Monday, January 10, 2011

Vamsee's list of Must-See Places in the World - Austrian Alps

I ran out of peanut butter this morning, so was looking in the refrigerator for some jam when I saw a small bottle in the back of the side rack. It was 'Elder Flower' jam that I bought in Austria. Intensely fragrant, it took me back to last summer when Saru and I were on a road trip in the Austrian Alps. We rented a car in Venice and drove through the Dolomites and Alps to Salzburg. This was one of the most beautiful roads I have ever been on and is a MUST-SEE.

Here is a tip when you are on a road trip in the Alps. DO NOT pre-plan your trip. Go where the road takes you, stop where you feel like and THAT is the most fun part. Practically speaking, you will not cover the distance you planned because the road is SO scenic. You will want to stop every few minutes to take pictures, do side hikes and in my case, take an afternoon nap. There is nothing like napping with a view. When we were hiking in the Valley of Flowers, I made the guide look around for 15 minutes to find me a spot to eat and nap with a view. The guide rolled his eyes in disbelief at my silly request, but it is great to wake up to an awesome view.

The only thing to remember is to get to a tourist office before 5:00 PM. Tell them your needs and price range and they will find you a place to stay in minutes. That is exactly how we found Alpenrose, a bed & breakfast in Iselsberg, a town that I did not even know existed. In a small community of 20-30 homes and with some grand views of the mountains, it was nice beautiful room for 50E per night.

Breakfast was a spread of artisan breads and farm fresh cheese and a menu of jams.

"What Jam is this?" I asked the German lady. It was pink in color and I knew the smell, but could not quite place it with any jam I ever had. It was ROSE PETAL jam!! The next one, had a light-honey color with a very intense flowery fragrance. When I asked the lady about that, she stared at the wall, scratched her head and walked away to the next room before coming back with aGerman-English dictionary and pointing out "Elder Flower". It was yum. There was one more mystery jam which tasted weird and felt a little grainy on the tongue. That one, the land lady struggled to explain. Finally, she walked into the garden and came back with a piece of Christmas tree leaf and said - "THIS". She had made jam with Christmas Tree leaves - Can you believe it!!! She went on to give the recipe in broken English and some very violent gestures - Add lots of sugar and small pieces of the leaves and stir and stir and stir until your arms falls off:):)

The drive from Iselsberg to Heigenblut was beautiful with green rolling hills, wild flowers and small communities, each with its own little church. After visiting Italy where they compete with one another to build large churches, these were small structures with pointy roofs.

The Großglockner High Alpine Road

This toll road that runs about 50 kilometers is one of the most scenic highways in Austria. With 35 hairpin bends and a 2500m gain in altitude, this road has panoramic views of the highest peak in Austria, The Großglockner (3798m). We were there in June, but it had snowed a few days back leaving beautiful vistas of snow peaked mountains. As is the case in mountains, clouds would come and go, so it was hard to get good pictures with blue skies.

I tried taking some videos, but it was very windy, so the videos are a little shaky. But here they are anyway.

Practical Information

Best time to visit
: The Großglockner high alpine road is only open in summer from May to November. August can get very hot and crowded because of school holidays

How to get there: There are a lot of cheap flights in Europe these days. We took a Flight to Venice and drove from there. Salzburg is another big city close to the road

Getting Around: Renting a car is the only way to get around the mountains. There are coach tours from Salzburg, but these have fixed stops and might not be that much fun

Lodging: There are no big hotels in the regions, just pensions and B&B's.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Vamsee's List of Must-See Places in the World - Big Island, Hawaii, USA

A very happy new year to all my readers. This New Year, I have decided to start a new series on my blog titled "Vamsee's List of Must-See Places in the World". Over the last decade I had the good fortune of seeing some of the most beautiful places in the World and I would like to share images and stories from those trips. This will be a bi-weekly series with more photos and less text.

Hawaii, Big Island, USA

I screamed as hard as I could. My head was underwater and I knew there was no point screaming, but I did. How could I not? This giant 10ft creature was coming directly at me with its mouth wide open. Saru, who was right next to me, heard me, popped his head out of the water and burst out laughing. "No need to worry. You are not its food" he said.
"It is easy for you to say that, it didn't come at you" I said. He laughed again as we went back under water. This time, he held my hand to reassure that we were safe. We were in the company of many night divers and snorkelers who were all there to see some of the most spectacular sea creatures - Manta Rays. The tour operators take you in a boat in the evening to Keauhou Bay near the Kona airport and setup while you watch a glorious sunset (sunsets in Hawaii are always mind blowing!!). When night falls, divers go down to the sea bed and switch on their powerful torches. Light attracts plankton (tiny brine shrimp) and Manta Rays come to feed on them.
Saru and I got into body suits (water is quite cool) and jumped into the water. One glance into the underwater world and we were astounded!! There were a little fishes/sea creatures floating in the water. Snorkeling in the night is very different. You can't tell the colors of the fish, but just the numbers blow you away. Loud gasps from people around us announced the arrival of the chief guest - the gigantic Manta Ray and it was not alone. A troupe of 14 rays showed up for the party and boy what a spectacle it was!! These rays can be as large as 6-14 feet across and weigh as much as 5000 pounds, but seem as light as a batman's cape. The Manta rays come swooping by with their mouth wide open scooping up thousands of little shrimp. For more than an hour, we watched the feeding frenzy of these fascinating creatures. Their dinner time was grand theatre for us and I have to give full five stars to their performance. Manta means blanket and they did look like black and white blankets swishing and swooping around the area with great elegance and aplomb. Their acrobatics can put Cirque du Soleil to shame. We were the last to get out of the water and I remember shaking with excitement. This experience rates as one of the top 10 adventures I had in my life. Watch this video I found on youtube . It is heavily edited and not as exciting as the dive itself, but gives a good look at the rays. Watch out for the snorkeler at the surface and how close the rays get to her. I could have easily been her.

If I had to rate one place as my most favorite in the entire, it will have to be the Hawaii Islands. Over the years we made three trips to the islands and loved it every single time and why not. These islands have EVERYTHING in one place - Rain forests, snow peaked mountains, stunning beaches, lava fields, active volcano and some of the most beautiful coral reefs. Added to all this, they have many charming hotels, Bed & Breakfasts and excellent food. For some reason, Big Island has a ton of Thai restaurants and we just loved them. Don't forget to sample "Donkey Balls". They are delicious!!.

Top 5 Experiences in the Big Island:
  1. Manta Ray Night Dive
  2. Hike to see an active volcano in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
  3. Kayak in the Kealakekua Bay and snorkel at Captain Cook
  4. Watch a sunset
  5. Go to a Lu'au for a grand dinner and Hula dance performances

You can read detailed travelogues about this trip in my old posts (Hawaii - Got Balls? , Hot Lava from a Live Volcano) Here are some pictures from our trips. Please note that these pictures were taken in 2003, 2005 and 2008 when we had a normal camera.

Ocean Vistas to die for!!

Turtles at Punalu'u Black Sand Beach

Past Volcanic Activity

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park - Hike to see the lava flow into the Ocean

Waterfalls in Hilo

Hula Dancers at a Lua'u

Every sunset is a postcard picture

Practical Information

Best time to visit
: Any time of the year. It is crowded and expensive during all major holidays and school breaks.

How to get there: There are a lot of cheap flights from the Continental US to all Hawaiian Islands. Flight time is about 6 hours from California.

Getting Around: Renting a car is the only way to get around the island. 4-wheel drive is necessary only if you plan to go off-road.

Lodging: Big hotels have good deals, but I love bed & breakfasts in Hawaii. Of all the places we stayed, Areca Palms in the Captain Cook area is my favorite.The hostess makes ginormous breakfasts.

Coming up next:
  • Alaska - The land of the midnight Sun
  • Monument Valley, Utah, USA
  • Rome, Italy
  • Lassen Volcanic National Park, California, USA
  • Munnar, Kerala, India