Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Frodo's Summer Place

More from our intrepid correspondents, Gary and Lorraine. This time they provide a great guide to hiking in Norway.

It turns out that Peter Jackson got it wrong. His love of the southern hemisphere kept him from seriously considering the very best location for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, much to his detriment. But if you want to see the place where Frodo and Gandalf, as well as the Vikings would feel most at home, then you must avoid the South Island crowds and come to up-country Norway.

[Remember that Tolkien himself was a big fan. The recently published “Legend of Sigrud & Gudrun”, written before any of the Middle Earth books, retells a classic Norse legend and contains many passages that were later put to use in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.]

Yes, I know—mention a vacation in Norway and we all think of the fjords, and in fact they are every bit as breathtaking as we ever imagined. Our rental house was directly on the Aurlandsfjord, a branch of the biggest fjord in Norway. Hundreds of kilometers from the sea, this saltwater body plays host to schools of dolphins and a wide range of sea life thanks to its tides and depth (in some areas, nearly a mile). We looked across the fjord at a topography that varied from steep cliffs with Norway pines growing impossibly out of cracks, to sheer rock faces with cascading waterfalls originating at the snowfields that were still visible if you looked up.

However, those characteristics also create a friendly environment for those massive floating high rises known as superliners . Despite their 10 storeys of staterooms and roof-mounted waterslides, even these ships are rendered insignificant by the surroundings. And, if you time your fjord-level touring for days when the liners are elsewhere, you can have quite an authentic experience getting to know this world heritage site without the attendant onslaught of hundreds of camera-snapping cruise passengers intent on winning the “number of photos per port” competition.

Indeed, when we come back next year (and we will), we will rent kayaks at the little-known and unadvertised site at Gudvangen on the narrowest fjord in Norway, and put in at the isolated towns and verdant grasslands that line the beaches on both sides. From our observation, two kayaks at a single beach clearly constitute a crowd.

But it is up country – beyond the reach of the passengers who must be back at the dock at 4 for a 6:00 pm sailing – where the crowds truly end and the magic of Middle Earth begins. Let us tell you about one excellent day as an instructive example.

We started the day inauspiciously in Flåm, a cheesy tourist town dedicated to the cruise boats with nothing to recommend it save the Flåm railway, the Flåmsbana. The hard working railway rises 800 meters in 20 km, and so takes you to the Norwegian treeline in a bit over an hour, with magnificent views all the way. It also has the distinction of being a completely self-sufficient, energy-wise (halfway up the mountain we passed the hydroelectric plant built on a year-round waterfall that supplies all the electric power needed for the operation).

Take the first train in the morning at around 8:30, which often leaves before the cruise liners have finished docking (you can buy your tickets the night before, but not, as they proudly proclaim, on the internet). We did so and alighted at Vatnahalsen, near the end of the line, and within seconds we were alone, and very much in Middle Earth. Our chosen trail (a section of what was originally a supply trail for those building the Oslo-Bergen railway a century ago) took us along the shores of three pristine alpine lakes, each at a higher elevation, and emptying into the lower one through a dramatic waterfall. It was so perfect that we imagined them to be a water feature carefully built in the back garden of some upscale giant. We were high enough at the first lake to be above the evergreen line, so we were surrounded by airy birch forests that would have make Galadriel feel right at home. Rather than block the sun, birch seems to amplify it and add subtlety and a certain otherworldly quality.

Like Frodo, a morning of walking always made us a bit peckish, so by the time we had made our ascent to the second lake, our minds began to fill with cravings for second breakfasts, or at least elevenses. Alas, this was a wilderness trail - no guide book, no topo map had so much as mentioned any culinary establishment along the entire trail. Should we raid our lunch stash early, or soldier on until the crack of noon?

Imagine our surprise and delight, then, as we emerged from a section of forest, and there, on the lakeshore ahead of us, was Seltuft, the establishment of one Sue and Anders Fretheim ((the lone white house in the photo above). On the shore of the lake, at the base of a spectacular waterfall (with another dozen visible in the surrounding mountains), the place surely possesses one of the top ten locations of any eating establishment on earth. While sheep grazed contentedly by the barn across the track, the front yard hosted a couple of cyclists consulting maps and fixing a flat at the scattered picnic tables and stone seating. While perhaps not destined for a Michelin star, Seltuft was a Norwegian hiker’s Valhalla, with good hot coffee and what the signs said included “is, vaflen & øl, etc” (ice cream, waffles and ale). Sue fired up the waffle maker for us, and we drank our coffee while Anders answered our questions about fish in the lake (plenty of trout), and told us the sad story of the Norwegian salmon fishery. Almost extinct, he said, thanks to salmon farming, which delivers antibiotic-laden fish to your table while assuring that healthy wild salmon catch the increasingly drug-resistant diseases of their farmed brethren, and die either from them or the pandemic infestations of sea lice, also from the farms. We vowed never to eat farmed salmon again, and we headed back to the trail thinking that Norway was better for thoughtful, curmudgeonly innkeepers like Anders.

From Seltuft, the trail wound up the edge of a narrow canyon, strewn with boulders that had once calved from the cliffs above, which now formed obstacles in the class 5+ rapids below us. The monolith-sized rocks could have easily hidden an army of orcs, so we kept our guard up, just in case. But we were happy to be walking, taking in scenery which alternately reminded us of secluded lakes in New Hampshire or the Swiss Alps, trout streams in Montana, or the heather-covered dells of Scotland. We imagined that in many parts of the world, the breathtaking scenery would have been accompanied by admission fees, river tubing concessions, hot dog stands, gawking photographers and many, many signs declaring that the management was not responsible for you falling off the trail…but none of these were in evidence.

After lunch in a quiet glade above the river, we finished our ascent at the third lake, located incongruously on the far side of that main railway line high in the mountains. The tracks popped out of a tunnel on one side and back into one on the other, as if the planners had wanted to make sure that even their cosseted passengers didn’t miss this valley in their haste to get to Oslo. Finally above the treeline, the lake was surrounded by bald, lichen covered peaks dotted with snow (in August, mind you) and a mind-boggling assortment of cascades, rivulets and waterfalls. The quiet, nonstop roar of the falls was very much a part of the setting.

Returning the way we had come, we were treated to a new set of views down the valleys and canyons as we descended. Tradition, we felt, demanded that we check in with Anders on the way back, but this time to the accompaniment of a glass of a light Spanish red. He asked how far we had gone, and nodded in approval, as if to dismiss those newfangled mountain bikes parked in his yard as some technology fad. Hiking, now that was the Norwegian way.

Frodo, Sam and Gandalf would have approved…and in fact, as we left the inn, I could have sworn that I caught a glimpse of them sitting at a corner table, talking in low tones and planning their next adventure in Norway’s Middle Earth.

What you need to know

1. Norway is green for a reason. Bring wet weather gear, and be prepared for glorious sunshine and 20 degree temperatures, or rain and 10 degrees, even in August. In our experience, the occasional shower did nothing to diminish the grandeur of the surroundings, but rather enhanced it.

2. Aurland (a practical base of operations in the region, with an excellent hotel and a scattering of fjordside cottages for rent) is about 2.5 hours by car, 3.5 hours by train from the Bergen airport. Oslo, with more international connections, is 5-6 hours away. We suggest renting a car to give you the maximum flexibility to get to the trail heads and other points of interest.

3. Norway is expensive, especially restaurants and particularly wine at restaurants. If you are up for it and have the facilities to cook, buy your food at the markets. They are far more reasonable, and the state liquor stores, called the Vinmonopolet, have an excellent and competitively priced selection of bottled and boxed wines from all over the world at reasonable prices. A crisp sauvignon blanc poured from a Nalgene backpacker’s bottle may be inelegant, but it sure does go down well with charcuterie, wholegrain bread, olives and Norwegian Jarlsberg.

4. The country has an obsession with hot food at picnics, which means that you can pick up an A4-sized disposable charcoal grill at any grocery or convenience store. We found them very serviceable, although a bit too bulky to bring on a long hike.

5. The Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT) maintains a massive system of hiking trails along with serviced and unserviced cabins throughout the country, much like the Appalachian Mountain Club does in the US. Their website is quite informative, and their shop in Oslo carries every map and guide you could imagine. If you aren’t going to Oslo, you will find the Tourist Information offices in Aurland or Flåm carry a reasonable set of topographical maps and hiking guides for the area.

6. Norway’s laws concerning the right to roam are even more tilted toward the hiker than the UK’s. As a hiker, you can go just about anywhere you please, across anyone’s land, as long as you do no harm. Not surprising that hiking and cross-country skiing are the two most popular outdoor pastimes in the country.

7. For those with a hankering for an adrenaline rush (or with teenagers with excess energy to burn off), the trail we took is part of a system which can be ridden on a mountain bike. The trail, which descends all the way to Flåm, is identified by Lonely Planet as the steepest bike trail in the country. Truly a white-knuckle ride, and don’t expect to see much of the scenery on the way down – you will be totally focused on staying alive. You can rent bikes at Finse at the top of the run, and return them when you get to Flåm, where they will have their brakes replaced after every use and shipped back up-mountain.

To see a map and slide show of Gary and Lorraine's Vatnahalsen hike, click here.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Monsoon Mumbai

No Crowds guest reporters, Gary and Lorraine of Trattoria dal Billy fame are at it again. This time we find them in India, as they put it, "an unlikely candidate for No Crowds."

What do John and Yoko, Alfred Hitchcock, Queen Elizabeth, Roberto Rossellini and Hillary Clinton have in common? Wait for it…wait for it…yes! Of course, they have all been guests at the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai. Having opened in 1903, the hotel has had plenty of time to see its share of royalty. But how on earth could such a destination qualify for this blog? A classic hotel in a crowded city of a very crowded nation? No crowds?

The answer lies in a single word: "monsoon". The common wisdom is that western and central India are to be avoided in July, when the skies open up and once again assure that this part of the world stays as green and verdant as Dubai (our current address) is brown. But Mumbaikars have a bit of a different attitude towards rain than, let's say, Londoners - they love it! As we watch from our room in the Taj's tower, people gather by the sea wall near the Gates of India, fervently hoping that the record high tides will send a wave crashing over the wall and drench them, which happens on a regular basis. Of course, they're already wet from the rain, but they laugh and cheer just the same.

The Monsoon Taj

But I digress. The point here is, the Taj during the monsoon is two things: uncrowded and amazingly inexpensive. For something close to $200 per night on the weekend special, we were awarded a 12th floor room facing the harbour and overlooking the Gates of India. And the crowds? Well, we were the only people in the gym each morning. We were the only swimmers in the pool most mornings--a classic pool, by the way, 3 metres deep, and with two majestic lions jetting fresh water. For two days we were even the sole occupants in the outdoor Palm Lounge for breakfast. The ceiling fans, wicker and lush greenery everywhere created a wonderful alternative to the antiseptic, air conditioned breakfast buffet which, inexplicably, the other diners had unanimously chosen.

So our conclusions about the Taj at monsoon time are as follows:

1) There is no way in the world they can make a profit in July--this is about making sure the brand's flagship property continues to deliver superior guest experiences, whatever the cost. Example: We had an average of three waiters to ourselves at most meals.

2) Regardless, they do not reduce their staff or cut back on any services in any way. Empty restaurants are open their full hours, and the pool and gym are fully attended throughout the day.

3) Service and hospitality are frankly, beyond belief. A bit more about this…

Having lived in Dubai for the last year or so, we are used to "pseudo-service" - the appearance of good service which is in fact well-meaning members of the south Asian diaspora rigidly following a script laid out by an uncreative and unforgiving food and beverage manager. Plates and settings are whisked away before your last bite clears your teeth, leaving you fighting to keep your silverware for use with the next course.

But it's different at the Taj. Most importantly, everyone seems to be happy. The "good morning, sir", "Good morning, ma'am" is invariably accompanied by a warm smile, a comment about the weather, or perhaps something remembered from the previous encounter--"would you like the table with the view that you enjoyed yesterday?" or "how was your visit to the museum?". Unless it's all an elaborate ruse, these people are very happy with their jobs, and they are truly glad to see you. Once, as we strolled the outdoor gallery past the pool being greeted heartily by hotel staffers standing at parade rest on either side, I had an image of how another, more famous couple might feel walking down a similar hallway--did someone just say, "good morning Mr. President"?

A night at the Zodiac restaurant was a continuation of the incredible experience. If anybody knows how to cook vegetarian, it must be the chefs in this country, so we both chose the "vegetarian degustation" menu, anticipating a sampling of everything Indo-French cuisine could offer without involving animals. When the waiters carefully placed four knives and forks next to our show plates, we knew the evening would be rewarding. The succession of tastes and fusion pairings included not one, but two soufflés--truly a meal to remember. Since we had booked at the laughingly early hour of 8 pm, we had the place to ourselves for the first couple of hours. Well, to ourselves, the entire waitstaff, and a wonderful piano player who played passable smooth jazz and took requests. I know it's corny, but you really have to have "As time goes by" played some time during an evening like this.

Finally, it would be hard to mention this hotel without reference to the attacks of 26/11. The Palace side of the hotel is still mostly closed, undergoing what are delicately referred to as "renovations" by the staff. Entering the hotel now involves scanners and security checks - the most I've seen this side of Riyadh. Armed security guards and police are everywhere as you enter, but then seem to fade into the shadows--I'm sure they are still there, though. But the spirit of the place is unrelentingly upbeat--nobody, they seem to be saying, is going to keep us from creating a world class experience for those of us clever enough to realize that this was the right place at the right time.

Café Leopold

A short walk from the Taj is an experience that is at the same time completely different and exactly the same - Café Leopold. Like the Taj, this establishment was also a target of the terrorists on 26/11, but with that same indomitable spirit, it reopened 2 days later, and has been open ever since. It wears its wounds proudly, with no attempt to hide them. Once we sat next to a wooden column which had two neat holes from a bullet entering and exiting, and another time in front of a shuttered window, much photographed by patrons, with every bullet hole untouched. The staff, who must have lost some colleagues that night, are clearly taking satisfaction in making this place hum the way it always has.

A cross between Rick's Café in Casablanca and the alien biker bar from Star Wars, it is packed with customers of all sorts at all hours (definitely NOT a "no crowds" experience). You can see abayas, saris, turbans, All Blacks tee-shirts and LL Bean walking shorts, and there are always a couple of those fifty-something skinny American guys with grey ponytails who seem to pitch up in the far corners of the world. It serves an eclectic menu that includes hamburgers, nachos, vegetable pakoras, paneer tikka sandwiches, sweet and sour shrimp and the best garlic naan this side of, well, Mumbai. To say it's a good deal doesn't quite capture it. Let's just say that a wonderful multi-Asian meal with a pitcher of Kingfisher (that is, a yard-high column of beer with a spigot at the bottom) set us back exactly 1/20 of our tab at the Zodiac. And the good news (besides the reassuring presence of armed security at all the entrances) is that the recent nonsmoking ordinance in the country means that you can actually see from one side of the place to the other.

So if you're in south Asia and looking to avoid the crowds, just remember…Monsoon Mumbai.

Photo from Terra Trippers photostream on Flickr.