Mashu-ko, Mashu-dake and Io-zan

By Paul S Bryers, September 2016

If you are based in Lake Kussharo or Teshikaga area you can spend a very rewarding day viewing Lake Mashu, climbing Mount Mashu and visiting sulphurous Mount Io. 

Lake Mashu is one of Japan’s most beautiful lakes. Formed following an enormous eruption that resulted in a huge caldera, Lake Mashu has precipitous sides and is towered over on the East side by Mount Mashu. In the center of the lake is the tiny Isle of Gods, the result of a volcanic plug within the caldera.

Start your day at Parking spot #1 off Route 52; the latter winds its way past the West rim of the caldera. The views of the lake and mountains are stunning. Then take the Mount Mashu trail and head East. On the way you will get great views of the surrounding mountains, as well as the birch forests rising out of the endless bamboo groves. It takes about 2.5 hours to get to the peak of the mountain, with the last 400 m being steep but manageable – just don’t look to your right and definitely not to your left. The views of the lake are terrific – the views into the secondary caldera of the mountain are terrifying.







It takes about 2 hours to get back to the parking area. Get back onto Route 52 and go North. Mount Io is about 8 miles away. It’s a little disappointing compared to the easily accessible volcanic areas in Iceland and New Zealnd, but it is every bit as smelly (sulphurous). Still, worth the visit as you are in the area anyway. The take Route 52 back to Lake Kussharo – you might want to visit one of the free hot springs on the way.

Hokkaido, Japan – Drive from Sounkyo Onsen to Lake Kussharo

By Paul S Bryers, September 2016

As you depart Sounkyo Onsen going South through the Layer Cloud Gorge be sure to view the Ryusei and Ginga waterfalls streaming down from the cliff tops into the Ishikari River. The recent typhoon in Hokkaido made sure that they looked quite spectacular. 


The drive on Route 39 starts well, with many towering peaks to view. However, once you cross the mountains and descend into the plains it seems to be one long strip mall for about 20 miles until you turn off onto the mountain roads again. It is all worth while, however, when you hit the Bihoro Pass and get your first view of Lake Kussharo in Teshikaga. This lake is the largest caldera lake (volcanic collapse) in Japan and the second largest in the World. Nakajima Island in the middle of the lake is quite stunning. The ph of the lake is 5 – quite acidic – so no fish, but plenty hot springs e.g., Sunayu and Wakoto Onsens. And best of all – this lake is where Nessie’s (i.e., Loch Ness Monster) sister, Kussy, lives.


Daisetsuzan National Park, Hokkaido, Japan

By Paul S Bryers, September, 2016

Daisetsuzan is Japan’s largest National Park. It is about 2-3 hours drive from Sapporo, dependng on your park entry point. We based ourselves in Sounkyo Onsen, which is on the North East border of the park. Highway tolls from Sapporo are about ¥3500 (~US $35)  – yes, tolls are expensive in Japan, but roads are very well maintained. 

The village itself is a bit tired, but the setting is terrific – right in the Sounkyo Gorge with the cliffs towering above and the river rushing through. 

There are a number of hiking opportunities in the Sounkyo area, but the best idea for a day hike is to take the ropeway from the village to Kuro-dake “5th Station” (¥2200 ~ US $22 return) and then walk 10 minutes to take the chairlift to Kuro-dake “7th Station” Ski hut (¥600 ~ US $6 return) at 1520 m high, and then to follow one of the trails. We hiked up to the top of Mt. Kuro-dake (1950 m) and then to Ohachidaira viewpoint (2075 m) which offers incredible views of the Ohachidaira volcanic crater. It takes 3-4 hours to the viewpoint and then 2-3 hours for the return trip. And of course you have to have a good soak in the (very) hot springs after you get down from the mountain. The springs at our hotel (The Grand) were excellent. 






Beijing Outskirts – Huanghuacheng Section of The Great Wall of China

By Paul S Bryers, September 2016

Our guide Sucre, of the Chinamango travel agency (contact Jet Liu), provided a terrific excursion to the Huanghuacheng section of the 8,800 km long Great Wall of China. This section is about 60 km North of the center of Beijing – takes about 1 hour 45 minutes to get there by car. You can get a bus, but realistically you need to get a car and driver. It is worth the extra expense to see this wild part of the wall with zero tourists around. 

Most parts of the wall are sensitively restored, with other parts unrestored and crumbling through weathering and plant damage. It’s a bit of a short, steep climb to reach the wall from the roadway, but well worth the effort. The views South towards Beijing and North/North West to the mountains, behind which lies Mongolia, are magnificent. 

Once on the wall, walking along it is fairly easy, although some parts have steep sections, either with or without steps. Make sure you have shoes with good grip and take plenty water and  insect repellent.

Some folk talk about building a wall on the US Southern border. Personally, I do not think that this is a good idea. However, if you are going to do it, make sure it will look beautiful, last at least 2000 years and in the future become one of the worlds wonders…


Short Two Night Castle Experience in and around East Coast and Royal Deeside, Scotland

Having always travelled to the West Coast of Scotland while on vacation, it was time to investigate east of Inverness to see some famous castles. First stop, under 2 hours from Inverness, is Fyvie Castle. This National Trust property has terrific gardens (free of charge) and has a long history, reflected in the architecture. The original castle can still be seen in the two towers that rise above the exquiIte gardens. It is well worth doing a tour of the the castle itself – (£12.50 per adult: weekdays guided and weekends self-guided). Look out for the music room with the splendid tapestries – very good place for a classy wedding.  

Next up was Dunnottar Castle. En route, have lunch at the Ythank Hotel, Methlick – great traditional pub food with friendly locals. You can stay in Stonehaven for the night, it is just a short coastal walk to the castle – The Ship Inn is a good option for B&B and dinner with a great view of the harbor. 

And now for the big hurrah – Balmoral Castle, private summer residence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. This is a wonderful experience – just £11.50 per adult. Exquisite gardens – floral and vegetable. As for the Castle itself, you only get to see inside the Ballroom, but even from that you get a feel for the small scale, private splendor that makes this the annual retreat for QE2 and her family. And yes, there is a corgi trail for the kids to follow. After Balmoral, a trip to Braemar Castle is in order, and a walk along the Queen’s Drive with a follow up walk to Lion’s Head is very rewarding

And finally, stay the 2nd night in Ballater, a Royal Deeside town – in fact, The Royal Deeside town. You must stay at The Auld Kirk (try for Room 4) where you sign in at The Pulpit and enjoy your breakfast under the stained glass windows. Then enjoy dinner at The Lochnagar Indian Restaurant – great ambience. 

Rise early and do an easy 3 hour walk around Loch Muick – wear a deer stalker and plus fours as it is still on QE2’s Balmoral Estate. And finally, finally, a wonderful drive through Cairngorm National Park back to Inverness.

Snæfellsjökull National Park, West Iceland

By Paul S Bryers, August 2015.

We awoke to a wet and cloudy day, but the circular Stykkisholmur – Snæfellsjökull National Park – Stykkisholmur was on our itinerary for the day, so off we set in our 4WD. This route has much to offer, including many spectacular – wait for it – yes, waterfalls and mountains!

First stop was Grundarfjordur fishing village, where the Saga Center folk offered some nice hot coffee, with free refills, and sound advice on what to see/do in the area (should you be so lazy as not to already have a detailed agenda for the day). There are many local hikes. It is important to listen to the center’s advice about individual hike difficulty and safety – these are dangerous mountains.

Next up was pretty little waterfall close to the towering Kirkjufell. While Kirkjufell translates to Church Mountain, I think the mountain looks more like the talking Sorting Hat from Harry Potter – Griffindor! It was 8 C with a brisk wind so we were freezing – for Icelandic Summers remember to bring your woolly hat and gloves; thermal underclothes probably not a bad idea. 
    
 
Even though it was only 11.25 am, it was time for some of Anna’s famous fish soup at Gamla in the very small town of Rif – delicious!

The main scenic route in the National Park starts at Route 574 at Hellissandur, where you begin to skirt the rugged slopes of Snaefellsjokill volcano. We started to see lots of lava spurs coming down from the mountain, and many lava fields. We then took Route 579 (dirt track) to Skardsvik golden sands. As it was August, there were hundreds of Arctic Terns feeding their babies – quite the sight! 

    
   
We continued on the dirt track and then took a left onto another dirt track for Vatnsborg crater carpark. From the carpark, we walked for about 2 km through a somewhat tortuous lava field, spotted with mosses and alpine plants, until finally reaching the crater. It’s small but you get the feeling that something big happened here about 1000 years ago. 
    
    
 
After returning to our car, we went back to first dirt track and turned left and drove to the end of the road to Svortyuloft bird cliffs – impressive! And a nice light house. 

    
 
After the cliffs, we turned around and went back to Route 574. We went south on Route 574 and then followed the marked turn off to Saxholl crater. It is a quick 100m climb to the top for great views of lava flows. 
    
 
We continued south on Route 574 and then turned onto Route 572 to the black sand beach at Djupalonssandur (car park and toilets). 
   
We continued on Route 574 to Arnarstapi, which is the best place to organize snowmobile or snowcat glacier tours up the volcano/glacier. As there was quite a bit of cloud and the real possibility of hypothermia, we decided not go up the volcano and instead we walked part of the beautiful Arnarstapi to Hellnar coastal hike (3km return).  We had good views of the volcano below the cloudline, with lovely twisting lava tubes. 
    
    
    
 After that we continued West on Route 574 and headed back to Stykkisholmur.
The day was completed with an excellent dinner at Sjavarpakkhusid (we had fish soup followed by local blue shell mussels).
So, that was Snæfellsjökull National Park and Surrounds. 

Celebrity – Down Under

By Paul Bryers, 2015

New Zealand, or Scotland on the other side of the world if you like, is always associated with the outdoors, wilderness, extreme sports, etc – so why on God’s good Middle-Earth would anyone go there on a 2 week cruise? Well, for us it was because this was going to be our first trip of many to The Land that includes Mordor, so we thought why not make life simple and have a consistent base – the Celebrity Solstice.

We started our adventure off independently with a few days in Auckland, including a pretty good New Year’s Eve featuring fireworks from the top of the infamous Skytower (you can bungie jump off if you feel so inclined). Auckland is a bike friendly city and fun to cycle around, especially southwards along the coastal bike path. There are hills if you want them, well, volcanic cones, actually. Also, go to the nearby islands – Waiheke for biking and vineyards and Rangitoto for a short hike up the volcano.

Our 2 week cruise would take us along the East Coast of the North Island, then along the East and Southern Coasts of the South Island, and finally off to Tasmania, Melbourne and Sydney.

Our first port of call was the Bay of Islands, north of Auckland. We spent the day on an old tall ship, visiting remote areas and small islands – a great day out on the high seas!
  

Next port was Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty, south of Auckland. As usual, Celebrity offered a great variety of shore excursions, but we decided to go independent and Heli-tour to White Island – an active, and I mean ACTIVE, hydrostatic volcano – about 30 minutes flying time from Whakatane Airport. This trip is not for the faint of heart – stick with your guide and follow in their footsteps. Apparently, the whole place can blow without warning. You will need to wear trendy gas masks thanks to the copious amounts of carbon monoxide and sulphur gas – phew!

  

Continuing south, we reached Wellington. What a setting! A hip place. Go see the fur seal colony out at Otaki. 

  

We continue southwards to Akaroa, which has been the cruise port for Christchurch since the last earthquake devastated the city. This area is the gateway to the Southern Alps. We took the Transalpine Express from Darfield to Arthur’s Pass, followed by a jet boat ride on one of the local rivers.  A very exhilarating day!     

  

Next port was Dunedin. What can I say other than it is a Northern Scottish town with funny accents – very beautiful. Go kayaking in the bay and talk to the fur seals.   

Our final days in NZ were spent cruising around The Sounds – Dusky, Doubtful and, of course, Milford. Just incredible, incredible and incredible……….Waterfall after waterfall………      

We were then off to Australia – Hobart, Tasmania followed by Melbourne and Sydney – but that’s another story.

So, our first trip to the Land that brought Hobbits to life was a great success. And yes, we have booked to go back in December 2015 for about 25 days. No cruising this time though. Instead, we have a sturdy SUV and a road plan that will take us from Queenstown to Picton via the mountains and West Coast. Can’t wait!

Torla, A Great Base Camp for Exploring Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park, Pyrenees

By Paul Bryers, 2014

Torla is a small village located in the Province of Huesca in the Aragon Region of Northern Spain (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torla). It can only be accessed by the N-260 from Broto or from Biescas through the port of Cotefablo. We were lucky enough to stay there in August of 2014 for five nights, and used it as a base for exploring the nearby Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park. Our accommodations were in the Hotel Villa de Torla (http://www.hotelvilladetorla.com/index.aspx), which turned out to be an excellent choice. The hotel is located right in the center of this little mountain village. The rooms were very clean and well appointed. We had a suite on the top floor with an incredible view down the valley and a big Jacuzzi that came in handy each night after a hard hike – for some reason you could not go in the Jacuzzi without a glass of wine. Fluffy robes and towels were also aplenty. Hard life. The hotel has a nice outside pool with views down the valley and up to the mountains. Breakfasts were very good, with different home made pastries each morning. We only had dinner at the hotel once – it was OK but nothing special. However, there are a couple of good restaurants in the village, but you have to book in advance – good was Asador (http://www.apartamentostorla.com/es/restaurante-la-cocinilla-torla.aspx) and excellent was El Duende – The Goblin (we ate there twice – http://www.restauranteelduende.com). The latter was certainly the best restaurant in the village and surrounding area – maybe in the Pyrenees! The calamari was fantastic, as was the wild boar. Which reminds me, just after we left Torla to drive to Barcelona (about 5 hours), a boar ran out of the mist and in front of the car! It was a big, to be sure. Back to Torla -there are two small supermarkets in the village – the one furtherest from the village center is the better of the two. Stock up here with local rolls and fruit for a lunches on day hikes, and don’t forget water.

Torla borders France, but lacks a road connection with it, and is one of two gateways to the National Park. In summer, when access to the Park is restricted for private vehicles, buses leave from Torla just below the Hotel Villa de Torla. The information center at the bus station can advise you as to the various hikes. If you are of average fitness you will have no bother with most of the hikes, but be aware that some of the trails go along narrow mountain ledges so if you don’t like heights check this out before you set out. There are some great waterfalls as you ascend each hike, and the views are terrific!

Isle of Arran, Scotland

By Paul Bryers, 2014

Situated about 1 hours drive from Central Glasgow followed by 1 hours sail from Ardrossan, the Isle of Arran offers great opportunities for scenic drives, cycling, walking, hiking and generally lazing around – depending on your needs and disposition.

We went there for 5 days in August and had a great time. There is a wide choice of accommodations and eateries – the former go from very basic to lavish, while the latter go from Do Not Eat There to excellent.

The Cal-Mac Car Ferry trip from Ardrossan on the Mainland to Brodick on Arran is only about 50 minutes, but it can be quite rough and breezy, so make sure you have your mac with you. Some people like to stand on deck and get blown around…

IMG_5811

We opted not to stay in Brodick itself, which is the main town, but rather stay in Lamlash Bay, which is just a few miles round the headland. Our accommodations were in the Lamlash Bay Hotel, which were adequate. The beauty of Lamlash Bay is the view of the Holy Isle, which rests just off shore. It’s also a good place to view rainbows. In addition, you can take an hour long Zodiac ride around the Isle to see sea birds, dolphins and seals, as well as have sightings of rare animals on the Holy Isle, such as Wild Eriskay ponies, Soay sheep and Saanen goats.

DSC_0005IMG_5841IMG_5902

Visit Brodick Tourist Office, beside the Cal-Mac Car Ferry Terminal, to get a full description of Island activities. There are some great walks/hikes, including a guided walk up Goat Fell, which is the highest point on the Island (873.5 meters; 2,866 feet). A visit to Brodick Castle, for a briefing on Island history, and Arran Aromatics, to stock up on smellies like soap, body wash, creams, etc., are a must.

There are plenty of places to do lunch and dinner on the Island, but we prefer to make our own lunch on the beach or in nearby field filled with smelly sheep, and then splurge at night time. I was the lunchtime chef, making good use of a small stove, bread rolls and tins of baked beans or ravioli, with a little help from my mother. Families are also good for giving directions.

IMG_0089 DSC_0010

We had dinner in number of good places, but our favorites were GlenIsle Restaurant in Lamlash Bay, and the Brambles Grill and Douglas Hotel Bistro, both in Brodick. Check out my reviews of eateries on TripAdvisor – http://www.tripadvisor.com/members/542PaulB

Preparation is Everything

By Paul Bryers, 2014

Dear Future Readers: So, I have my new travel blog infrastructure set up. Not too difficult. My first trip to be entered will be to NYC on November 14. You just can’t wait to see what i write – yes? Here is a nice little photo from my last trip in Northern Spain. Just for fun.

IMG_0042