Journal

Back to the south of France

From Edinburgh we flew into Nice for a family reunion, staying with good friends near Saint Tropez. Beautiful weather and apparently a lot cooler than the previous week, thank goodness. We revisited some favourite haunts in the area with Anna, Sophie and Tom and really enjoyed just chilling out with lots of swims in the sea after the previous 2 months which had been fun but very busy and in much cooler climates.

Coastal path from Gigaro to national park

We all departed on the Saturday, Soph and Tom heading to Copenhagen, while Richard, Anna and I drove to pick up the van

Our first night in Biggy was a bit of a culture shock after 2 months of travelling in various degrees of luxury.

But we soon got back into the swing of things even though it was a year since we had last been in Biggy.

Our first stop was northeast of Nîmes near the Pont du Gard.

It was still as magnificent as when we last saw it 18 years ago – only then there wasn’t a fancy visitor centre etc.

Our next stop was a campground east of Toulouse, chosen for its proximity to Toulouse and Carcassonne.

Anna flew out to Ibiza the next day and we visited Carcassonne which I have always wanted to visit.

It is impressive but was absolutely heaving with tourists even though we visited late in the day.

On reflection we would have been better not to visit in peak season.

We found places near the Pyrenees which were just as impressive in their own way and not overrun with tourists.

We decided to head south to be closer to the Pyrenees.

Next stop – the Ariège.

East of Scotland

Our first stop was Grantown-on-Spey – chosen by Richard because of the large number of whiskey distilleries in the area! Our accommodation was another fine old stone house right in the centre of town.

We had 3 nights here and spent our time either hiking or playing golf plus a visit to a distillery which was interesting even to a non whisky drinker like me. While there was whiskey galore we could not say the same about the restaurant options – every menu seemed to be identical with fish and chips, pies and burgers and variations along those themes. We did find one exception which was a welcome relief.

Richard making believe he is trout fishing- the river was very low apparently

Our drive over to our next stop, Pitlochry, was beautiful.

We passed by the Queen’s residence in Scotland, Balmoral – you can visit the grounds during certain months.

But you can’t see anything from the road.

Pitlochry was a very busy small tourist town. We stayed in another grand stone house.

A beautiful loch near Pitlochry

Blair Castle a few km away was well worth a visit.

Blair Castle still has nearly 150,000 acres of land surrounding it and has some beautiful woodland walks.

We walked up to The Folly – specially constructed a few 100 years ago as a site for picnics!

Purely decorative.

The history of the castle and the sumptuous interior were fascinating. The family stills lives in part of the castle.

One evening we heard there was a Highland Festival happening at the local domain so thought why not?

It was a great atmosphere with performers of all ages.

There was lots of dancing with pipe bands, soloists etc. At the end we followed the pipe band through the town.

We felt very much like we were following the Pied Piper.

South to Edinburgh

On the way south to Edinburgh, Richard wanted to visit the spiritual home of golf – Saint Andrews.

I tried to get him to go on his knees on the edge of the Old Course but to no avail.

Playing golf there is on his bucket list but it was the peak season when we were there.

Edinburgh

Edinburgh was really humming when we arrived – with both the Tattoo and the Fringe Festival happening.

It is an interesting city with the old castle dominating the skyline

We loved all the street performers in the Old Town near the castle.

Some were very good particularly a classic guitarist from Tasmania who we listened to for an hour.

Others were advertising their theatre shows.

But the absolute highlight for us was the Edinburgh Tattoo, the best show we have been to.

And on such a scale. The atmosphere and lighting effects using the castle as backdrop were spectacular.

Band from Sultanate of Oman with drummers on horseback

The show was incredibly varied with bands and dancers from many parts of the world.

The Edinburgh Tattoo is definitely a must see if you are planning a trip to anywhere near Edinburgh in August.

West of Scotland

More new territory to see as neither of us had visited Scotland before. After picking up the hire car in Glasgow we decided to do a scenic drive to get to our first stop, Oban.

By a stroke of luck we decided to have a look at Loch Lomond at the pretty village of Luss. Most of the houses have been beautifully restored.

Oban is also an attractive town and a busy departure point for ferries to several islands. Our guesthouse was a magnificent manor house once owned by the owner of a major diamond mine in South Africa – we had a beautiful view over the town and harbour.

Unfortunately our luck with the weather ran out when we got to Oban and we had rain 2 of the 3 days we were there.

We did the drive up the Glencoe Valley but the famous views were somewhat obscured by low cloud and rain which arrived the same time as us. Still it felt very authentic seeing it in those conditions.

When the rain eased off we did some more local sightseeing.

And yes it was a lot colder than in Ireland. Richard was very thankful he had bought his authentic Paddy cap which is quilted on the inside and waterproof!

After 4 nights we set off for the Isle of Sky via the Isle of Mull and a long scenic drive after 2 ferry crossings from Lochaline to Mallaig where we took a third ferry to the Isle of Skye. We had treated ourselves to 2 nights at Kinloch Lodge, a boutique hotel off the beaten track in the south east corner of Skye. It has a beautiful setting and better still, a well known Michelin star restaurant.

On our one full day on the Isle of Skye we decided to drive to the far corner as it has the most dramatic scenery plus an opportunity for a hike.

It would have been a great hike if the rain had not arrived and obscured the views. But the pinks and purples of the heather in full bloom were amazing.

Loved the old farm houses in the north of Skye
Portree – the main town on the Isle of Skye

We only had one full day on the Isle of Skye but it was well worth a visit.

Next stop – eastern Scotland and Grantown-on-Spey, Pitlochry and Edinburgh

Northern Ireland

After a week in Kenmare we headed north to the Skerries for a night on the way to Northern Ireland. Some interesting stops on the way.

First was the Cahir Castle in the town of Cahir where by some fluke I managed to buy the perfect outfit for Sophie’s wedding in January – the only time I had tried to look for something and we just happened to park outside the shop when we stopped for coffee.

Next stop was the famous Rock of Cashel with the buildings dating from the 12th and 13th centuries although the history of the site goes back several centuries before that.

On our way north from the Skerries we visited the ancient passage tomb of Newgrange in the Boyne Valley which is a 5000 year old structure designed and built to channel the sun at the winter solistice to deep inside the tomb to the burial chamber. We were able to walk in – the structure is an amazing feat of engineering given its age. It is constructed entirely of stones which overlap to form a dome which was then covered in earth and was found with the inside intact.

Ancient Neolithic patterns carved into the rocks

We arrived at our destination in Northern Ireland, Portstewart, late on Sunday afternoon only to face a 2 km traffic jam approaching and through the town – the downside of travelling during the peak holiday period. We were not too impressed with Portstewart itself but it was a great place to base ourselves and explore the north. An added bonus was the B&B we stayed at which was right on the waterfront and out of the main town but only a short walk along the coastal path.

The next day was our first wet day in 3 weeks so a good day to explore London (Derry) and learn about the turbulent history of the area. There was a fabulous museum there where we learned about the plantation of Londonderry starting in the 1600’s where English citizens were brought over and “planted” in the area to dilute the Irish Catholic influence. This sowed the seeds for the conflict that dominated the area up until recent times. It was particularly sobering to learn about The Troubles from the late 1960’s, including Bloody Sunday where innocent civilians were shot dead by English paratroopers. We walked over to Bogside (in the rain) where it all happened – the street murals on the buildings there were a poignant reminder of what happened and the tensions that still exist.

This mural is in memory of a 13 yr old girl shot by a soldier while collecting items for a school project

Riots occurred in Derry several nights in a row the week before we visited so the tensions are still there.

You could see the burnt areas where cars had been set alight.

We found the coast of Northern Ireland very striking.

There is a walkway, mostly on the cliff edge, all the way from Portstewart to Ballycastle.

We visited the Carrick- A – Rede rope bridge but found it very busy with tourists and not as dramatic as expected.

We then

walked on the coastal track from Dunseverick to Ballintoy Harbour – used in the Game of Thrones.

But the highlight was the walk from the Giant’s Staircase along to Dunseverick.

The Staircase itself was interesting geologically but not as dramatic as expected and very crowded with tourists. The walk from there along the coast was, however, spectacular.

It would rank as the best coastal hike we have done- Richard did well as it was about 3 hours – not much steep stuff but by far the longest hike he has done.

After three and half weeks of enjoying Ireland and wonderful weather it was time to part company with the Cullens and head to Scotland. Next stop – west of Scotland.

Southwestern Ireland

It seemed a long trip down to Kenmare, just south of Killarney where we had booked our next accommodation- partly because we did a detour to the Cliffs of Mohir. Unfortunately there was a heavy sea fog which meant we could not see the Cliffs over a great distance even though we walked for over half an hour along the cliff path from the southern end. And, to be honest, other coastal cliffs we saw in the south west on the outermost part of the Ring of Kerry seemed just as spectacular in terms of height. The Cliffs are one of Ireland’s most visited tourist attractions.

Our accommodation at Kenmare was a few kilometres out of town on the banks of the river. Lovely spacious house. Kenmare was an excellent base for sightseeing in the area and has some very good restaurants- much better than we encountered elsewhere in Ireland. However we did avail ourselves of the large kitchen at the house while we could as we knew we would be having to eat out for the next few weeks. Kenmare is a very pretty small town but was incredibly busy with tourists being peak season.

One day trip was the famous Ring of Kerry- however, the only part that lived up to the hype in our opinion was the outermost circuit which some people miss out as the road is very narrow. Here we encountered some more amazing coastal scenery, including on a hike at the eastern most end of the Peninsula

Lunch stop at Portmagee on Ring of Kerry- a pretty fishing village

Views from our hike around Bray Head on Valentia Island on the Ring of Kerry.

Another day Pamela, Roger and I hiked up in the Gleninchaquin Valley while Richard chased a little white ball around for the afternoon.

Standing stone circle from Neolithic times facing towards the valley we climbed up
Mizen Head, the southwesterly most point of Ireland was another day trip and has some stunning views from the old radio station (the first shortwave radio link around the world was initiated there by Marconi). Being another beautiful day we had views to Fastnet Rock – the construction of the famous lighthouse on the tiny pinnacle of rock that is Fastnet Rock was a major engineering feat in its day.

Access to the radio station is via a footbridge

We also did a 2 1/2 hour hike around Killarney National Park but which had pretty views over the lakes. The landscape is very typical of what we saw on the west coast – quite rocky.

The oldest bridge in Ireland- deep in forest with no road access now

Another week of good weather – can our luck hold?

Next stop – Northern Ireland.

Ireland – Wicklow Mountains and County Galway

We headed straight to the Wicklow Mountains on arriving in Dublin. They are not mountains by our standards but a lovely area. The Wicklow National Park was just up the road from our accommodation in Laragh.

Some interesting history with the remnants of an old Monastic City – apparently one monk went there to escape all the other monks and live the simple and pure life and lots of others decided to follow him and copy. So the “Monastic City” came to be.

Such lovely weather – the lake felt warm enough to swim in.

We managed a day trip to Dublin by catching a train up from Bray. Visited Trinity College – quite different from Oxford and Cambridge – the earliest university in Ireland.

The Long Room and Book of Kells were worth a visit- floor to ceiling old books pre 1850’s. The smell of old books was amazing.

Some interesting street art in Dublin.

The coast south of Bray has a lovely coastal walk.

From Wicklow we drove west to Clifden – about an hour north of Galway. It was busy with tourists but in a low key way. Clifden has a lively and authentic Irish music scene in the pubs which we enjoyed. Most of the people listening to the music were clearly local.

We did lots of exploring around Clifden. Some superb coastal scenery on part of the Wild Atlantic Way which runs up the entire west coast of Ireland. We did parts of it – most of the roads are very narrow and windy – often one car wide and traffic jams are common in popular coastal villages in the weekends.

Some typical coastal scenery west of Clifden
Village of Roundstone – a popular lunch stop on the coastal road

Western Ireland has some beautiful white sandy beaches
Typical landscape along the west coast – lots of peat bog

We drove as far north as Achill Island on our day trips from Clifden. Some really striking coastal scenery there.

We loved the black faced sheep which wander at will along the roads, often sleeping half on the narrow roadway.

Another day trip was to Inishbofin Island where we were able to walk around the northern half of the island.

It is like a non touristy version of the Arran Islands which most people visit if they are in Galway.

More spectacular coastal views. But it must be bleak in winter and a tough life.

We were apparently lucky to be there one of the few fine and not windy days in summer!

Our lunch stop – an old double decker bus taken by barge to the island

Closer to Clifden we visited the ruins of the Clifden Castle.

Connemara National Park and Kylemoor Abbey were not far from Clifden.

We were lucky enough to arrive at the abbey when it was absolutely calm. Stunning reflections.

Connemara National Park

After a busy week in Clifden we headed south to our next stop – Kenmare – in the south west of Ireland.

Another year – a different plan

We had this great plan for our travels in 2018 worked out – leave NZ mid April, pick up Biggy and Twiggy and go straight down to Spain while it was still cool then work our way north to who knows where from early June onwards. Richard rupturing his Archilles shortly after Christmas put paid to that. We were told in no uncertain terms by the specialist that there was no point leaving for Europe until the end of June because Richard wouldn’t be able to do anything he enjoyed! Oh and by the way don’t even consider picking up the motorhome and car for another month or two because pushing the trailer around at campgrounds could cause the Archilles to rupture again.

So what could we do? Tag along on an expedition cruise with our friends the Cullen’s around Svalbard of course – which is way north of the Arctic Circle (78 degrees north plus) and pretty much surrounded by pack ice in winter. Compare this to 2 years ago when we went to Nordkapp in Norway and only got to 71 degrees north). Then visit Ireland and Scotland ( which we have never been to) and then finally head to the south of France to pick up Biggy and Twiggy in mid August.

We were lucky to get a cancellation on the cruise which has a maximum of 53 people and books out months in advance.

And what a trip it was. For 10 days we cruised around the incredibly remote islands that make up Svalbard seeing lots of amazing wildlife and scenery and even getting to the pack ice at 82 degrees 24 minutes north where we spent an amazing day cruising amongst icebergs and ice floes looking for polar bears and seals. We wished we had a good camera with us – somehow an iPhone didn’t do justice to what we saw.

Fell in love with these characters – up close and personal with a walrus
At one stage we thought this one was going to come right up the beach to us- only 2-3 metres away in this shot
Mother and pup about to abandon the ice floe
Everyday we loaded into the Zodiacs 2-3 times to go looking for wildlife or hike ashore
Saw several polar bears including this male- managed to get quite close in the Zodiac

We managed to get as far north as 82 degrees 24 minutes – right up to the pack ice and a record distance north for the ship we were on. Gliding amongst the ice floes was a surreal experience. Didn’t see much wildlife- just a seal or two and some birds- but being amongst the ice was magic.We ran up onto the floes with the Zodiacs.

Luckily our ship was ice strengthened. Gliding slowly through the ice

Angels on an ice floe in the Arctic
And yes it was very cold!

Some fantastic shapes amongst the icebergs

So many glaciers coming into the sea – makes Glacier Bay in Alaska seem insignificant

Overall the scenery was incredible – such an isolated place but immense.

Some people were brave (or crazy) enough to do the polar plunge – but at -1.4 degrees no thanks.

There was also some interesting history – on early doomed attempts to reach the North Pole by balloon then airship.

And marble excavation – except the marble crumbled to dust when it reached its destination.

The remains can be seen in various locations.

Polar bears are a very real danger around everywhere even around settlements. Guns were carried by our guides at all times. Areas are scouted before we go ashore.

Our guide on the air drop loo – with gun.

The scientific settlement of Ny- Alesund. Everyone walks or bikes around with a gun!

Dog parking must be a problem in Longyearbyen
It was sad to leave such an amazing place as Svalbard- our trip definitely exceeded our expectations

The trip of a lifetime!

Back to Samoens and then south to live the high life near Saint Tropez

Last year we decided we wanted to return to Samoens to do some more hiking ( limited last year by me having a nasty cold). Unbelievably I came down with a cold again. I am not tempting fate by returning next year. We managed some smaller walks, some good restaurant meals and not much else.


We were due to head south to our last stop near Alès to clean up the van before putting it into storage near Arles. But temperatures had climbed to around 40 degrees in the south and we felt it was better to stay put in Samoens for an extra day where the temperature was a more tolerable 29-30 degrees.

When we did drive down south, we could only sort out and clean up the van for a few hours in the early morning before it was too hot and we retreated to the swimming pool alternated with sitting in as much shade as we could find. 

With the van in storage we drove the 200 km in Twiggy to our friends Guy and Sue who were staying in the hills north of Saint Tropez. And enjoyed several days of a total contrast in lifestyle. 

Spent some time ogling at the super yachts in Saint Tropez
Richard with Sue at La Mente
Beach club at Gigaro where we spent an enjoyable afternoon

Dinner at the local small town of Grimaud on festival night was a lot of fun. I had a very close encounter with these scary individuals. At one point I disappeared from sight completely!


We spent a relaxing day on the water including a good lunch at Club Tahiti one of about 36 beach clubs along Pempelonne Beach near Saint Tropez. So many super yachts anchored along the beach, doing what one guesses that people on super yachts do a lot of, drinking and eating. You get picked up and taken ashore on a tender associated with the beach club you are going to.


Just out side the port/marina area of St Tropez
In St Tropez some of the super yachts dwarf the adjacent buildings

Port Grimaud just along from St Tropez is a much more low key place

Our travels in Europe this year are now finished, sadly –  after a few days in London to see Anna and a short mother/daughter break in Biarritz, it is time to head home. Next year our plans include Spain and we don’t know what else yet – but that is half the fun of travelling in a camper van. Plans change and you can take advantage of opportunities that present themselves along the way. We have loved the time we have spent in the mountains and I am sure they will figure prominently in next year’s trip – they are also a good place to retreat to when the temperatures climb and the popular holiday areas get crowded. 

To be continued next year ……..

Zermatt

We had never been to Zermatt but it has a reputation for being one of the most expensive Swiss resorts and Switzerland is expensive anyway. As there is no car access to Zermatt we stayed at a campground at Tasch not far from the last train station before Zermatt. We set up camp including the little tent for Pamela to sleep in. Little did she know what was in store for her with 4-5 degree temperatures at night for the first few days – we had coincided our arrival with an extreme cold snap which happens a few times each summer. 

The next morning we set off to meet Dominic, one of the AFS students that Pamela had hosted and whom we had got to know well, who lives in a small alpine village 1000m above the valley floor and down the valley from Zermatt. The road up was scary to say the least. It was great to see Dom again and to see his village.


The village of Torbel where Dominic lives has a very quaint old part that is maintained by a local group and is not touristy at all – it has one small hotel.




First stop after meeting Dom was the well regarded restaurant at the top of the road – at 2048m altitude – where Dom is working during the university holidays. And outside was a sign pointing to Auckland NZ and the distance (which Dom had never noticed!)


The raclette was done the traditional way by melting the cheese next to an open fire and was delicious- surprisingly not too rich.


After lunch we set off for Dom’s family’s mountain cabin – our accommodation for the night. No road access! We had to carry our bags over the meadows where the family was haymaking.

Front door of cabin

Outside the cabin

It was a wonderful experience- waking up to the sound of cow bells and having our breakfast outside in the clear mountain air.

View from the cabin – lots of summer cabins scattered over the high alpine fields
View down towards valley up to Zermatt- church tower from Torbel is just visible on the right

That day we did a panorama hike at the top of the pass – passing some of Dom’s family’s cows on the way. The black ones are fighting cows and are quite docile towards people. But the shepherd, who looks after the cows from several families, warned us to keep clear if they started locking horns.

Looking up the valley towards Zermatt

Zermatt is at the head of  a large valley with a huge array of gondolas leading up to different areas- it must be an amazing ski area. The next day we took the gondola up one area and hiked past several small lakes before walking back down to Zermatt. It actually started snowing when we got off the gondola.

Stellisee – looking up to Fluhalp, lunch stop

These goats are mainly kept for showing – think dog show

Afternoon tea stop here – superb. Wished we could have had lunch there too.
village of Findeln, known for its great restaurants

Another day we did a trip to Furi to see the suspension bridge


And then up to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise by gondola and cable car. It’s a bit like the L’Aiguille de Midi, perched on a rocky peak at 3883m altitude, with the cable car crossing across glaciers to get there. 


Surprisingly the far side is relatively flat with T bars for skiing – summer and winter – leading down into the Cervinia skifield in Italy. 


The ice sculpture cave was worth a visit

Trying out the Ice Throne for size

And we had some almost clear views of the Matterhorn on the way back down


On our return we found a herd of goats being driven down the Main Street of Zermatt much to everyone’s amusement.


We could easily have spent more time in Zermatt. It has managed to keep a mainly traditional style of architecture but we found the large numbers of electric carts a little annoying- you might think you are in a car free town but you constantly have to get out of the way of the electric carts which hurtle at speed on the roads filled with pedestrians.

Next stop – Samoens in the French Alps.

Switzerland- first stop Lauterbrunnen

After leaving Bad Waldsee, we were going to drive as far as Meiringen in Switzerland and spend a couple of days hiking there before we had to be in Zermatt but ended up driving to Lauterbrunnen – closer to our next destination and one of our favourite places in Switzerland. The valley there is so striking – with huge cliffs of about 1000m straight up from the valley floor. 

 It was our third time there- once with the girls in 2001 and then in 2012 when we were doing the Alpine Passes hike over about 12 days. We have vivid memories of the day in mid late August when we were walking down from the pass at Kleine Scheinedegg towards Wengen and it started snowing – heavily. By the next morning there was 30 cm of snow on the ground in Lauterbrunnen and much more at Murren where we supposed to start the next day’s hike. We ended up missing out the next 3 mountain passes on the hike due to the amount of snow. 
Our first day on this visit we headed up from Stechelberg at the end of the valley by gondola to Murren and did a hike along the high pastures then back to Murren by cog train. 

The cliffs at Lauterbrunnen- we saw base jumpers taking off here one day
Looking towards the Jungfrau and Eiger

There were lots of wildflowers and some good interpretative material at the start of the hike. I had never realised that Arnica grew only on high alpine pastures.

Arnica flowers

But before long we had our usual thunderstorms chasing us.


We finished the hike in the rain and retreated to a hotel opposite the train station for afternoon tea in Murren. Which turned into dinner, resplendent in our hiking gear, as it was such a comfortable place to spend a few hours – it turned out to be the best hotel/restaurant in Murren (very traditional) which made us feel a little awkward …


The next day we embarked on a more major hike from Stechelberg up the valley. And met these super friendly goats who ended up staying with us for some distance.


Which was fine until we got to a bridge and they wouldn’t move. Shades of Billy Goats Gruff?

Shepherd’s house

Another thunderstorm on its way?

View down the valley towards Stechelberg and Lauterbrunnen

We wished we could have spent longer here (maybe next year) but after 2 days we had to move on to Zermatt to meet our friend Pamela. To get there we had to take a car train from Kandersteg under the mountains to the valley near Visp. An interesting experience!

The train was 3.0 metres high and 2.5 m wide – we are 2.95m high and 2.35 m wide so very little tolerance. We had to drive what seemed like a few hundred metres down the wagons on the train with only 7.5cm clearance on each side – ended up folding in the wing mirrors. The camping van in front of us is narrower than our van.


Next stop – Zermatt.