Category Archives: Tours

When in New York City, take the boat

Part of our City Sights NY 3 day package was a boat trip around Manhattan Island with the Circle Line cruise company. So, after 2 days, off and on, touring New York on a double-decker bus, on the third day we sailed.

Statue of Liberty from the Circle Line Boat
Statue of Liberty from the Circle Line Boat

The Circle Line is New York’s oldest and largest cruise company. It has been sailing since 1945 and has hosted over 60 million passengers. It is one of the world’s most famous boat rides and the Circle Line terminal on Pier 83 is one of 42nd Street’s most famous landmarks.

The cruise circles Manhattan Island and passes the other four boroughs – Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx – that make up the five boroughs of New York. It heads south along the Hudson River, between Manhattan and New Jersey. It sails into Upper New York Bay for a glimpse of Staten Island, then rounds the south end of Manhattan and heads north up the East River, passing Long Island, with Brooklyn and Queens on the southern tip. It continues into the Harlem River and passes the Bronx, on the mainland. At the northern end of Manhattan, it passes back into the Hudson through the Harlem Canal for the final stretch back to Pier 83.

The New York skyline looks different from the deck of our circle line boat. It is softened too by a veil of fine drizzle.

To our right, on the New Jersey shore, lies Hoboken, home town of Frank Sinatra, once struggle town but now gentrifying like the rest of the Big Apple. On the left we spot Battery Park, the mile of land reclaimed from the Hudson, where the largest real estate development in the US forms a backdrop to Pier A, the oldest pier in NYC. Behind and above Battery Park is the forlorn space in the sky where the twin towers of the World Trade Centre once stood. We cruise up to the Statue of Liberty, holding her torch 300feet above the harbour and linger at Ellis Island, once the immigrants’ gateway to the US and now home to the Immigration Museum.

We turn back between Governor’s Island, headquarters of the US coastguard and Lower Manhattan, passing the historic South Street Seaport with the Fulton Market in the block of century old buildings behind it. We cruise under the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge. We pass the United Nations Building, (looking rather the worse for wear from this side) and Roosevelt Island, fully self-contained and dubbed ‘one of the most unusual new communities in the United States’. Just across the river the lawns of elegant Gracie Mansion, official residence of the Mayor of New York, slope down to the water’s edge. We sail under the Triborough Bridge which connects the Boroughs of Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx and look into the shell of Yankee Stadium which witnessed its closing game just weeks ago.

We turn up the Harlem River and under the Spuyten Dyvil (Spitting Devil) Bridge, where, after 3 blasts on our boat’s horn, an invisible operator swings the center section open so that we can pass through. High on a hill at the northern tip of Manhattan, among the thick bush of Fort Trynon Park are the towers of the Cloisters, once a monastery and now an outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Our last Bridge is the George Washington, with its little Red Lighthouse, no longer operational but preserved as a children’s playground. The tomb of Ulysses S Grant, Civil War hero, slips by, followed by the Riverside Church, home of the World Council of churches and the Soldiers and Sailors monument, in memory of those who lost their lives in the Civil War. The circle is closed.

The Circle Line brochure declares “cruises are designed to provide the best viewing opportunities, but also to be informative, comfortable and entertaining as well” Our Circle Line cruise did not disappoint. In fact it exceeded our expectations. Highlights for me, however, were not the landmarks, although I wouldn’t have missed the circle line views of them for the world.  The most memorable parts of the cruise for me were the unexpected glimpses of quiet rrustic scenes; deserted little beaches and inlets, patches of forest, overhanging trees, shady parks contrasted with intensely the urban; grim apartment blocks in the Bronx where kids waved from high windows, fenced-in concrete courts in Harlem, where boys shot hoops. Lastly, there was David, a drama graduate, a history buff and an amazing raconteur, who brought landmarks, Boroughs, bridges, , islands and little secret spots along the river to brilliant life.

The colours of holidays

Green, blue, white, grey, yellow and rainbow – these are the colours of holidays! Whatever your preferred vacation destination – forest, seaside, mountain, desert, or mix of the lot – modern tourism has you colour coded!

A beach in Aotearoa New Zealand
A beach in Aotearoa New Zealand

Green Tourism, also known as rustic, country or agri-tourism, is motivated by the quest for nature and tranquillity. Green tourists seek renewal or rejuvenation in pristine forests or beside wooded rivers and lakes.

Blue Tourism centres on the sea, lakes, rivers, spas, springs and waterfalls. At heart, Blue tourists believe in the healing, restorative powers of water.

White Tourism leads to the purity and the cold of snow covered mountains in winter, but sometimes also in summer. The mountains, especially those which are covered in snow all year round, represent something enduring and reassuring in a constantly changing world.

Grey Tourism has the towns and the cities as its destination. Its object is the artificial rather than the authentic and culture rather than nature. . 

Yellow Tourism takes the holiday maker to the desert sands, with their solitude and their vast, arid emptiness.

Multi-coloured Tourism is the experience offered by organised tours. It races you through a mix of colours – the blue of the water, the green of the countryside, the white of the mountains, the grey of the cities and the yellow of the desert – the full rainbow of sensations.

So, what’s your favourite holiday hue?

 

The National Museum of Australia

The big, bold, bright and angular National Museum of Australia sits on the edge of Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin. It breaks the balance of Walter Burley Griffin’s art deco city, the decorous white of the New Parliament building and the muted green of the landscape with its unruly lines. From a distance it’s an attention-grabbing architectural interloper. Up close, from outside it’s overwhelming. Inside it’s magical.

In the Garden of Australian Dreams
In the Garden of Australian Dreams

You can dip into the past and find fascinating (and minute) details like the origin of the “furphy”.  You can dance through the present (literally) following the moves of young aboriginal dancers. You can design your own space-craft, don three-d glasses and watch it negotiate the 22nd century freeways in K Space’s theatrette.

But the best and most beautiful space at the National Museum is the garden Of Australian Dreams. The gallery brochure describes it as a “rich landscape of symbols and meanings drawn from Australian life”

A giant map spreads across the surface of the garden and under the Museum building, bringing together the conventional map of Australia as well maps of aboriginal boundaries, vegetation,  geology, roads and electorates.  The broad yellow line which intersects the area, represents the line devised by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 to divide the globe into Portuguese and Spanish territories.  Red and white poles represent the way that the early surveyors read the Australian landscape. A walk-in camera obsura helps you to interpret the garden. The bush is represented by a stand of gums. The rudimentary white “Dream House” represents the built environment of Australia. The gnome perched on a ledge on the “Dream House” represents the “Antipodean” that Europeans of the Middle Ages imagined lived in the mythical land down under.

Always available to guide you and answer any questions on the National Museum of Australia, is a large, well informed, endlessly gracious, multi-cultural and multi-lingual retinue of guides.

Crossing Fiji’s Viti Levu

Stepping off the plane at Nandi Airport in Fiji was like a homecoming; a ukulele band was plunking away in the distance, there were lavalavas and bright island prints, there was  ululating Pacific language and a warm breeze blew through the arrivals hall.

A roadside stall in Fiji
A roadside stall in Fiji

The two hour drive from Nandi to the Uprising Beach Resort took us from one side of Viti Levu to the other and then around the coral coast to the island’s southern side. We slowed for road works, police and military roadblocks, flooded fords, washed out bridges and lumbering trucks laden with long sticks of freshly harvested sugar cane.

The long ride was worth it for the close and slow insights into Fijian life. When we first set out in the late afternoon, the countryside was busy with workers cutting and ploughing, some with machines, but more than a few with bullocks, and the roads were blocked by trucks. We passed roadside stores with thatched rooves and groups of women with selling fruit and vegetables from baskets spread out on mats while their children played in the shade of the trees.

Then, as the sun began to sink, the roadsides were lined with workers filing home and kids running back from school. Later still, in the twilight, we passed villages where people sat in clusters under trees. We took an enforced detour through the town of Sigatoka, with street markets, crowded shops and crawling traffic.

At sunset we reached the coast and followed lines of palms, stands of dense bush, the high fences of luxury resorts and a long stretch of sea, to Pacific Harbour and the welcoming lights of the Uprising Beach Resort.

Bangkok, the Venice of the East

Rooftops of the Grand Palace
Rooftops of the Grand Palace

Bangkok is often called the Venice of the East. Its river, the Chao Praya, is likened to the Grand Canal and the klongs that weave through the city are compared to the network of waterways in Venice.

In ancient times, life centred on the Chao Praya. The first settlers established villages on the banks of the river and its waters sustained them. When King Rama I moved the capital of Thailand to Bangkok in 1782, the Chao Praya and its klongs became vital means of transport, communication and commerce. His Grand Palace, of course, was built in pride of place, at the heart of the city on the banks of the Chao Praya.

While the Chao Praya is no longer the vital commercial hub it once was, it is still teems with life. Ferries criss-cross from bank to bank, tourist boats chug up and down, barges and houseboats sail slowly by. The banks of the Chao Praya, too, are always busy. Sightseers stroll, patient fishermen keep watch with nets or poles, and small boys dive and splash.

River tours are wonderful way to explore Bangkok. Not only does the river offer a different perspective on the city, but its quieter, cooler and generally much more relaxing down there. There are innumerable Chao Praya Tours on offer.

One day I took the ferry from Wat Pho, packed onto the deck alongside families with bare-bottomed babies, housewives with armfuls of baskets, uniformed schoolgirls and men with bicycles. We docked on the other side at the Temple of Dawn and I meandered along the river to the Oriental Hotel, where I sat with a drink and watched the river.

One evening I took a dinner cruise on an old rice barge which smelled of timber, oil and fragrant Thai cuisine. As we sailed along, the brightly lit turrets of the palace, open air aerobics classes, swimmers, fishermen and promenaders, slid by. On board as we worked our way through the countless courses of a traditional Thai dinner, a group of beautiful dancers entertained us.

Another afternoon, I took a smaller, humbler barge into a tributary of The Chao Praya. Here, Bangkok was definitely the Venice of the East. Narrow wooden houses on tall stilts sat close to the river’s edge, each with their little jetty and their rickety staircase leading up to the back door. Long boats, selling fruit and souvenirs drew up alongside. As we made our way back to the wharf, our host served an afternoon tea of local fruits and juices. Delicious!

When in Bangkok, don’t fail to get out on the river.

 

Kanchanaburi and The Burma Railway

Kanchanaburi, 130 kilometres to the west of Bangkok on the Myanmar border, is Thailand’s third largest province, covering 19,473 square kilometres. It is a region of breathtaking beauty, with dense mountainous jungles, calm, slow-flowing rivers, hidden caves, and waterfalls. Pristine national parks offer all kinds of jungle adventures from elephant treks to white-water rafting.

Beautiful Kanchanaburi, from the Burma Railway
Beautiful Kanchanaburi, from the Burma Railway

Today, it seems unbelievable that this beautiful peaceful province, with its friendly gentle people, should have been the scene of one of the worst chapters of World War Two.

In the War Cemetery at Kanachanaburi, row after row of simple white headstones tell of tragic, cruel and needless deaths of 6,982 British, Australian, Canadian, Dutch and New Zealand men, some as young as 16 years and some as old 56. Across the road, the War Museum tells how those lives were lost in the construction of the Burma Railway.

Also known as the Death Railway or the Thailand-Burma Railway, this 415 kilometre line runs between Bangkok in Thailand and Rangoon in Myanmar. Its route was first surveyed by the British at the beginning of the 20th century but plans were abandoned as the mountainous jungle terrain made construction almost impossible.

On June 22, 1942, however, the Empire of Japan, seeking a route to supply their forces in the Burma Campaign, began work on the railway, starting at both the Thai and the Burma ends simultaneously. Most construction materials were carted overland from the dismantled rail system of the Federated States of Malaysia. About 200,000 Asian “slaves” and 60,000 Allied prisoners laboured on the railway, living and working under appalling conditions. By the time construction was completed on October 17, 1943, 100, 000 Asian and 16,000 Allied POW workers had died from exhaustion, malnutrition, cholera, malaria and dysentery.

Today, only 130 kilometres of the railway are still in use. Tourists can ride, in rattling wooden carriages with open windows, along steep jungle cliffs which fall away to a slow yellow river below. Through the treetops on the far banks, the temples of Myanmar flash in and out of view. It’s beautiful, picturesque and tranquil but haunted with ghosts of those men who gave their lives to build it.

The most famous section of the Thai-Burma Railway is Bridge 277 over the Khwae Yai River, probably because it was immortalized by the David Niven movie classic The Bridge on the River Kwai  and its unforgettable theme tune the Colonel Bogey march. Ghosts linger at Bridge 277, too, but they’re the ghosts of Niven et al and the phantom voices in the river below are the whistling chorus of the Colonel Bogey march.

The construction of the Burma Railway was a major event in the “Asian Holocaust” in which millions of civilians, soldiers and prisoners of war lost their lives.

 

Vigeland Sculpture Park

It’s another morning of sharp, contrasting blue, yellow and white but the snow has peeled back further on patches of bright grass and dark brown soil and there’s a fine, barely visible dust of palest green on the branches of the trees.

Today I take a tour bus from beside the huge red-brick Rathus or Town Hall, to see some of the parks and museums of outlying Oslo. Oslo has a plethora of magnificent museums and fascinating attractions. It’s big ask to see and absorb them all in just one visit, let alone just one day, but that’s all I have left of my stay in Oslo, so I set off armed with camera, notebook and a large dose of determination. The tour begins at Vigeland Sculpture Park.

DSC01379

Oslo is a city of sculptures – people, animals, ancient ship-parts, abstract plinths, obelisks and stone chunks – they’re everywhere. They hide behind bushes in Karl Johan’s central garden, stare out over the fjiord from Aker Brygge, crouch on the hillside in the park by the palace and guard every room of the National Art Gallery – it’s a sculpture-lover’s dream.  But the park designed by Gustav Vigeland and peopled with over 200 of his statues, is sculpture paradise.

At the gate of Vigeland Sculpture Park our guide, a statuesque figure herself, with hair like iron filings, the stance of a solid stone block, a concrete-coloured military great-coat and a flinty expression, explains the rules

“When I am talking, you are silent”

Who could speak anyway? We follow her, dumb-struck and awe-struck, through rows of restlessly flexing, twisting, leaping, thrusting, crouching, clutching, clinging, embracing bronze, granite and cast iron humanity. There are old men and women with expressions of despair and hopelessness, ecstatic lovers, anguished parents, bereft-looking babies, rebellious youths, playful children, all individual and perfect in every detail. They’re knotted together in groups and bound together in pairs. They’re tossed on top of one another in bunches and clusters. They sit back to back and lie front to front. They stalk off alone. They stand in splendid isolation.

Here, at Vigeland park, art imitates life to perfection. The eloquence in the attitudes of these stone  bodies and the expressions in these stone faces is both moving and unsettling. Most of all it’s unforgettable

Vigeland Park is Norway’s most famous and popular attraction. Over 1 million people visit it each year.

 

 

A Walk around Oslo

From the corner window of the  Grand Café, in the Grand Hotel, where one hundred and one years ago, Ibsen held after-theatre soirees, I watch apple-cheeked children pass on their way to school, their breath blowing before them in  wisps of white. Over the road, are the frozen ponds, piled snow and closed-up kiosks of the garden that runs up the centre of Karl Johan, Oslo’s main, and most picturesque, street. Beyond it, buses trams and rattle to and fro.

The Grand Hotel on Johann Karl Street, Oslo
The Grand Hotel on Johann Karl Street, Oslo

The perfect sky, the sunshine, the bracing air and the snow like softening ice-cream are compelling. I have to get out and explore.

Oslo is a very walkable city, compact, small with gentle hills and not too much traffic. So, armed with the official Oslo City Map, I contemplate my direction – left to the House of Parliament at the town end of Karl Johan, over the road towards the tall masts on steel grey water that I can see between the buildings straight ahead, or right to the Palace? I set off to the right, pausing to check out Paleet shopping centre’s galleries of chic shops.

Back on the pavement, mentally noting enticing little side-streets for later on, I cross the road for a turn around the imposing, ornate, dripping-with-stories-and-history National Theatre, then follow the slope of the street between banks of snow and an avenue of skeletal trees. Ahead, a woman shouts and waves me over. I approach with caution – friend or foe? – these are edgy times. She urges me closer, I fearfully follow her pointing finger – bomb or body? But there in the fresh, black soil, where the snow has shrunken away at the pavement’s edge, is a cluster of shiny green shoots – spring bulbs. The woman peers into my face, “Ja?” she laughs and nods “Ja?” “Ja!” I nod and laugh back.

The Palace Of King Haakon III
The Palace Of King Haakon III

Up there on the hill, set in its snowy acres, is the solid, square  stone palace, home of the current King, Haakon the third. It looks exposed and vulnerable. A solitary guard stands at the main door, another marches to and fro in front of the guard house. Passers-by criss-cross the surrounding park. I follow a path round the Palace, under the ground floor windows, hoping for a glimpse of the King or Queen. Inside there’s the glow of light on warm wood, the sparkle of a chandelier but no sign of life. I head down the hillside, through the Vika shopping area, where smokers sit, wrapped in blankets, outside cafes.

Down at the sea’s edge is Aker Brygge, a former shipyard, now an up-market shopping centre, with a row of smart restaurants overlooking the marina where hardy yacht-dwellers go about their daily business under the gaze of curious tourists.

The Nobel Peace Centre
The Nobel Peace Centre

Just round the corner from Aker Brygge a modest, unremarkable building houses the most famous of Oslo’s institutions, the Nobel Center, birthplace of the great Nobel prize for contributions to mankind, known throughout the world as an icon of peace.

Ironically, on the opposite side of the bay, stands Akershus fortress, a grim Mediaeval edifice, dark against the snow. During the Second World War it held prisoners of the occupying Nazis. Now, home to the Norwegian Resistance Museum, it tells the terrible story of that wartime occupation and Norway’s struggle to survive it.

Leaving, Akerhaus, I cut across through the old town, Christiania, built by King Christian IV, with its 17th century wooden framed buildings and old stone monuments, up the hill and I’m back at the far end of Karl Johan.

The sky has darkened and the air has thickened with little white, icy flakes; winter’s not quite gone and summer seems just a suggestion, as I hurry past the heavily decorated leadlight windows of the Parliament building and back to the shelter of the Grand Hotel. Tonight, I’ll explore the warmth of one those bars in the side-streets I’ve mentally noted and tomorrow, the outskirts of Oslo.

Pest, Part 2, beautiful buildings

House of Parliament, Budapest
House of Parliament, Budapest

A good place to begin a promenade around Pest is down by the Danube, with the totally unmissable star of this side of the city, the immense, neo-gothic Hungarian Parliament, on Lajos Kossuth Ter. Measuring 268 by 116 metres, it has some 20km of staircases winding through its interior, 233 statues adorning its exterior and a giant 96 metre dome. The building was designed by Imre Steindl. Construction began in 1884 and was completed in 1904. Its frescos are the work of some of Hungary’s most notable artists, among them Karoly Lotz and Mihaly Munkacsy. To the north and south of the Parliament are statues of the poet Jozsef Attila and Count Mihaly Karoly who headed Hungary’s first Republic in 1919. In front of the Parliament building, are the statues Lajos Kossuth, leader of the 1848-49 revolution and Ferenc Rakoczi II who led the failed War of Independence 1703-1711.

On the other side of   Kossuth Ter is the beautiful neo-baroque Ethnographic Museum. Constructed in 1896 as the seat of the Royal Court, it later became the Palace of Justice. Inside is a massive hall with pillars stretching over several stories, stained glass windows and a superb Karoly Lotz ceiling fresco. The museum’s collections give a fascinating insight into life, especially village life, in Hungary through the ages.

Further down the river, on Roosevelt Ter, sits the magnificent neo-renaissance, Hungarian Science Academy. Built between 1862 and 1865 it was the brainchild of Istvan Szechenyi, whose name and mark are on many of Budapest’s great 19th century ventures.

Also on Roosevelt Ter is the art nouveau Gresham Palace, now a Four Seasons Hotel but built originally in 1903 by Szigmund Quittner for the Gresham Life Insurance Company.

Further down again is Petoffi Ter, which was named in memory of the poet who inspired the 1848 revolution against the Austrians and which has been the scene of many memorable demonstrations and protests ever since.

All along the promenade chic restaurants and bars (some on jetties and moored boats) provide stunning views, especially at night, across the Danube to Buda Castle and the Statue of Liberty on Gellert Hill.

 

A day out with Cosmo in Athens, Part 6

The best way to digest a large Greek lunch, when a siesta is out of the question, is, according to Cosmo, with a good walk. And the only way to explore the fascinating area that sprawls around the Acropolis, is according to any Athenian, on foot.

Monastiraki, Athens
Monastiraki, Athens

Close by and to the west of Monasteraki Square lies quaint, charming, picture-postcard Psiri. Zorba-esque music flows from the old taverna which line the streets. There’s an aroma of roasting lamb, warm bread, honey and strong coffee. Young Greek gods, in the guise of waiters, smile from the terraces of restaurants and cafes. Nonchalant locals and shutter snapping tourists mill in the streets. On the other side of Monasteraki is Plaka, “the neighbourhood of the Olympian gods”. Hailed as the Hellenic Montmartre, it shares the bohemian ambiance and picturesque appearance of its Parisian counterpart. Close packed houses press into the steep, narrow streets. Ancient ruins rise from the dry earth in fenced-off excavations. In shady squares local characters sit smoking in the sun and old men quarrel over card games. There are tiny shops selling souvenirs, gold, leather, furs and pottery, interspersed with neighbourhood grocers, fruit stalls, bakers and cake shops. There is a bath house. Olive trees and vines overhang bleached stone walls. Miniature gardens are crammed with lush green leafy vegetables and fat tomatoes.

Every evening just before sunset a soft purple light spreads slowly up Mount Hymettus and settles over Athens like violet crown. We watched it fade to indigo from a taverna in a back street of Plaka, high on the rocky slope of the Acropolis. A young singer crooned Demis Roussos’ My Friend the Wind”. Our wonderful day out with Cosmo had come to a close. He had taken us into his Athens, introduced us to its capricious gods, its mighty kings and its great heroes, as well its ticket and postcard-sellers, shopkeepers, chefs, baristas and waiters. He had shown us its famous places and its secret corners, shared its smells, tastes, textures and sounds. He had told us its stories. It was a sad, goodbye, with a firm, long grasping of hands, kisses on both cheeks, promises on Cosmos side to visit us down under and on ours to show him our Antipodes, to come back soon to Athens and to drop in on his sister-in-law, the best Greek cook in Australia, at her home in Mount Waverley, Melbourne.

The rosemary and bay leaves, crumbling now, are pressed between the pages of scribbled notes for this story in my diary, along with Cosmo’s card and the address of his sister in law.

Our tour of Athens cost 100 euros each. Our day out with Cosmo was priceless.

To find your Cosmo, ask the concierge or the doorman at your hotel – he’s sure to have an uncle, a cousin, a brother – Athens is like that.