The polar vortex and the pull of the unknown

As I pulled open my curtains to another unremarkable winter’s day in England, across the Atlantic, America was almost entirely engulfed in the freezing phenomenon known as the ‘polar vortex’. In January, temperatures dropped to -20c all the way down in Florida, with the wind chill making it feel like -50c in some of the Northern-most states. Yes, it was a cold front that makes the recent UK weather seem like a literal storm in a teacup, and in this piece I will try to best convey the odd sensation I felt when I heard about the polar vortex, what it ignited in me, as well as explore whether what draws us to travel and experience the unknown outweighs the practicality of doing so.

The polar vortex is comprised of a set of strong circulating winds that form around a low-pressure system. It usually sits over the Arctic and helps to keep the region cold, but when the vortex broke and split into two earlier this year it sent a gush of freezing winds down through Canada and all the way to the East Coast. I have a few friends who could testify to the chaos that unravelled as a result of this: one, marooned in South Carolina because all transport shut down for two days, the other forced to restrain tears from his eyes as he watched a football game in New Jersey. The whole period was indeed catastrophic, with at least 17 deaths being blamed on the freakish weather. So why did I feel a radical sense of intrigue when I heard about this?

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The Churches of Zürich

Despite being the largest city in Switzerland, Zürich probably isn’t the first choice of destination when you consider a trip to the country. Major Hollywood blockbusters such as The Bourne Identity have placed too much emphasis on the fact that this is a leading global financial centre. Not that there is anything wrong with that in itself. But it does fail to take into consideration some of the sights there which deserve to be mentioned and seen. I’m turning my attention here to three of the most famous churches in Zürich. And while that might be met with a groaning noise (because let’s face it, churches aren’t most people’s idea of a good time), I think that the exquisite attention to detail in their fine architecture and the captivating history surrounding their construction means they should be near the top of your list of things to see in Zürich.

Grossmuenster-church

Grossmünster church by day (holidayblog.easyjet.com)

1. Grossmünster

In English, this translates to ‘Great Minster’. This church is located in the heart of the city and boasts two enormous towers, which makes it hard to miss. According to legend, Charlemagne or Charles the Great – sometimes known as “The Father of Europe” – discovered the graves of the city’s martyrs Felix and Regula and decided to build the church near the burial site as a monastery. When you step inside, it may seem bare and stark, but that’s part of the charm of the church. Artefacts such as portraits and candles have been removed so that visitors can fully appreciate the splendour of the architecture itself, as well as to to prevent distractions from worship. There is more than just the main part of the church open to admire, however: one of the two towers, the “Karl Sturm”, is open to visitors. You can climb a fairly do-able 187 steps to reach the observation deck, where you can savour the beauty of the view over the old town and the lake.

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Backpacking in Britain: The Lake District

Backpacking isn’t just about heading for exotic locations that are far from home. Sure, you can go and lose yourself in a foreign metropolis or go trekking in a wild jungle, but you might be missing out on a great holiday that’s much closer to home. The UK has so much to offer in terms of backpacking: cheap hostels, amazing locations, great food and a language that you can actually speak! This summer I decided to put my money where my mouth was by travelling north to the Lake District for a spot of backpacking, to get back in touch with nature and to maybe gain a little inspiration from the beautiful English scenery.

LakeDistrict-Aerial(Take a rucksack and discover the wonders that England itself has on offer. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/)

I started my journey in Buttermere, at a seriously chilled, back-to-basics campsite called Skyes Farm. For me, Buttermere offers just about the best views that the region has to offer, thanks to its stunning position right at the heart of the Lake District: it’s a must-visit if you’re in the area! Once you’ve set up base near The Lakes you’ll want to get exploring the local towns, so it’s good to know that travel is nice and simple around there. Sure, it’s a great place to get around by bike, but you can also take a more exciting mode of transport such as an open-topped double-decker bus, or even a ferry if you want to get across the water. So it should be easy for you to get from Buttermere to Keswick, a quaint market town near Derwent Water where you can walk, canoe and fish to your heart’s content. Keswick welcomes thousands of tourists every year, most of whom lodge in one of the charming local B&Bs or scenic campsites.

A trip to Ambleside is also recommended. This sleepy-looking town actually has a vibrant restaurant scene and plenty of decent shops to spend your afternoon mincing around. A favourite restaurant of mine is Zeffirellis, a popular bistro situated in an old restored cinema that serves vegetarian cuisine with a Mediterranean feel. If you fancy spending some of your tight backpacker budget on a fancy dinner then a trip to Zeffs should be on the cards: it’s all top-notch food. Near Ambleside sits the Lake District Visitor Centre, one of The Lakes’ most popular tourist destinations. Head here to burn off your excess energy through any number of different outdoor activities, from watersports on the lake to zip wiring through the air. If you need a place to stay, I recommend the Ambleside Youth Hostel, which has a great central location.

Rydal_Rd,_Ambleside,_Cumbria_-_June_2009(Stop off at the dreary town of Ambleside to touch base with humanity and recharge in Zeffirellis. http://upload.wikimedia.org/)

From Ambleside you can easily reach Grasmere, a tourist hub known for its amazing, dense gingerbread and its famous literary connection: the local Dove Cottage is Wordsworth’s birthplace. Or you could travel on to nearby Bowness, home to the Beatrix Potter museum. Or how about Windermere, where you can escape land entirely and take a cruise on one of the lake’s handsome-looking boats? Spending some time gazing out across the water and collecting your thoughts is a lovely way to while away an hour or two. Then from Windermere you can travel on to Kendal. Or, for that matter, wherever the wind takes you…

There are two tips I’d like to leave you with. Number one is that travelling between The Lakes’ youth hostels is by far the cheapest and simplest way of seeing the area; I would wholeheartedly recommend using them while on a backpacking trip. Number two is not to scoff at the idea of backpacking in Britain! Forget the Gringo Trail or South-East Asia: stay in the U.K and make the most of the enchanting countryside that we’re surrounded by! The Lake District has all the atmosphere, sights and amenities that a budget backpacker needs and is the perfect place to get away from it all. Go with an open mind and a willingness to explore and you’ll have as good a time as you could have anywhere else in the world.

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Queenstown: Beauty, Adventure and Death-defying Sports

Remarkables Ski Area

If you are addicted to winter sports and need your fix in the middle of the summer, then Queenstown, New Zealand is the place to go.

Situated on the banks of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is the winter athlete’s paradise—a place packed with mountains, snow and death-defying sports! I have never seen so many innovative ways to hurt yourself gathered in one place. Not only is there skiing, snowboarding, bungee jumping, parasailing, zip-lining, white water rafting, but I also once saw a poster advertising a most ingenious activity where you are strapped to a rocket on a zip-line strung between two mountains, and shot across the zip-line as if being fired from a cannon.

Clearly, Queenstown is not for the faint of heart.
Road to the Remarkables

Even the most mundane activities, like driving, are made extreme. The gravel road up to the Remarkables ski area corkscrews up the mountain at a steep grade. It is narrow, so you are literally stuck between a rock and a hard place — in this case the side of the mountain and the cliff’s edge. Naturally, we drove this at a snail’s pace, watching nervously as gravel scattered off the edge of the road. However, as if this wasn’t hair-raising enough, other cars would pass us as they barrelled down the road, as if they were in a hurry to crash. Such is the maverick Kiwi spirit.

Not only is Queenstown full of adventure, but also is astoundingly beautiful. The Remarkables mountain range is the crown of Queenstown, possessing sharp, dramatic peaks that are so high that clouds sometimes get trapped in them, creating a sea of mist that hangs over the valley. The mountains themselves are made of beautiful blood red stone that looks marbled when covered with snow. This quality transforms the mountain rock into all sorts of funny figures. Our favourite was a giant boulder beneath a chairlift that the snow sculpted into a giant hedgehog, which we named Spiny Norman.

The trails themselves at the Remarkables are well-maintained and well-marked, but can get a little crowded during the height of the season. In particular, the green trail “Casterway” can get a bit narrow and difficult to navigate when there are a lot of people. There are three main chairlifts, which conveniently lead to trails for three different experience levels. The Alta Chair leads to short easy and intermediate runs for those just learning how to ski. The Sugar Bowl Chair leads to longer trails for those wanting a bit more a challenge. Finally, for those who desire danger in their lives, the Shadow Basin Chair leads to the hardest trails from the highest peak. It is this feature that makes the area a great place for families, since there is something available for skiers and snowboarders of all levels.

Should you get tired of ski slopes and the icy beauty of the mountains, you can cheerfully relax in Queenstown. A sophisticated city, Queenstown is home to a number of excellent restaurants and shops. You can also go hobbit-hunting and try to spot all the classic scenic views that ended up in the Lord of the Rings. Word of warning, Deer Park Heights, a favourite Lord of the Rings filming spot, has unfortunately been closed, but there are still many places that made cameo appearances in the films that are still open to the public.

For stunning scenery, adventure, and a chance to brag that you skied in summer, Queenstown is definitely not to be missed!

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Top 5: Auckland

Photo by: sids1, Flickr

Photo by: sids1, Flickr

1. Harbor Bridge Climb

For those of us who are not content only experiencing life from the ground, the Harbor Bridge Climb offers participants the chance to view Auckland from above. The one and a half hour climb over the Bridge, which connects Auckland City to the North Shore, is a culmination of giddy excitement and pure terror, with an experienced guide available to point out all the sights and sounds that one might otherwise miss. Having climbed the bridge myself, I can tell you there is nothing quite like standing out over the road, being honked at by indulgent truckers as their hulking vehicles slip away beneath your feet, with Auckland Harbor gleaming on one side of you, and crystalline waters stretching out as far as the eye can see. And for you dare-devil types, there is also the opportunity to bungee jump from the bridge, while your fellow climbers watch on in awe from close by. A day you are sure never to forget—and I say that from experience!

2. Auckland Zoo

Auckland Top 5 zooIf heights aren’t your thing, then Auckland Zoo is the perfect alternative for a day out with the family. I first went to Auckland Zoo as a child, cooing over the meerkats and lion cubs, and laughing hysterically as my parents chased me around and around the playground in Kidzone, which now houses a giant multi-colored dragon, and eggs that are perfect for hiding in. Even now, as an adult, I still can’t resist walking past Kidzone without having a go on the slide. I went back to Auckland Zoo only a few months ago and found it to have the same indescribable power to captivate me that it did when I was a kid. The Aussie Walkabout, in particular, was a great place to rest, sprawled out on a bench in the sunshine while Wallaby’s, Peacocks and Ostriches roam around, unrestricted by fences or gates. My friend even plucked up the courage to hug one of the ostriches, and the look of childish delight on her face as she curled her arms around its soft neck was something I will never forget. Auckland Zoo is a place where the magic never dies, no matter how old you get.

3. Sky Tower

The most recognizable and breathtaking building in the Auckland skyline has got to be the Sky Tower. Again, this is not a place for the faint of heart, being the tallest overall structure in New Zealand, and with people throwing themselves from the top of it at regular intervals (the Skyjump), or standing on glass floors to peer down at the city below. The Sky Tower is part of the SKYCITY Auckland casino complex, with the upper portion housing two restaurants, one of which revolves, and a café, from which visitors can enjoy the spectacular view of all of Auckland. It is from this building that fireworks explode every New Years Eve, and the tower itself has been known to glow in different colours to celebrate different holidays and events, such as blue for the local rugby team, and red and green for Christmas. And for a bit of local flair, the firefighter stair challenge is held every year to raise money for various charities. This is where hundreds of firefighters are sponsored to battle their way up the Sky Tower, one stair at a time, carrying firefighter gear weighing up to 25kg. Clearly, the Auckland Sky Tower is the heart of the city, and certainly should be high up on any traveller’s list when visiting New Zealand.

Photo by: Jason Pratt

Photo by: Jason Pratt from Flickr, Rangitoto Pier

4. Rangitoto Island

Rangitoto Island is an icon of Auckland, sitting about 8 kilometers northeast of Auckland. It’s name has been translated to mean ‘the day the blood of Tamatekapua was shed’, after a major Maori battle waged at Islington Bay in 1350, and was purchased by the Crown in 1854 to be set aside as a recreation reserve. There are 10 possible summit walks, resulting in stunning views of the Hauraki Gulf, the Waitemata Harbor, and Auckland City. For those who enjoy a day away from civilization, hiking the trails of Rangitoto is a most glorious escape. With the sun on your face and the air tasting of seawater, and views so beautiful they make you want to cry, Rangitoto should be your priority when in Auckland.

5. Eden Park

For those of you who just came for the Rugby, why not catch a game at Eden Park? Though not an avid fan of the sport myself, I have spent many an occasion within the stadium that saw some of the biggest matches of the last Rugby World Cup. The atmosphere, even for a domestic match, is palpable. And when the Rugby is abandoned for the season, the cricketers descend, bringing a whole new life to the suburbs of Auckland. The epicentre of New Zealand sport, Eden Park is a great place to spend the day, eating gluttonous food, bonding with the family, and screaming hysterically for the local team — whether you support them or not.

 
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