immense statue of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times.

 

 

 

Our chocolate class ended up more of a demonstration; however we had a lot of laughs with the chocolate replicas of the famous Brussels statue, Manneken Pis. Need we say more?

Chocolate Class Mannenken Pis

Chocolate Clas Mannenken Pis

We dined at an outdoor cafe near the Grand Place and then photographed the buildings as super cool recessed neon lightening came on.  As much as we wanted to stay until it got really dark (sunset doesn’t arrive until 10 pm), we were just too tired. We walked back to the hotel and almost went to bed. But whoa!  I looked out and ended up climbing on top of the desk to open the window to get this shot!!

Grand Place Window View

Grand Place Window View

Mannenken Pis

Mannenken Pis

 

 

 

 

 

We left enough time in the morning to see the real Manneken Pis.  He is just a tiny statue, barely two feet high, and was dressed in a military outfit, but if you are in Brussels, you must visit him! Then we schlepped all our bags back to the train station and took off for Ghent. Big change from a bustling major city, however, Ghent is large enough that we needed a taxi to get us to our historic district hotel.

 

 

 

That afternoon we took a canal cruise and strolled the streets- and ate another waffle.  Ghent is a charming Flemish town, full of canal houses, cafes, cathedrals and a castle. It’s also a university town.

 

When Carol went to upload her photos to her laptop, the thing crashed. Great- now she was without her computer and me without my phone. Annoying and frustrating, but not enough to stop us from having a good time.

 

I might also add that Carol was big on ordering water, while I sampled Belgian beer- some of the best in the world.  When the bill would arrive, Carol always owed more for her water than me drinking brewskies. Hmmm.

 

Ghent Canal

Ghent Canal

We were staying in Ghent two nights, but the next morning we needed to get back to the train station in order to make a day trip to Bruges. We felt proud of ourselves as we bought tickets from a machine and rode the public tram.

 

We wandered into Bruges passing house after house with a door, or window, or roofline we wanted to photograph. The medieval town of winding streets and canals is justifiably one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe. It’s totally charismatic, with a large market square, horse and buggies to ride and even a swan lake.

 

We waited in line to climb the Belfort or bell tower, 366 steps up a 272 foot tower built between the 13th and 15th centuries. After huffing and puffing, the view was fantastic but the window grating made photography difficult.

 

We sat outdoors for lunch, me indulging in a big bowl of mussels, a local specialty. We shopped back alleys, went into the Gothic town hall, saw a relic of the blood of Christ, got turned around several times and finally made it to the church to see Michelangelo’s statue of Madonna and Child– at the exact moment the priest was closing the door.  “Come back tomorrow morning,” he said.  How sad, we wouldn’t be in Bruges again. We did discover a marvelous photo op bridge and the tallest ever brick steeple on the church.  And we did indulge in Belgian chocolate on the way back. Bruges is definitely a destination that calls for at least two days if not longer.

 

Ghent Cathedral

Ghent Cathedral

 

 

Once back in Ghent we hopped on the tram, debating if we needed to purchase another ticket. Our real trouble was that we couldn’t remember exactly where we had gotten on in the morning!  Needless to say, we walked a very long way back to our hotel.

 

The next morning we stopped in St. Bavo’s Cathedral before leaving town, we couldn’t miss another artistic masterpiece. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is 12 famous altar panels by Jan van Eyck and his brother, completed in 1432.  All except one panel are original and each is exquisitely painted in great detail except for the two end panels of Adam and Eve which are very stark. Very memorable.

 

Then off for Amsterdam. Again I goofed and got us on a local train with many stops. But one of the funniest moments came as we checked into our lodging- I had unknowingly booked us into a gay and lesbian hotel. The place was a throw back to the early 70’s, with “mod” decor.  We laughed and felt a little strange, but dropped our luggage and took off to see the sights.

 

We waited in a long line to see the Anne Frank house, again well worth the time and effort. We dined along the canal and wished we had another week instead of a morning flight. Sadly, the sun began to sink and gas lights came on and we vowed we’d just have to bumble through another adventure next year.

 

Disclosure:  My trip to Holland and Belgium was entirely self-funded except for the one night’s lodging in the Royal Windsor Hotel, Brussels, compliments of Belgium Tourism.  My thanks.

A Luxury Houseboat on Lake Powell

August 2, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

A Luxury Houseboat on Lake Powell

Spending a week aboard a posh houseboat off the shores of Lake Powell is an exceptionally distinctive vacation option. My temporary “ownership” of a luxurious floating-condo made me feel like Leonardo DiCaprio stretching out on the Titanic as “king of the world.”

 

The jagged shoreline of the massive 186 mile-long reservoir, adjacent to Utah/Arizona border, exceeds that of  the entire western coast of the continental United States. Imagine sailing on brilliant turquoise water surrounded by shimmering red rocks, layered terracotta cliffs, salmon colored beaches and postcard views from every angle. The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area epitomizes the desert southwest– bursting with hundreds of side trails, Indian ruins and awe-inspiring natural wonders.

 

Lake Powell came into existence following years of bitter controversy. In 1956 workers began pouring concrete for the arch dam and didn’t stop the round the clock labors for more than three years. Seven years after groundbreaking, Lake Powell was generating power and opened its gates for recreational activities.  However, it would be seventeen years before the reservoirs water-level reached “full pool.” Today some three million people visit annually for memorable boating, skiing, kayaking and fishing adventures.

 

During the off-season, five-star air-conditioned houseboats can be rented by the night, throughout the summertime a minimum weekly contract is required.  Extended families or multiple couples adopt the immense, up to 75 feet long, boats as extraordinary floating-homes. Each of the four or five generously appointed bedrooms is fitted with double sized, lavish bedding and a flat screen TV positioned at the foot of the bed. Granite and chrome kitchens, worthy of Bobby Flay, sit adjacent to the combination family room/dining room –anchored around a theatre-style entertainment hub.

 

Complimentary transport along with a driving lesson for guests who desire assistance is provided by Forever Resorts, the premier firm offering the opulent aquatic-abodes. Many houseboats set their mooring lines in a romantic cove serving as home base for the duration. Others prefer to pull up anchor and cruise to a new beach or cove every day. Adult vacationers enjoy setting up folding tables and chairs for sunset al fresco dining while kids beg for beach campfires to share marshmallows and stories under starry skies.

Let the self-indulgence continue: lounging in a hotel-sized hot tub, playing bartender on the upper deck or slipping onto the curved sliding board and make a grand entrance into the crisp cool water.

Renting a smaller powerboat offers added mobility and swift exploration of the waterways– think bobbing through the pages of National Geographic. Dawn and dusk outings challenge photographers with dramatic dancing shadows. Surrounding canyons shrink sinuously, the soaring walls caressing the bold adventurer.

 

Poweboating on Lake Powell

My one-night stay aboard a luxury houseboat on this jet-set playground could fill an entire episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Powell’s saffron colored landscapes with their stunning and dramatic formations contrast sharply with my East Coast background, where trees boldly border the shoreline. The simplicity and sereneness of the wind-swept southwest was tranquilizing to my eye. The forces of nature etched into my soul like grooves in the canyon floor.

Rainbow Bridge, Utah

In the afternoon, a rocket-fast speedboat journey to Rainbow Bridge interrupted my tranquility only to give way to an inland excursion ashore and the chance to peer at the vast natural archway– eternity personified. The stone bridge powerfully rises, draws a bold arc across the sky, then descends earthward with grace–a glorious natural wonder worth a once in a lifetime wander.

Next morning, I rose before dawn to watch the glinting sunrays dabble and paint the sandstone temples. While the ritual has repeated over millions of years, for me, this sunrise was profound. I ran back and forth around the top deck not knowing where to look because every direction was equally tantalizing. It would be unimaginable to ever tire of this sunsational way to start a day, truly life on Golden Pond.

Golden Pond

 For rental information

www.antelopepointlakepowell.com

www.ForeverResorts.com


Utah on Dwellable

Riding the Grand Canyon Railroad

May 20, 2011 by · Comments Off on Riding the Grand Canyon Railroad 

Grand Canyon Railroad departs from Williams, AZ

Imagine stepping back in time and arriving at the Grand Canyon the same way travelers did more than 100 years ago- on the iron horse.

I recently experienced this journey starting in the heart of downtown Williams, Arizona, a frontier “Main Street” town along the legendary Route 66.  Williams retains much original architecture and road-side appeal from the era when car travel was king and roadside cafes dotted the rural towns along fabled Route 66.

In Williams, every morning begins with a Wild West shootout. Of course, I expected a lot of cheesy humor from a scripted show, but the costumed actors were surprisingly good and the banter was honestly fun. The audience got into the moment.

Shoot-Out in Williams, AZ

Afterward, the crowd walks to the diesel-powered train as the conductor barks out, “All-aboard!” My first-class ticket provided entree to the “luxury” cars with sofas and tables, an attendant, food, drinks and even a strolling banjo player. What a relaxing and stress-free journey. During the two and half hour ride, I walked from car to car and stood on the rear platform to capture some incredibly exotic “Kodak” moments with my camera.

Before the railroad opened for business in 1901, visitors arrived at the magnificently chiseled Canyon via four-horse-team stagecoach. Tickets cost $20 for that arduous bumpy ride compared to $3.95 for the new-fangled choo-choo. No wonder steam powered trains instantly became the desired choice of public transport. However, as automobiles grew in popularity, rail travel slowly dwindled. In 1968, the tracks went quiet and lay dormant for twenty more years. Then, in 1989, the line was renovated, providing children and adults an opportunity to savor a most romantic mode of travel.

Grand Canyon Depot

Banjo player on the Grand Canyon Railroad

My sojourn ended in front of the massive, yet cozy Grand Canyon Depot, an incredibly  picturesque log-framed station. Back in 1905, the Santa Fe Railway built the El Tovar Hotel across the tracks. The El Tovar reigned as one of the most luxurious hotels of its day featuring hot and cold running water, electric lights, art galleries and plush dining rooms. The original dark timbered structure still beckons and I walked in to take a peek.  Moose, deer and buffalo heads adorn the lobby along with large paintings of the Canyon. Most US Presidents through the 20th Century have stayed there. Sadly, I did not.

My first look at the Grand Canyon truly overwhelmed me- it’s stunning, awesome, terrifying– yet glorious. My heart raced and tears formed in my eyes. Grand is not the right word; there simply are no apt words to capture this national treasure should be high on everyone’s bucket list. It does not disappoint.

Ample and safe parking for autos is available in Williams near the train station. Riding the rail relieves the Grand Canyon of some 50,000 cars annually. In addition, arrival by train bypasses tollbooth backups and eliminates the need to utilize shuttle bus transfers from remote parking to the Grand Canyon Village and South Rim.

View upon arrival at the Canyon- The South Rim

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