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Monthly Archives: February 2017

Exploring Norway’s north on the Nordlandsbanen

A journey on the Nordlandsbanen will allow you to experience fascinating tales of the past, to be stirred by the power of nature, and to taste the fresh flavours of the region.

The journey

Though perhaps less well-known than the Oslo-Bergen train ride, the Nordlandsbanen, which stretches northwards for 729km between regal Trondheim and spirited Bodø, could certainly lay claim to being the more unique route. As well as being Norway’s longest train line, it also crosses the Arctic Circle, one of the few railways in the world to do so.

An efficient service and spacious, comfortable trains make it a delightfully sedate way to make the ten-hour journey, but it’s the huge diversity of scenery that’s most appealing. Gently rolling, emerald-green fields rest under huge skies, and Norwegian flags whip proudly over the pillar-box red hytter (cabins) dotted haphazardly over the hillsides. Moments later, the train will track its way through dense woodland, a wall of pine trees on either side of the train breaking just long enough to snatch a two-second-long postcard of mist haunting the treetops in a shadowy forest beyond.

Then, coasting out of a tunnel, the ground falls away to one side, and suddenly a 100m-high waterfall appears. Plummeting into a churning white froth below, the roaring deluge plays out silently on the other side of the train window. Such spellbinding scenes speed past repeatedly, and then evaporate into the distance, only to be replaced by another a few moments later.

All aboard at Trondheim

Before you board the train in Trondheim, take some time to explore the picture-postcard pretty city itself. The compact centre is relatively flat and easy to explore on foot or by bike. Marvel at the mighty Nidaros Domkirke, an ornate Gothic cathedral built on the burial ground of the much-revered Viking King Olav II, then linger as you cross over the quaint Old Town Bridge for views of the 18th-century waterside warehouses.

Trondheim’s old-world charm continues at Baklandet Skydsstasjon. Owner Gurli serves up hearty, homemade fare such as super-fresh fish soup and silky-smooth blueberry cheesecake. Wash it down with that most Nordic of spirits, the potent, herby aquavit: there are 111 varieties to choose from here. Meanwhile, across town, sleek Mathall Trondheim (mathalltrondheim.no) – part store, part bar-restaurant – offers a more modern take on classic Norwegian cuisine, serving up a variety of smørbrød and a good selection of craft beer.

Verdal for Stiklestad and The Golden Road of Inderøy

After a little less than two hours on the train from Trondheim, alight at Verdal for Stiklestad, the location of the famous battle of 1030 that saw the demise of King (later Saint) Olav. It’s now home to the Stiklestad National Cultural Centre, which hosts a variety of events throughout the year, and the 11th-century Stiklestad Church. This ancient place of worship was reputedly built over the stone on which Olav is said to have died.

Verdal (or alternatively Steinkjer, the next stop along) also makes a good jumping off point to explore The Golden Road – a route through traditionally agricultural Inderøy – which brings together a collective of sustainable culinary, cultural and artistic attractions, such as farm shops, restaurants and art workshops.

Swing by Nils Aas Kunstverksted, a workshop and gallery dedicated to one of Norway’s most celebrated artists. Aas’ famous statue of King Haakon VII stands near the Royal Palace in Oslo, but a collection of his pieces is also on display in a small sculpture garden just a few minutes’ stroll from the workshop.

Must-see Mosjøen

A further three-hour train-glide north brings you to diminutive Mosjøen, nestled in the imposing Vefsnfjord and surrounded by wooded peaks. The oldest part of the town, Sjøgata, is almost an open-air museum in its own right: saved from demolition in the 1960s, the beautifully-preserved 19th-century wooden buildings tell the tale of a historically prosperous town, of hardy fishermen and thriving sawmills, a story echoed at the small but informative Jakobsensbrygga Warehouse museum.

Nowadays in Mosjøen the main industry is aluminium, and a factory hums somewhat incongruously amid its pristine surroundings. Nevertheless, the surrounding hills of the Helgeland region beckon visitors to explore. Hike up the 818m-high Øyfjellet for spectacular views of the town and beyond.

Blink and you’ll miss it: crossing the Arctic Circle

From Mosjøen the landscape seems to change in preparation for the Arctic Circle crossing, as lush trees give way to the rolling, rocky terrain and barren peaks of the Saltfjellet mountain range.

With no defining geographical features to signal your passage across The Circle and into the chilly wilds of Arctic north, you may have to use your imagination. But keep an eye out for the two large pyramidal cairns either side of the tracks, and Polarsirkelsenteret, a visitor centre visible some distance from the train line, to indicate that You Were Here.

Last stop Bodø for street art, sky-gazing and the Saltstraumen

The final stop on the line, Bodø is a proud and lively cultural hub, with the world-class concert venue, Stormen, and an impressive clutch of murals painted all over the city by international street artists. One particular gem is After School by Rustam Qbic, a heart-warming homage to the aurora borealis that ensures the Northern Lights are always on show in Bodø.

If you’re not content with an artist’s impression, cross your fingers and hope to catch sight of the elusive aurora with your own eyes. The most vibrant sightings usually happen away from the light pollution of urban centres, but gaze skywards with a cocktail in hand on the balcony of Scandic Havet’s Sky Bar (scandichotels.com), and you might just be in luck.

End your journey on a high-octane note, by witnessing the fearsome force of the Saltstraumen, one of the world’s strongest tidal currents. Swirling into a frenzy every six hours, this furious maelstrom 33km from Bodø is caused by 400 million cubic metres of water rushing through a strait just 150m wide.

Winter sports in the Slovenian Alps

Unspoilt wilderness in Vogel

The only ski area situated within the Triglav National Park, Vogelbenefits from an almost unbelievably picturesque location, surrounded by towering mountains and with views over Lake Bohinj towards Mt Triglav, Slovenia’s highest peak. The terrain is unusually beautiful too – an array of snowy hillocks, which feels like skiing on the contours of a fluffy cloud or through a Renaissance vision of heaven.

Despite its relatively diminutive size (22km of pistes), the area’s varied topography makes it feel much bigger, and there’s a magical laid-back atmosphere, perfect for carefree coasting down the well-groomed blue and red runs. When conditions are right and there’s plenty of snow, it’s also a great destination for off-piste skiing and ski touring.

Most skiers stay down in the pretty Bohinj Valley, taking the high-speed gondola up from Ukanc, but there are restaurants, bars, ski-hire facilities, chalets and even a hotel up on the mountain.

Family-friendly facilities at Kranjska Gora

Uniquely for Slovenia’s major ski resorts, Kranjska Gora’s ski area is located directly adjacent to the village, allowing many of its hotels to offer ski-in, ski-out access. The piste layout is compact and straightforward, with several parallel lifts providing access to a range of side-by-side nursery, blue and red slopes. It’s a perfect proposition for families and beginners, as it’s virtually impossible to lose anyone and super-easy for parents to swing by and check on their kids in ski school.

Plenty of artificial snow cannons make up for the relatively low altitude, and night skiing until 10pm makes it easy to pack plenty of slope time into even a short visit. More advanced skiers can test their mettle on the steeper red and black runs over the hill in Podkoren, including a challenging world-cup downhill run that seems almost vertical in places.

Cross-border skiing at Kanin

Slovenia’s highest ski area, right on the border with Italy, Kaninreopened in the 2016–17 season after refurbishment of the cable-car connecting it to the town of Bovec in the Soča Valley below. In contrast to the Cold War era, when the border with Italy was guarded by soldiers with guns, skiers can now pass freely across into Italy thanks to a state-of-the-art cable car connection with the resort of Sella Nevea.

Kanin’s runs are sunny and south-facing, ideal during chillier conditions, whereas Sella Nevea’s north-facing runs come into their own as conditions warm up. The scenery on both sides is spectacular, with dramatic rocky outcrops and views all the way to the Adriatic sea on clear days.  Thanks to high altitudes of up to 2300 metres, conditions remain good into the spring, allowing the unique possibility of a combining winter- and water-sports in the same holiday once the rafting season has begun in mid-March down in the Soča Valley below.

Slovenian Alps Regional Ski Pass

Although most of Slovenia’s ski areas are relatively small, suitable for beginners, families and those on short breaks, a great option for more experienced skiers is to combine more than one resort in the same holiday, using the regional ski pass. This currently covers Vogel, Kranjska Gora, Krvavec (30km of pistes located close toLjubljana’s airport), Cerkno (a family-friendly area incorporating a thermal spa) and Dreiländereck, just over the border in Austria, and may be expanded to include Kanin in the 2017–18 season.

Though not a winter-sports hub itself, picture-postcard Bled, with its pretty lake and castle, is located just a 35-minute drive from Vogel, Kranjska Gora and Krvavec. You can get a great deal by buying your ski pass as a package with accommodation in Bled, with some three-star hotels charging as little as €69 for one night’s accommodation and a two-day lift pass.

Cross-country skiing and biathlon at Pokljuka

The Pokljuka Plateau is the perfect place to get back to nature, skiing through towering coniferous forests and beautiful alpine meadows, without the infrastructure and hustle-bustle of a major ski resort. The heavily forested plateau is situated on the eastern edge of the Triglav National Park at an elevation of around 1,100 to 1,400 metres.

What to do in Québec in Winter if You’re Not a Skier

Montréal

In place d’Armes, a historic square in Old Montréal, there is a pair of bronze sculptures standing on either side of the plaza. The first is a man clutching an English pug; the other is a woman holding a French poodle. The owners are turning their exaggerated noses away from each other, while the two dogs are staring at each other, eager to meet.

This take on Montréal’s mixed heritage says a lot about a city (and a province) characterized by dualities – it’s at once French and English, Québécois and Canadian, old and new, and all the more compelling for it. Montréal was recently voted the best city in the world to be a student, and with its laid-back attitude, hip neighborhoods, astonishingly good coffee, and lively drinking scene, it’s not hard to see why.

For an intimate exploration of the city’s streets, consider a local tour guide. Thom Seivewright (livinglikealocal.com) injects enthusiasm and knowledge as he shows visitors around his city. He tailors each tour to suit individual interests, but it’s worth asking him to show you some of the murals around boulevard St-Laurent, which are a riot of color and artistry.

The Laurentians

The Laurentian mountains are a one-hour drive or a slower bus ridefrom Montréal and are a paradise for winter sports freaks. There are few better ways to experience this wonderland of white than dog-sledding at the Kanatha-Aki activity center (kanatha-aki.com) at Val des Lacs. Brace yourself on the side of the sleigh as it careens through a maze of pines while a gang of huskies barks excitedly up ahead; the trees periodically open out, allowing you to drink in views of dramatic mountains or a snow-bordered lake along the way.

Skiers should head over to Ville de Mont-Tremblant – aficionados consider this place to be one of North America’s foremost ski destinations, and gazing up at the 968m namesake mountain, you won’t disagree. But this cheery little Alpine-style resort offers up a whole host of activities all year round. No longer a summer-only activity, specially designed ‘fat-bikes’ allow cyclists to take to the mountains all year round. You can rent one of these mountain bikes with super-wide tires at Centre Adventure Chalet des Voyageurs (tremblant.ca/plan/rentals/bike-rentals) and follow a signposted cycle trail. Full disclosure: operating one of these beasts on hilly terrain is not an easy task. But if you’re in reasonable shape, it’s a lovely way to escape the crowds of the ski resort and sample the icy beauty of the surrounding area.

Québec City

You can get to Québec City on a three-hour train ride from Montréal (viarail.ca). It’s a comfy, civilized journey, and on a sunny day, sitting back and soaking up the scenery is almost as good as being out there in it.

Where Montréal is all modern skyscrapers and asphalt, smaller and sedate Québec City features stone walkways and centuries-old fortifications. Your visit here will no doubt start in the Old Town, a confection of cobbled lanes and 17th- and 18th-century buildings huddled at the foot of imposing Cap Diamant. The crowning glory at the top of the cliff is Le Château Frontenac, which, with its striking green roof and dramatic turrets, looks too fancy even for your average fairytale. Staying here doesn’t come cheap but treat yourself to a taste of the high life by popping into its famous bar Le Sam (bistrolesam.com) and quaffing a cocktail. Outside, the Terrasse Dufferin offers glorious views over the St Lawrence River, and is also home to the Au 1884toboggan slide. Three toboggans can race down side-by-side, and the slide’s rickety demeanor only adds to the thrill.

Make sure you head out to Montmorency Falls, only 12km from the city center. These falls stand 30m higher than Niagara, but are narrower (which might explain why they’re less famous). A suspension bridge spans between them, offering views over the deluge that will enrapture and terrify in equal measure.

Practicalities

Winter is a fantastic time to visit Québec, but temperatures can plummet to -20˚C and you’ll only get the best out of your trip if you pack for the cold. Layers are key, including thermals, ski pants and jacket, fleece, lined hat, ski gloves and a decent pair of winter boots. Sunglasses and hand and feet warmers can also be a godsend.

Tom traveled to Québec with assistance from Destination Québec (QuebecOriginal.com), Laurentians (laurentides.com), Québec City (quebecregion.com), Tourisme Montréal (tourisme-montreal.org) and WOW air (wowair.co.uk). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

7 Spectacular Sunset Spots in Dubrovnik

Bird’s-eye views from Mt Srđ

Towering 418 metres directly above Dubrovnik’s Old Town, Mt Srđ is perhaps an obvious choice, but the views certainly deliver, stretching all the way across the Adriatic Sea to Italy on clear days. A four-minutecable-car ride, a short twisting drive or a brisk 45-minute hike up a serpentine path brings you to the top of the hill. As the sun begins to set, walk past the Napoleonic fortress to the barren karst plateau, where views of the Elafiti Islands bathing in a pink haze redefine infinity. Then toast the Old Town’s glowing terracotta roofs with a glass of local wine at Panorama restaurant by the cable-car station.

Picture-perfect views of the Old Town from St Jacob’s beach

This west-facing beach boasts full-frontal views of Dubrovnik’s Old Town from its vantage point a couple of kilometres to the east. The pebbles of St Jacob’s (Sveti Jakov) beach sit precisely 163 stairs beneath road level, so for a more serene and stylish arrival, inquire about boat transfers with any of the vendors at the Old Town harbour. The low-key beach restaurant makes St Jacob’s beach a great option for a full day of sunbathing followed by a million-dollar sunset view.

Paddle off into the sunset

If you’re looking for an active way to enjoy the Dubrovnik sunset, kayaking pioneers Adventure Dalmatia have the answer. Their three-hour sunset kayaking tours set out from the small bay below Fort Lawrence (Lovrijenac) and paddle beneath the monumental City Walls towards mystical Lokrum Island, stopping off at the striking Betina Cave beach for a snorkel on the way. The trip includes snacks and a glass of local wine to toast the sunset, and you’ll definitely feel like you earned it.

An evening stroll round the City Walls

Although Dubrovnik’s famous medieval City Walls generally close before sunset (with last entrance at 7.30pm in high summer and 3pm in winter), smart visitors come towards the end of the day when day-trippers have departed and the midday heat has begun to subside. Swallows rise for their last swirl of the day, dotting the Old Town’s red roofs with the hypnotic synchronicity of their flight. Start the two-kilometre anticlockwise walk around the walls at the Ploče Gate entrance to get the steepest climbs out of the way first and finish your visit with the best views out over the sea.

A drink and a dip at a hole-in-the-wall bar

Part of the adventure of drinking at Dubrovnik’s buža bars (literally ‘hole-in-the-wall’ bars) is finding them. After passing through Bošković square, you hit the City Walls and decide whether to turn left along the walls towards swanky Bard or right for the more rustic Buža. Either way, you’ll pass through a hole in the wall and emerge at a perfect sunset drinks venue perched on the rocks above the waves. Don’t forget to bring your swimwear if you want to take a refreshing dip from the rocks.

Sunset cruise aboard a three-masted ship

What could make you feel more like a VIP than sailing into the sunset holding a glass of champagne? It couldn’t hurt to do so aboard a ship that actually starred in hit TV-series Game of Thrones – the Karaka (karaka.info), a faithful replica of a 16th-century merchant ship. The 2.5 hour cruise includes a buffet dinner served at dusk. The route circles around the island of Lokrum and gives great views of the City Walls, all dreamy in the twilight. Departure times from the Old Town harbour vary according to sundown times, so double-check when booking.

Classy cocktails with a panoramic sea view

The Sunset Lounge bar at the Dubrovnik Palace hotel at the southwestern tip of the Lapad peninsula justifies its name in one swift glance. Enormous panoramic windows reveal a blissful backdrop: a vast expanse of deep blue sea, punctuated by the tiny lighthouse on Grebeni Island in the foreground and the Elafiti Islands on the horizon. To enjoy Mediterranean cuisine with your uninterrupted views, head down to the hotel’s Taverna Maslina restaurant. If you decide you’d like to stay, all rooms here come with a sea view. Otherwise, bus number 4 runs between the hotel and the Old Town until shortly before midnight.