27th April 2014
When most people think of Croatia, they probably imagine a rugged mediterranean coastline, drenched in sun. They wouldn’t be wrong of course, but our visit to Croatia took in a different landscape entirely. Plitvice National Park; a hidden gem of Europe, with an almost fairytale landscape of lakes, waterfalls and dense forest…
The flight from Dublin to Zadar takes barely three hours and within another hour Anne Marie and I are driving down the motorway in a zippy new rental car. Excited to be on our first ‘summer holiday’, we are a little disheartened at the weather forecast for the weekend; Rain with a chance of heavy downpours. Why did we bother leaving Ireland? As we are to discover, the rain is rather fitting for the location.
Our drive inland from Zadar is a quiet one – it seems that no one uses the motorway in Croatia. Perhaps this is due to the tolls or simply because everyone is at work, which certainly seems to be the case. Leaving the motorway we detour through a few small towns and villages, which to our surprise appear completely deserted. Maybe the locals spotted our hire car from a distance and are eyeing us through their curtains, but it’s rather eerie to drive through a whole town and only see a little old lady, wrapped in her shawl, selling jam at the roadside.
As we approach Plitvice National Park the landscape grows ever more rural and the skies dark and heavy. Passing an army base I can’t resist stopping for a quick snap of some old tanks, remnants from the war of the early 90s. I honestly never noticed the four foot sign that reads ‘No Photos’.
Our accommodation for the weekend is a beautiful wooden guest house in Prijeboj on the outskirts of the National Park. The decor is brand new, the rooms cosy and the owners are very accommodating, despite our lack of Croatian lingo. We spend the evening scouting out the National Park, purchase our tickets and make a plan for the following two days.
Rising early we feast on a continental breakfast before heading to Plitvice Lakes. Despite the forecast we have a bright start to the day so make the most of it by getting on the trail quickly. A flotilla of small boats is on hand to take visitors to various points on the lakes, which are criss-crossed by a network of trails and sections of wooden boardwalk.
The boardwalk, although slippy at times is the perfect way to explore the hundreds of waterfalls which thunder throughout the park. I’ve seen plenty of waterfalls on my travels, but the sheer number of cascades as you walk through the park is pretty astonishing. It really is a little waterworld, with a fairy tale quality to the landscape, the likes of which I have never seen before.
We do well to see most of the trails around the lakes by early afternoon which is just as well as the heavens open, driving everyone to cover. Being outwith the summer season visitor numbers are thankfully small, meaning we can explore wherever we wanted unimpeded. Visitors swell over the summer months and with over 1.2 million visiting annually that means for crowded walkways.
After a while plodding through the mud and rain we accept defeat and retreat to the park restaurant for a warm feed and an ice cold Karlovacko.
Having most of the lakes already explored, day two is a more casual affair and we decide to venture deeper into the National Park. A more extensive network of trails takes you away from the lakes, through dense woodland higher up the valley. On the trail we pass red brick and wooden houses, which have a half finished look about them. An elderly man is so hard at work with his scythe, cutting his lawn that he doesn’t notice us gawping at him. We conclude his lawnmower must be broken.
Half way into our hike, we’re deep in the trees and fog hangs in the air, giving the forest a mysterious quality. I catch a glimpse of an owl peering at us from high in the canopy, before disappearing into the mist. There are bears in these here woods. And wolf, lynx, deer and wild boar to name a few. The thought of it is freaking Anne Marie out and she insists that I walk in front, but not too far ahead. I personally love that feeling; that there is something out there, potentially watching us, and we’re not necessarily the highest on the food chain. Not that I’m tempting fate, I just think there’s something refreshingly primal about being out in ‘true’ wilderness.
Just as things are getting wild, the rain starts, but thankfully we’re not too far from the end of our route. Within an hour we’re back in our guest house for a cup of coffee and a warm shower.
Bosnia? For Dinner? What would our mothers think? We laugh as we drive towards the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is only a fifteen minute drive from our accommodation. We are heading there after a recommendation by our hosts; apparently the next town over the border has a few nice restaurants, although the drive there has us wondering. We pass a few shells of buildings and others riddled with bullet holes, reminding us that the war wasn’t too long ago.
Being outside the European Union we must cross a border checkpoint to gain entry to Bosnia so it’s a good thing we brought our passports on the drive. The Bosnian side of the border seems a lot more populated and the villages are busy with people, doing whatever they do on a Sunday evening. It seems like for a few at least that means enjoying a drink or two.
The town of Bihać is small enough; we drive through it before realising then turning back. There is a small University, a Casino and some shops and restaurants, which don’t strike us as being open. Even if they were, it doesn’t look like we’ll be having Dinner in Bosnia after all. Still it was worth the drive to see a little glimpse of another country. We drive back to Croatia and find a lovely restaurant just north of the national park and order the biggest pizza we’ve ever seen. Plus chips.
Our last day in Croatia involves a lot of driving. We are heading to the coast and driving north towards Pula from which we’ll fly. As we join the empty expanse of the motorway and approach the Mediterranean the clouds part to reveal the glorious sunshine we’ve been dreaming of. To our delight the road winds high along the coast, offering stunning views of the sea, offshore islands and glimpses of perfect, terracotta roofed villages hugging the cliffs below. This is an entirely different Croatia to what lies inland, with a purely Mediterranean feel.
We don’t have much time, but a quick pit stop down by the coast is a must. Within minutes we find a tiny cafe offering fresh coffee and delicious ice cream. Tables and chairs spill out onto the street where the locals soak up the sun, alive with chatter. It’s all too brief, but there is one last thing I must do before heading to the airport; we pull over by the sea and I jump into the cool Med. It’s a fitting end to our wet and watery weekend.
13th February 2014
If the town of Lillehammer sounds familiar it is because it was host to the Winter Oympics in 1994. Back when luminous pink and turquoise were all the rage and Britpop was still in its infancy. Anne Marie and I took the train from Oslo to spend the weekend in a beautiful, cosy home we rented through airbnb.com. Our Norwegian host was more than accommodating and took the time to tell us about the local sights, ski fields, eateries and events. By chance, our visit was perfectly timed to coincide with the 20th Anniversary of the 1994 Winter Olympics, so the town was in full swing.
We settled in, changed into our snow gear and headed out to explore our surroundings. The last week had seen a huge amount of snowfall so it was like stepping into a Christmas card, with wooden houses coated in extra thick layers of winter icing and oversized icicles hanging from above.
After a quick scout around town it was time to get down to some serious business – our shopping for the weekend. Now you may not have heard, but Norway is a pretty expensive destination. To use one ‘universally recognised measure of currency’ the average price of a pint of beer in Norway is a whopping €10, which would sober anyone up!
With this in mind, I would highly recommend buying (or bringing) a few supplies. We must have double then tripple checked the price of every potential buy in the local supermarket, but it was well worth it. We emerged, triumphant, spending just over €30 for everything we needed for three days. I admit, we were pretty ruthless, but inevitably we’d treat ourselves to more food and drink during our stay, so at least this was a good start.
Back in the warmth of our Scandanavian home we cooked up a delicious feed of baked Haddock, corn on the cob and buttery new potatoes. washed down with a glass of Baileys (brought all the way from Ireland of course!).
The next day Lillehammer was in full celebration mode, with a street parade, music and stalls, marking the twentieth anniversary of the 1994 Winter Olympics. A flaming torch was marched through town, followed by percussion, the local ice hockey team and pretty much most of the town’s population.
Some of the traditional dress was eye-catching to say the least, such as the ‘teleytubby-esque’ outfits above. The locals showed that they certainly know how to keep warm, with extra-thick layers, padded jackets and real fur coats on show.
Horse drawn sleds also paraded up the main street (Storgata) past stalls selling sweet roasted almonds, waffles, locally produced cheeses, chocolates and gifts. The end of the parade was marked with speeches, music, singing and performances – all in Norwegian of course, but still very entertaining.
No offense to the performers, but there was only so much Norse we could take, so we left the locals to their party and headed for the Lillehammer Olympic Park. It was almost eerily quiet once we left the crowds behind, with just the crunching of our boots in the snow and the odd local gliding past on skis.
The park was pretty desolate, obviously with everyone in town not much was going on up the hill. It seemed quite fitting actually… despite the parade, flags and revelry, there is an underlying sense that Lillehammer is struggling to hold on to it’s glorious past. The scene above shows the remnants from the games, looking lost and empty. Hopefully Lillehammer can reinvent itself and maintain its status as a top snowsports destination, which will be put to the test at the 2016 Winter Youth Olympics.
Speaking of snowsports, on the third day of our trip we rose bright and early to catch the bus to Hafjell Ski Resort. There, we found ourselves in the minority, not due to nationality, but because we were snowboarders. The vast majority at Hafjell were on skis, which took me by surprise after two winters in New Zealand, where snowboarding is more popular. There was at least one plus however – no one came near us on the chairlift! I’ve been known to wipe out whole groups coming off the chair so was thankful of the extra space. And space there was a plenty. With over 40km of slopes to play on we were in our element.
Due to plenty of fresh powder the conditions were perfect. The snow continued throughout the day, but cleared briefly for views of the Gudbrandsdalen valley and the olympic ‘torch man’ cut from the trees opposite.
After a full on day, with legs burning and weather beaten faces we retired to Woody’s Bar for some hard earned grub, the cheapest pints we could find (roughly €8.50!) and were just in time to watch Ireland vs Scotland in the six nations. With an Englishman, Welshman, two Scots and one Irish (no it’s not a joke), there was a bit of atmosphere for the game. But, despite being outnumbered in support, the Irish claimed a respectable victory. A few drinks later and there was only one thing for it – we got the bus back to Lillehammer for the most expensive Kebab I’ve ever eaten. Not bad either I have to say.
With rain falling in town it was clear the temperature was rising. Slowly, but surely the snow turned to slush and Lillehammer’s sugary coating started to dissolve. We trudged home with the sound of avalanches rumbling through the valley. A fitting end to an Olympic weekend.
7th February 2014
As our plane dropped beneath the clouds over Norway I have to admit I wasn’t quite prepared for what was revealed below; a pristine white landscape, covered in snow. I had counted on some snow of course, but it looked like the whole country from mountains to coast was completely coated. When we stepped down off the plane and the frigid air hit us it was crisp and refreshing. This is what winter should be like! Forget the bitter, dreich, windy, winter we left behind.
We were lucky enough to spend any time at all in Oslo as our real destination was Lillehammer to the north. An early train from the airport meant that we had a couple of hours to play with so a quick run around tour was in order. A rummage through our guidebook provided an easy answer; Karl Johans Gate (gate means street in Norwegian) is pretty much right outside Oslo Sentralstasjon. It leads through a central shopping district, past the Norwegian Parliament, National Theatre and ends at the Royal Palace.
As we rolled our luggage through the snow I stopped to photograph the buildings and statues along the way, at least for as long as my fingers would bare the cold. The figure above, left is World War II hero Gunnar Sønsteby who strikes a pretty unassuming pose for someone who resisted the Nazis.
The Royal Palace commanding over Karl Johans Gate is an impressive focal point and certainly appears modern enough (at least as far as palaces go). I was fortunate to catch the changing of the guard as Anne Marie patiently watched our bags. There’s only so much dragging through the snow our luggage could take!
So it was well worth leaving the train station for an hour of sightseeing in Oslo. Even better yet, we still hadn’t spent a penny (or Kroner), more about money matters to come. Onward to Lillehammer…
26th January 2014
If ever there was a perfect coastline, in my eyes, it would be this. Peppered with islands, rocky outcrops, secluded bays and secret sandy beaches, the coastline around the small town of Tofino is picture perfect. On top of that is the sense of mystery and anticipation of a chance encounter with a bear, wolf or a glimpse of a whale amidst the waves.
Anne Marie and I slept under canvas at the Bella Pacifica Campground which offered sheltered sites in the forest only steps away from McKenzie Beach and a few km from downtown Tofino. The town itself is more of a village, with one main street providing access to a network of piers, harbours and coves. We arrived at the very start of summer when things were still pretty sleepy, but the population booms each year with tourists flocking for the camping, hiking, scenic tours and world-famous surfing.
We spent a few days exploring the surrounding coast and took a full day boat tour to Hot Springs Cove with Marina West Motel Eco-Tours. After some debate on whether to fly to the springs, which would take just 20 minutes, I’m so glad we opted for the longer boat trip as the sights along the way were incredible.
First on the list were Grey Whales, which proved elusive and with choppy seas, the most we glimpsed of them was a flash of their backs as they surfaced for air. Still, this was my very first whale encounter which was exciting all the same. You really get a sense of how immense these beasts are. With each outward breath a cloud of steam burst from the water like a geyser, followed by hoots from those on board and the frantic snapping of camera shutters.
Dolphins appeared next, followed by Harbour Seals, Sea Otters, multi-coloured Star Fish, Bald Eagles and plenty more bird life. All of this was just en-route to the hot springs, which were really something else. After a short trek through the forest along a wooden boardwalk we were met with the tell-tale smell of sulphur and steam rising through the rocks below our feet. It was then off with the clothes and a frantic tip-toe dash over the rocks in search of the ‘goldilocks’ pool; not too hot, not too cold.
There’s something primeval about sitting in a bath-warm rock pool, the sound of ocean waves pounding against the shore only feet away. You can imagine generations of First Nations people coming to use these pools long before they were discovered as a tourist attraction. I think the locals have got the balance just right here though, it’s not over developed, other than the walkway, changing shelter and basic toilet the rest is pure nature.
After our hot springs adventure we cooked up a big feed back at camp before heading down to the beach. Tofino is certainly one of those places where people are drawn to the shore each evening to watch the sunset. Each one we saw seemed more spectacular than the last. It’s something no photographer will ever tire of and a perfect way to unwind after a long day of exploring.
The drive south to Victoria took us through a beautiful mountain lined landscape and past Cathedral Grove, home to ancient Douglas Fir trees, some over 800 years old. The trees are truly enormous and it’s not long before you feel the effects of repeatedly craning your neck skyward. It’s a real shame that such ancient trees are so rare to come by. The timespan in which these trees have lived can only make you think about the past and how in that time we’ve devastated forests like this the world over.
After the wilderness of Tofino, Victoria was a nice change of pace. It’s a big enough city with a population of over 300,000, but dam it’s elegant. The harbour is definitely it’s main focal point, with yachts, tour boats, ferries and seaplanes zipping to and fro. Commanding over all of this commotion is the historic Empress Hotel, wrapped in a cloak of Ivy.
We didn’t have long to spend in Victoria which was unfortunate. With so many inviting bars and restaurants, it would have been nice to stay longer. Still, it’s always nice to have an excuse to return.
2nd January 2014
I’ve always wanted to see the West Coast of Canada and after three years of travels I finally made it to Vancouver in June 2013. The world famous city, which repeatedly ranks in the top ten of best places to live, had much to live up to.
Now, I have to be brutally honest and say that my first impression of the big city wasn’t the best. A couple of wrong turns while strolling through downtown and I found myself on what looked like the set of an apocalyptic zombie movie. Homeless, drug addicts or just plain mentally insane, Vancouver turns out to have more than its fair share. What I found more disturbing however was the overall tolerance and casual ignorance of the public to these people, who would probably have a more positive outlook if they were stray dogs. Alas, the troubles of the modern city; Vancouver is afterall home to over half a million and has some of the highest property prices in the world. Still, I wasn’t quite prepared for how frequently I had to sidestep a muttering drunk.
If there is one positive to come out of a bad first impression it is that things could only get better – and worry not, they certainly did!
Once I got my head around the many different suburbs and districts of the city I steadily grew to love the place. The sheer diversity of cultures here really surprised me. The term Hongcouver has been used to describe the abundance of Asian people in Vancouver, but I also found a multitude of other nationalities, which could only lead to one thing – outstanding traditional cuisine. A walk down Commercial Drive offered the usual North American fare, plus French, Greek, Himalayan, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Vietnamese and even Ethiopian! Who needs to travel when you have such diversity on one street.
Commercial Drive, Kitsilano, Granville Island, Stanley Park, North Van and the beaches which skirt the city all have their own unique character, but to truly appreciate the city in all it’s glory I first had to get out of it…
For many people who call Vancouver home, it is the proximity to the great outdoors which make it such a great place to live. The surrounding snow-capped mountains and lush green pine forest are barely a twenty minute drive away. My host and good friend Scott took Anne Marie and I on a short hiking trail to Dog Mountain, which offers stunning views down over the city. Met by this vista and a family of soaring Bald Eagles, I began to appreciate just how nice this part of the world is.
The walk up to the Dog Mountain lookout was still covered in large patches of snow and we tried out some snowshoes to help navigate the deeper sections. I don’t know what was more ridiculous – falling into snow drifts in boots or tripping over my own feet in snowshoes! At the summit we met a hiker who stopped for a snack and was promptly surrounded by hungry Jays, who happily posed for a few photographs.
This would be only the first of many encounters with Canadian wildlife, which as I soon discovered is absolutely everywhere. You barely have to venture into the back garden or local park to find squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, deer and more. Keep an eye out for my next post for much more wildlife.
One of the top visitor attractions on the outskirts of Vancouver is the Capilano Suspension Bridge, but we were offered a welcome alternative, with no entry fee, less crowds and a network of walks to explore the surrounding forest.
Lynn Canyon is the little sister of Capilano, with a smaller bridge, which at 50ft high is still worth holding on for. We spent an afternoon here with the whole family and really enjoyed the variety of trails. I reckon Kayleigh had the best idea, taking in the sights from the comfort of her baby backpack…
Pretty much anyone who visits Vancouver has to make the trip up the Grouse Mountain Gondola. Only a short drive from the north of the city, Grouse Mountain is a ski park in winter and offers hiking, ziplining and paragliding in summer. There is also the Grouse Grind, which consists of 2,830 stairs, climbing the 853 metres to the top. Needless to say I convinced Anne Marie what a great idea it would be to walk it! It’s strenuous enough, but all depends on how fast you want to take the ascent. An average Joe might take an hour and a half to reach the top, but every year hundreds of challengers compete for the record, which currently stands at a mere 25 minutes.
At the top we explored the chainsaw wood carvings, watched a falconry display, spotted some bears and took in the views before taking the easy route back down on the Gondola. An afternoon well spent and worthy of a rewarding pint in one of the city’s many craft breweries.
The weeks spent in Vancouver certainly gave me a deeper understanding of the city and why it is so loved the world over. Its cultural diversity, active lifestyle and the draw of the great outdoors all make the city unique. There is way too much to capture in just one blog post so here are a few more photographs from the trip. I hope you enjoy them and if you have any questions or comments about the above feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
14th September 2013
It’s not easy saying goodbye to a place. Especially when it’s somewhere you fell in love with (and in for that matter) and you are leaving behind dear friends. The end of three years living in Queenstown wasn’t exactly celebrated. It was more of a ‘see you later’, which I do hope is true and I can return again soon.
So no more sob stories from me and likewise no more clichéd words of natural beauty, I’ll leave that up to the photographs…