Alpine Views from the Bernina Express

On a scale of 1 to 10 my excitement level for the Bernina Express was a definite 10. We love train travel and the thought of a spectacular four-hour scenic ride from Chur, Switzerland to Tirano, Italy on the highest railway through the Alps negotiating 55 tunnels and 196 bridges thrilled me beyond description. The 122 km route’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site added another dimension to its already abundant appeal.

We decided to purchase round-trip tickets allowing us to enjoy the scenery twice and return to Chur for the night. Not one to leave the pinnacle event of our Swiss adventure to chance, we reserved our seats prior to leaving home, then bought our tickets at the train station the morning of our tour. With our Swiss Half Fare card, 2nd class roundtrip tickets for the two of us totaled $184.

From the moment we departed Chur at 8:32 am, I think it’s safe to say I was the most excited passenger in our railcar if not on the entire train. Fortunately, our railcar wasn’t overly crowded so I was able to flit from side to side in the car without disturbing other passengers.  I’d read the views were best from the right side where we reserved our seats, but I saw so many astounding views on the left, I couldn’t sit still for even a minute. With Jim’s back fracture, he was relieved to just sit in his seat and enjoy the views without exertion for the day. To me, every view was photo-worthy resulting in over 1100 photos, although the vast majority contain major flaws, usually window glare. Warning: I whittled down the photos in this post to 42 so my apologies if you grow weary and give up before the end.

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The Bernina Express at Chur Train Station

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Jim searching for our reserved seats on the Bernina Express

As we left the station, we noticed low hanging clouds in the valleys but plenty of sunshine and blue skies promised excellent views when the sun burned the vapor away. In the meantime, the fog added a mystical quality to our views.

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Alpine view from the Bernina Express

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View from the Bernina Express

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Crossing one of 196 bridges

I’m quite sure I took photos of every hamlet we passed. Each was as charming as this with a church steeple often serving as my focal point.

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One of many Alpine hamlets

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Misty clouds in the valley

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Try as I might, my photos of the spectacular Landwasser Viaduct below and the entrance to the Landwasser Tunnel didn’t do it justice but take my word for it, it was spectacular.

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Landwasser Viaduct and Tunnel

I especially loved the sun illuminating the autumn foliage on the mountainsides.

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UNESCO World Heritage recognition

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I don’t know the people in the photo below, but I wanted to show how the windows provided both panoramic views and challenges to work around when taking photographs from the train.

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View of Morteratsch Glacier from the Bernina Express

As we approached The Bernina Pass, the highest elevation of our ride at 2253 m (7392 ft) Lake Bianco came into view. Many hikers enjoy the easy scenic trails in this area, especially the trail from Ospizio Bernina to Alp Grum along the lake. I would love to go back and take this hike sometime.

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Hikers on the trail to Alp Grum

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Lago Bianco

We stopped at Alp Grum and took the requisite selfie to prove we were here.

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The Bernina Express route ends at Tirano, Italy. The brochure claims there are “swaying palms” at the terminus which we did not see but we nevertheless enjoyed the temperate climate and the views from this village of fewer than 10,000 inhabitants. After a short stroll, we settled in at a cafe with outdoor seating and a view for some real Italian pizza and a glass of vino.

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We departed from Tirano for the return trip to Chur at 2:25 pm and arrived at 6:20 pm. Although we’d been this way before, it was nearly as spectacular on the return trip and I attempted to capture the shots which escaped me earlier in the day.

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Morteratsch Glacier

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I truly thought this train journey would be the highlight of our Swiss adventure but it turned out to be just one of many highlights. Please check back for more as we travel next to Lucerne.

 

Based on events from October 2017.

Categories: Europe, Italy, Travel, Uncategorized, UNESCO | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments

Chur: Gateway to the Bernina Express

Chur (KOOR), with a population just under 33,000, is the oldest town in Switzerland and the gateway to the Bernina Express. Those features alone made it an easy choice as our base for 2 nights while its well-preserved pedestrian-only Old Town added abundant charm and history.

We arrived late in the afternoon after a 2-hour train ride from Zurich with our first impressive albeit rainy views of the Swiss countryside.

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Swiss countryside from the train

 

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View of the Swiss countryside

 

We wandered around the winding streets of Old Town a bit before we found the Ambiente Hotel Freieck. It looks easier on the map below than it actually was. (We didn’t have the map when we arrived either.)

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Map of Chur, Switzerland

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Ambiente Hotel Freieck

We were pleased with our accommodations at this three-star hotel as well as the location,  and the breakfast buffet was amazing. If you follow my blog, you’ve probably read previously that we like to eat a big breakfast followed by a protein bar or something similar for lunch, then go out in the evening for a nice dinner. We always try to find a hotel that provides breakfast so we have to buy just one meal a day.  Including breakfast, taxes, and fees, we paid $178 per night at the Ambiente Hotel Freieck which I thought was a fair price in an expensive area.

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Lobby at Ambiente Hotel Freieck

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The view from our hotel room

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Beds at Ambiente Hotel Freieck

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Shower in our hotel room

After Jim rested his back for a bit, we searched out a local restaurant for dinner. It was still raining so we didn’t dawdle in spite of our umbrellas. We found Cafe Arcas on a lovely square by the same name in the heart of Old Town where I looked longingly at the outdoor seating.

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Arcas

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Cafe Arcas, Chur

We were early and only one other table in the small cafe was occupied. After asking about local dishes, we selected homemade spinatpizokel and spatzli, both specialties from the canton of Grisons where Chur is located. (Grisons is French; the German name of the canton is Graubunden.) The spinatpizokel was a spinach pasta with air-dried ham, local beef, and sausage. The spatzli was a pasta with cheese (Swiss mac and cheese, if you will). Some of you know I normally shun gluten but I wanted to try local dishes so I made an exception in this case. We shared the two dishes and left pleasantly full in spite of resisting the homemade desserts which, I admit, looked delicious.

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Spinatpizokel

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Spatzli

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Homemade desserts

Following dinner, we ambled along the winding streets of Old Town enjoying the sights.

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St. Martin’s Church

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In spite of pain medication, Jim had a terrible night. Like a beetle on his back, it was almost impossible for him to get up once he was prone. He wore his back brace to bed to try to sleep on his side but that was largely unsuccessful. He was most comfortable on his back but he snores on his back which meant I was awake whenever he slept. It was almost a relief when morning broke. At least the scrumptious breakfast made getting up worthwhile.

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Breakfast buffet

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Breakfast buffet

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Breakfast buffet

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A hearty breakfast built to last

The Bernina Express departed at 8:32 a.m. so, following our breakfast, we hurried to the train station. As we passed the Rhaetian Railway (RhB) Administration Building, I couldn’t resist a quick photo of this impressive edifice.

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Rhaetian Railway Administration Building

Incidentally, if you, like me as a child, loved the book, Heidi, you’ll be interested to know the setting for this classic was just 19.6 km (12 miles) away from Chur near the town of Maienfeld.  Although the village of Dorfli in the book is fictional, another village has been renamed Heididorf and contains a Heidi museum and other attractions based on the novel. We didn’t have enough time to check it out but the information brought back a favorite childhood memory.

Join me next time on the famous Bernina Express for a scenic journey through the Swiss Alps.

 

Based on events from October 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Europe, Food, History, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Zurich from the Bus

Our flight arrived in Zurich at 6:20 a.m. In spite of Jim’s spine fracture (which you can read about here), he slept better than usual on the overnight flight, probably due to medication. We easily found the SBB Travel Center at the airport where we could purchase train tickets from a machine or at a ticket counter. Around the corner, however, was the service center and I went in to discuss our ticket options for the week. I told the representative where we planned to go and she told me our best option was to purchase the Swiss Half Fare Card for $120 per person which confirmed my previous research. With this pass, we would receive a 50% discount on train, bus, boat, city and mountain transport for one month.  Tickets purchased, we proceeded to the platform for the train into the city center.

We had planned a self-guided walking tour of Old Town Zurich but Jim was sore and moving so slowly we decided to look for a bus tour instead. Since we were greeted in Zurich by dreary skies and intermittent rain, that appealed to me anyway. When we arrived at the Zurich Main Rail Station (Zurich HB), we stowed our luggage in a rental locker then went in search of Tourist Information. With the help of TI staff, we selected a 2 hour Gray Line Classic Trolley bus tour of the city beginning at 9:45 a.m. for $34 each.

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Locker to store luggage at Zurich Main Train Station

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Gray Line Classic Trolley Tour

On the bus tour, I first encountered the problem that would plague me on buses and trains throughout this trip. It was nearly impossible to take a decent photo through the windows due to the reflection.

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Swiss National Museum

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Attractive storefront

The bus stopped for about 15 minutes at Lake Zurich. Tired and sore, Jim stayed on the bus while I scurried off to get a few photos of the lake surrounded by gloomy skies but without window reflection.

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Lake Zurich with lion statue

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Lake Zurich with fountain

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Lion statue overlooking Lake Zurich

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Bull Tamer Fountain from the bus

We stopped again near Munsterhof, the town square, which was close to three main churches: Fraumunster, St. Peter Church, and Grossmunster. Jim stayed onboard again while I explored on my own.

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Munsterhof

While I didn’t have time to see the interior of any of these churches, I was again grateful to get photos from outside the bus. Fraumunster Cathedral is home to the famous Marc Chagall stained glass windows which you can see by clicking on this link. St. Peter Church, dating from the 8th century, is the oldest church in Zurich and the face on its clock tower is reputed to be the largest in Europe. Grossmunster was built around 1100 but legend has it the current building replaced a cathedral built by Charlemagne on the spot where Felix and Regula, brothers and patron saints of Zurich were buried.

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The clock tower at Fraumunster Cathedral, home of Chagall windows, with St. Pater Clocktower behind

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Grossmunster

Scenes along the Limmat River in Old Town were among my favorites. Built in 1694, the Rathaus (Town Hall) perches over the river in Old Town surrounded by other Renaissance and much older medieval buildings. Normally, we would have visited all of these places on our walking tour but, under the circumstances, I was happy to see the exteriors and hear the commentary on the bus.

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Limmat River with Rathaus (Town Hall) on the left

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St. Peter Church clock tower

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Limmat River in Old Town

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Swiss Federal Institute of Technology

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Schauspielhaus (Theater)

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Limmat River

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View from the bus

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Main Train Station

The bus tour also took us through some newer sections of the city but frankly, I wasn’t especially interested in the financial district. Following the tour, Jim was really in pain and exhausted. He encouraged me to walk around Old Town to my heart’s content while he waited at the train station. Worried about him, I went as far as the Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich’s famous and expensive street lined with exclusive shops, took a photo, then hurried back.

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Bahnhofstrasse

On my way back to the train station, I couldn’t help but stop for one last photo of Old Town and the Limmat River. I think it turned out to be my best photo of Zurich.

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Old Town Zurich

We’d seen an abbreviated version of the sights on my list for Zurich and we were ready to take the train to Chur, check into our hotel, and let Jim rest.

As we headed to our platform, I took this photo in the train station of a market called Migros. I would later learn the ubiquitous Swiss grocery store is the largest employer and the largest supermarket chain in Switzerland and one of the largest retailers in the world.

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Check back for more stories about Switzerland. It seemed like every day was better than the day before in terms of both the scenery and Jim’s ability to get around.

Based on events from October 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Europe, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Thank You, Dear Readers

If you’re an occasional or regular reader of my blog, you may have noticed a dearth of posts in the first quarter of 2018. I started this blog in February 2014 and honestly, I was thinking after four years and 192 posts, it may be time to stop. I have plenty of material (my husband still says I need to travel less and write more) but I was finding it more difficult to discipline myself to write and rewrite each day to publish a post weekly. I found myself procrastinating, throwing a post together at the last minute, and I wasn’t satisfied with the product. Consequently, I published no posts in January, only one in February, and none in March.

Then a convergence of events occurred. First, late in March, I had a reader who found my blog on the internet ask me some questions about Keukenhof in the Netherlands. I was delighted to answer her questions and I felt I had provided a valuable service if my answers helped make their trip better in some small way. Then I noticed the number of views on my blog remained high during the months I wasn’t posting anything new. That was a big surprise and it told me people were finding my blog by internet searches. Finally, when I told Jim I thought I’d quit he told me when we were too old to travel he thought we’d just read all the posts I’d written and we could enjoy all those trips again.

I felt my enthusiasm return and I began to write. Friends commented on posts which encouraged me. April stats showed the second highest number of views since I began my blog which encouraged me even more. Although I originally started writing this blog just for my own travel record, it turns out readership is a big motivator. So thank you, dear readers, for getting me back on track.

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Example of stats for one day by post viewed and location of the viewer

 

 

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Broke Back Mountain Meets the Swiss Alps

When my husband, Jim, announced he was cleaning the roof of our two-story house two days before we were scheduled to leave for Switzerland, I responded, “That’s not a good idea,” which turned out to be a monumental understatement. I told him I’d be gone all day at Pilates, a hair appointment, lunch with a friend, and shopping. “No problem,” he said, “I’ll get Brian to help me with the ladder if I need him.” Our neighbor, Brian, also had other plans that day.

When I got a text from my stylist to tell me she was running late, I decided to stop at home for a quick shower after Pilates. As I was getting into the shower, my phone rang. In a dazed voice, Jim said, “Where are you? I don’t know what happened.” Buck naked, I ran to the window, looked out, and saw him lying on his back under the tree. WTF? Grabbing a robe, I raced outside.

After successfully cleaning debris from the roof, Jim decided to attack a branch that annoyed him on the Russian olive tree. The ladder apparently rotated and he fell 12-14 feet (3-4 meters), knocking himself out. Fortunately, he had his cell phone in his pocket which he used to call me. And fortunately, I was unexpectedly at home.

We argued for the next half hour about whether I should call an ambulance. When I tried to help him up, he howled in pain, and begged, “Just give me a couple more minutes.” We repeated this dance of suffering at least four times while in between, I texted my stylist to cancel my appointment and went into the house to get dressed. My patience finally ran out and I took charge and called 911.

A police officer who Jim knows was first on the scene and they chatted, Jim flat on his back, while we waited for the ambulance. Jim insisted he was fine; he could move his fingers and toes, arms and legs; he just couldn’t get up. That didn’t sound fine to me.

The ambulance transported him to the hospital and I followed in the car, calling my friend, Lori, to cancel lunch. After a long wait in the Emergency Room, lots of drugs, a cat scan, and sincere apologies for ruining our trip, we learned Jim fractured his T12 vertebra. He was moved to a hospital room for overnight observation and I called our two sons to inform them.

That evening our son, Brian; his wife, Abi; and our son, Michael, arrived to visit Dad in crisis. That’s when Michael dubbed him Broke Back Mountain and the name stuck. Jim, of course, joked if he’d known it would be so easy to get them home, he’d have fallen off a ladder sooner.

IMG_8402All joking aside, we discussed our trip while we waited for the neurosurgeon to tell us whether Jim could travel. We had planned to travel to Switzerland for a week, then join my friend, Lori and her daughter for an 8 day Viking River Cruise on the Rhine River from Basel, Switzerland to Amsterdam, Netherlands. I told Jim we had several options. We could cancel, I could go alone and meet up with our friends, I could delay the trip and travel with them, or we could go together if the doctor allowed it. My one condition was I didn’t want Jim to go and complain the entire time that I made him go and he was miserable.

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Jim sporting his $1800 back brace

Since the fracture was stable, the neurosurgeon, Dr. David Beck, pronounced Jim fit to travel with restrictions. Jim was game to go well-armed with an industrial strength back brace and pain medication. We would slow our usual break-neck pace (no pun intended), I would manage the luggage for both of us, keep track of Jim’s meds, and make sure he followed doctor’s orders.

I immediately called the airline to arrange for a wheelchair to meet us in Chicago. It was a little complicated because we had two partner airlines to deal with, but it was a godsend because Jim was moving so slowly at that point. We checked our bags through to Zurich, a new experience for committed carry-on luggage only travelers. When the airline announced they would first board people who needed extra time on the jetway, we looked at each other and chortled in unison, “That’s us!”

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Smiles because we were first to board (and heavy meds for Jim)

Please check back for more tales from Broke Back Mountain as we travel through Switzerland, Germany, France, and the Netherlands.

Based on events from October 2017.

 

 

 

Categories: cruise, Europe, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

The Best Laid Plans for the Swiss Alps

We enjoyed our first Viking River Cruise in October 2016 so much we were eager to go again. In April 2017 when I saw an affordable Rhine cruise sailing that October from Basel, Switzerland to Amsterdam, we booked it. We’d never been to Switzerland and this was a great opportunity to visit a new country. As I began my research, I quickly learned two things. First, Switzerland is expensive and second, a week wasn’t enough time to see everything in this small country. Thing one, however, limited us to one week. After all, we still had the 8-day river cruise and a couple extra days in Amsterdam afterward.

Part of what made this trip with Viking a good deal was their offer of free airfare. Upon checking, I discovered we could request an “air deviation” for $100 per person. With the air deviation, we extended our trip to depart a week early and return two days later and flew into Zurich instead of Basel. We would fly to Zurich on October 22, board the ship October 29, arrive in Amsterdam November 5, and fly home on November 7.

With the dates for our journey established, I began planning in earnest starting with an online search of the top sights in Switzerland. There were so many I really didn’t know where to begin. I’d heard of the Bernina Express, a scenic rail trip through the Swiss Alps which I thought maybe a good place to start. My research, however, introduced me to another route further south, the Glacier Express, which appealed to me, too. As it turned out, the Glacier Express was closed from mid-October until mid-December and the Bernina Express was closed from the end of October until mid-December. I was so relieved to find one of them open during our visit that I actually built our trip around the Bernina Express.

We decided early on we would travel by train. My brother and his wife had recently driven through Switzerland in a rental car. Their tales of adventure convinced me my anxious personality wasn’t suited to riding by car in the mountains or the cities. The train was a better choice for us. That said, deciphering the rail system in Switzerland was a challenge, to say the least. I spent days poring over the various options and comparing the cost of rail tickets with no pass, with a Swiss Travel Pass, Swiss Travel Pass Flex, and Swiss Half Fare Card. A special offer for a second person to travel for free only added to the confusion. Three websites were especially helpful: the official Swiss Federal Railways, Seat61, and My Swiss Alps. In the end, I only purchased a reservation for the Bernina Express in advance. A rail ticket will get you on the train for the Bernina Express route but you must reserve a seat in advance for the observation car. All other tickets could be purchased on-site with no difference in price so I held off but I was quite certain the Swiss Half Fare card was our best option.

We considered purchasing day trips out of Zurich or Lucerne with various tour companies to the popular tourist sights. Both the price and the time it took to travel out and back discouraged that plan. Besides, we generally prefer to do our own thing rather than be herded with a group on someone else’s schedule.

I reserved hotels in advance for every night. Traveling by train, I didn’t want to arrive in a city and not find a room for the night. I selected hotels based on location, price, and reviews. Since we would be dragging our luggage, I preferred a hotel close to the train station but I also wanted a reasonable price with good customer reviews.

This was our itinerary:

Day 1. Arrive in Zurich at 6:20 a.m. and take the train from the airport into the city. Store our luggage in lockers in the train station and take a self-guided walking tour of the old city which would get us to all the highlights. After seeing Zurich, take the train to Chur (pronounced Koor) (2 hours). Overnight in Chur at the Ambiente Hotel Freieck.

Day 2. We had reserved seats on the Bernina Express departing from Chur at 8:32 a.m. for a scenic 4-hour journey through the Alps. Rather than carry our luggage, we decided to take the train back to Chur to spend a second night.

Day 3. After an early breakfast, we would take the train to Lucerne, which takes about 3 hours. We planned to see Lucerne on foot and spend the night at Waldstaetterhof Swiss Quality Hotel right across from the rail station.

Day 4. We would leave our luggage at the hotel while we took a boat to Pilatus or the train to Titlis, depending on the weather. When we returned we would take the train to Grindelwald (2.5 hours) where I reserved a room at Hotel Alpina.

Day 5. We planned to take the train up to Jungfraujoch, then spend another night at Hotel Alpina.

Day 6. Take the train to Basel (3-3.5 hours) to meet our friends Lori and Heather at the Gaia Hotel before our cruise the following day.

Day 7. Board the Viking Kara for our cruise on the Rhine River.

You can see our planned route highlighted in yellow below.

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It was an ambitious plan but still didn’t allow visits to the Matterhorn, Geneva, and many other highly recommended sights in Switzerland. As events unfolded, we were lucky not to have committed to more. Be sure to check back to read how these best-laid plans went awry.

 

Based on events from April to October 2017.

 

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A Bridge Far Enough

The Mackinac Bridge is the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere and the fifth longest in the world. The suspension section is 8614 feet long and the overall length of the bridge is 26,372 feet. Opened to traffic on November 1, 1957, today over 600,000 vehicles cross the bridge during the peak month of July. Built to withstand heavy winds, the bridge only closes 3-4 times per year, but I did see travel was restricted recently and the photo showing the weather conditions terrified me.

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Mackinac Bridge

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Mackinac Bridge

As we crossed the Straits of Mackinac on the Mighty Mac, to our left we got our first glimpse of Lake Michigan, our fifth and final great lake on our Great Lakes Road Trip of 2017. After some discussion, we decided to continue along the shore of Lake Michigan and head to my hometown of Wausau, Wisconsin just 318 miles away. We were homeward bound, not in a hurry to get there, but headed that direction. Mackinac Bridge was our bridge far enough.

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First view of Lake Michigan from Mighty Mac

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Mackinaw City, MI to Wausau, WI

Jim drove, I checked for lighthouses along the shore of Lake Michigan, found several, and we stopped to check them out.

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Manistique East Breakwater

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Manistique East Breakwater Lighthouse

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Menominee North Pier Lighthouse

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Lake Michigan

As the sun was setting, we headed west along 2-lane back roads through Wisconsin, enjoying the scenery and feeling satisfied that we’d accomplished our goal to see all five Great Lakes on another epic road trip.

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After spending the night with my brother and sister-in-law followed by a visit with my dad and his wife the next morning, we began the last leg of our journey back to Iowa. Near Warrens, Wisconsin I spotted a sign announcing the Warrens Cranberry Festival that weekend. What luck! I’ve always wanted to attend so we made a slight detour to check it out. Fortunately for us, we noticed some activity at a farm outside the town and pulled in. We learned we should have purchased a ticket in town for a bus tour to the cranberry bog but a kind woman working there allowed us to sidestep that requirement and listen to the tour since we were already there.

The number 1 fruit crop in Wisconsin, the state produces over 60% of the cranberries consumed in the U.S. While the berries grow in sandy marshes or bogs, they do not grow under water. In fall, when the berries are ripe, some berries are harvested using a dry method with a machine that combs the berries from the vines. Using the wet method, bogs are flooded with 6-18 inches of water, then berries are shaken from the vines with an eggbeater tractor. The berries float in the water and are corralled and scooped up. The water is then recycled through other fields in the same process.

To me, possibly the most interesting fact about cranberry production is that every acre of cranberry bog is supported by 6-10 acres of natural and man-made wetlands, woodlands, and uplands that provide habitat for bald eagles, loons, wolves, trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, and other wildlife.

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Jim with a bag of fresh cranberries inspecting an applicator boom for fertilizing cranberries and other equipment. Note the school bus in the background to transport visitors.

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Cranberry marsh

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Close-up of cranberries on the vine

We were fortunate to happen upon the cranberry marsh tour because we never would have experienced it if we had gone into Warrens first. It was a total madhouse! Imagine a village of 363 inhabitants flooded by over 100,000 visitors in a 3 day period with 1000 vendors selling arts and crafts, flea market items, and food. This is one of the largest craft fairs in the country and people take it very seriously. They actually arrive with carts to carry their purchases as you can see in the photo below.

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Warrens Cranberry Festival

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After enjoying some free samples of cranberry items, cheese, sausage and other foodstuffs, we tried to “get the hell out of Dodge” which was easier said than done.  By the time we were finally out of there, we were definitely ready to head for home.

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Based on events from September 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Welcome to Mackinac Island

I fell in love with Mackinac Island on my first visit as a child in the 1960’s with my parents, brothers, and a great aunt and uncle. Everything about it charmed me including the ferry ride on Lake Huron to the island, the use of horse-drawn rather than motorized vehicles, and the gingerbread Victorian architecture. When my husband and I visited in 1976 and again with our children in 1991, it seemed as if nothing had changed. In September 2017, on the surface at least, the island still appeared to be stuck in time. In today’s fast-paced world, this quality is comforting.

Fun facts about Mackinac Island:

  1. Whether spelled Mackinac or Mackinaw, the pronunciation is Mackinaw.
  2. From 1875-1895, Mackinac Island was the nation’s second national park. (The first was Yellowstone National Park.)
  3. Mackinac Island State Park was established in 1895 as the first state park in Michigan.
  4. Over 80% of the island is within the state park.
  5. Automobiles were banned in 1898 because they were loud and scared the horses.

Planning to take an early ferry to the island, we stayed at the Best Western Plus Dockside Waterfront in Mackinaw City, just down the road from Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry. While the hotel was somewhat tired and dated, its proximity to the ferry sold us. After an outstanding complimentary breakfast, we hustled down the road to the ferry only to discover we could purchase the tickets cheaper at the hotel. Always ready to save a couple bucks, we returned the several blocks to the hotel, bought our roundtrip tickets for $21.59 each rather than $26 at the dock, and we were still among the first in line for the 8:30 ferry.

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Our ride

Our goals for our visit were modest. As history nerds, we wanted to revisit Fort Mackinac; I was keen to visit the Grand Hotel which met with eye-rolling from my husband; and last, but not least, we planned to purchase some famous Murdick’s fudge to take home.

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View of Mackinac Bridge from Shepler’s Miss Margy

We enjoyed the 16-minute scenic ferry ride on a pleasant sunny morning in late September on day 11 of our Great Lakes Road Trip of 2017. Upon our arrival, not much was open on Main Street but, fortunately for us, the Visitor’s Center was ready for business and staffed by friendly, helpful workers. Armed with the map they highlighted to show our route, we set off for Fort Mackinac. The fort opened at 9:30 and we were early so we checked out Marquette Park, the Missionary Bark Chapel, and Trinity Church while we waited.

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Marquette Park with Missionary Bark Chapel to the left and Ft Mackinac above

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View of Haldimand Bay from Marquette Park

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Trinity Church

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Interior of Trinity Church

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Entrance to the Fort

During the American Revolutionary War, the British believed Ft. Michilimackinac on the mainland was vulnerable to attack by the American rebels. In 1780, they dismantled it and moved it, lock, stock, and barrel, to Mackinac Island, renaming it Ft. Mackinac. In 1796, the British departed and the Americans took over but in the War of 1812, the British surprised the American forces who surrendered without a fight. At the end of the war, the fort was returned once again to the Americans. The film shown every 20 minutes in the fort commissary provided this history and other interesting facts as a great introduction to our self-guided tour.

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The Commissary at Ft. Mackinac

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Interior of the Commissary

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Ft. Mackinac

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Officer’s Quarters

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View of the harbor from the fort

After a thorough exploration of the fort, we proceeded up Garrison Road to the highest point on the island, Ft. Holmes. Built during the War of 1812 by the British as a redoubt and originally named Ft. George, the Americans renamed it Ft. Holmes to honor Major Holmes who died in battle there. The current structure is a reconstruction.

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Ft. Holmes

From nearby Point Lookout, we enjoyed a view of Sugar Loaf, a natural limestone breccia formation that rises 75 feet.

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Sugar Loaf

As we continued our hike, we made a few wrong turns but finally found our way to the Grand Hotel Stables.

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I believe this is Carriage Road

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Grand Hotel Stables

I have never seen such a clean, well-maintained stable. The horses that reside here are lucky animals.

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Grand Hotel Stables

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A couple of the well-cared-for horses

The highpoint of my day was definitely our visit to the Grand Hotel. Possessing a vivid imagination, I’ve dreamed of staying at the Grand Hotel ever since I first glimpsed it as a child. While I have no desire to pay the minimum $199 per PERSON per day for the best deal the hotel offers, I was delighted to learn we could tour the public areas for a mere $10 each. My husband grumbled a bit (he’s an “eat the rich” kind of guy) but I told him to think of it as a museum tour. The historical value of this famous landmark built in 1887 is undeniable.

Reviews of the hotel are mixed. Looking at the virtual tour on their website, the standard rooms appear small and cramped and I’m certain the 19th-century style doesn’t suit all 21st-century tourists. Most complaints I read, however, centered around the staff stopping visitors to inquire whether they were guests of the hotel. No one asked us but I visibly gripped my brochure indicating I paid to wander around and pretend I was a guest.

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The Grand Hotel

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Relaxing on the porch

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Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor at the Grand Hotel

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View from inside Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor

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The Grand Hotel

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Lobby at the Grand Hotel

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The Grand Hotel Lobby

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Cupola Bar at the Grand Hotel

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What a great view

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A sign outside the hotel with 19th -century expectations of guests

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The Grand Hotel

Our last stop on the island was at The Original Murdick’s Fudge, a Mackinac Island tradition since 1887. Although we’re not big candy consumers, I wanted to take some of this iconic confection home to our adult children.

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Murdick’s Fudge on the marble slab where it’s prepared

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Murdick’s Fudge

After a last look around Main Street, we boarded the ferry for the return trip to Mackinaw City.

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Main Street

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Sail away from Mackinac Island

If you’ve never visited Mackinac Island, you’ve missed one of the top destinations in the  Midwest. With more time, a bike rental would have topped my list of fun things to do. It’s just an 8-mile ride around the island with lots of amazing views and a good escape from the crush of tourists. Many visitors take a carriage tour and I recommend that as well. While we barely scratched the surface this visit, we were satisfied with our day.

 

Based on events from September 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Family, History, Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

Michigan: Beacon for Lighthouse Enthusiasts

Leaving Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada, we drove along the scenic Niagara Parkway to Fort Erie where we enjoyed our first view of Lake Erie, the fourth Great Lake on our Great Lakes Road Trip.

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Site of Fort Erie

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Lake Erie flows into the Niagara River

As we continued onto highway 3, at Dunnville we stumbled upon a bed and breakfast bearing the same name as my husband. We knew relatives of Jim’s grandmother likely lived in this region of Canada but we were unprepared to encounter the Lalor surname. While an overnight there may have proved enlightening, we wanted to travel more miles on day 9 so we drove on.

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Jim at Lalor Estate Inn

We stopped for the evening in the village of Birch Run, Michigan (pop. 1555). Its only claim to fame as far as I could tell was a fast food joint called Halo Burger that bills itself as the home of “Michigan’s best burger since 1923.”

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Our route on day 9

Back on the road the following morning for day 10 of our Great Lakes Road Trip, we decided to get off the interstate and follow the shore of Lake Huron instead.

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If you, like me, are a lighthouse enthusiast, put Michigan on your bucket list. With more freshwater coastline than any other state (only Alaska has more coastline overall), Michigan claims more lighthouses than any other state. Consequently, opportunities to visit these beacons abound along the Michigan shores of Lake Erie, Lake Huron, Lake Superior, and Lake Michigan. We picked up a Michigan Lighthouse Guide and took our time stopping frequently along the way.

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Our first stop at Tawas Point Lighthouse was especially instructive. We met a couple moving into the lighthouse who were participants in the Lighthouse Keeper Program. After a successful application for the program, these volunteers would provide tours of the lighthouse during their 2-week stay. What a fun experience if you’re looking for a volunteer opportunity in a beautiful location!

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Tawas Point Lighthouse (volunteer lighthouse keeper on far left)

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View of Lake Huron from Alpena, Michigan

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Alpena Light

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New Presque Isle Lighthouse

New Presque Isle Lighthouse replaced the old lighthouse in 1870. We had to hike a distance to reach the Old Presque Isle Lighthouse which was not open but this charming squatty beacon and the grounds were well worth the walk.

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Old Presque Isle Lighthouse

I was initially shocked to see the jockey statue below and assumed it was racist but I was relieved and impressed when I read the explanation.

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Forty Mile Point Lighthouse, named for its location 40 miles southeast of Old Mackinaw Point, opened in 1896. Today, it offers a keeper’s program for volunteers who stay in their own RVs on-site. Our keeper enthusiastically shared his extensive knowledge about the lighthouse and its history.

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40 Mile Point Lighthouse

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Volunteer guide at 40 Mile Light

When we climbed the tower, the views of Lake Huron were incredible with the color of the water and the sandy beaches which looked like we were somewhere in the Caribbean. Take note: You must wear closed shoes to climb this tower. A recent accident involving a girl wearing flip-flops brought about this rule.

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View of Lake Huron from 40 Mile Light

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Selfie with view of Lake Huron

We walked down to the water’s edge to see the location of the shipwreck of the J.S. Fay which occurred on October 19, 1905. The wooden steamer broke up on a sandbar and sank in about 12 feet of water just offshore but a large chunk of her side washed ashore where it can be viewed to this day.

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Shipwreck of the J.S. Fay

In Cheboygan, we visited this rather unassuming lighthouse, Cheboygan Front Range Light, built in 1880. Today, it is owned by the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association and open to the public.

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Cheboygan Front Range Light

Cheboygan Crib Light opened offshore in 1884 but was moved to its present location in Gordon Turner Park in Cheboygan in 1985. Keepers never lived in this facility and had to travel daily by boat to operate the beacon during its period of service. To me, it’s one the most photo-worthy of all the lighthouses we visited.

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Cheboygan Crib Light

The last lighthouse we visited on day 10 was Old Mackinac Point, opened in 1892 and operations ceased in 1957 when Mackinac Bridge opened. The lighthouse closed for the day before our arrival so we didn’t get inside but the outside was impressive.

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Old Mackinac Point

To finish day 10, we dined at the #1 rated restaurant in Mackinaw City, Darrow’s Family Restaurant. I’m always looking for locally sourced items and the parmesan encrusted whitefish met that requirement. Jim selected the roast beef with dressing and gravy.

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Darrow’s doesn’t claim to provide a fine dining experience and there’s nothing pretentious about the place. It’s a brightly-lit family-style restaurant similar to a Perkin’s or Country Kitchen. The line moves rapidly as they serve customers quickly and efficiently and the place was packed with older people who love the comfort food they offer. While we waited in line, we visited with two couples from towns that neighbor ours in North Iowa. (It seems there’s always an Iowa connection on our trips.) Our food was tasty like a home-cooked meal if you’re cooking for an army.

Come back next time and accompany us to Mackinac Island on Day 11 of our Great Lakes Road Trip.

 

Based on events from September 2017.

 

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Categories: History, Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Celebrating 35 years at Niagara Falls

 

We arrived in Niagara Falls the evening of day 7 of our Great Lakes Road Trip on our 35th wedding anniversary. Our honeymoon consisted of a visit to my grandmother followed by a camping trip so what better place to spend our 35th than the “honeymoon capital of the world”? I had visited as a child but Jim had never seen the falls and we were eager to see this natural wonder together.

Even without a reservation, we had no trouble getting a room at Comfort Inn The Pointe located directly next to the park on the American side. I looked for a hotel with a view of the falls but in retrospect, our location was perfect with just a short walk to the falls and all the viewing points.

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View from our hotel room toward the Niagara River

After checking in, we set off immediately to see as much as possible on foot before dark. Our first breathtaking view impressed us beyond description. We are so grateful to those early environmentalists who founded the Free Niagara movement in the late 1860s to protect this majestic natural wonder from commercial interests. America’s oldest state park was founded in 1885 as a result of their persistent efforts.

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View of American Falls from Prospect Point

Today, Niagara Falls State Park is open and free to the public 365 days a year. We walked the trails to all the viewing areas and, as darkness fell, we watched in wonder to see the falls illuminated by red, white, and blue lights.

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Map of Niagara Falls with the viewing areas we walked to circled in black

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View of American Falls from Prospect Point

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Raging Niagara River looking toward the American Falls Pedestrian Bridge to Goat Island

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Trail in the state park

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American Rapids

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Above Bridal Veil Falls

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American Falls from Luna Island

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American Falls from Luna Island

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35 years of wedded bliss

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American Falls

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Looking toward Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side

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Looking toward Canadian side from Terrapin Point

The Serbian inventor, Nikola Tesla, designed the first hydroelectric plant in the world which opened at Niagara Falls in 1895. Today over 4 million kilowatts of electricity can be generated here and shared between the U.S. and Canada.

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Monument to honor Nikola Tesla

In our excitement, we neglected to plan for dinner. By the time we finished exploring the park, we couldn’t find a restaurant in the immediate vicinity to sate our hunger. We ended up celebrating our 35th wedding anniversary at a Pakistani buffet near closing time in an open mall. While the restaurant lacked romantic atmosphere, the food was tasty.

The following morning, on day 8 of our Great Lakes Road Trip, after a hasty breakfast we made straight for the Maid of the Mist. We were among the first in line for the drenching must-do boat trip to experience Niagara Falls from below. Tickets were $18.25 but I see they’ll increase to $19.25 in 2018. It was well worth it. Get there early unless you have plenty of time to stand in line and PLAN TO GET WET!

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The observation tower above the river

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Another Maid of the Mist ahead of us at Horseshoe Falls

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American Falls

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Horseshoe Falls

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American Falls

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A totally drenching experience

Following our ride on the Maid of the Mist, we explored the trails and stairways to numerous additional viewing points on the American side before driving to the Canadian side to experience Niagara Falls from those viewpoints.

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View of the trails and steps as you leave Maid of the Mist

I’d always read the views are better from the Canadian side but, in the end, I thought both had their strong points. While the views on the Canadian side are better straight on, the park seems more extensive on the American side with lovely paths and numerous views from various directions.

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Horseshoe Falls from the Canadian side

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Trail with landscaping on the Canadian side

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View of American Falls from Canada

I would place Niagara Falls right up there with the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone in terms of grandeur and awe-inspiring beauty. If you haven’t been there, what are you waiting for?

 

 

 

Based on events from September 2017.

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