Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Chasing The Icelandic Northern Lights

We went to Iceland in Jan 2014. This is a late post but one of our most memorable travelling experiences.

Our package included a northern lights boat tour. We were last to be picked up from our hotel so the boat was already packed by the time we got on. 

Grant and I stayed warm indoors at first. It was a basic ferry which reminded of us of our time cruising the Nile in Egypt. Except it had safety equipment and we were only on this boat for a few hours instead of days.

We pulled on puffy high visibility suits before going to the top deck. I was engulfed in mine but it had to be worn because it was minus 5 outside. We piled up on the roof with everyone else, holding cameras big and small, and the odd tripod.

That's when we realised that if you're serious about photographing northern lights, do not take a boat tour. The boat will never be still and you can't relocate quickly if there are no lights. 

For me who's only keen on seeing the lights, I didn't enjoy it. We were subjected to diesel fumes standing downwind from the exhaust pipe. It seemed like the ferry was just a way to sell booze while tourists see the northern lights. But the latter wasn't to be for us. 

There was almost 100% cloud cover. By some miracle, we saw a northern light in a window between the clouds for 10 seconds. It was vivid green and intensified before it disappeared as quickly as it came. Then there was nothing for the next hour and a half. 

The clouds remained and many retreated indoors to take advantage of the buy one get one free drink offer. I think they offered this to compensate for the lack of northern lights and being stuck out in the lake.

We got home around 12.30pm, exhausted but somewhat satisfied that we saw something however fleeting. 

The next night the sky was clear and we had a feeling the northern lights will show themselves. We booked a bus tour from our hotel. We recommend Rekajvec Excursions for their knowledgable guides and ours was funny too. Also if you don't see any northern lights, you can do another tour with them for free.

We were taken outside the city where there was no light pollution. We were back in Thingvellir National Park from the golden circle tour we took earlier in the day. 

I noticed random people standing in the fields waiting for northern lights. It was below freezing. At our first stop I wrapped our travel towel around my legs to block the windchill.

The moon was shining bright against the snow and ice. We faced towards the North Pole, waiting for the lights to appear. I could see a faint misty streak which wasn't a cloud but it didn't reveal to be a northern light.

After twenty minutes and no sightings, the bus driver turned on the engine and we were off to another location. We were taken to the viewing platform at the top of the lake Þingvellir. As soon as we got out of the bus, a man shouted: "We have northern lights! Look over there at the northern lights!" 

There was a huge scramble. Surely enough that misty streak I saw earlier was brighter and changing before our eyes. It moved towards us, spreading across the sky. I squealed with excitement. It's happening. Our instincts were right-tonight was THE night! 

The misty streak, now northern light, unfurled and unravelled it's tiny filaments. They drifted down towards the earth like "fingers". They were glistening and flashing pink and red. I ran towards the viewing platform in awe.

I was witnessing this celestial sky dance like I was on a psychedelic high.

The lights swirled and twisted, creating mini-rainbows. The lights intensified like they were pulsating. The stars were wallflowers to this party. 

People were whispering, almost as if not to scare the lights. Forty minutes later the lights turned back into mist and moved towards the Arctic like it was on its way home.

We got on the bus back to Reykjavik and everyone was checking out their photos. 

We didn't have a tripod so we were lucky to have captured some magical moments.

Monday, March 23, 2015

When Not To Take A Ski Route

No one will tell you this. We learnt the hard way in Bad Gastein. 

A ski route is an unpisted and unmanaged ski run for advanced skiers. We saw one and it looked good from the gondola up. That's when I thought I was ready for a challenge.

Oddly no one was taking this run and Grant was dubious. I told him we should try it once anyway and halfway down we released why he had his doubts. 

First there was a hard top layer of ice as the snow was melting and there were bushes sticking out. Then the coverage got so thin, it was nothing but BARE GRASS on the slope.  The sun melted all the snow and there was no way around the grass. As you can see there's a tiny ski route sign at the top which meant we hadn't gone astray. There was no way to "ski"down this ski route!

It took us half an hour of manoeuvring to get down this bit. We had to take off our skis and somehow not freefall in our ski boots. 

I had a bad memory of fracturing my arm because I slipped after taking off my skis in New Zealand.  

We threw down our poles and anchored ourselves to the ground by clutching onto our skis and digging them into the grass bit by bit. We made our way down until it was safe to butt slide down to the snow at the bottom. 

Take the ski route, she said. It will be fun, she said. 

So we learnt our lesson. If no one is taking the ski route, that's a good enough reason not to do it yourself. Unless you can ski on anything, and I mean ANYTHING.

It took half an hour to pull out all the twigs out of my boot buckles.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

What To Expect - Skiing In Bad Gastein

If you're visiting Bad Gastein of Austria, here's what to expect if you're skiing everyday like we did. 

The Pistes:
As mentioned in my previous post, skiing in Bad Gastein is terrific. The Stubnerkogel is open from 8.30am. There is a 140m suspension bridge at the top for a test of the nerves or it's simply an exhilarating lookout point. Most runs are wide, catering for intermediate to advanced skiers. 

My favourite piste in Bad Gastein is the B20 as it breaks away from the beginners and it's a long run down. From Bad Gastein you can ski to Angertal and Bad Hofgastein and back easily in a day. There's loads of powder in Schlossalm, waist deep if you're inclined to go off piste. It gets busy towards the end of the week so head to Dorf Gastein on those days. From Bad Gastein it was 35 minutes bus ride to Dorf Gastein and Sport Gastein.

Ski Hire:
We hired our gear from First Descent, opposite the train station. We booked online from the Skiset website. The staff were friendly and helpful. Sunday morning pick ups are really busy because of the changeovers on Saturdays. Come before 8.30am if you want to avoid the queues. It was cheaper to hire from First Descent and Intersport vs Sport Schober,at the base of the Stubnerkogel. 

I think you get what you pay for. Our boots looked like they were 5 seasons old although they were serviceable. My skis could have been more than 7 years old! The Sport Schober gear was more to date and it's convenient to hire from them if you plan to ski most days in Bad Gastein because they store you gear for free. 

We paid 16 EUR extra per person to store our gear and save us from lugging home and back. It worked out well because we ended up skiing most days in Dorf Gastein so we only had to carry our gear to and from the bus stop, just a few metres away. Slipping into Ugg boots immediately after getting out of ski boots alone is totally worth it!

Public Transport:
Salzburg is 1.5 hrs away and there is a regular direct train service to/from Bad Gastein. 

If you have a valid ski pass, you have free access to the shuttle buses and it's likely that your hotel is close to a bus stop. They can get completely full at peak times. Try to get a bus timetable from your hotel because I found the timetables at the bus stops are confusing. There are no English translations. 

The buses are well maintained and on time. Most people take their own skis/snowboards so it can be clunky getting on and off a crowded bus. Be aware of the last buses back to Bad Gastein. We missed the last one from Dorf Gastein and had to take a cab which cost EUR 38. 

The Town:
It's very hilly around Bad Gastein so walking into town is not recommended unless you have good snow boots. There are a few lookout points along the way so I liked walking back. In town there are restaurants although we didn't eat dinners out because our hotel was half catered. A word of warning is that in Austria, smoking is allowed in restaurants. Although the smoking areas are supposed to be enclosed, non-smokers won't avoid the smell completely. 

Bad Gastein has apres ski events and there are plenty of pubs and nightclubs. We didn't go to any as quite frankly, we're too old for that stuff. 

There is a large Spar supermarket in town and a few Billa supermarkets further out. There's plenty of fresh food and variety so you don't need to bring any food from home. More likely, you will be bringing back things from the supermarkets like we did! Our biggest regret is not buying more of the relaxing tissane we had when we got home everyday. Austrians like their tissanes and I can see why!

The Thermal Spa:
The Felsentherme is opposite the train station. There are thermal pools of varying temperatures. Two are outdoors and there are saunas and more pools on the upper floors. There's even a slippery slide that's not just for kids. 

When we went, it was snowing heavily. Fat snowflakes melted on our heads while the rest of our bodies were in hot water. The spa has a fabulous view of the surrounding mountains. You can roll around in the snow at any point you please. This was much to the delight of thrill seekers, especially in the strictly nudist areas. I think we saw it all. Naked cartwells, belly slides, writhing and smothering of oneself with fresh snow. 

You have to follow the rules in the spa. A lady will come into the saunas sometimes to check that people are lining themselves, feet and all with a towel. And don't even think about squealing when you tip a bucket of cold water over yourself after a sauna. We got told off for doing that although it would help if there were English translations on all the signs. 

The spa is rather pricey but worth going at least once. It was EUR 51 for two people for three hours including towel hire. You can bring your own towels and/or go in the last three hours of the day to save a bit of cash.

Many of the hotels in our area had a nice view. We stayed in Hotel Hirschen, cheap and cheerful. It's 15 mins walk away from Stubnerkogel and the train station. The bus stop is a minute away. Near to us was the beautiful waterfall where you can walk to and even hear faintly from the hotel. There's no lift and we were on the top floor but look at our view. Every morning it was different. Sunny, snowing and everything in between. We could watch the trains go by in the distance like it was a miniature village. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

7 Reasons Why You Should Ski in Austria

I've skied in Le Trois Vallees in France and Zermatt of Switzerland. As wonderful those places were, skiing can be pricey and crowded. 

For value for money and ease of skiing, my favourite places are in Austria. I've been to Ischgl, St Anton, and Bad Gastein. Grant has also been to Soll, Mayrhofen, and Zell am See. Our pick of all European ski fields is Bad Gastein, where we recently went skiing.

We booked a package with Crystal Ski for GBP 519 per person. That's seven nights half board accommodation, transfers and flights. All we had to add was drinks at the hotel, lunches, ski hire and lift passes.

So next time you book a ski trip, consider Austria. Here are seven reasons why.

1) Variety of Ski Resorts
The Ski Amade region, where we skied in Bad Gastein, is made up of 25 ski resorts. It's called Amade, because it's named after Mozart who was born in Salzburg. There are 270 lifts and 760 kms of pistes. Resorts are linked by either lifts or buses and it's all covered under the one lift pass. From Bad Gastein you can ski to Angertal and Bad Hofgastein. There are free shuttle buses to Dorf Gastein, Bad Hof Gastein and Sportgastein. 

2) Wide Open Pistes 
With more locals than tourists. Bad Gastein gets crowded on the later days of the week but if you go to the right ski fields, there are no crowds. My favourite area is Grossartal as pictured below. The resort is accessible via lifts from Dorf Gastein. It's the resort to go when it's snowing because there's lots of tree lined pistes for visibility. As I discovered, Grossartal is winter wonderland because the runs are so wide, it's almost impossible to go off piste! 

3) Low or No Lift Queues
I once queued for 20 minutes to get onto a lift in Les Trois Vallees. The wait, the ski shuffling and people crammed together is frustrating. But not in Austria. There's more skiing and low/no queuing. Chair lifts are fast and well maintained. Popular runs are serviced by six seated bubble lifts with protection from wind and snow. Sometimes they even have heated seats. We often got our own "private" gondolas and chair lifts.

4) Value for Money Food 
Forget paying EUR 16 for a crepe suzette in Courcheval. In Austria you can lunch heartily for under EUR 10. The best stomach filler is Tiroler Gröstl, which is a saucy potato hash with sausages/bacon and a fried egg on top. In Angertal, it was EUR 8 and that's all you can fill on your plate. Fancier meals like schitnzel and chips is EUR12-14. The quality of the food is excellent. My cheapest lunch was wurst with bread for EUR 3.80. At Grossarler Panoramastub'n, we had hearty goulash soup with wurst and leberknoedel soup with drinks for under EUR 20. That's far better value than a large goulash soup in Zermatt for CHF 20! 

And the kind bartender gave us free shots of schapps. Bless him!

5) Proximity to Salzburg
Transfer time from the airport to Bad Gastein is under 2 hours. Not bad considering it took us 4 hours to get from Lyon to Le Tania. Bad Gastein has a regular train service from Salzburg. It's only an hour and a half away. You can day trip to Salzburg if you wanted to a break from skiing.

6) Free Wifi on the Slopes 
There are 400 wifi hot spots around lift stations and huts. While it's slow around lunchtime (we did'nt use it any other time), free internet is a luxury if you're trying to stay in touch with people without international roaming.

7) The Town of Bad Gastein 
It's peaceful with a magnificent waterfall. We could hear it from our hotel room. There's a thermal spa ("bad"=bath) in the center of town to relax after skiing. They have an outdoor hot pool which you swim from the inside. When it's snowing, its added "bliss" because you can roll in it directly from hot pool or sauna!