Olympic Park from the air

Following on from last week’s post about my visit to The Orbit, I thought it’d be nice to post a couple of other views of the Olympic Park that I’ve taken recently.

First up is an aerial shot of the park that I took on a recent flight back into London. We flew in early on a sunday morning, and were lucky enough to have a fantastically clear view of the city, including flying right over the Olympic Park.

London Olympic Park from the air
(Click the image to see a larger version)

The Olympic Stadium itself is in the centre of the photo, and immediately to its left are the Orbit, Aquatic Centre and Water Polo Arena. Towards the bottom left of the photo is the Olympic Village. To the right of the village is a large, white box which is the Basketball Arena; to the right of that is the curved roof of the Velodrome, probably the most attractive of all the Olympic venues. To the far right of the picture you can just about see the Hockey pitches, right in front of the huge International Broadcast Centre.

You can get a clearer picture of the park’s layout from my second photo, which is a model of the Olympic Park, part of New London Architecture’s huge model of Central London (which is well worth a visit if you’ve never been). This photo is oriented with the southern end of the park (the Olympic Stadium) to the right, and the northern end (with the Velodrome) to the left.

London 2012 Olympic Park model

You can see the rest of my Olympic photos here.

Looking down on the Olympic Park from the Orbit

Earlier today I was incredibly lucky to be one of the first people to go up the Orbit. Even before the Olympics has started, it’s already become one of the most recognisable structures in the Olympic Park, and is no doubt soon to become familiar to people around the world, as it’s bound to feature prominently in TV broadcasts from the park once the games begin (especially as there aren’t that many spectacular buildings in the park).

The ArcelorMittal Orbit

The Orbit from inside the Olympic Park

Getting in was no different to the procedure that would be familiar to anyone who’s been to a test event in the park recently – arrive from Stratford, and cross the road to go through the efficient and friendly airport-style security. Once through it was a short walk in between the Aquatic Centre & Water Polo Arena, over the river via footbridge, and there it was.

The Orbit from underneath

You can see the central hole in the viewing platform from underneath

The biggest surprise on arrival is that there’s a strange rusty iron bell hanging out of the bottom (the Guardian’s art critic described it as an arse – I can’t see it myself). Just behind that is a little structure that contains the lift the whisks you quickly up to the top.

The Orbit, London Olympic Park 2012

Looks more like a bell than an arse to me, but then what do I know, I’m not an art critic

On reaching the top I was delighted to see that you can actually get outside into the open air, with two little balconies on either side, one of which has great views right into the Olympic Stadium next door – good enough that we even got a little sneak preview of the opening ceremony, as we could see a little grassy hill with a tree on it at one end of the stadium (you can read more about that, and see where the tree will sit here).

Olympic Opening ceremony preview - the tree in the London Olympic stadium

A sneak preview of the opening ceremony – a tree at one end of the London Olympic Stadium

The viewing platform itself is lovely – wide and spacious, with fantastic views on all sides. We were lucky enough to have clear skies tonight (especially given how grim the weather has been recently), so we had clear views all the way out to Wembley and beyond. In fact, with the O2, Excel, and Wembley all in sight you can see almost all of the major games venues from up here.

World's biggest McDonald's in London Olympic Park

The world’s largest McDonald’s, in front of the (L-R) Energy Centre, Copper Box – aka Handball Arena – and International Broadcast Centre

The platform also had one other surprise – inside are two other Anish Kapoor sculptures, huge curving mirrors not unlike the C-Curve mirror that was in London’s Kensington Gardens in 2010.

Anish Kapoor sculpture in the Orbit viewing Gallery

One of the two mirrors inside the viewing gallery

The biggest surprise of the day was how it changed how I feel about the sculpture. Beforehand I really couldn’t make up mind about it. Now I’ve been up, I’m a total convert. To see it at close hand, from underneath, from above, from inside, and from the stairs on the way down, is to experience it totally differently from seeing it from far away. The shape curves and twists in different directions, giving a different view from every angle. It’s incredibly solid but incredibly lightweight at the same time, with the slender struts leaving plenty of room for views in between.

Looking down on the Olympic Park from the Orbit

Looking down on the Olympic Park from inside the Orbit

Most people I’ve spoken to up til now have been pretty ambivalent about the Orbit, if not downright hostile. Based on tonight, I reckon that’ll change pretty rapidly. It may look like a big red squiggle, but close up the structure itself is fantastic, and the views even better, and I think Londoners are soon going to grow to love it.

You can see my full set of pictures of my Orbit visit here.

My 7 Links: Revisiting some old favourites

Whoops. I appear not to have blogged since March despite having done a fair bit of travelling. My bad.

But thanks to Sophie, I’ve been inspired to get going again, as she’s nominated me to take part in Tripbase’s ‘My 7 Links’ project, which is basically a great excuse for me to have a read through my own archives and pull up some of my favourite old posts, I’d been meaning to do something like this for a while and now I have a good excuse to. Apologies to those of you who’ve seen these before, if not, hope you enjoy.

So, without further ado, here are mine:

My most beautiful post

Trekking Peru - the Huayhuash Circuit

Glacial lakes in the Cordillera Huayhuash

As any reader of this blog will know, I *love* mountains. And the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen are in the Cordillera Huayhuash, in the Peruvian Andes. The nine days I spent hiking there in the summer of 2009 was just one long procession of staggering views of deep blue lakes, shining white snow-capped peaks, lush valleys and breathtaking sunrises.

My most popular post

Palm trees by the beach in Tayrona National Park, Taganga, Santa Marta, Colombia

The stunning beaches of Tayrona National Park, just outside Taganga

I had a lovely, relaxing time in Taganga, Colombia, but I had no idea how popular this post would be as it’s not exactly a huuuuge tourist destination. But two years on it’s still one of my most read posts each week, getting more traffic from Google than any other post of mine, as well as more referrals from Lonely Planet. It’s just about to top 5,000 views and shows no signs of slowing up yet.

My Most Controversial Post

Office towers in Bogota Colombia

Not the prettiest buildings in Bogota

I’m not really in the habit of writing controversial posts. But another post about Colombia really annoyed a local. She wasn’t happy about me slagging off Bogota, and got quite cross in the comments box. But hey, you can’t love everywhere, and I still think it’s one of my least favourite cities in Latin America. The rest of the country is lovely though.

My most helpful post

Hostel in Valparaiso Chile

The fantastic Patapata Hostel in Valparaiso, Chile

Based on which links people click on, then my most helpful post by far is this one about my favourite hostels in Latin America. I was just trying to give a little love back to the owners of some of the amazing places I stayed in during my seven months there, and it’s nice to see that over 1,500 people have clicked through to their various websites.

A post whose success surprised me

Rice Terraces in Banaue, the Philippines

Rice Terraces on the road from Banaue to Sagada

I was quite pleased with my post about Sagada, in the Philippines when I wrote it. I certainly never expected it to be my first post to appear on the WordPress homepage. It gave me easily my biggest one day traffic to date, and also got the post more comments than usual. I have a feeling it was the photo of the stunning rice terraces that did it.

A post which didn’t get the attention it deserved

Swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines

On a post whale-shark high

Generally my posts about the Philippines did really well – but weirdly, the one about my favourite experience in the country, snorkelling with whale sharks is one of my least-viewed posts of all time. Reading back, I’m not sure I quite got across quite what an incredible experience it was.

The post I’m most proud of

Guanajuato from above Mexico

Guanajuato - my favourite town in Mexico

Impressions of Mexico was my attempt to sum up why I completely fell in love with Mexico during my seven weeks there in 2009. There are so many things I adore about the place, and even though I visited a further 18 countries on my round the world trip, it’s still my favourite. Lots of negative news reports have put lots of people off visiting the country, which is a real shame, as most of it is still very safe to travel in, and I’ve always hope this post can do a little bit towards combatting some of those negative perceptions.

…and the final part of the My 7 Links game is that I’m supposed to nominate 5 other bloggers to take part, but I can only think of two other travel bloggers I know who haven’t done this yet so that will have to do for now.

Jillian & Danny from I Should Log Off
Gillian from One Giant Step

Now that felt like a nice way to start writing again, promise it won’t be so long next time, as writing this has got me going again and I now have four more posts coming up, starting with my recent trip to Austria and Slovakia.

My Olympic Obsession

I have to admit, I am becoming slightly obsessed with the Olympics. Last week marked 500 days before they start, a date marked by the erecting of giant Olympic rings at St. Pancras station, the tickets going on sale, and a slightly crap-looking countdown clock appearing in Trafalgar Square (which, in typically British fashion froze on the same day). I’m starting to worry that if my current levels of excitement carry on for the next four hundred and ninety-odd days I’ll be exhausted by the time they actually kick off.

London Olympic Stadium

The main stadium...not quite as lovely as Beijing's

It’s been building slowly for quite a while. My earliest Olympic memories, from 1984, when I was 9, are all Athletics-related, thanks to my Dad being a big fan of the sport, and the big British successes (Daley Thompson’s memorable Decathlon win, and the epic battles between Steve Cram & Seb Coe in the 1500m, and Tessa Sanderson vs Fatima Whitbread in the Javelin). I carried on mostly watching the Athletics over the next few years, and it wasn’t until Sydney in 2000 I started to watch a much bigger range of sports.

By the time the vote took place in 2007 to decide whether or not London would get to be host the obsession had well and truly kicked in – on the day the announcement was made I spent a big chunk of the afternoon at work sharing a pair of headphones with the only other colleague who was interested listening to radio trying to find out if we’d won, and when the vote finally came through we both screamed, getting us some filthy (and rather confused) looks from the rest of the office.

By the time Beijing came round in 2008, I watched as much as I could – my interest obviously being helped by the best modern performance of the British team, including in more obscure sports (who knew I could I could get so excited by Taekwondo or Modern Pentathlon?). I even managed to get enthusiastic about sports with no British interest, like Handball (more fast-paced and exciting than Football) and Water Polo (admittedly helped here by the fact this one wins my vote for the fittest men). In fact by the end of it I’d watched at least a little bit of every sport except the Volleyball (and only because the BBC never seemed to show any of it).

After a break in following the build up while I was away travelling, I’ve been following the news closely ever since I got back, devouring every update I can find, from the high-profile stuff like what they’re going to do with the Olympic stadium afterwards (as an Athletics fan I am VERY glad they’ll be keeping the athletics track) to the bits of little interest to anyone but Olympic-geeks like me (the anxious wait for host-nation places for the Brits in sports which we’re still working out how to play, like Handball).

I’ve now made three pilgrimages out to Pudding Mill Lane to watch the progress in the Olympic Park (there’s a fantastic close-up of the main stadium and aquatics centre from the nearby elevated Greenway, best viewed from the temporary cafe there which also, helpfully, does the finest bacon sandwich I’ve found in London), and will be back again over the coming months to watch, intrigued to see if the main stadium will continue to look so dull, continuing to be angry that the temporary seating around the aquatics centre have ruined the view of Zaha Hadid’s gorgeous curving roof, and desperately hoping that the massive 115 metre high Anish Kapoor sculpture/viewing platform next to the stadium turns out to be as beautiful as his previous beautiful installations for the Tate Modern and Kensington Gardens and not as ugly as the drawings suggest.

London Olympics 2012 Aquatics Centre Swimming Pool

The Olympic swimming pool: lovely roof, shame about those seats

The main focus for my excitement right now is applying for tickets. Obviously I want to go and see as much as is possible, but it’s turning out to be both confusing and frustrating. Applying for Glastonbury tickets is like child’s play in comparison. That just takes lots of mindless but frantic clicking and refreshing. This is more like playing 4-dimensional chess. While blindfold. And not being able to see what the other player is doing.

Being interested in too many sports is the first problem, as there are far many things going on each day. Take Sunday 5th August for example. Do I want to try to watch the Men’s Pommel Horse final in the Gymnastics? Or the Cycling Sprint finals? Or the chance to see Ben Ainslie win his 4th consecutive gold medal in the sailing down in Weymouth? Obviously I want to see all of them, but they’re on simultaneously. Each time I think I’ve worked out a combination of events to apply for, I find I’ve left no room to apply for a sport I want to see. Or that I’ve chosen two consecutive sessions that are on opposite sides of London, which will be impossible to get between thanks to crowded public transport and slow security.

Then there’s the issue of how many to go for and at what price. The complexities of this issue are discussed in a lot more detail by my favourite London blogger, Diamond Geezer, here – and it’s well worth a read if you’re thinking of applying, as it covers all the potential pitfalls as well as the detail of the process. But basically any over-subscribed event becomes a lottery, and any under-subscribed event you’ll be guaranteed tickets. When you apply for tickets, you are committed to paying for ALL of the events you applied for, if your name comes up for each one. This is a potential nightmare – if I apply for too much (assuming I won’t get loads because they will be too popular) and get them all it could cost me thousands. If I apply for too few (to be more financially cautious) and get none I’ll be furious.

Then there’s the price issue – obviously applying for higher price tickets will give me a better chance of success, and a better view, but equally they risk breaking the bank (the best Athletics tickets are £450 for most events, for example). Despite building a rather impressive spreadsheet (yes, I am really that much of a geek) the permutations have been doing my head in.

I’m finally getting close. I think I’ve decided to apply for some higher priced tickets for my favourite sports (Gymnastics, BMX & Athletics), mixed up with cheaper tickets for qualifying rounds for a wide range of more obscure sports. The Athletics has been the hardest of all to choose – it annoys me as someone who’s been a fan of the sport all my life that these will be some of the hardest to get because of its status as the premier Olympic sport (to all those people applying for tickets for this: I ask you where were you when I was getting drenched in the rain at Crystal Palace on the wettest night of last summer watching the British Grand Prix???). But I’m praying that everyone else applies to see the 100 metres or the bits with major British interest like the Heptathlon or Triple Jump, leaving me to get good seats to see my favourite athlete, the American Allyson Felix, try to finally beat her long time rival, the Jamaican Veronica Campbell-Brown to gold in the Women’s 200 metres. They’re both incredible athletes, and Felix has three consecutive world championship golds – but has lost out to Campbell-Brown in both Beijing & Sydney. Should be an incredible race if they’re both there, and I desperately hoping to be there to see it.

I still haven’t worked out what to apply for yet (thank god the organising committee has given me 6 weeks to work it all out) and my current work-in-progress wish list would come to well over £1000 if I got everything I apply for – although increasingly I’m starting to think I’m quite prepared to pay that for this once in a lifetime opportunity to see the Olympics in my home city.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

When I found out that the revolving restaurant from the James Bond Film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was to be found in a resort just one valley away from where I was skiing I knew there was no way I could miss it. I mean, revolving restaurants are cool at the best of times (in a slightly cheesy 70s kind of way, but cool all the same). But a revolving restaurant at the top of a mountain is even cooler. And one that’s starred in a Bond film too? I had to see it.

James Bond Revolving Restaurant Schilthorn Switzerland

"Piz Gloria", the revolving restaurant atop Schilthorn

Getting there from Wengen turned out to be quite an adventure in itself – first of all we took the mountain railway all the way back down into the valley to Lauterbrunnen. From there, a funicular took us back up the other side of the valley, from where we jumped onto yet another train, heading towards the resort town of Mürren. We got off half way, and then took a chair lift up to a ridge, then skied down to a valley, up a second chair lift to the next ridge, and then skied down a beautiful, wide run all the way down to Mürren and the start of the huge cable car. This cable car takes you up to another mountain, with gorgeous views over the wide, main ski area. At the peak, called Birg, we then changed cable car yet again for the final leg, up to the peak of Schilthorn, the 2,970m high mountain that dominates the resort, and to our final destination, Piz Gloria, the revolving restaurant that sits right at the top.

Bernese Alps viewed from Schilthorn

View from the top

Once you get out of the cable car, there’s a little exhibition explaining the history of the restaurant, and it turns out that not only was it featured in the film, but that it was actually built especially for it. That’s quite some investment for a few short scenes, there can’t be many other iconic buildings like this that were just created for one film, can there? There’s also a little cinema showing the film (which we skipped – even though I’ve only seen the film once I figured I could always watch it again when I got back home). Then it was time to head upstairs for the views – and they are spectacular. We were incredibly lucky to have yet another really clear day, and it turns out that the mountain is the perfect location for a revolving restaurant, for the mountain sits out on its own, unconnected from any mountains close to it in height, and separated by valleys from the higher peaks all around, giving a fantastic, wide open 360 degree view across the Alps.

007 view from piz gloria revolving restaurant

View of the Eiger, Jungfrau & Monch from inside the restaurant

The view of the beautiful trio of the Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau was far better than from Wengen in one direction, and in the other we could see all the way down to Interlaken and the wide plains in the distance. It was all quite stunning. After taking time to take dozens of photos, it was time to head into the restaurant itself for a nice warming coffee. They take their Bond seriously here – the 007 motif is plastered all over every window, and the restaurant menu contains a heavily Bond-themed selection of cocktails and desserts. All pretty cheesy but fun, and the views made the long journey all worthwhile.

Diana Rigg Bond themed dessert schilthorn switzerland

Bond-themed dessert

Unfortunately due to my lost confidence, and my friend Ed having a dodgy knee, we decided not to ski down the long lack run into Mürren, and instead took the cable car back down to Birg for a hearty lunch of big curly swiss wurst and a beer (my teenage years living in Germany have definitely left me with a love of Germanic sausages, mmm), before taking the long cable car / walk / funicular / ski / button lift / ski / chair lift / ski / train / funicular / train all the way back to Wengen.

Funnily enough, even though I did less skiing that day, it was probably my favourite of all my days in Switzerland. The mountain views have always been one of my favourite things about skiing, and the views from Schilthorn are the best I’ve seen in Europe. We didn’t spend that long skiing there, but I actually much preferred Mürren to Wengen, even if it is a bit smaller – the ski area was more open, and seemed to have a much wider variety of runs across different mountains and ridges than in the resort we were based in, where most of the runs are down one side of the same ridge.

It was only after we’d got back to London that Ed realised he’d also been skiing recently in yet another resort featured in a Bond film – the airport in Courcheval is featured in Tomorrow Never Dies, which made me think perhaps I should check out the other resorts that have also featured in the films – Cortina in Italy (featured in For Your Eyes Only) and Berngarten in Austria (For Your Eyes Only) – although it turns out that sequence was actually filmed in Canada.

You can see all of my photos of my Swiss ski trip here.

The Top of Europe

You’ve got to love the Swiss. Only they would be crazy enough to build a railway tunnel through one of the highest mountains in Europe just to take you to a lovely view. But I love the fact that they did, because it makes a fantastic half-day out from Wengen if you happen to be there for the skiing (or walking, if you’re there in summer).

Trains at Kleine Scheidegg station on the Jungfraubahn switzerland

Kleine Scheidegg - start point of the Jungfraubahn

Based on my visit though, it would appear that the trip to the highest railway station in Europe is of little interest to skiers – as I was the only one on my train. Maybe they think they’re getting a good enough view from the slopes, maybe they’re enjoying the skiing too much to take the time out, whatever the reason, I think they’re mad, it was a trip I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

St Bernard dog on a railway platform

Aw, cute

Being the only skier didn’t mean I was the only tourist though – in fact the train was quite full with an entirely different group of tourists, who it appears to come to the area just to visit the Jungfraujoch – Chinese & Japanese tourists. I first encountered them at Kleine Scheidegg station (where you have to change trains if you’re coming up from Wengen). It was pretty early in the morning, as I wanted to have a full afternoon of skiing, and so there weren’t many skiers around – but the platform was full of these tourists, mostly being photographed clustered around a stereotypical St. Bernard dog (complete with mini barrel around his neck).
Jungfraubahn tunnel through the Eiger

The tunnel through the Eiger

The journey up to the Jungfraujoch – the saddle between the neighbouring Mönch & Jungfrau peaks – takes quite a while, as the rack railways climbs steeply, up past the highest ski lift at Eigergletscher before entering the tunnel through the Eiger and continuing its steady ascent, on the way pausing for a while at two stations. The first, Eigernordwand, gave me a chance to get out and wander out to three huge windows cut right into the legendary North Face of the Eiger. 64 climbers have died since 1935 attempting to climb it, and today the windows have a dual function – as well as allowing tourists like me to get a view across the valleys, it’s also the start point for missions attempting to rescue climbers in trouble. The next stop, Eismeer, has spectacular views out over the Lower Grindelwald Glacier – from where you used to be able to ski all the way down to the town of Grindelwald, until it retreated in recent years.

Lower Grindelwald Glacier, switzerland, from Eismeer station

Lower Grindelwald Glacier, from Eismeer station

Finally we arrived at Jungfraujoch station, which at 3,454m high is the highest in Europe (and cheekily named ‘the Top of Europe’ in their marketing materials, which it clearly isn’t). For such a remote and beautiful location, the complex itself is surprisingly tacky – there are several very touristy restaurants, and an ‘ice palace’ carved into the glacier, full of cheesy ice statues of polar bears and the like. These distractions didn’t detain me for long, for I was only really there for one thing – to get outside and see the view.

Corridor cut through Ice at the Ice Palace, Jungfraujoch

The least tacky bit of the Ice Palace


The Jungfrau

It didn’t disappoint – with the Jungfrau and Mönch rising up on either side, and impressive views out towards Wengen and on towards Interlaken, and best of all, from the open platform at the top of the observatory you get a truly spectacular view over the start of Europe’s longest remaining glacier, the Great Aletsch.

Konkordiaplatz the start of the Aletsch Glacier

Konkordiaplatz - the start of the Aletsch Glacier

Right behind the Jungfraujoch, three small glaciers converge at the massive Konkordiaplatz, at which point the ice is estimated to be a full kilometre thick. The scale of it is ginormous – it covers a whopping 120 square kilometres, and bends away into the distance on its long, 23 kilometre descent towards the Rhone Valley. I’ve only seen tiny glaciers before elsewhere in the Alps & in the Andes, but this one is a monster, and it’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.

Aletsch Glacier, by MrUllmi on Flickr

Further down the Aletsch Glacier (by MrUllmi, on Flickr)

I stayed far longer than planned, it was so breathtaking, and headed back down amazed that so few of the people visiting Wengen or Grindelwald for the skiing make the effort to go up, especially when you consider that the cheapest way to visit by far is if you’re already skiing. Non skiers have to pay €133 return from Interlaken, which must be one of the most expensive train fares in Europe. Skiers with a 6-day ski pass for the area pay a massively reduced rate – about €40, which is still pretty pricey considering the distance, but easily worth it.

You can see all of my photos from my visit to the Bernese Oberland here.

Unlearning to Ski

After finding myself face down in the snow for the second time that morning, with my skis several metres behind me back up the slope, I began to realise I’d managed that rather impressive feat of actually unlearning to ski.

Wengen, Switzerland

Wengen from the mountain railway

It all started pretty well. I’ve been skiing a couple of times before, and while I’m clearly no expert I could get down most red runs without too much difficulty (if a little bit more slowly, and considerably less stylishly, than my friends) and had even tackled the odd black run on my previous trip in 2009. But I was acutely aware that my technique maybe left a something to be desired, so after a day of practising I decided to invest in a private lesson to sharpen my skills up a tad and hopefully move closer to my dream of one day being like the locals who effortlessly fly past you, looking elegant, entirely in control…and I would say cool, except for the fact that most of them still seem to be wearing hideous neon-coloured all-in-one ski suits left over from the 80s.

Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

The lesson began OK – after showing off my skiing on a nice easy slope, my instructor told me I wasn’t bad, but thought there were a few pointers he could give me. Unfortunately after that it went downhill pretty quickly – to the point, after about half an hour, where he suddenly stopped and asked me if I’d ever had any lessons at all. I was obviously mortally offended but could perhaps concede he had a point, seeing as he’d managed to point out I was doing pretty much everything wrong.
Moonrise over the alps

Moonrise over the Männlichen ridge

But, like a patient teacher dealing with a particularly stupid child, he gradually managed to get me skiing at a level which he seemed to find satisfactory (although it was hard to tell towards the end, as he was getting increasingly bored with my stubborn inability to get it quite right, and spent more time chatting to friends than he did watching me. In fact most of the time he was chatting to me was spent pointing out how bad most of the other skiers were, which was probably fair enough, although I’d rather he’d have just focused on me). In fact, by the end of the lesson I was feeling increasingly confident I’d made the right move having the lesson, and even though I was going more slowly than before, I was doing it better – and speed would surely come in time.

Sadly, finishing the lesson was the high point of the week skiing wise for me. By the time I hit the slopes on the third morning, I swiftly realised that I was mostly very confused. My head was full of new ideas about the right way to do things. Unfortunately my legs had an entirely different idea and clearly resented the intrusion of my brain and decided to do their own thing. I attempted to reassert control of my own limbs with predictable results, and ended up with my skis crossed on a particularly icy patch on my very first run of the morning and went flying, landing rather painfully on my right shoulder. After picking myself and clipping my skis back on, I carried on only for the same thing to happen not five minutes later.

After that I pretty much lost my confidence entirely and found myself getting slower and slower over the rest of the week, as I attempted to effectively relearn to ski. It didn’t go entirely well, and by the third afternoon even the novice skier in our group was overtaking me with alarming regularity. It didn’t help that the resort had had no new snow for well over a week, a situation that was made worse by the glorious weather – there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and it was particularly warm, leading to some slopes turning slushy, patches of mud appearing – and worst of all big icy patches where the overnight cold had frozen the melting slush.

birds on a tipi with blue sky

Even the birds were enjoying the sunshine

It wasn’t all bad though: Wengen is a beautiful resort, consisting of a pretty little village (much nicer looking than the ugly purpose-built resorts in France that I’ve skied in before) and even better all of the main runs are dominated by a stunning view of the Eiger. Plenty of the runs twist and turn through the trees, and the glorious sunshine meant that lunchtime in the mountain restaurants was lovely.

There was plenty more too to enjoy in the area (more on which in my next posts) and I didn’t come away to disheartened – despite my falls I enjoy skiing too much to let it get me down too much, and I shall be back on the slopes next year. Probably with a fair bit more time in ski school though, I think.

You can see all the photos from my ski trip to Wengen here.


Nicaragua in Pictures: Gorgeous Granada

A photo post about my backpacking trip to the beautiful colonial city of Granada, Nicaragua. Stunning churches, colourful buildings, crumbling ruins all overlooked by the dramatic silhouette of the Mombacho volcano. Continue reading

How to get up Volcanoes the easy way

Always fancied seeing a volcano up close but don’t fancy the sound of a strenuous two-day hike? Or scared of risking injury by having to slide back down on a plank of wood? Well don’t worry – Nicaragua have a volcano to suit every taste…

Volcan Masaya

Hiking in tropical temperatures with a huge backpack to see an active crater isn’t for everyone – so handily enough the Nicaraguans have built a road that goes all the way up to the crater of Volcan Masaya, with a car park right on the rim. Never mind the fact that the last eruption destroyed a few cars and injured one person, the chances of it happening while you’re there are probably pretty small. The active crater is nearly as impressive as the one at Telica (although admittedly not half as satisfying knowing you’ve sort of cheated)…although there was no lava on show while we were there.

Volcan Masaya Crater Nicaragua

Not guaranteed to be the safest place in the world to park your car

Masaya does have one relatively rare feature that can be explored – lava tubes. These are “natural conduits through which lava used to travel beneath the surface of a lava flow, expelled by a volcano during an eruption. When the lava flow ceased, the rock cooled and left a long, cave-like channel.” What this means in practice is a very long, narrow cave. Adrian & I got wander down with a guide (and torches, obviously) for several hundred metres, disturbing big groups of bats along the way. When we turned all the lights out, it was completely pitch black – with no light at all your eyes don’t adjust, with just the eery sounds of bats to deal with. Spooky.
Inside a lava tube at Volcan Masaya Nicaragua

Deep inside the lava tube

On the way back down we stopped off in the colonial town of Masaya, famous for having the best markets in the country. I have to say the main tourist market was rather disappointing, despite being in a beautiful old building – it’s very much run for tourists, and feels very sanitised compared to other Latin American markets I’ve been to. Much better was the chaotic and huge new market – which sells a similar range of goods (as well as pretty much everything else, including kitchen sinks no doubt) but is busier with locals and far more atmospheric. It’s a shame we didn’t get to spend more time in the city itself (our guide was in a rush to get back – if you go on a tour from Granada it’s worth insisting on spending a bit of time exploring the city, as it looked rather charming in a slightly run-down sort of way).

Volcan Mombacho

Scared of the dark? Worried about the risk of an eruption? Then perhaps Mombacho might be up your street. The volcano dominates the horizon of nearby Granada, and like Masaya there’s no need to hike – instead, from the entrance to the park, a great big trucks drives you up the very steep slopes to the top, from where you can go on a nice, gentle walk around the extinct crater. Being extinct, it’s a very different proposition to the other three we’d visited, as the whole volcano is very lushly forested, with a wide variety of beautiful orchids growing amongst the trees. Allegedly monkeys hang out there too – but unfortunately we didn’t get to see one (much to the disappointment of Adrian who hadn’t seen one in the wild before). You also get great views over the city, and across Lake Nicaragua (one of the largest in the world).

Ziplining on Volcan Mombacho

Upside down zip-lining - only mildly terrifying

The real highlight of Mombacho though is on the way back down – where we had the chance to have a go at the “canopy tour”, which is a posh way of saying a series of ziplines flying through the trees way above the ground. Over the course of 16 lines I think we must have managed pretty much every way of travelling – forward, backawards, upside down, flying superman-style amongst others – and it was absolutely fantastic.

Laguna de Apoyo

Laguna de Apoyo

Fancy a swim in a volcanic crater?

If even any kind of walking (or ziplining for that matter) sound a bit too much like hard work, then the Nicaraguans have one more volcano up their sleeve with would perfect for even the most lazy. Another short drive from Granada is the seven kilometre wide Laguna de Apoyo, which is a crystal clear lake in the massive crater off another extinct volcano. We were lucky enough to be staying in the lovely Hostal Oasis in Granada on the day their sister hostel by the lagoon, Paradiso, opened – and they provide a handy shuttle service to take you there. The Paradiso has a few rooms, a little restaurant, and best of all a lovely black-sand beach. We had a wonderfully relaxing day there, chilling out on loungers by the water’s edge, swimming in the lovely warm water, and even exerting ourselves a little with a gentle paddle out into the crater on the free kayaks they provide. It was the perfect way to end a fantastic two weeks in Nicaragua.
Kayaking on Laguna de Apoyo

A much more relaxing way to enjoy a volcano than hiking

You can see all of my photos of Masaya & Apoyo here

Little Corn Island

I may have been slightly disappointed by the volcano boarding on Cerro Negro, but as it turned out there’s a far better (and cheaper) way to get a huge adrenaline kick in Nicaragua – by visiting Little Corn Island, a tiny little island just off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast.

The flight over from Managua takes just over an hour, but drops you on neighbouring Big Corn Island, meaning that to complete our journey we’d need to take a boat. Which is when the fun started – for it turns out that November is one of the windiest months of the year in the Corn Islands. The journey began pretty smoothly as we headed out of the harbour, but as soon as we hit the open water it became clear that we were going to be in for a hell of a bumpy ride. The waves were pretty huge and of course we were riding into them head on. The result was the most fun boat trip I’ve been on – it’s a pretty small boat, and the bow kept being lifted right up out of the water by the waves before smacking hard back into them, showering the inside of the boat with water every time. It was like being in the log flume at a theme park – but more dramatic and a hell of a lot more fun. All the locals had cleverly nabbed the few relatively dry spots in the middle, meaning that by the time we arrived in Little Corn half an hour later all the tourists were soaked to the skin. Definitely one of the surprise highlights of the trip (although I am very glad indeed our backpacks were safely locked away from the water inside the boat.

It turns out we were very lucky indeed to even get there though – apparently the previous few days the weather had been so bad the boat was unable to make the run, meaning we’d have been stuck on Big Corn, which wasn’t quite as appealing. The bad weather had a few further impacts on our visit – unfortunately the most interesting dive sites are on the windward side of the island, and the waves were so big we had to stick to the leeward side, which has less interesting dive sites. When I went out it was OK – a pretty standard coral and fish type site, but it felt more disappointing as I knew on the other side of the island there are some amazing shark-filled caves and underwater canyons you can swim through, as well as another side where you can see Hammerhead sharks, which would’ve been cool. Still, it was nice to be diving again, my first time since Bohol in the Philippines back in February last year.

At least my experience was nice and relaxing – whereas while I was out diving, Adrian went out fishing with Tyler & Cassidy, the American couple we’d met while hiking on Volcan Telica – and in his infinite wisdom the local fisherman took them out on the windy side of the island, with the result that most of the boat got pretty seasick. I’m quite glad I stuck to being under the water rather than on top of it.

Luckily the bad weather mostly just meant wind, waves and the odd cloud – and not the rain that we’d feared. So we had plenty of time to chill out – and Little Corn was the perfect place to do it.

Little Corn Island

The island is pretty tiny – it’s just over one square mile in size, and only has around 1,000 inhabitants, meaning it’s the perfect place to relax. Other than diving or fishing, there’s little to do but lounge around on the beautiful, empty beaches, which is what we did. We stayed in the lovely Casa Iguana – a collection of little wooden cabins right on the edge of the beach on the eastern side of the island. It was fantastic being able to get up in the morning and wander out onto the balcony with a view over the Caribbean. The other thing I loved about the place was the collection of dogs that lived there. The whole island is more or less their playground, and one dog in particular decided to adopt us – he slept outside our cabin, and then when we got up he’d follow us round the island, often sitting under the table when we stopped for a drink somewhere (and then barking if he wasn’t getting enough attention – he was quite a needy dog), before leading us home again in the dark.

Corn Island Dog

The island is definitely not the place to go if you’re inpatient – life moves at a glacially slow pace there, meaning you normally have to wait a loooong time for food to arrive in restaurants, but it’s all worth it if you’re trying the local speciality. Other than tourism, the main industry on the island is lobster fishing – and that means Lobster is ridiculously cheap. On our last night we ate at Miss Bridget’s, a tiny (and easily missed – it looks more like a house from the outside) restaurant that we’d been told was the best on the island, and for $8 I had an amazingly fresh Lobster (we saw the chef’s husband bringing in the lobster he’d just caught on our way into the restaurant) grilled with a fantastic garlic sauce. In retrospect we should have just eaten there every night, it was so good (and so cheap) I could have eaten it again and again.

There was one exception to the normally laid back pace of life: because Saturday night on the island is party night. After watching yet another incredible sunset from our table in Cafe Tranquilo, the social hub of the island, the energy picked up with a pub quiz (which we won – and were rewarded with a free bottle of Flor de Caña, the absolutely delicious Nicaraguan rum) and then headed into the interior of the island to the one nightclub on the island. I can’t remember the name of it, but it was packed with locals and tourists dancing away to reggae (the former obviously doing it much better than the latter, a point I was painfully reminded of when two of the local girls tried to dance with Adrian & me. It was rather embarrassing. But luckily not all tourists turned out to be that bad – Cassidy’s dance moves were more than enough to put the locals in their place). After all that dancing we headed outside, where we were surprised to all be given a free plate of noodles. Maybe they’re worried that after all that dancing you’ll have worked up quite an appetite. Whatever the reason it’s not something I’ve ever seen before (and I think it was more appreciated by the dog, who helped us finish off all the leftovers).

Little Corn Island Caribbean sunset

We were only there for three days but I really fell in love with the place, and I’d love to go back some time, not least to experience the diving I missed out on.