Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Café of the Skinny Dipper, or, Bavaria au naturel

Naked bathing in Bavaria with Gary and Lorraine???

Here's a fun story from the dynamic duo about revisiting old haunts - and the things you never forget.

Rottach-Egern, Germany—

Twenty-one years ago, the two of us traveled to Europe for the first time. The occasion for me was a client’s global management team meeting to take place at a small hotel on the Tegernsee, a beautiful alpine lake an hour south of Munich, and the opportunity for Lorraine was a two-for-one business class deal with Sabena – already leading the industry back then by flying empty planes across the Atlantic from Boston, where we were living at the time.

During the days, I worked intensively with the client’s senior team while Lorraine explored this new world, and then shared her discoveries with me over dinner each night. One particular story stuck with me. She had rented a bike at the hotel, rode it around the shoreline of the Tegernsee, and discovered a glorious café along the way, one that served beer, coffee and a few pastries on a lovely deck literally over the water at the end of a deserted dirt road. The setting was incredible, but the memorable event was when the woman sitting at the other end of her long table finished her beer, paid her bill, walked down the steps of the café’s deck, calmly removed every single article of clothing, and dove into the water.

Fast forward 21 years, and another business meeting has brought me back to Munich, this time on Emirates from Dubai, rather than poor Sabena from Boston. Lorraine decides to come along, and we plan a weekend to rediscover the Tegernsee and see what’s changed.

The first disappointment is that the lovely little rustic B&B that we stayed in back then, the Seehotel Ueberfahrt, has obviously been successful—it is now a 5 storey glass and steel monstrosity with five stars and room rates to match. We stayed elsewhere, needless to say.
But the news improves from there. This time my work was finished before the weekend, so we rented bikes together, rode down the shoreline past a few beaches, and voila! There it was. It had also seen its share of success in the last 20 years. The long tables were replaced by classy wooden café sets for seating two- and four-tops, and a high tech retracting roof had been added, with a nod to Bavaria’s sometimes unpredictable weather. The setting was every bit as beautiful – far away from the hotel crowd at the end of a long peninsula, it is truly a discovery, with a breathtaking view that takes in the length of the lake.

The menu had also gotten an upgrade. We were impressed with the range of traditional Bavarian dishes, although on this occasion, we settled for a mid-afternoon nosh of a Côtes du Rhône rosé and a fantastic trio of chocolate mousses accompanied by perfect fruits and berries. Just the thing to give you the energy for the rest of the ride…

Sadly, I can’t really tell you how to get there by car, because it seems to be relatively inaccessible that way. However, riding a bike or walking west along the beach from the Seehotel Ueberfahrt in Rottach-Egern will get you there quite efficiently – there are occasional signs to the “Strandcafe” to give you a clue. By boat, there is of course a dock, just across a small bay from the “Abwinkl” ferry stop. The GPS coordinates are N 47° 41.754’, E 11° 44.292’, so if you paste those into Google Maps or Earth, or your SatNav, you will have a very good idea of your target.

And no, for those of you who are still wondering, that event that made Lorraine realize she was in a different culture altogether twenty years ago was, sadly, not repeated.

Them’s the breaks.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Room with a View

Last week I went to Paris to try and finish a thesis on how social media networks are influencing activist politics in the Middle East.

I rented a cute little apartment on the 7th floor of a building on rue du Dragon in St Germain des Pres. You can rent it too and the link to the website is here. The apartment has a great view of the Eiffel Tower and is across the street from Cafe Flore, where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir did a lot of their writing. Yes, the setting was atmospheric and inspiring but I think the neighborhood did more for them than for me. I'm still not done with the thesis.

But I am done with academic purdah and No Crowds radio silence. Enough is enough. Still, I am really proud that the No Crowds concept has survived the last four months thanks to the wonderful contributions of expert travellers and reporters, Gary and Lorraine. In fact, I love the idea that all kinds of people can use this platform to talk about all kinds of travel experiences. Long may it last.

Tomorrow, there's more from Gary and Lorraine, but for now, it's nice to be back.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Navigating Away from the Crowds

Gary, top No Crowds reporter and resident geek enlightens us all on the why and how of using a handheld GPS on our travels.

So, you are a confirmed no-crowdite, unwilling to spend vacations within sight of more than a dozen other members of homo sapiens. When the traffic turns left, you turn right. When others queue at the airport, you take the train, or better yet, a tuk-tuk. When there is a fork in the road, you take it, just as Yogi Berra famously advised. You, my friend, had better own a handheld GPS.

You may already have a GPS (or Satnav, as they call them in the UK) either built in or added on to your car. But chances are it’s big and clunky or even physically built in, and goes catatonic when you take it a few feet away from a paved road. Enter the handheld. About the size of an iPhone, these units are wildly useful for all travelers, although you wouldn’t know that from the marketing literature. Are you going to be hiking? Biking? Driving? Boating? Traveling by train, bus or rickshaw? These babies have capability to support you in all of these modes, and among many other services, they can always answer that most important of all questions:

“Where on earth are we, and how do we find the hotel?”

A selection of things you can do with one of these units:

· Get turn-by-turn highway directions to the destination of your choice, wherever you are in the world (like your car GPS, but with a beep instead of the voice)

· Find gas stations, speed cams, hotels, restaurants and other important things

· When hiking or mountain biking, identify trails in geographic and topographic detail (i.e. how steep they are) and where they lead, as well as keeping a record of where you have been in case you need to retrace your steps.

· Plot boating trips on detailed nautical charts, with complete details about buoys, lighthouses, ports, obstacles and water depths. Boaters will also appreciate anchor drag and shallow water alarms.

· My particular unit even has information like “water temperature” and “depth”, which, although completely undocumented, make me think that it could be used while scuba diving.

· …and, if you are taking pictures, regardless of your means of conveyance, the unit will be able to encode each photo with information about exactly where in the world it was taken.

One example: The Garmin Oregon 300

As a confirmed iPhone lover, I couldn’t imagine using buttons and wheels to navigate around a map, so the Oregon seemed like a good solution, since it is completely touchscreen driven. It set me back about $350 from Amazon in the US, along with another $100 for a detailed road map and high level trail map and marine chart that covered all of Europe, from Poland to Ireland and Finland to Malta (detailed topographical maps are also available, if you’re an avid hiker). I gave this thing an unplanned test on the first day out when I slipped on a hiking trail, and managed to break my fall on a rock outcropping with the Garmin – smashing it on the rock screen side down, with all my weight behind it. End of story, I thought. As you can see, it came away with some impressive scratches (as did I), but nothing else, and continues to work perfectly. I think of the scratches as proof that I really used the thing, and wear them proudly. Try that move with an iPhone and see what happens…

It’s all about the maps

Once you choose the right GPS (or even before you choose it), make sure you can get the right digital maps, either on CD, a chip that goes in the unit, or downloaded from the maker’s website. Frankly, the unit is completely useless without them. Garmin, for example, has a dizzying array, but they let you view each map online to see whether it has the information you will need. The maps also need to be compatible with the actual unit, and that’s not always easy to figure out. But in the US and the UK especially, the available maps go to and beyond the detail of the old USGS topo maps we used back in the day when we were hiking the Appalachian Trail. The map specification is open, so for example, the Norwegian Trekking Association sells its own Garmin-compatible detailed trail and topographical maps on chips that can be loaded into your unit. And of course, there are a wide range of detailed nautical charts from around the world to make any weekend sailor happy.

There is also no end of things you can do, post holiday, with all of your GPS memories. EveryTrail (http://www.everytrail.com/) allows you to upload your trip information and photos to create a photoessay and map of your travels, and you can even let others “fly” your route in Google Earth and have your photos pop up like road signs, showing the sights along the way…
A century ago, John Masefield, the English poet laureate, just needed “a tall ship and a star to steer her by”. It may be a lot less poetic to be able to have that star in your pocket today, but hey – if it helps us each find our version of the “lonely sea and the sky”, who can blame us?