Monthly Archives: April 2018

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

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