Friday, September 23, 2016

Riding the narrow gauge Great Little Trains of Wales

Riding at the summit of Mount Snowdon  (wikipedia)

WALES Travelers with a passion for trains will find a treasure trove of scenic miniature railroads in and around Snowdonia National Park in Wales. There are so many, in fact, that the GreatLittle Trains of Wales are a national monument that a Garden of Eden for rail enthusiasts.
Each railway is special in its own unique way, but they also share one characteristic; they are all narrow gauge stream trains with over a century of history.

Today the Great Little Trains of Wales are a major tourist attraction, but back in a simpler day, most of them were used to carry slate from the mountains to the sea. Even so, no two are the same and each offers its own personal story as they chug leisurely through the best scenery the country has to offer.

Here are some of the most popular Great Little Trains of Wales.
Bala Lake Railway is one of the newest  (wikipedia)
Bala Lake Railway: This railway is one of the youngest, opening only as a narrow gauge train in 1972. Though it is a rookie as far as narrow gauge trains are concerned, all the steam locomotives are more than 100 years old.

The steam engines are all ex-quarry machines with all but one coming from the slate quarry at Llanberis. The “Lone Ranger” was built in 1911 and was used by Rugby Portland Cement.

Today, Bala Lake Railway uses the original tracks of the former standard gauge Ruabon Barmouth line which comprised the Great Western Railway between Llanuwchllyn and what used to be Pen-y-bon Halt on the opposite side of Bala Lake to the market village of  Bala

The original standard gauge station and signal box are still in use.
Chugging through Snowdonia National Park  (wikipedia0
The Fairbourne Miniature Railway: What makes this narrow gauge train so unique is that it has had four different track gauges during its 100 year history.

Originally built as a horse-drawn tramway, it was converted to a miniature steam railway in 1916. Except for a halt in service during World War II, the Fairbourne Railway has carried passengers continuously since 1895.

Children especially enjoy the Fairbourne line because the steam engines are half the size of traditional narrow gauge locomotives. The route runs from Fairbourne through the breathtaking scenery of the Mawddach Estuary and the Cadair Idris mountains before arriving at Barmouth Ferry Station.

To make a full day of it, travelers can take a short boat ride into Barmouth.

Ffestiniog is great for history lovers   (wikipedia)
Ffestiniog Railway: For travelers with a penchant for history, the Ffestiniog Railway is the ideal “Great Little Railway.” It was established in 1832 by an act of parliament which makes it the oldest independent railway company in the world at 184-years.

Built to serve the slate industry of Blaenau Ffestiniog, this train was gravity powered, using brakemen who maintained control of the train by leaping from wagon to wagon to either tighten or loosen the brakes as it rumbled down the hillside. Up ahead another operator would blow the train whistle as a warning of its arrival.
Stunning Scenery  (wikipedia)


Eventually steam locomotives were added in 1860 and today the Ffestiniog Railway transports visitors through the stunning scenery of Snowdonia National Park.

Most trains start and finish at Porthmadog’s Harbour Station which is the headquarters of the railway.

Llanberis Lake Railway: This train begins in the town of Llanberis and takes you past the 13th century Dolbadarn Castle. It crosses Afon y Bala, which is said to be Britain’s shortest river, before entering Padarn Country Park where it joins the original slate railway beside Lake Padarn.

En route on the outbound journey are breathtaking views of Snowdon and surrounding peaks. During the return, there is a brief stop at Cei Llydan where passengers can get off and have a picnic. There is also a children’s play area.
Catch me if you can  (wikipedia)
Snowdon Mountain Railway: Arguably the most popular of the Great Little Trains of Wales, visitors from around the world have been using this line since 1896 to travel to the Summit of Snowdon. At 3,560 ft, Snowdon Mountain is the highest mountain in England and Wales.

It also boasts some of the most dramatic landscapes and scenery in the British Isles. Thanks to Victorian engineering at the turn of the 20th century, Snowdon Mountain Railway is the only public rack and pinion railway in the United Kingdom.

Talyllyn Railway begins in Tywyn  (wikipedia)
Talyllyn Railway: Beginning in Tywyn on the Mid-Wales coast, this railway opened in 1865.

Though the slate quarries closed just after World War II in 1946, passenger service continued. Today the terminus is Nant Gwernol, is situated seven miles from Tywyn with no road access. The line is operated by a full time workforce comprised of volunteers dedicated to the preservation of the railway line.

Tywyn now features the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum which opened in 2005 with two floors of exhibits that tell the history of narrow gauge railroading.

Of particular interest is the stop at Dolgoch where passengers can visit majestic waterfalls and take a variety of country walks.
Full head of steam on the Welsh Highland Railway  (wikipedia)

 Welsh Highland Railway: The attraction with this line is that it is said to be “rail travel as it used to be.” Next to the Snowdon Mountain Railway, the Welsh Highland Railway runs a close second to the awe-inspiring scenery of Snowdonia National Park.

Incorporating the world’s most powerful narrow gauge locomotives, which are stronger than standard gauge engines, and combined with first class Pullman carriages, the Welsh Highland Railway is regarded as one of the top experiences in North Wales.

The line begins beneath castle walls in Caemarfon before climbing to the foot of Snowdon and then descending to the sea at the harbor in Porthmadog.


There’s whale watching and there is “Wales watching”, and all you have to do is “train yourself.”

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Hotel Schweizerhof Bern named Switzerland’s best business hotel

Hotel Schweizerhof Bern is Switzerland's top business hotel  (hotel schweizerhof bern)
BERN, SWITZERLAND If the age-old adage that the three most important things in real estate are “location, location, location,” then Hotel Schweizerhof Bern in Switzerland wins the gold medal.

First, Hotel Schweizerhof Bern calls Switzerland home, a country which refined the hospitality industry to an art form through pioneers like Cesar Ritz, Franz-Josef Bucher and Heinrich Wirth.

Next, it is situated in the Swiss capital of Bern, making the Schweizerhof Bern accessible to virtually every nook and cranny of the country in a matter of a few hours.

Main station in Bern  (Rail Europe)
And finally, the Schweizerhof Bern sits on a huge city block directly across from Bern’s railway station, which means if your train arrives at 9 p.m. you can be having a nightcap in the popular cigar lounge by 9:05.
 Recently the 150-year old five-star superior property was honored as “Switzerland’s Leading Business Hotel 2016” at the 23rd annual World Travel Awards Gala in Sardinia. It is another accolade in a prestigious list of recognitions for the hotel over the past 15-decades.
Contemporary style in classic surroundings  (Wikipedia)
 Schweizerhof Bern features 99 guest rooms and suites, plus 11 halls covering more than 8,600 square feet in the conference center. The centerpiece is the legendary “Trianon” ballroom with its stucco ceiling, marble columns and Belle Epoch chandeliers.

Jack’s Brasserie Restaurant has earned 14 Gault Millau points from the famous French restaurant guide founded by Henri Gault and Christian Millau in 1965. The points are similar those awarded by the better known Michelin Guide.
Hotel Schweizerhof Bern was renovated five years ago  (Hotel Schweizerhof Bern)
Hotel Schweizerhof Bern was completely renovated five years ago to give its rooms and work spaces a more contemporary design while retaining the classic style of a bygone era.

Among the most interesting projects the hotel has undertaken within the last year is the addition of 150,000 honeybees which are kept in three “mini-hotels” on the roof terrace. In an effort to contribute to the survival of honeybees while promoting “ecological balance” the hotel has ingeniously integrated the idea by making its own in-house brand of honey known as “Sky Deluxe.
The Old Town is a peninsula on the River Aare  (Wikipedia)
The historic old town of Bern has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983. It is a peninsula-shaped arcaded city that peers down on a bend in the River Aare which surrounds it on three sides.

As of 2010, Bern was ranked one of the top ten cities in the world for quality of life.
Zytglogge   (My Switzerland)


The official language of Switzerland’s fourth largest city is Swiss German, but the Swiss also speak Italian, French and Romansch depending upon the region of the country in which they live.

Thanks to nearly four miles of charming shopping arcades, it has been said that you can walk through Bern in a rainstorm and never get wet. That’s not entirely true, but it’s close.

With its ideal setting across from the railway station at the gateway to the city, guests who stay at Hotel Schweizerhof Bern can easily explore Bern’s historic streets. There is a superb mass transit system as well, which is free for travelers using a Swiss Travel Pass.
Einstein house looks just as it did when he lived there (MySwitzerland.com)
Among the most overlooked sites in Bern is the Einsteinhaus where the famous theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein, lived from 1903 to 1905 while working in the patent office.
The view is the same  (Wikipedia)


It was there, at Kramgasse 49, where Einstein put forth his then controversial general theory of relativity. Perhaps Einstein is best known for his mass-energy equivalence formula, E = mc2, which has been called “the world’s most famous equation.

What makes the Einstein House so interesting is that because of the preservation of Bern’s architectural history, not only are the rooms identical to the way they were when he lived there, but so, too, are the views of the streets in the city where Einstein was born.

The Zytglogge with 16th century statues in the foreground (Wikipedia)
Among the most famous, and most popular, sites is the Zytglogge, which means “Time Bell.” The medieval clock features moving puppets which put on a show every hour to the delight of visitors.

There is also a 15th century Gothic cathedral and town hall as well as numerous museums including the Swiss Postal Museum and the Swiss Alpine Museum.
The undulating architecture of the Paul Klee Museum  (Wikipedia)
Art lovers will delight in the Paul Klee Museum with its three undulations that blend into the landscape. The museum opened in 2005 featuring the largest collection of art by Switzerland’s native son with over 40 percent of his archive.

Too often visitors fail to visit the Rose Garden (Rosengarten) with its marvelous panoramic view of the medieval city from across the River Aare. Simply cross over the bridge that spans the river at the Bear Pit, which has been a city landmark since the 16th century.
Klee painting
(MySwitzerland.com)

Because of its compact size, Bern is one of the great walking cities of Europe. If you are lucky you will be there on market day or, better yet, when the onion market takes place on the 4th Monday in November.

Not to be missed are the 11 Renaissance allegorical statues which can be found on the public fountains in the Old Town. Almost all of the fountains date to the 16th century.
Hotel Schweizerhof Bern is classic style blended with modern comfort (Hotel Schweizerhof Bern)
And, of course, after a long day of sightseeing, return to the reliable, deluxe accommodations of Hotel Schweizerhof Bern which guarantees you won’t “Bern yourself out.”

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Herculaneum: Smaller than Pompeii but equally impressive

Mt. Vesuvius rises above Herculaneum just as it did 2,000 years ago  (Taylor)

ERCOLANO, ITALY – When Mt. Vesuvius erupted on the afternoon of August 24, 79 AD, it swallowed two thriving Roman communities. Today, designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites, both Pompeii and Herculaneum have been partially excavated to provide superb insights into Roman life as it was 2,000 years ago.

Though Pompeii is arguably better known and larger than her little sister, Herculaneum’s discovery and excavations are older. Major excavations began in Ercolano, the Italian name for Herculaneum, as early as 1738 by a Spanish engineer.

Excavations later resumed in the 20th century, however 75% of the ruins have yet to be uncovered.

Typical Herculaneum street (Taylor)
Both Pompeii and Herculaneum were coastal cities, but unlike Pompeii, much of the organic-based objects found in Ercolano are better preserved due to the way the pyroclastic material fell. Herculaneum, while smaller, was also wealthier than Pompeii, leaving behind an unusually dense community of dwellings and far more lavish frescoes and colorful marble furnishings.

Vesuvius had been dormant for nearly 800 years at the time of the eruption, so it was no longer recognized as a volcano. Thanks to two letters by historian Pliny the Younger, a timeline of the eruption has been documented to show that Vesuvius began to spew volcanic ash around 1 pm. At the time, the prevailing winds were blowing toward the southeast, causing most of the material to fall upon Pompeii on the other side of the mountain.
Ancient mosaics are part of Herculaneum's legacy  (Taylor)

Herculaneum, which lies to the west of Pompeii, suffered little damage from the initial phase of the eruption while much of Pompeii was crushed under the weight of the debris.

At Herculaneum, mostly ash and hot gases struck the city, although there were at least six surges of volcanic material that reached the largely evacuated site at speeds of 100 mph. Because of the way Herculaneum was buried, many of the buildings and other structures suffered little damage which is why so much of it was preserved for future excavations.
Mosaic among the ruins  (Taylor)


Most of the deaths in Herculaneum were caused by heat and suffocation rather than flowing lava.

Surprisingly, recent discoveries have uncovered several hundred skeletons along the seashore, causing many historians to alter their thinking about the number of people who were able to escape the eruption.

For travelers, Herculaneum is probably more manageable than Pompeii due to its size. The site is more rectangular in shape than its larger Roman counterpart which was generally circular in design.
Original Roman sign from 79 AD  (Taylor)
In many places the original wood has been preserved to provide historians with insights into construction techniques that are not available in Pompeii.
Original wood remnants  (Taylor)


For novices, the Herculaneum site is a vibrant and appealing glimpse into an ancient Roman civilization. For archaeologists however, the excavations offer a detailed guide that had previously only been the product of educated speculation.

Among the most valued artifacts to be unearthed to date were found at the Villa of the Papyri, once a luxurious seafront retreat for Lucius Calpumius Piso Caesoninus. If that name is unfamiliar, consider that Caesoninus was Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, and some of the pieces of the puzzle begin to create a picture of the period.

Several papyrus scrolls were discovered at the Villa of the Papyri between 1752 and 1754. Due to carbonization, attempts to unroll the papyrus have had varying degrees of success in the past, but thanks to contemporary infra-red imaging, the ink is today becoming more legible.
Brightly colored frescoes can still be seen  (Taylor)
Scientists hope that these modern-day “x-rays” will not only aid in the written information about the life and times of Herculaneum, but also provide details about the overall layout of the city so that more excavations can be made with less potential for damaging the ruins.

Among the problems of excavating Herculaneum is the exposure of organic materials to the air after they were uncovered.

Vandalism has also resulted in damage to some of the areas open to the public, and tourism is also regarded as a culprit in the deterioration process. The paradox regarding travelers being that Herculaneum is a window into the past that should be available to contemporary visitors, while it may also be contributing to eroding some of the conservation efforts.
Lead pipe supplied water  (Taylor)


For the moment, excavations of the site have been temporarily discontinued in an effort to preserve what has already been discovered.

Whether travelers choose to visit Herculaneum or Pompeii or both, the sites offer valuable reference points for even the untrained eye into the life and times as it was lived 2,000 years ago.
Excavations of a once thriving Roman city on the coast  (Taylor)
Perhaps most amazing is how creative humans were during a time we sophisticated residents of the 21sr century often regard as “primitive.”

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Waldorf Astoria and New York City were made for each other


Exterior of the Waldorf Astoria on New York's famed Park Avenue  (wikipedia)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK New York’s Waldorf AstoriaHotel is in a class by itself; a landmark that stands proudly beside the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Radio City Music Hall, Yankee Stadium, Carnegie Hall and Rockefeller Center.

The Waldorf may not be the most expensive hotel in the city or the most luxurious, but when you combine its history and prestige, it is unrivaled.

Corner drawing room on Fifth Avenue  (wikipedia)

The Waldorf is its own book of trivia filled with historic events and world famous celebrities from every walk of life: politicians, diplomats, royalty, entertainers and, even, gangsters.

From its inception the Waldorf Astoria was destined to become America’s most prestigious hotel address in America’s biggest and best known city. It began as a family feud between two great-grandsons of John Jacob Astor in the late 19th century.

Living in mansions on Fifth Avenue between 33rd and 34th Streets, William Waldorf Astor and John Jacob Astor IV may have been neighbors, but they had a healthy dislike for each other. Out of spite, in 1893, William Waldorf Astor demolished his mansion, moved to England and built the 13-story Waldorf Hotel overlooking his cousin’s four-story brownstone residence.
The original hotels were connected by "Peacock Alley"  (wikipedia)
Not to be outdone, four years later John Jacob Astor IV opened the more elegant 17-story Astoria Hotel next door.

Over time, the two relatives came to a truce and agreed to operate the two hotels under the name Waldorf-Astoria with the hyphen becoming a significant feature of the name.

So important did the hyphen become to the name, that an expression evolved along with a song titled,  "Meet Me at the Hyphen."
"Peacock Alley"  (wikipedia)


When Conrad Hilton purchased the hotel in 1949 he changed the symbol to a double hyphen similar to a plus sign. Today, the name is simply the Waldorf Astoria without embellishments.

Despite their “alliance” the cousins never completely trusted each other, so a 300-foot hallway was built as the only connecting point between the two properties. The idea being that should the tenuous partnership fail, the hallway could easily be bricked up to separate the buildings.

The elegant marble corridor became known as “Peacock Alley” where the rich and the famous could admire themselves in the mirrored passageway while an awestruck, curious public gazed upward to get a glimpse of the hotel’s aristocratic clientele.

Perhaps the historic footnote that John Jacob Astor IV was among the 1,514 passengers who perished when the Titanic sank in 1912 was an omen of what the future would hold for the hotel.

Just four days after the Titanic sank, a senate congressional committee gathered in the Waldorf ballroom to hear testimony from the survivors of the disaster.

The Waldorf Astoria is in a league of its own in the hospitality industry  (wikipedia)
In 1929, the same year the Great Depression began, the original hotel was demolished to make room for the Empire State Building. By 1931 the Park Avenue address, where it stands today, was completed. For the next 32 years the Waldorf Astoria was the world’s tallest hotel at 47-stories.
Waldorf Salad  (wikipedia)
Among the Waldorf’s most famous employees was Oscar Tschirky, the Swiss born maitre d’hotel who worked at both locations from 1893 until his retirement in 1943. Better known as “Oscar of the Waldorf”, Tshirky was the creator of acclaimed culinary traditions like Eggs Benedict, Thousand Island dressing and, of course, Waldorf salad.

Initially a “Waldorf salad” did not contain walnuts and grapes which were added to the apples and celery in later iterations.
Nikita Kruschev and his family with Nelson Rockefeller  (wikipedia)
Over the decades, the Waldorf has garnered international attention for its countless meetings, conventions, fundraisers and balls that are far too many to list. However there are numerous other noteworthy events that are worthy of mention:

  • Former president Herbert Hoover lived at the Waldorf for more than 30-years following his retirement.
  • Frank Sinatra paid a million dollar a year to maintain a residence in the hotel.
  • Three 5-star American generals lived at the Waldorf for a time: Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur and Omar Bradley.
  • Gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, a major force in the development of the Las Vegas Strip, owned an apartment at the Waldorf during the 1930s.
  • Lena Horne was the first black performer at the hotel.
  • Sir Harry’s Bar, is the home of the Rob Roy and Bobbie Burns cocktails.
  • The Waldorf was the first hotel in the world to offer complete electricity and private bathrooms. It was also the first hotel to offer room service and to hire women chefs.
  • Speaking of women, the Waldorf was influential in allowing women to register for accommodations without an escort.
  • In 1948 the Waldorf was the site of a press conference that introduced the first LP record.
  • IBM unveiled its first personal computer at the Waldorf in 1981.
  • The NBA held its first draft lottery for non-playoff teams in 1985 with the first pick being Patrick Ewing.
  • Songwriter Cole Porter and Linda Lee Thomas had an apartment in the Waldorf Towers. Thomas died in 1954, but Porter wrote his famous song “You’re the Top” which includes the lyric, “You’re the top, you’re a Waldorf salad” twenty years earlier.

Believe it or not, there is also an abandoned subway station beneath the hotel that was linked to Grand Central Station just a few blocks away. President Franklin D. Roosevelt used it during while in office in an attempt to keep his wheelchair from public view.

The presidential train could pull into the platform where Roosevelt’s armor-plated limo would then drive down a ramp and into an elevator that led to the hotel garage.
The foyer at Christmas  (wikipedia)
On October 15, 2014 the Anbang Insurance Group from China purchased the Waldorf Astoria. It is scheduled for massive renovations which will take three years to complete beginning in the spring of next year.
Throughout its fabled history the Waldorf Towers have encompassed the 28th floor to the 42nd featuring 181 rooms. Approximately 75% of those accommodations are 1 to 4 bedroom suites.

At one time, the number of high profile guests residing in the towers was so abundant that author Ward Morehouse III referred to it as a “kind vertical Beverly Hills.”
Virtually everybody who is anybody has stayed at the Waldorf  (wikipedia)
When it comes to character and personality the Waldorf Astoria is legendary. Its corridors, banquet halls, ballrooms and clientele represent a who’s who and a what’s what of the past 150 years of American and world history.

The Waldorf Astoria is a national treasure. It is more than a hotel; it is a landmark. It is, in its own unique way, a museum of modern history with bedrooms.