Saturday, November 8, 2014

On board the Glacier Express from Zermatt

We took a ride on board the Glacier Express in Oct 2014.

Glacier Express

Glacier Express is one of the 2 luxury panoramic trains in Switzerland, the other being Bernina Express. One can take the train either from Zermatt to St. Moritz (both very famous, and expensive, ski resorts in Switzerland), or in the reverse direction. It is possible to board and disembark the train at one of the intermediate stops as well - the price varies accordingly.

The train doesn't run throughout the year - mostly never in November - so be sure to take that into account while planning your trip. The summer and winter timetables are available here: (timetables). One of the primary factors affecting when to undertake the journey? - is clearly the scenery you can expect to see on route. Snow is the deciding factor here. If you are interested in seeing the snow capped Alps peaks, winter is obviously the preferred time.The disadvantages are that there might be disruptions because of the snow, and it is also more crowded during that time - so try to book in advance.

We took the train towards end of Oct, and we could already see some snow (below).

From the Glacier express - somewhere close to Andermatt View from the Glacier Express

However, this clearly varies from year-to-year, and the best time to see guaranteed snow is Jan onwards.

As far as pure unadulterated "panorama" is concerned, the route is indeed very scenic. It is true that if you spend some time exploring the Swiss railways site (SBB), you can get similar views by traveling on normal (cheaper) Swiss trains. The good thing about the Glacier Express coaches is that they are mostly transparent - with large windows on the sides and part of the ceiling - which allow a better view of the surroundings than normal trains would.

The downside (and this is a big downer) is that the large windows also cause "reflections" to appear in any pictures you try to take through the windows. So while the trains are good for your own viewing pleasure, the large windows render any "serious" photography almost impossible - and this is a pity because the outside view is indeed very picturesque. You can also see the odd glacier while you are about it.

Glaciers - view from the Glacier Express

A few more pictures from the trip.


We actually booked a package tour available on the Swiss Railway website (SBB), which allows you to combine a ride on the Glacier Express with a hotel stay at Zermatt and / or St. Moritz, and return train tickets from any Swiss city to Zermatt and St. Moritz.

So we also spent a day in Zermatt, the night before boarding the Glacier Express. Like most Swiss ski resorts, Zermatt is a charming village with plenty of peaks around. It is particularly famous for its stunning views of the Matterhorn peak - the 2nd highest peak in the Alps range, and the highest in Switzerland.

Sunny Matterhorn peak Matterhorn - in all its glory

Zermatt is relatively "big" ski resort, which implies that there are plenty of places to shop and eat once the sun goes down.

Unfortunately, there are no Indian restaurants in Zermatt, but there are some Thai / Chinese ones around. For vegetarians, you can try the eternal Swiss delicacy - "Fondue" - which primarily consists of a mixture of different types of cheese served (hot) in a pot. It is accompanied with bread crumbs, and the idea is that you dip the bread in the cheese and eat.

If you end up in a Pizzeria, the safest bet (again, for vegetarians) is to go with the Pizza Margherita. Pizza Margherita is available in almost all pizzerias in Europe, and is a safe choice when you cannot find anything else to eat.    

Monday, October 13, 2014

Canary Islands - where sun, sand and sea (ocean) meet

Pool bar at Radisson Blu Resort, Gran Canaria

Canary Islands

We visited Canary Islands for 3-days in Sep 2014. Canary Islands is a group of islands in the Atlantic Ocean. The islands are close to Africa and share a border with Morocco. As a result, it has the unique combination of having both deserts as well as volcanic rock formations - so a nature lover's paradise.

For all administrative purposes, Canary Islands is a part of Spain. This implies that Schengen Visas are valid here, and all Indians with residence permits of any Schengen country can travel Visa-free. The best way to travel is via Madrid - it takes about 3 hours from Madrid to Gran Canaria.

Gran Canaria

Gran Canaria is one of the largest islands in the archipelago. The northern part of the island comprises the capital city - Las Palmas - which is more like a financial / business city. The northern part is thus not very interesting from a touristic point of view.

Although an island, it is actually quite big and a car ride from the northern to southern part of the city takes around 1 hours. Fortunately, the public transport here is great - well connected, punctual and affordable. On the other hand, if you fancy renting a car, then be careful that the roads here are not flat but very steep, winding and narrow.


The touristic part is the southern part of the island, especially close to Maspalomas. This region is famous for its lush desert scenery, very close to the Atlantic beach. There are direct buses from the airport to Maspalomas, and it takes about 40 minutes.

Faro de Maspalomas onlookers

The desert is right at the beach. And, while it is not exactly Sahara; it is quite big to give the full desert feeling: if you look around - all you will see is sand and more sand in all directions.

Maspalomas palm beach

You can also want to try out a camel ride here. We wouldn't really recommend it, but its nice if you have kids with you. And as mentioned earlier, the desert is quite big - so a camel ride might be useful if you want to cover a larger expanse of the desert.

Camel ride in the Maspalomas desert

Of course the beach itself is quite long and sandy, and you might just want to lie down and enjoy the sun. There is also a lighthouse around (Faro de Maspalomas) which adds to the whole beauty of the place.

Faro de Maspalomas painting

There are many small shops around and also sometimes (nefarious) people trying to talk you up and sell things forcefully. As Indians however, I guess that we are always alert towards such behavior - however it helps to remember that such people exist all over the world and Canary Islands is no exception. In general, the people are nice, speak English, and the taxis run by meter.

Unfortunately, we did not get the time to try out an Indian restaurant here. Based on reviews, we did zero in on one: Memsaab Fusion. There address is: Avda. Ministra Anna Lindh, No. 1, Playa Amadores Mogán, Canarias, Spain; and the cool thing is that they will refund your taxi fare up to 6 Euros till 1st Aug 015.


There are numerous beaches in Gran Canaria. While Maspalomas is probably the largest and most well known, there are others equally scenic and relaxing - and more importantly for some - less crowded. Once such beach is Patalavaca.

Patalavaca beach at sunset

The place itself is very scenic. The beach is nice. And, the best part is that as soon as the sun sets, it turns into a tropical paradise. You can go for a nice relaxing walk enjoying the setting sun together with the slow blowing Atlantic breeze.

Sunset over Patalavaca beach

There are plenty of open-air restaurants around and a small shopping centre for souvenirs as well.

Patalavaca beach night lights Patalavaca beach - Atlantic coastline at night Patalavaca beach at night

Volcanic Rocks

While Canary Islands is probably known for its beaches, its interior parts are equally impressive. The island consists of many volcanoes, and that has led to many steep hills formed out of volcanic rocks. This part of the island is not very well connected by public transport, so we took a day tour: "VIP Small Group Tour of Scenic Gran Canaria". Due to the steep hilly roads - where big buses cannot traverse - the tour takes you around in small vans of small 6-8 people groups - so you get to socialize a bit with fellow tourists as well.

Winding roads on the way to Pico de las Nieves - the highest point of Gran Canaria

The tour starts from Puerto de Mogán (pic below), aka the "Little Venice" of Gran Canaria. Puerto de Mogán is also in the southern part of the island, so it is better if you stay in the southern part of the island - as they only provide hotel pickup from hotels located in the southern part of the island. Lunch is included in the tour and you get to enjoy some authentic local food as well.

"little Venice" of Gran Canaria — at Puerto de Mogán

Monday, September 15, 2014

Hiking in Salanfe, Switzerland

Salanfe lake

There is no doubt that Switzerland is a hiker's paradise. There is no dearth of scenic locations in Switzerland, and there are hiking trips of all difficulty levels.

This blog post is regarding our recent hike to Salanfe lake (Lac de Salanfe) in the Valais region. Like most Indians, our hiking skills and physical fitness levels are often found wanting on hiking trips; but the effort has always been rewarded by awe-inspiring natural beauty.


The best place to start the hike is the campground of Van d'en Haut. You can find instructions to reach the campground by both car, and public transport here: (transportation link).

Towering Cross Scenic roads
On the way to the campground, right after crossing Salvan


From the campground, the plan is to hike up to the small mountain inn "Auberge de Salanfe" following the well marked hiking path. The uphill climb takes around 1.30 hours with sufficient breaks in between. The climb is not too steep, but not flat either - so proper hiking shoes with sticks are definitely recommended, though not compulsory.

The hike also takes you up to the Salanfe dam - one of the many dams at very high altitudes in Switzerland - most of which were constructed during the 1950s.

Salanfe lake dam

Once at the inn, you can enjoy a relaxing lunch primarily of Swiss / Italian delicacies, e.g. Fondue. As can be expected, there are not too many vegetarian options; but the hosts there all speak English and you can ask them for the best "veg" option for that day. They do have chicken burger and fries on the regular menu which might be a life saver for those who are not strict vegetarians. The prices are comparable to Swiss prices - there is no "high altitude" tax fortunately :)

Swiss flag

The inn is right in front of the Salanfe lake, so a hike around the lake is definitely recommended post lunch. Keep about 1 hour for walking around the lake, and another 1.30 hours for returning.

What we realized during the hike, much to our dismay; was that even hiking downhill was not as easy as one would imagine - especially when one is already tired after hiking the whole day. So do not take the return hike lightly, and definitely take that into account while planning your hike around the lake.

However, if you are still have enough energy left after hiking around the lake, feel free to wander a bit more to see the glacier. The glacier is not among the most impressive we have seen, but is still a glacier - if you have never seen one before in your life :)


Saturday, August 2, 2014

Arctic Circle Cruise II

The is part II of our Arctic circle cruise - Part I appears here.

Royal Caribbean cruise ship "Legend of the Seas"

The reason why the cruise is called the 'Arctic Circle' cruise - rather than simply the 'Norway Fjords' cruise - is because we crossed the 'Arctic circle' on the second day of our cruise. The Arctic circle is a geographical landmark. Without going into a geography lecture, in very simple terms; crossing the Arctic circle means that you are now cruising in the Arctic ocean, and moving close to the North Pole. It is characterized by many a geographical phenomenon, e.g. the "Midnight Sun" - here the sun either does not set the whole day, or it will set e.g. at 2am in the night, and then come up again at 3am. This is what happened during most of our cruise, and we hardly saw any "night".

We were slightly disappointed in the cruise - as the keywords "Arctic circle", "North pole" - immediately conjured images of floating icebergs and glaciers. While we did see some glaciers (see 'Olden' below), there were no icebergs to be seen. We were told that this is because cruise ships are not equipped to detect and avoid icebergs at close range, as such they study satellite imagery and intentionally choose iceberg free regions to cruise. So while this does give you a feeling of safety, the adventerous part in you will end up feeling a tad disappointed.


Scenic Honningsvåg Islands - land formations in the Sea

The first and only stop that we made - after crossing the Arctic circle - was in Honningsvåg. This place really gives you the "end of the world" kind of feeling. This is also the port from where you can drive to the North Cape - 71°10′21″N - which is also the 'Northern most point in Europe'. 

71°10′21″N Amazing North Cape

The drive from the port to the North Cape is equally stunning - where you get to enjoy natural beauty without the usual crowdedness of touristic spots. In fact, you can hardly see anyone around.

Scenic drive to the North Cape
Honningsvåg panaroma


Olden is another hidden gem - with plenty of lakes and mountains all around.

Scenic Olden - village along the lake Royal Caribbean cruise ship "Legend of the Seas"

The unique aspect here (which differentiated it from our other stops) was the Briksdal glacier. The Briksdal galcier is an arm of the Jostedal Glacier, which is the largest glacier in Europe. You can also see parts of it on the drive to the Briksdal galcier.

Scenic drive to the Briksdalsbreen (aka Briksdal glacier)

While the Briksdal glacier is "easily" accessible, you still need to walk / hike for around 1.30 hrs over hilly areas from the bus stop to reach the glacier. The area is not too steep or narrow, so it is mainly stamina that you will need to reach the glacier - do not forget to have water / drinks with you. There are also (golf ground type) mini-cars available for people with walking difficulties. However, we would still recommend walking to the glacier as much as you can - as the path leading to the glacier is equally beautiful.

On the way to Briksdalsbreen (aka Briksdal glacier)

Of course, when you finally reach the glacier, the beautiful sight surrounding you makes you forget all the hard work that you put in to reach there.

Briksdalsbreen (aka Briksdal glacier) Rock sculpture in front of the Briksdalsbreen (aka Briksdal glacier) Scenic view around the Briksdalsbreen (aka Briksdal glacier)


Tromsø is a much larger city, esp. as compared to some of our other stops on the tour. As our tour guide informed us, it is the home to everything "northern most", so e.g. it has world northernmost cathedral (below), the world's northernmost university, and we hope you get the picture :) It is also a place of extreme weather phenomenon, so while you have the 'Midnight sun' for around 3 months; the rest of the year is spent in "darkness". As can be expected, people here are very happy when the sun does come up - which almost seems like a holiday (reason to celebrate). In the winter, of course, it is a good place to view the Northern Lights - so it does see a lot of tourists in winter just to see the Northern Lights.

There is a cable car that you can take to the top of  Mount Storsteinen. 

Unfortunately, the day we visited Tromsø, it was rainy and very foggy - as such we could hardly see anything from the top: however we still managed to take a few panoramic shots of Tromsø from above.

Panaromic Tromsø


Sea side colorful houses in Bergen

Our final stop was in Bergen. Bergen is a relatively large city - in fact one of the largest in Norway. So there is much more to do here than just sightseeing - including shopping, visiting the local market, and enjoying the local cuisine. The local food, as can be expected, consists primarily of sea food. For instance, we saw some 4-5 different varieties of just Salmon at lunch buffet. For Indians, esp. the vegetarian ones, the options are limited - as unfortunately in most of Europe. So, be prepared for that. The good thing is that you can at least find the fast food options here, e.g. McDonald - of course, this might also be a challenge in the smaller cities, e.g. Honningsvåg.

Colorful houses in Bergen

For the picture enthusiasts, there is a cable car (funicular) that takes you to the top of Mount Fløyen. The view from the top is quite stunning. The cable car can get quite crowded, so be sure to queue up with sufficient time in hand. For the action / adventure enthusiasts, there are also plenty of options for adventure sports, e.g. kayaking, paragliding.

Panaromic Bergen

Friday, June 27, 2014

Arctic Circle Cruise - I

Royal Caribbean Arctic circle cruise ship "Legend of the Seas" docked at Honningsvag, Norway

We took the Royal Caribbean (RC) 11-night Arctic Circle Cruise in June 2014. The ports of call included:
Copenhagen, Denmark; Alesund, Norway; The Arctic Circle (Cruise); Honningsvag, Norway; Tromso, Norway; Geiranger, Norway; Olden, Norway; Bergen, Norway; Copenhagen, Denmark

We have given a description of RC cruise ships and the facilities to expect on board in one of our previous posts. So rather than repeating them again, here is a link to the post for anyone interested: RC Cruise ship.

Similarly, only the Norwegian stops are described in this blog. For a description of Copenhagen, please refer to one of our previous blog posts: (link).

Visa and Transportation

As both Denmark and Norway are participants in the Schengen treaty, a Schengen Visa suffices; or if you already have a residence permit of one of the Schengen countries, then of course you do not need any other Visa.

Copenhagen is well connected with most major cities in the world, so getting a flight should not be a problem. It takes around 25-30 mins from the airport to the pier. A taxi is recommended. Or, when you land at Copenhagen airport, you can usually find RC staff arranging shuttle buses to the pier - it costs around $37 per person and you can pay on the spot. A word of caution: There are usually multiple cruise ships departing on the same day, so there might be people from other cruise lines as well - make sure that you contact the right cruise line staff, so you might end up at a different pier.


Alesund was our first port of call. It is a medium sized city, but very beautiful and serene. The first thing that strikes you on visiting this part of Norway, is that there is so much "untouched" natural beauty here - and you automatically feel like doing your bit to preserve nature.

Scenic hut on the lakeside

Alesund is closely associated with the "Troll" mythology. Trolls are imaginary (fairy tale like) mountainous creatures - who have supernatural strength to stay high up in the mountains. They also seem very popular with the children here - you can find many books on Troll-related tales for children in the shops. Leaving aside the discussion whether Trolls exist or not ? :), the "Path of the Trolls"

Path of the trolls

and the "Troll wall" consisting of some very steep, but wafer thin, mountains - make for an awe inspiring scenery.

Wall of the Trolls

Other places worth visiting in Alesund include the Stordal church. The church itself is quite modest, but as you can see from the pictures below ... the pristine church surrounding will probably motivate you to "meditate" :)

Picturesque Stordal Church Stordal Church surroundings

While there is no shortage of scenic places in Alesund, the final sight we visited was the Stigfoss waterfall. From the car / bus, you need to walk for 5-10 min till the waterfall. The waterfall, though not as impressive as say Niagara Falls, the picturesque surroundings more than make up for the lack of waterfall depth / breadth.

On the way to the  Stigfoss Waterfall Scenic Ålesund mountain paths


Geiranger is known as the fjord capital of Norway. The name is well justified as the views, as the ship glides among the gigantic fjords - before reaching the port - are simply stunning.

Cruise ships among the fjords

Entering Geiranger by ship is also the best way to view the 'Seven Sisters' waterfall. It is a series of 7 consecutive waterfalls - and you can only see all 7 together during certain times of the year.

Seven sisters waterfall

Geiranger is basically a small city with a a population of around 300 people - which grows or shrinks to accommodate the tourist season. Our tour guide told us that tourism is growing at such an exponential rate here - that local farmers have given up farming - and almost everyone is now involved in the tourism / hospitality sector.

Other places to visit in Geiranger include the  Herdalssetra mountain farm. This remote farm, nestled among the mountains, is still untouched by modern civilization - there is even no electricity here (people use lanterns at night). Every year they have student volunteers from all over the world, who spend a wonderful time here learning the "basics" of life.

Scenic Herdal mountain farm