Europe

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Snowmobile to the Edge of Europe – Finnmark, Norway

“Here I stand at the North Cape, the outermost point of Finnmark. I could even say that this is the end of the entire world,” wrote Francesco Negri, the 17th-century traveller who first made it to Norway’s Northern Cape, the northernmost point of mainland Europe.

Jutting out into the Arctic Ocean, it long remained a romantic but remote winter destination, reached only by a daily, snowplough-led convoy. This year, however, there’s a new way to arrive: a snowmobile trip.

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Port of Honningsvåg – Norway

Run by experts Destinasjon 71° Nord, it embarks from Honningsvåg, a picturesque village set on the mouth of a fjord. On the evening journey, travellers fuel up with a three-course meal before donning the snuggest polar gear and setting off across the Finnmark plateau, a silent, eerily beautiful expanse of fjords and plains – illuminated, with any luck, by the northern lights.

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Snowmobilers watching northern lights – Norway

At around midnight, adventurers arrive at the glowing globe that marks the Cape, and toast their success with champagne in the visitor centre, where there are also films and exhibits to see, before heading to bed. The journey back after breakfast the next day is just as unforgettable, speeding over undulating, fjord-pleated scenery bathed in unearthly Arctic light.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

Destinasjon 71° Nord’s guided ‘Midnight Expedition’ includes dinner, midnight snacks, breakfast and one night’s stay in simple rooms; a five-hour daytime version, without these, is from £215. Quote ‘Lonely Planet Traveller’ when booking either tour for a 15% discount on the price.
Norwegian and SAS fly to Alta from various UK airports, via Oslo, with flights on to Honnigsvåg via Wideroe. It’s also a three-hour drive from Alta, via a scenic, sea-skirting road.

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The Grand Train Tour of Switzerland

A refining rail experience that provides travellers the best way to uncover the beauty of the small Alpine nation. The panoramic rail routes never fail to fascinate vacation visitors and you’ll find yourself breezing through your travels with an all-inclusive travel pass

Train travels have evolved over the years into dream destinations in its own right rather than just a form of transportation. In the past, travelling was all about speed – getting to the destination in the shortest amount of time. Now, discerning travellers are seeking relaxed and sustainable journeys. At the forefront of the world’s top train journeys, is Switzerland with its numerous rails passing through remarkable UNESCO World Heritage sites. With so much to see, the brilliant minds behind Switzerland Tourism and The Swiss Travel System Limited came up with the “Grand Train Tour of Switzerland” – one that provides the most exquisite landscapes combined in a unique travel experience.

The great train experience

The Grand Train Tour of Switzerland covers eight different routes throughout the country, extending over 1,280 captivating kilometers, highlighting the most beautiful scenic routes across the country. The tour takes you through all of Switzerland’s four language regions – through attractive towns and villages, past glistening glaciers, lakes and rivers and over mountains. There are no particular start or end points, but Zurich – Switzerland’s largest and most metropolitan city, is often the chosen departure and destination point.

Stage 1: Zurich to St. Gallen: The route through Eastern Switzerland passes the renowned Rhine Falls and the city of Schaffhausen, with its landmark Munot fortress. Definitely find time to stop by the roaring Rhine Waterfalls and experience the impressive close-up of the natural spectacle from the Central Rock. Then comes Lake Constance, which also shares its shoreline with Germany and Austria and is the third largest lake in Central Europe. The first stage of the tour ends in St. Gallen, a 7th century old city famous for its Abbey precinct (UNESCO World Heritage Site) and collection of 170,000 historic books and hand-written manuscripts housed in an ancient Baroque-styled library.

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A view from Lake Constance

Stage 2: St. Gallen to Lucerne: Discover Appenzell, a town steeped in centuries of traditions and culture of Switzerland. Here, you will be able to see and purchase many handcrafted items such as cowbells, traditional costumes and smoking pipes. The Pre-Alpine Express also offers fine views of the impressive Alpstein massif with the Santis summit and Churfirsten mountain range. Stop by Lucerne’s Glacier Garden, opened nearly 150 years ago, to view exhibits dating back to the Ice Age.

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Pre Alpine Express

Stage 3: Lucerne to Montreux: The GoldenPass Line links eight lakes, three regions and two languages – all within one delightful day of exploration. The Luzern-Interlaken Express of the Zentralbahn first takes passengers over the Brunig Pass (1,008m) before descending via Meiringen to Brienz and Interlaken.
The Ballenberg Open-Air Museum is distinct to Switzerland, with its old farm creating a vivid impression of ancient rural life. Other attractions include some 250 farm animals in natural settings and displays of traditional arts and crafts.

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The Luzern-Interlaken Express

Stage 4: Montreux to Zermatt: From Montreux it is only a short trip to Martigny – gateway to the Great St. Bernard and Forclaz Passes. From the shores of Lake Geneva, you will be whisked through Rhone Valley to Brig with its historic Stockalper Palace. Brig is located at the foot of the Simplon Pass and is an ideal point of departure for many attractive excursions. The train then continues through the Matter Valley before travellers catch sight of the world’s most photographed mountain – the mighty Matterhorn.

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Lavaux Simplon Centovalli Line

SOMETHING GOOD IN SALZBURG

Let’s start at the very beginning. More people visit Salzburg because of The Sound of Music than for Mozart. But whatever your reason for going, there’s no doubt that the city itself is the real star.

From the very first screening of The Sound of Music, it was a phenomenon. As Nicholas Hammond, who played Friedrich in the movie, said to his on-screen brothers and sisters dunng the interval in its very first showing on 2 March 1965 in New York, “Our lives will never be the same from now on.” He was right. This on-screen love story stemmed from the book that started this global phenomenon – The Story of the Trapp Family Singers written by Maria Augusta Trapp in 1949. Maria was a nun. She was at Nonnberg Abbey before going to work with the Captain. She did teach the children to sing and she did marry the Captain. So when you wander around Salzburg. you’ll be stepping in the footsteps of the real Von Trapps, as well as the actors that brought the story to life.

My favourite things

Mirabell Gardens is where Maria and the children sang and danced in Do Re Mi, strutting around the pond and jumping up the stairs. The Gardens are absolutely spectacular and well worth a couple of hours. From here you can see the Hohensalzburg fortress, which was built in 1077 and, thankfully, has a funicular for better access. Its one of the best castles you’ll ever visit – make sure you call in to the marionette museum on site, which has some of the puppets that appeared in “The Lonely Goatherd” scene.

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The lovely Mirabell Mace and Gardens

Nearby, you can walk past the gates of Nonnberg where the real Maria was a postulant. Go for an early morning stroll and you might even hear the nuns singing. You can also see the striking Salzburg der Moderne from the castle, the modern art museum sitting pretty on the edge of the Mönschberg. The narrow, cobbled streets of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town are home to many treasures, including Mozart’s birthplace in the gorgeous, stylish Getreidegasse; historic Salzburg Cathedral; Residenz Square (where Julie Andrews hurried through, belting out “I Have Confidence In Me’’); and the lovely Kapitel Square, with its modern art installation Sphaera – a statue of a man on a golden globe and a chess set for people to play. Not far away you can also do one of Salzburg’s most romantic rides, in a fiaker (horse-drawn carriage). A visit to St Peter’s Cemetery, cut into the sheer rock face of the Mönschberg, is fascinating – make sure you go up into the catacombs.

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Mozart’s birthplace. Hagenauer House, at no. 9 Getreidegasse

The rock of the Mönschberg also houses the Felsenreitschule (Summer Riding School), which hosts the choral festival of the famous Salzburg Festival; the real Von Trapps did win this festival, as portrayed in the movie.

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La Residencia – Deià, Mallorca, Spain

A Self-Contained Island Haven

Deià was beloved by both Frédéric Chopin and the English poet Robert Graves, who believed that the simple town possessed spiritually uplifting qualities. Artists and writers continue to be drawn to it’s quiet, unspoiled beauty, which has so far escaped the tour buses and overbuilding rampant elsewhere in the Balearic Islands. Sheer mountains loom behind, and Mediterranean coves lie below.

La Residencia, one of the islands’ finest hideaways, is surrounded by 30 acres of flow­ering gardens, set among terraced olive and citrus groves between sea and the slopes of a 4,000-foot mountain. Consisting of two creeper-covered 17th-century manor houses, La Residencia is aptly named. Luxurious but decidedly unglitzy, it’s like the impeccable Mallorcan home of a wealthy, art-loving, and flawlessly refined friend. Low-keyed despite its fame as one of Spain’s best, the hotel’s restaurant, El Olivo, is a cozy place that was once an olive oil press. Indoors, exceptional Mediterranean cuisine is served in a candlelit, romantic setting. In warm weather, dining moves outside to a palm – and bougainvillea-scaped terrace. An old mule track provides a delightful three-hour trek through mountain­side lemon and olive groves to the nearby village of Soller, although most guests prefer to experience nature through the pampering indulgence of algae and herb treatments and massages at the hotel’s new beauty center.

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The Li River – Guilin, Guangxi, China

The Magical China of Poets and Painters

Reputed to possess the most beautiful mountains and rivers under heaven, Guangxi Province has been eulogized for thirteen centuries by painters and writers who tried to capture its unearthly karst formations on paper. A cruise down the Li River is like entering a classic Chinese scroll painting of mist, moun­tains, and rivers.

From Guilin, the jade-green Li wends its way through spectacular, almost surreal scenery of humpbacked and eroded shapes with whimsical names like Bat Hill, Five Tigers Catch a Goat, and Painting Brush Peak. The timeless riverside landscape seems oblivious to the constant stream of tour boats that ply single-file past picturesque villages where young boys bathe the family water buf­falo, women wash their clothes, and farmers plow the rice fields. Some fishermen on skinny bamboo rafts still employ cormorants that are trained to dive and trap fish in their beaks. A ring placed around their necks stops them from swallowing the catch.

The small town of Yangshuo is the southern terminus of the cruises, and though it may not be the “real China” – cybercafés, B&Bs, and cafés offering “American Brunch” have sprung up to cater to foreign tourists – prices are cheap, the locals are friendly, and everyone speaks English.

A bike ride through the surrounding green plains and the forest-covered limestone peaks allows you to see some of China’s most remarkable scenery. Some of the peaks can even be climbed:

From the summit at Moon Rock, a dramatic army of jagged peaks goes marching off into the dis­tance. For back-lane scenes of traditional China and even more remarkable scenery, the rustic riverside village of Xingping is an hour’s bike ride away past emerald-green rice paddies and striking landscapes.

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The Hutongs of Beijing – Beijing Province, China

A Pedicab into the Vanishing Alleyways of Old Peking

The bustling, polluted Chinese capital of American fast food, traffic jams, and aesthetics-free architecture is one of Beijing’s two sides.

The other can be glimpsed by taking a pedicab trip through narrow, labyrinthine alleyways (hutongs) where only the awning-covered vehicles can maneuver. In quiet corners of Beijing, far from the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, honking horns give way to the occasional ding of bicycle bells and the sound of chickens and ducks from inside walled courtyards – the lingering vestiges of traditional everyday life in a city projected to reach a population of 15 million by the year 2040.

Go soon: The simple single-story houses in these pre-Communist urban villages are quickly being torn down and replaced by sterile high-rise monoliths and Western-style shopping malls, and in the process, traditional neighborhoods and life­styles that go back to the Qing dynasty and beyond are being lost.

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Midsummer Eve – Tallberg, Svealand, Sweden

The Fleeting Return of Long Summer Days and a Pagan Celebration of Nature

All of Scandinavia celebrates the Nordic festival of Midsummer (Midsommar), but perhaps nowhere as enthusiastically as in Sweden. This ancient Germanic custom honoring life itself has ancient pagan roots – a fertility rite, it was held at the exact time the sun and earth were considered at the peak of their reproductive powers.

Everyone takes to the countryside, often dressing in colorful local costumes, resuscitating old-world traditions, eating favorite foods, and imbibing substantial amounts of aquavit, resulting in folks of all ages and sorts singing and dancing. Young girls believe they will dream of their future husbands if they sleep with a freshly picked bouquet of nine different wildflowers under their pillows. But who can tell when it’s time to sleep during the long hours of the midnight sun, when even birds are confused?

One of the best places to celebrate Midsommar is in Sweden’s central rural province of Dalarna around the beautiful Lake Siljan, a hilly area often referred to as Sweden’s “folklore district.” Traditions and customs are lovingly kept alive, thanks in great part to local old-time families such as the Åkerblads.

Experience it by visiting their eponymous 15th-century red-framed farmstead, which they converted to an inn in 1910. The mix of antiques (think canopied beds and grandfather clocks) and decorative paintings and carvings found throughout enhances the old-fashioned country atmosphere for which Dalarna is famous. Don’t miss the chance to eat here: Swedes come from all parts to do just that.

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Vasamuseet – Stockholm, Svealand, Sweden

The World’s Oldest Preserved Man-of-War

On August 10, 1628, the magnificent royal warship Vasa sank on her maiden voyage in front of thousands of horrified onlookers before she even left the Stockholm harbor (sudden gusts of wind and not enough ballast are the most popular explanations).

Built at vast expense to be the largest and most powerful battleship ever constructed, the 226-foot, 64-cannon man-of-war was supposed to become the pride of the Swedish war fleet. She took two years to complete on the site where the Grand Hôtel now stands.

Salvaged 333 years after her demise, and since then painstakingly restored, she can now be seen with her complete lower rigging at the Vasa Museum, the only maritime museum of its kind in the world. Large enough to dwarf even the wondrous museum espe­cially built around her at enormous cost and completed in 1990, she is the oldest fully preserved warship in the world.

Elaborate wooden carvings cover the exterior of the boat; of the 700 sculptures, 500 are figure sculptures, all of which had been stripped of their original paint and gilt. Almost as inter­esting was the ship’s cargo, which included 4,000 coins, medical equipment, and a backgammon set.

A video is shown regularly, illustrating the painstaking five-year resurrection of the ship upon its discovery in 1961. The Vasa is the most visited museum in Scandinavia, and an immediate favorite for anyone visiting Stockholm.

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Stockholm Archipelago – Svealand, Sweden

Island-Hopping in the Capital’s Front Yard

There are a number of ways to see Sweden’s archipelago, a latticework of some 24,000 islands and smooth glacier-polished outcroppings that dot a 150-mile stretch off its eastern coast. You can travel by ferry, vintage steamer, three-mast schooner, private sail­boat, or yacht.

But the most important thing is not to miss them: they are one of the country’s most important natural attractions and its wild frontier. Only 6,000 people live on 1,000 islands; the rest are uninhabited.

Sweden’s summer is brief but glorious and this is the place to celebrate it – kayaking, picnicking, biking, and walking the unpaved island roads. Take a thirty-minute ferryboat ride from Stockholm out to the well-known restaurant Fjaderholmarnas Krog, accessible only by boat, for a leisurely lunch of just-caught fish, perfectly prepared. Alternatively, stay on board one of the steamers for the scenery: skerries (skärgärden, the Swedish word for archipelago, means “garden of sker­ries”), islets, flower-bedecked fishing cottages, landing stages, meadows, farms, beaches, and a late evening sky of changing pastels.

Writers and artists have traditionally been drawn to Vaxholm, while the boating crowd firmly favors Sandhamn, hub for the prestigious annual Royal Regatta.

The archipelago has two environments – the wooded, protected inner part and the barren, wild outer archipelago, the latter home to seabirds, seals, and a few very hardy fishermen. Take a leisurely, blissful sail and you’ll understand a lot more about Stockholm, built on fourteen of the archipelago’s islands, and its connection to the sea.

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The Grand Hôtel and Operakällaren – Stockholm, Svealand, Sweden

Bastions of Hospitality for Nobel Winners and the Noble of Budget

During the second week in December, the Grand Hotel hosts the Nobel Prize winners and their entourages, but everyone can enjoy the same elite hospitality year-round at Sweden’s best hotel, standing proudly on the waterfront and in the very center of town.

Nonguests too should stop at this 1874 landmark of old-world ambience, if only for a meal in the glassed-in Grand Veranda overlooking the harbor (known for its legendary smörgåsbord and home­made pastries) or a tipple at the classic Cadier Bar.

The Grand is privately owned – a fact that seems underlined by the personable ambience and the management’s sacrosanct credo that each arrival be treated as a “holy guest.” Some of Europe’s most demanding palates return regularly to the hotel’s refined Franska Matsalen (French Dining Room), whose candelabra-lit setting is pure magic. Magnificent nighttime views across the water to the illuminated Royal Palace accompany an over-the-top dinner and Sweden’s most impressive wine cellar. If you still have any kroner left, ask for a room with a waterside view, then book your next meal at the nearby Operakällaren.

Unabashedly luxurious in its location within the Royal Opera House, right across from the Royal Palace, the Operakällaren is one of Scandinavia’s most famous restaurants, a landmark since it opened in 1787 by decree of King Gustav III (whose 1792 assassination in the Opera House during a fancy dress ball was the inspiration for Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera).

It has since evolved into a complex of many restaurants that vary in formality and price, but the main Belle Epoque dining room is the draw, overseen by co-owner Stefan Catenacci, culinary adviser to the king and queen of Sweden.

This is the city’s most theatrical venue for an evening’s repast, featuring plush Oriental rugs, carved oak wall and ceiling panels, once-risqué murals, extrava­gant crystal chandeliers, and service as impeccably polished as the silverware. A fillet of tender young reindeer and seasonal game dishes highlight the Swedish and international cuisine. The wine list is excellent, but con­sider toasting the long summer days with Stenborgare, the restaurant’s own schnapps.