– Windmills and Tulips Along the Waterways of the Netherlands
– Cruising Down the River on a Portuguese Afternoon
– Australia and New Zealand
– Cruising the Eastern Mediterranean
– Out and Around in Western Ireland
– Outdoors Cruising Down the Danube

A quick alert to be careful about heading out on our trails as it’s not  like walking around the block. Wear good walking shoes for good grip, be careful to not stumble (a walking stick is often a good aid, especially when up and down hill hikes), be  prepared for the heat, and go with knowledgeable leaders in the back country. Finally, understand that Tom Leech has no liability for troubles on the trails.

Windmills & Tulips Along the Waterways of the Netherlands

By Tom Leech & Leslie Johnson-Leech

(Mission Valley News, San Diego, CA) – The usual question when people hear about our cruise down from Amsterdam to Antwerp, Belgium is, “What river was that on?” We passengers often asked the same questions, as the journey took us along several rivers with unfamiliar names, plus a few canals. Or maybe you already know about the Waal.

Beautiful strolling in Holland's Keukenhof Gardens

Beautiful strolling in Holland’s Keukenhof Gardens

The Windmills-Tulips cruise title captures the essence of springtime in this region, as the Netherlands is linked to flowers, especially tulips, plus windmills, the Zuider Zee, dikes and the young lad who stuck his finger in one to keep the place from flooding over, which it often did.

Our ten days aboard the Uniworld River Duchess took in all of those, plus some memorable history, culture, and architecture. Did I mention scenic views, relaxation and the camaraderie that a small boat provides?  With slightly over 100 passengers aboard the 361 feet long boat, you can readily meet and mingle with other people as well as key cruise staff, in our case Skipper Menno from Germany, Hotel Manager Doris from Austria and Cruise Manager Tony from Wales.

Our cruise began in Amsterdam, a place first-time shore visitors quickly learn means looking both ways. Similar to Copenhagen, Amsterdam is bicycle town, with bikers galore peddling their way along the many bike paths. Once you learn how to not get run over, you appreciate the value this brings to an urban area in terms of reduced vehicle congestion, pollution and fuel waste.

We were introduced to Amsterdam via both a canal and city tour, including a visit to the prime Rijksmuseum, featuring especially paintings of Netherlands native Rembrandt. We had arrived early, a practice we recommend, and were able to explore many highlights of this extremely walkable city. These include the main city park, Vondelpark, the many houseboats lining the canals, the blocks-long flower market (with many walk-in shops to sample cheese and chocolate, maybe even hemp), the evening hot-action section of Leidse Plein and the memorable and disturbing Ann Frank house, with its long line of visitors. Oh yes — and a stroll by the legendary and legal red light district, with other features vividly displayed.

The cruise provides local small group tours of places visited, with guides explaining the highlights which we heard via wireless ear phones for each person. Before each visit, we were enlightened with lectures by Tony, who included occasional Welsh terms, one about clappers an example.

Tulips around Holland's Keukenhof Gardens

Tulips around Holland’s Keukenhof Gardens

A short ways out from Amsterdam, our first visit was to the colorful Keukenhof Gardens, with many acres of flower fields, ponds, swans and special exhibits in gardens. Ninety percent of the world’s flowers come from this area. A series of wall-mounted quotes from famous figures, such as Goethe, added to the contemplative nature of the place.

One of the fun aspects of river cruising is the stops at picturesque small towns along the way. Volendam has its main street along the ocean. Its many shops and cafe-bars, include Lennon’s Bar, with Beatles memorabilia, pictures and the ceiling covered with their records. Hoorn was intriguing as, due to filled-in ground and floods over the centuries, many buildings were leaning (Amsterdam has plenty of those as well). It got its name from Cape Horn, by a local explorer who sailed around South Africa in 1616. A stop at Enkhuizen, nearly seven centuries old, took us to the Zuider Zee Museum, a town recreated with over 150 buildings — houses, churches, stores, workshops, and a windmill — moved here to recreate an 1800s-vintage town. Cameras were busy here, as they were at every stop.

In Groesbeck, the National Liberation Museum was a reminder of major World War 2 action here. On Sept. 17, 1944 the skies filled with thousands of paratroopers – U.S., British, Canadians and Poles.  This was Operation Market Garden, an Allied assault on Germany, with the objective to capture key bridges so Allied tanks could cross over here and attack Nazi forces. One aspect of these efforts was shown in the movie “A Bridge too Far,” in which British forces, including gliders, landed in the midst of strong German troops. That mission was unsuccessful. In the museum were many displays and guides explained the various events, successes and difficulties.

Windmills along canal in Kinderdijk

Windmills along canal in Kinderdijk

We docked at Kinderkijk (kids’ dike), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and headed out along apathway to windmill country with 19 spaced along the canal. All but two have current residents, and we could go up into one to see how windmill housing works. Along the path were many fishermen, with long poles extending out into the water and small nets on the ends. To attract the fish one fellow took a slingshot and slung some bait out near the net on the end of his pole.

Next was a leisurely sail into Rotterdam, with the second largest harbor in world. As might be expected the Maritime Museum made for an informative visit.

Another visit was to the Delta Project Visitor Center. In this impressive museum is told the history of how the Dutch built many dikes over the years. After a major dike burst in 1953, killing many people and with lots of flood damage, the dikes went high tech with a ten years upgrade project. Purpose – achieved — was to prevent such flooding from future high tides, while letting water flow in and out with normal tides. We visited the actual operational dike system, walking right inside and above the dikes to see how this worked.  Later we visited the nearby picturesque and peaceful small town of Veere.

Bruges, Belgium - cruising the many canals

Bruges, Belgium – cruising the many canals

Now we’re in Belgium, with our boat docked at Terneuzen. Buses took us over to Bruges, one ofmost visited cities in Europe, for good reason. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and also called the “Venice of the North” with its many canals and open squares. (A recent film noir was “In Bruges.) We did a walking tour, followed by canal cruises. Swans, footbridges over canals, homes and picturesque scenes at every turn. The most crowds we’d seen, with many student groups. Glad we were there early in season as crowds increase in summer. The main square is very busy, with many cafes around the large open square. Among the many structures from 1300-1500 is the cathedral, Belfour Tower. I joined a few trekkers as we climbed 366 steps up 88 meters (288 feet). Good plan to walk off some of that ample ship food.

Antwerp was our final cruise stop, with the boat next to its old fort. Our stroll took us past many historic statues, with a special eye-catcher showing a man holding a cut-off hand, a reference to the tale of a giant who was known to chop off hands of passers-by who didn’t pay the tariff. Except another tough cookie said no way and chopped off the giant’s hands and tossed them into the river, thus giving Antwerp its name, in local language, “hand thrown.”

Each night, after our day’s adventures and a good supper, we were entertained by performers with mostly local ties. A particularly memorable group was the Shanty y Singers, all past members of the Dutch marine corps and dressed in folkish attire. Accompanied by three accordionists and other instrumentalists, they sang and hammed it up with many lively songs. Lots of fun. All in all, a mighty pleasant way to spend a few days floating down the rivers and canals.

Tom Leech is former Outdoors Editor for San Diego Magazine Online, and the lead author of Outdoors San Diego: Hiking, Biking & Camping. Also author of On the Road in ‘68: a year of turmoil, a journey of friendship. Leslie Johnson-Leech teaches fitness for seniors, Tai Chi and history of musical theater at community college.

Cruising down the river on a Portuguese afternoon

By Tom Leech& Leslie Johnson-Leech Authors of Outdoors San Diego: Hiking, Biking & Camping

(Mission Valley News, San Diego, CA) – For an enjoyable getaway that combines scenic views, a Port-Spn scene ashore bldgchance to unwind, and gourmet dining, all in a terrain not likely known to most of your travel pals, consider a river cruise in Portugal. You will get all of the above while sharpening your vino taste buds.

Portugal’s Douro River is home terrain for vineyards, stretching up verdant terraced hillsides and wineries (called “quintas”) by the dozen. Although most river cruise devotees have long been enjoying floating on the blue Danube, the splendid Rhine and the romantic Seine, recently trips along the Douro have been gaining in popularity.  Several cruise companies provide this itinerary, including Uniworld, our company of choice.

Our trip began in the capital city of Lisbon. Starting in an elegant hotel, with an orientation meeting by our Lisbon guide, Pilar, we were introduced to Portuguese culture, cafes and customs that would prove useful to us on our journey along this stretch of land bordering Spain and the Atlantic Ocean. Following a guided tour of Lisbon, an impressive city, we rode by bus north to the Coimbra. This historic city is especially known for being home to one of the world’s oldest universities. Especially impressive was the library with its imposing architecture and masses of ancient books. And how interesting to note the tradition of students garbed in black capes, no matter how hot or cold the day!

Port-Spn town bridges bldgNext stop was Porto, where we boarded the brand new ship, Queen Isabel. As is typical for river cruises, the boat is sleek and low in height, allowing for ease in sailing under the many bridges along the river. How fascinating to watch the Captain’s bridge and the top deck of the ship being dismantled whenever more space was needed beneath a bridge.

At our initial onboard orientation we were welcomed aboard by the ship’s captain, the head chef, Hotel Manager Jorge, and Cruise Manager Kirsten. They described every detail of our travel upriver, covering the 130 miles to the Spanish border (where the river changes its name to the Duero River).  En route we would cruise through six locks as we accommodated the varying water levels.

Before setting sail, we took a guided walking tour through hilly Porto. Our local guides communicated with us via individual walkie-talkies. Porto’s winding streets, cobble stone roads and interesting architecture made for a pleasant stroll. Much renovation is taking place as residents in formerly rent controlled areas move away.

As we started our upstream sail, we enjoyed what makes river cruising a pleasant, relaxing and scenic experience. The countryside and nature, small towns, parks and marinas, small trains on tracks right by the river and all of this while enjoying morning tea or an afternoon brew from a comfortable deck chair. The size of the ship and the number of passengers (usually 75 – 200) makes interactions and the forming of new friendships easy. And, then, to quote another passenger, “No one gets seasick on a river cruise.”

It is fun to watch as the ship arrives at a lock, slowing to await directions from the operators on the dam.  Once the ship enters the lock and gates are closed, water is released so that the ship can rise and continue upriver. The opening of the front and back barriers inside the lock is a most impressive feat that requires careful teamwork, from both the boat crew and the dam operators.  Many locals line the upper levels of the dam and watch just as we were doing on the ship’s decks.

Great view of river & hillsides

Great view of river & hillsides

Both shorelines of the Douro River are marked with hillsides where much of the land is terraced for the vineyards and some olive orchards. This is the only region that grows the grapes used in the making of Port wine. We were fortunate to visit the home of one of the vintners who lavished a wonderful feast upon us, complete with live entertainment and many tastings of the famed Port wine (as well as other varietals).

Before the banquet, our host took us to the small neighboring village where bakeries prepare special bread (8,000 loaves each day) which gets shipped to other cities. The owner of the bakery, Manuela, demonstrated how the bread is baked in clay ovens and treated us to samples all the while accompanied by musicians to whose music she danced while we tasted the delicious warm bread.

One of our main stops was the town of Regua, with its river-front cafes and shops. We learned

View of river, trees & town

View of river, trees & town

about the history and nature of the Douro valley in a lecture at the local museum.  From here we took a side trip to Salamanca, Spain, a United Nations UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Among its scenic and historic aspects is the University of Salamanca, which dates back nearly a thousand years. It hosts students from around the world and is a city full of energy and golden beauty.

One highlight of our cruise was an evening performance, on board, by a local folk and Fado group. Fado is music exclusive to Portugal.  It is generally romantic and mournful in nature. We’d witnessed a Fado show in Lisbon that stuck to the traditional sound. The eight musicians who entertained us on the ship were a combination of Fado and folk and the contrast was amazing.  When they performed the folk music, with their drums and accordions, an impromptu conga line formed in the room and virtually no one could resist tapping their toes!

Our return to Porto was simply a reverse in direction, and as we headed downriver, we once again passed through the intriguing locks and enjoyed the picturesque scenery along the way. Everyone disembarked in Porto, more relaxed and ready for the next pursuit, perhaps homeward bound or off for another holiday excursion.

Tom Leech is a frequent Mission Valley News contributor, former Outdoors Editor for San Diego Magazine Online, and lead author of Outdoors San Diego: Hiking, Biking & Camping and On the Road in ‘68: a year of turmoil, a journey of friendship.

Leslie Johnson-Leech is a long-time teacher of Tai Chi and QiGong for seniors, history of musical theater and film.

Down Under and Cruise Around New Zealand

by Tom Leech & Leslie Johnson-Leech
Originally appeared in Mission Valley News and Views  © 2010, Tom Leech

This was our first journey down under, as many are prone to call it. We were roughing it on theHolland America Line’s Volendam. It would be primarily hitting the main towns on New Zealand’s Eastern Shore (there aren’t too many on the Western Shore, the side facing Australia). We were traveling in January, meaning summer down there.

Our journey started from Sydney, Australia and headed across what the Aussies call the Big Ditch, though better known as the Tasman Sea. For us first-timers we were surprised at how far over New Zealand was. Our occasional quick looks at a map or globe left us with the impression of maybe a couple hundred miles. Wrong, as we sailed a couple days to arrive at the South Island and started our sail through Milford Sound and Foveaux Strait, the waterway between South and Stewart Island.

This was a fine welcome to NZ as we leisurely sailed into fiords and channels, with superb scenery of mountain ranges, some with snow. Much appreciated were frequent narrations by Chris Fisher, the ship’s lecturer. He would provide us with informative slide-illustrated talks about each locale.

Christchurch Center Square

Christchurch Center Square

Now on the eastern side and into the Pacific Ocean, our first stop was Dunedin, founded by Scots and known as Edinburgh of the South. We took the Taieri Gorge Railway tour out into mountain and canyon country in vintage rebuilt railroad cars. Tea was served, with sugar packets containing sayings from famous people, mine from Tom Waits, that rough-voiced singer from San Diego. We made one brief unplanned stop, as a sheep was lounging on the tracks.

Next, heading north, was Christchurch, our favorite of the stops. This is the South Island’s largest city and an impressive one at that. City Square was the center of action, for catching the on-off Tramway to hit city highlights or the bus out to the International Antarctica Centre (Christchurch is the main HQ for most nations’ Antarctic operations). Just strolling around this area was most enjoyable, along the tree-lined Avon River and over to the Botanic Gardens, in full bloom. This was Buskers Day, with entertainers at multi-sites, here an entertaining 2-man acrobatic act.

Wellington. Now at the North Island, arriving on Australian Day in Wellington, the country’s capital city. A must visit from the major downtown commercial area was a short ride on the cable car heading upward. From here are great views of the harbor and nearby hillside communities. Also a museum with an original 1902 car and a nearby park, with several trails for walking back to city center and other attractions. A stroll along the bay is rewarding, with the City Museum a good stop (all museums are free, with donations encouraged). Further along the boardwalk are cafes, interesting buildings and activities, concluding with the Te Papa Museum, which many fellow travelers gave high marks.

From Train River

From Train River

Napier is a small town, featuring art deco buildings, extensively rebuilt since a major 1931 earthquake. It’s very walkable, both along the black stone covered beach, and into the small commercial area. In the small Clive Square are many flowers, a water fountain, a huge spreading Moreton Fig tree (sound like Balboa Park?), and bell structure which rings a song every ½ hour (a Mozart Folk song while I was visiting there).

Maori Dancers Group

Maori Dancers Group

On to Tauranga, the busiest port in NZ. A highlight was a tour out to Maori world. One stop was at a school, for music and dance routines by eleven students from Te Puna High School. All part of same Maori Marae (family group), the girls sang and danced and the six guys, went into ferocious expressions and grunts. Some of us visitors were lured to the front and there we were, prancing along, thumping chests and sticking our tongues out. Back in town we walked along either bay or ocean beaches (like Mission Beach). Especially pleasurable was a 3/4 hour stroll around the adjoining volcano, with ocean waves lapping up against the shoreline rocks.

Heading into the home stretch, we stopped at Auckland, called Oakland by locals. It’s the largest NZ city at 1.3

Auckland Tower behind flower beds

Auckland Tower behind flower beds

million, thus about 1/3 of the country’s population calls this home. Our ship docked at the major commercial district, close to one section called America’s Cup (are we back in Point Loma?).

At the top of NZ, the Bay of Islands Maritime and Historic Park, with over 150 islands, offers a variety of exploration options. We visited the Puketi Forest Reserve, with many huge Kauri(?) Trees, counterparts to our Northern Cal redwood preserves. Then a short stroll along wooden pathways inside a cave took us to see the Kawiti Glow Worms which light up when all the lantern lights went out. Folks whose musical memories are of a more senior vintage were heard warbling that tune about glow worms. One more

useful stop was in a small burg, Kawaka

wa, to an unusual tourist attraction, the most visited toilet in NZ. Designed by a famed German architect, it was built ten years ago, with colorful floor and wall tiles made by local students. Don’t want to miss that.

Now some tips. If you’re heading down there, remember to always look to your right before your step off the curb. No, wait, also look to your left as this may be a one way street. No, wait, always look up, with hands in prayer formation for even further insurance. You might want to check a local dictionary or you may have slight difficulty when you read (or hear) about a chap, who, tired of living

on swede and yams, climbed into his ute to go have some tucker.

Enjoying Ancient (and recent) History while Cruising the Eastern Mediterranean

by  Tom Leech & Leslie Johnson-Leech
Originally appeared in Mission Valley News and Views © 2009, Tom Leech
Strollers atop Dubrovnik's walled city

Strollers atop Dubrovnik’s walled city

For a trip that combines the pleasures of cruising, great views, and tuning up your historic

knowledge, consider this journey starting in Rome and hitting many memorable spots around the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas. Here are a few highlights from our recent cruise aboard Holland-America’s MS Noordam.

Dubrovnik’s walled city. Stop #1 was Dubrovnik in the country now known as Croatia. A couple decades back this was part of Yugoslavia, then in the thick of civil war between multi factions, and finally settling down as Bosnia and Croatia. Visiting Dubrovnik today it’s easy to be unaware of the trouble from the recent past, given the many visitors strolling on the wide streets inside the old walled city. The much less hectic mile and a half walk around the top of the wall provided a variety of views of the community inside and the sea outside.

One of Oia's many splendid views on the island of Santorini

One of Oia’s many splendid views on the island of Santorini

For sports and history buffs, visiting Katakolon, Greece was a real treat. We joined one of the ship’s guided tours for a visit to the original Olympics site where the Greeks wrestled, tossed and dashed about 3,000 years ago. And from where, every four years, the Olympic torch begins its worldwide journey.

One of the most amazing of the many Greek islands is Santorini, for several reasons. Start with the view as the ship approaches this large and high-up island. Then decide on how you’ll get up to the town itself: (a) clomp upward atop a mule (b) walk, for the hardy ones, or (c) ride up in a tram (OK, that was our choice). Once up there you’re at a thriving community, and a great one for strolling, shopping and gazing. We grabbed the local bus for a ten mile ride out to the popular community of Oia (can you say ee-yah?), with even more incredible views to enjoy while lunching on a café open patio.

A visit to ancient Roman ruins at Ephesus, Turkey

A visit to ancient Roman ruins at Ephesus, Turkey

Next over to another country, Turkey, and the port of Kusadasi. From here it’s a short bus trip to the ancient city of Ephesus, where our guide enlightened us on the architecture and uses of the many sites where structures still remain from a major community 2000 years old. Especially memorable were the tall, carved walls of the ancient library and the amphitheater where concerts still occur.

Enjoying the Malta Experience

Enjoying the Malta Experience

On the island of Malta, we took our own tour of Valletta, starting with a short cab ride from the dock up to the grand entry point. We began with an exploratory stroll through the crowded and active commercial district, and wound up at the Malta Experience, showing a wide screen documentary film covering the long and wild history of this island. With its critical location in the middle of the Mediterranean, Malta was the scene of frequent battles across the centuries between the many factions wanting to claim it for shipping and military uses.

A highlight for viewing and photo-snapping was when the ship sailed past the island of Stromboli, where wisps of smoke wafted up from the still active volcano. Wrapping it up was the final stop at Messina, Sicily, a fitting conclusion to a most enjoyable journey combining culture, cuisine and camaraderie.

Out and Around in Western Ireland

by Tom Leech. Originally appeared in San Diego Magazine Online Outdoors Forum September 2000

Several decades back I was in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day and enjoyed it immensely. Every St. Pat’s Day when our pubs and air waves ring with Irish songs, I sing those lyrics about watching the sun go down on Galway Bay. This journey would finally see me actually doing that.

Galway is actually the only large city in Western Ireland we spent any time in because we were there to explore the attractions associated with the shore, countryside and small towns. These were consistently enjoyable, with active central districts, lodging, shops and restaurants. Did I mention pubs?

Our visit was in late July, a lovely time with a bit of rain. The other months are likely to be equally lovely, though cooler, and with a bit of rain. San Diegans will immediately note the place is vividly green, with no irrigation in sight. Later they’ll note a huge difference in pub air quality (smoke-free hasn’t got there yet), where they’ll probably find themselves because that’s where the music is.

Getting started. Before leaving, get a good guidebook (my choice was Frommer’s) and check out the Irish Tourist Board’s web site http://www.ireland.travel.ie/home/. They provide a wealth of information about itineraries, attractions, lodging, transportation, etc. If exploring the west, Shannon is the likely airport.

What about driving? If you’re among those who’ve made a lifetime practice of driving on the right side of the road, the idea of suddenly driving on the left can be a serious concern. To avoid the problem entirely, sign on to a guided tour and let a native handle the wheel. Secondly, you can rely on public transportation, using rail or bus to get from, say Limerick to Killarney, then grabbing one of the many tour buses out to the primary sites.

A third option is to take on the driving chores yourself. Take that one and a whole new world of adventure and occasional panic. We chose that option, renting a 5-speed compact sedan. (To make your life easier, get an automatic shift if you can.) My regular car is 5-speed, but with the right hand on the gear shift. Now it would be the left, freeing up my right to occasionally turn on the windshield wipers in lieu of signaling a turn. Backing out of our B&B in Galway, I managed to bring two busy lanes to complete stops.

Staying on the right side (or is that the left?) is one issue, watching for your turn is another. Sometimes a dozen signs would be displayed, one of which was the one you wanted. The beauty of the “round-a-abouts” was you could keep looping around until you ferreted out the right sign and headed off down that other road.
Horse-drawn carriage

Forum readers who often lean toward physical exploration will find plenty of options for hiking, riding and biking. Many of these will be on the web site, and details will be found at any of the Tourist Board offices. Hiking trails are plentiful and many companies lead organized expeditions. One group, the International Marching League, brings 1000 people each year from 30 countries to Castlebar for multi-day hikes (for info FAX 353-94-24102). This group sponsors such events in 20 countries. Take your foul weather gear; we met a group from Georgia having a fine time on a riding excursion and often wet.

Where to stay? If you like options in your lodging and ease on your budget, Ireland works. My research shows in some popular communities, 3 out of every 3 ½ houses are B&Bs and good ones at that. We stayed mostly in those, with a typical rate of $40 per night for two, including the standard Irish breakfast or variations per your choice. With tea. Hotels abound of different levels and price. Check out possibilities via the web site, then contact many via e-mail, or use the Tourist Board’s phone reservation service (800-398-4376). In summer at busy places you may want to reserve ahead, though we saw many vacancy signs even then. I do suggest you book a place, not too far a drive, for your first night.

Destinations? These are among the most popular attractions, though not comprehensive.

Near Shannon. The closest city is Angela’s Ashes’ Limerick, which as a busy city wasn’t high our visit list. The tiny village of Bunratty is even closer to the airport, so we chose that as our first stop. The big attraction is the Bunratty Castle and folk village, worth a visit. The other one is a pub with the name “Durty Nellie’s” which has been serving suds and grub for only about 350 years.

Galway, a bit to the north, is one lively city. They closed off a major street downtown, making a hugely popular walking section (similar to our Gaslamp District, without the cars), loaded with shops, pubs, restaurants, entertainers, and Kenny’s bookstore. Galway’s a good walking city, with several bridges crossing the River Corrib over to the Claddagh district (where you “sit and watch the moon rise over…”). Many swans assembled here than you’ve probably ever seen. We had a special evening of music, theater and dance here at Siamsa, plus spirited music and step dancing (from kids visiting from Arizona and Oregon) at Monroe’s Pub nearby. Hike out into a large park here, as well in several others along the water west of Salthill.

The Connemara Peninsula is one of the popular loop routes. Hikers have plenty of options in Connemara National Park, such as the scenic Ben Mountain Range.
The Burren, southwest of Galway, is a fascinating place to drive or hike through. Take the drive along the ocean for many fine views. Walk up into the rocky, craggy, almost barren moonscape or join one of the walking tours through here. Doolin is a small, lively village on the ocean, and close to the popular Cliffs of Moher. We explored these in late afternoon, with the sun creating rich colors and shadows for photos. For those inclined for a spa and rub, Lisdoonvarna, with a fun name and business section. Here’s where we came across the music I enjoyed most, from “Real Tai’ “, an all-women group.

The Dingle Peninsula, south of the River Shannon, is one of the main western area attractions. You have a couple of choices for getting over to the popular destination of Dingle. One is the standard road from Tralee (of rose fame). The other is the exhilarating ride up and over the Conner Pass. That one gives you the great views, and the frequent squeeze on a narrow, winding road when meeting vehicles going downhill, and the tales to tell over the Guinness later. In Dingle I had the urge for some ice cream, stepped into the emporium to be greeted by American accents of the Murphy Brothers, transplanted from New York City. Outside Dingle along the Slea Head Loop is the Blasket Islands museum where you can learn about the amazing literary history of the offshore islands. For hikers the Dingle Way winds around for 95 miles.

The Ring of Kerry is high on every visitor’s list, for good reason as this road passes through town after town along the ocean for over 100 miles. It also has the Kerry Way footpath. If you’re here in August, don’t miss Killorglin, home of the famed annual Puck Fair, Ireland’s biggest and oldest. Down the road, we stopped over at the Glenbeigh Hotel, and were treated to one of our best meals and a lively pub duo, with room to dance (not common). Take your pick of scenic spots around the loop, putting Derrynane National Historical Park on the must list, finally ending in lovely and lively Kenmare.

The scenery in Killarney National Park is centered on the fabled Lakes of Killarney. Heading north you’ll have many panoramic views. The most visited spot is Muckross Estate, combining a museum, history, gardens, and lakefront. This is the center of the “jaunting cars,” horse-drawn carts wheeling people around for a leisurely way to experience the place. Several nature trails wind along the three lakes.

Finally, not visited but rated high by almost everyone we talked to is Kinsale, near Cork. Right on the ocean, this is the site of a major battle (with the British, who else) and setting for an annual October gourmet fair.
No language barrier? Based on this and previous trips, Irish good cheer and hospitality are hard to top. They even speak roughly the same English we do, though in the west, Gaelic will be heard and seen on signs. We did need some interpretation from time to time, such as when hearing “Traffic is all chock-a-block, per the Gardia.” (The cops were warning of a traffic jam.) I was bewildered when directed to park the car on the footpath, until that was translated into the sidewalk (and I still wasn’t sure about the wisdom of that). Road signs alerted us about “chipping or gritting ahead.” The word “restroom” kept drawing blank looks, but is that important?

Tracking the press.  Upon seeing the headline about a truck (o.k. , a lorry) driver caught smuggling in illegal immigrants, I wasn’t sure I’d left home and our own cross border turmoil. More confusion when the sports pages talked about avid punters. Did they know about our Charger kickers? No, these were people placing bets at the race track. A judge stirred up a fuss with his comments about how young chaps would be advised to stay out of trouble by going home early and avoiding the “dreadful girls” they might meet in the Galway nightclubs. Our favorite, baffling headline was “Town the boom passed by cock-a-hoop at 800 jobs.” I asked several natives to explain that one and not one could. With a slight variation on the hoop, it’s become one of our favorite expressions – wish I knew what it meant.

Other impressions.  I asked several San Diegans who’ve recently visited Western Ireland for their favorites. Here’s what they said:
Dave and Gwen Hackley spent two months in Ireland. “Our most fun thing was the Irish music pubs. We went armed with a list I gathered off the Internet of about 350 pubs with traditional Irish music and which drew a good pint of Guinness. Here are a few noteworthies: Dingle–Small Bridge Bar, Flaherty’s, and Murphy’s; Doolin–Gus O’Connor’s, McGann’s, and McDermott’s; Westport–Matt Molloy’s; Galway — Lisheen’s and Tigh Naughton’s; In County Donegal ask around for the local pub featuring Donegal fiddlin’.”
Tom and Tisha Kurtz: “On a sunny day at Loop Head in western county Clare, the wind was blowing the foam up from about 500 feet below. My daughter Ellen had one of those special visits while laughing about the legend of the hag that was tricked there! (The story is that a prince was bedeviled by a hag, so he went to Loop Head and jumped from the cliff onto a separated crag. The hag followed. The prince jumped back, but the hag didn’t make it. She floated out to sea and later her head washed up near the Cliffs of Moher at a point now called Hag’s Head.)”
Leslie, my spouse: “The delightful meals I had as a vegetarian. I went on the trip with the thought that I might lose weight, because I expected all meals to be heavy with meat and potatoes. Instead, I had some of the best salads and stirfries I’ve ever had anywhere! We kept commenting that the Irish could teach the Americans a thing or two about salads and the need for interesting contents rather than the ‘just greens’ approach or a few tomatoes and shredded carrots on top.”

Staying in touch. This is supposed to be a vacation. Should you, however, wish to check your e-mail, it’s a snap. Most towns have cyber cafes, where, for a very few punt, you can send or receive e-mails. You’ll probably save money over postcards, though your correspondents may prefer those pretty scenes.

Enjoy, and send me an e-mail from one of those cyber cafes.

Outdoors Cruising Down the Danube

by Tom Leech
Originally appeared in San Diego Magazine Online Outdoors Forum November 2004
© 2008, Tom Leech

This month takes us outdoors for sure, but to Europe on a cruise down the Danube River. We’ll see how a relaxing cruise can offer many ways to investigate the outdoors world, both viewing from the top deck and hiking on shore. I’ll have a companion writer this time, my wife Leslie providing some different viewpoints. But first, the Forum Quiz: our journey will include a stop in Bratislava. What country did that city used to be part of?


Our boat, the Mozart

Our boat, the Mozart

Our cruise ship was the 5-star Mozart, flagship of the Peter Dielmann cruise line. It’s nearly 400-foot long, with only a five-foot draft (distance into the water) and a low top line. It can accommodate 204 passengers in good-sized cabins. Our journey was a 7-day late summer cruise from Germany to Budapest and back, for a total distance of roughly 360 miles. Passengers came from eight countries, and the crew covered about that many as well. Of interest to us Californians was finding out the Hotel Director, Manfred Mayer, came from the same town, Graz, as one of our well-known Austrians, a chap named Schwarzenegger.

Getting underway. While passengers arrive from various locales, our trip from the U.S. took us to Munich. A tour bus took us on the two hour journey through Bavaria to Passau, Germany, from where most cruises heading down the Danube start. Coming in, looking across the river we saw where lots of cruise boats were moored. It’s an amazing scene with passengers arriving from many places, getting their baggage loaded onto the right vessels, then, if they have some time before embarkation, exploring Passau. The city spreads upward from the river, with lots of stores, restaurants and five breweries. A good stroll is several streets uphill to the St. Steven’s cathedral, with its two spires and the world’s largest church organ. We enjoyed lunch from the outside patio of a café looking downward toward the many boats.

Heading down river into Austria. As Passau is right at the border, you quickly leave Germany and enjoy the scenic views of the Austrian hillsides on both sides of the river. This initial segment has many forests, vineyards, interspersed with small villages, lots of colorful houses, a frequent church with its steeple or bell tower either near the shore or positioned part way up the hill. These are the scenes from the tourist books, with colorful, 2-3 story, decorative-styled homes, most with flower boxes, in full bloom in mid summer.
At commute times, the highways by the river were busy as drivers headed to or from work, pleasantly reminding us that we were relaxing over a morning tea or afternoon

draft beer on the top deck–minus cell phones.

Especially pleasing to us outdoor types were the many public parks, walking or cycling paths, and campgrounds. Many people were enjoying the ability to walk or cycle beside the river. The campgrounds had many occupants, most with small campers or tents.

Learning a bit of the language is certainly wise on such a journey. For example, which door leads to the appropriate restroom? I had little trouble sorting out which was the correct one: the one with the single letter “h” obviously referred to “hens” and the letter ‘d” of course meant the “dudes”. It took me a try or two to realize that “d” meant damen (women) and “h” meant herren (men) – minor misunderstanding, of course.

The first stop was at the small town of Durnstein, easily seen from miles ahead due to the prominent tower and church right at the river. A short walk gets you to the main commercial district. For a workout, wear good shoes and head on up to the ruins of a castle perched up on the hill. Legend has it this is where the locals imprisoned Richard the Lionhearted back during the Crusades. A few hearty souls, including several Brits checking their countryman’s fate, made the 20-minute trek and were poking around the castle’s nooks and crannies, imagining the various activities that might have occurred here, or just enjoying the expansive views below. Over on another hill, a group of school kids were practicing rock climbing.

Lots of pleasant scenes

Lots of pleasant scenes

Dining, lox and locks. As typical with cruising, meals were ample, varied, and in a smoke-free dining room. For Californians, that is an important aspect, as we’ve been used to smoke-free restaurants and bars for some time. In other locales onboard, as typical it seems of most of Europe, the drifting smoke was often present, and noticed.
The main dining room is top of the class, with a pleasant atmosphere and the waiters attentive and efficient as they served the many courses. Conversations were lively and spirits high.

Lunches often got into the cultural spirit, with, for example, sausages being cooked on deck, accompanied with an oom-Pah band, a Konig Pilsner draft bier, and scenery we like to simulate with our hundreds of Oktoberfest celebrations around the U.S.
For breakfast, we had a wide choice, with many fruits, cheeses, meats, yogurts, and a delicious multi-grain bread loaf among our favorites. Bagels of several types, with lox and other choices were always available.

Speaking of lox, as we continued down the river, we passed through a series of locks, 11 total for the full round-trip journey. This also clearly illustrated why the Mozart is about as wide a ship as is feasible, with just a couple of feet to spare on each side. It was interesting to approach a lock as the boat slowed, eased into the lock, the gates closed, and we dropped to the new water level (upward when we headed back up the river).

It also revealed why the ships , including the frequent freight barges, differed from ocean cruise ships with upper decks 8-10 stories in the air. On the river, the height is limited by the bridges. Frequently before entering the locks, the upper crew control tower and deck canopies were tilted down to not bang the bridge as we passed under it.

Vienna. As an Outdoors Editor, I immediately spotted the many parks, green open space and pathways leading into and right in the heart of Vienna. Also intriguing was a visit to the amusement park, where a famous scene from Orson Welles classic film, “The Third Man,” took place at the huge Ferris wheel. Our tour guide revealed that perhaps some of those scenes were not shot in Vienna but in another city called Hollywood.

As one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Vienna has so much to offer, both day and night. Our guided tour introduced us to some of the city squares, boulevards, shopping areas, and museums. Our own tour took us to Demel’s, rated among the top pastry and chocolate purveyors to be found anywhere. (We requested a recommendation from a veteran connoisseur before we left.)

Capturing the spirit of this magical place, we took in an evening concert, featuring –what else?– music of Mozart and Strauss and Viennese waltzes.

On into Hungary. Passing from Austrian into Hungary was a vivid demonstration of the power of free enterprise vs. communism. The communities we passed by or stopped at had a look about them clearly less prosperous than the Austrian counterparts. This was true for Budapest as compared with Vienna.

Esztergom is another of those scenic places with a major edifice high atop the hill and former home of Hungarian kings. Some passengers left the ship for the onshore bus tour, starting with the country’s largest church, then on downstream taking in various sights and rejoining the cruise in Budapest.

An pleasant alternative was a stroll into town to the very busy farmers’ market. Starting at city square, this extended for three blocks with many booths displaying their wares on both sides of the crowded street.

Budapest divided by the Danube

Budapest divided by the Danube

Budapest was gorgeous! Sailing into the city (or should we say “cities”– Buda is the hilly side and Pest, pronounced pesht, the flat side) was incredible. There are ornate buildings on either side of the river and churches that are absolutely gorgeous. We docked across from a hill that had a statue of a woman, arms raised, holding a palm frond above her head. representing peace and victory. The Russians allowed that statue to remain when Hungary was behind the Iron Curtain.

The buildings need a lot of restoration and much is underway. Our tour guide, Susanna, and driver, Attila (can you get more authentic?) gave us a top-rate tour of the sights on both sides of the river, including the many scenic bridges, churches (such as the world’s biggest synagogue), memorials and spas (one dating to Roman times). Again wear good shoes to maneuver easily over cobblestone plazas. A fabulous park on the Pest side has a wonderful lagoon that serves as a boating place in the summer and a huge ice skating rink in the winter. Not to be missed on your own is the market, in a large restored building a few blocks from the dock and the open-air cafes lining several of the streets across from the market.

We took an evening jaunt out to an area in the countryside called the Pustza. We were treated to a horse show, Hungarian folk dancing and folk music. Dinner was unusual in that the soup course was the goulash and the main course was salami. Vegetarians got the better deal–a wonderful potato soup and a veggie plate with hard boiled eggs and nice cheeses.

If you want to get an intriguing picture of the changing nature of Budapest right after the breakup of the Soviet Union, about a group of young Americans and Canadians helping to expedite free enterprise, pick up a copy of the novel “Prague.” (I’m not kidding.)

Heading back upriver. Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, one of the two countries that made up Czechoslovakia. It’s a town in the midst of change. Another good town for strolling, with streets lined with outdoors cafes, stores, and a large McDonalds and Pizza Hut. A surprise was finding an excellent English language book store, Eurobooks. Coming soon for a book signing was Bill Bryson.

Now back in Austria, we docked at Melk. Hikers can easily get a workout here as the boat docks several blocks from the main town. Yes you can take the bus, but then you miss the pleasure of a tree-lined walkway, with wild flowers abounding. Crossing the bridge, keep trekking up the hill to the landmark Benedictine Abbey, with its floor-to-ceiling library, museums and broad views from the decks. These monks seemed to have lived well here. In the huge baroque-style chapel and its 60 meters high dome, we witnessed a wedding in process. Outside are forested areas with hiking trails and we found ourselves singing “Sound of Music” songs while we were there.

Below the Abbey is a small picturesque town with cobblestone walkways, cafes and upscale street vendors. Lots of tourists and cyclists were partaking of the various offerings. Back by the river is a lively restaurant and campground. From a small stand we managed to sample Sacher Torte (chocolate cake) and gulped it down in about 30 seconds.

While Grein is a small town, it dates back to the year 1000, and is home to a nearly 500 years-old theater which is still operational. Back in the old days, if as an audience member, you needed to use the restroom, there was a latrine, enclosed with curtains, on one side of the theater. You could sit on the pot and if you didn’t want to miss the action on stage, you could separate the curtains and stick your head through and watch while you were taking care of business. The rest of the town was also intriguing, with shops, restaurants, another pretty church and more cobblestone streets.

And back aboard the Mozart. Cruising is more than sights and dining. Each night we were entertained with music for dancing or listening, a floor show or two (with the crew providing fun schticks). Leslie treated herself to two massages on the ship and enjoyed the spa. Small but with a swimming pool, whirlpool and sauna, along with a big window where you could sit in a comfortable chair and watch the scenery in front of the ship.

Getting to know fellow passengers and crew members was a highlight of the cruise. Sharing experiences and backgrounds with people from Italy, Germany, Denmark, Austria, Netherlands, the UK, Australia, fellow Californians and even other San Diegans was a constant pleasure. ( A recommendation: brush up on your German, or whatever language for the country you’re cruising in. before you head over. Learning a few common expressions always adds to such a trip, and might keep you from entering the wrong restroom.)

Our favorite (in)activity was to sit up on the sundeck (mostly in the shade) and just take in the incredible scenery. All along the river are so many picture-perfect villages with fabulous castles, churches and pathways. Lots of “oohing” and “ahhing.”

If our tales of cruising along the Danube interest you, Mozart cruises resume in March. You can also book a longer Danube cruise which continues down to the Black Sea. (Suggestion from a fellow passenger: Select a room away from the engines, as vibration made for difficult sleeping.) Dielmann also operates nine other river boats.

For specifics talk to your favorite travel agent or check http://www.deilmann-cruises.com/home2.htm. Happy cruising.