My final post of this trip is a long one, but I hope you feel it was worth it in the end! 




This was the view that greeted me as I stepped out on the balcony upon wakening on our last full day abroad.  On our final day in Lucerne, we were scheduled for a group tour of the lake and Mt. Pilatus, so we were hoping for good weather.  We had a wonderful lake cruise in a boat chartered just for our group of 40 Vantage Travelers.  It turned out to be a gorgeous day, so the photographers opted for the top deck and enjoyed the fresh air and warm sun.  The views were spectacular, including the top of Mt. Pilates, 7,000 feet up.  There were beautiful white puffy clouds hanging about, however, so we were hoping they would stay put and not cause a white-out at the top of the mountain.




It was a day of experiencing many forms of transportation.  Following our one-hour boat tour, we disembarked at the railway station and boarded rail cars for our 30 minute trip up to the top of Mt. Pilates.  It was a steep ride, often at a 25-30% grade and I was fortunate enough to get the spot right behind the conductor where I could either shoot photos out the front window or out the open side window.  In many cases, I stuck my camera out the side window and pointed straight ahead where I was able to get some dramatic wide-angle (24mm) shots.  FABULOUS!  The conductor was a sweet man, too, pointing out everything he thought I should capture with my camera.









The railway had quite an interesting history.  We were amazed it was built 125 years ago and took 600 men four summers to build.  They did a fabulous job!


When we arrived at the top of the mountain, we were in awe with the fabulous view.  The facilities were quite nice at the top with a restaurant, self-serve takeaway, and wonderful walking paths with stairs leading up to view points or down through tunnels leading to the backside of the mountain.  I hiked up the two main paths to the highest points of the mountain and down through two tunnels.  In between, we were entertained by Swiss men playing haunting tunes on their traditional Swiss horns, as well as by three paragliders!  Now, that wasn’t something I expected to see, but we sure were entertained, especially when one of the paragliders returned to buzz by the onlookers a couple of times, so we could get some good shots.  I was so surprised at how close they came and how quick he flew by, I wasn’t able to get a good shot off.  Instead, I cheered him on!



















After almost an hour and a half we were given to explore the hiking trails at soak in the beautiful picture postcard scenery, we boarded a large cable car that took us part of the way down the mountain.  While we were boarding, a cloud enveloped our car for a complete white-out!  We all just laughed, because we knew how lucky we were to have enjoyed perfect weather up at the top of the mountain, so we would have been asking for too much to expect it to continue any longer; especially since white-outs are common up on the mountain.



As we descended, we were ecstatic to drop from the cloud, back into bright sunshine, again!  My Vantage travel mates, Mom and I were back to snapping away…






On the way down, we took in the scenery of gorgeous trees and cows happily grazing on bright green grass.  We loved hearing the bells around their neck, but I wondered if the cows ever get tired of hearing them…

The remainder of our 20 minute cable ride was spent in smaller cable cars that seated four people, after transferring from the larger car, part-way down the mountain.  What a breathtaking experience it all was!  Again,  I felt like I had lived in the pages of a photo calendar or coffee table picture book; the kind I loved to pour over as a kid (and still do).

After being transported by bus (our final mode of transportation for the day) back into town, we visited the Lion Monument.  The dying lion of Lucerne, carved into natural rock, was created in 1820/1821 in memory of the Swiss heroes who gave their lives at the Tuileries in Paris, in 1792.  As you can see, it is quite the stone carving!  We were all in awe…


We still had a few hours to enjoy the gorgeous weather, so Mom and I stayed in town to do some (more!!!) photography.  Needing to cool off from the warm sun, we also popped into Denner to write down some grocery store prices and pick up some (more!!!) chocolate.  Prices in Switzerland are steep.  A lake-front home will set you back 3-9 million Swiss Francs (which is stronger than our dollar).  A Big Mac will cost you 12 Francs; $15 in our currency.  Dine in a restaurant and you will go broke in a hurry.  Main courses start at 25 Francs and shoot on up from there- even at small, casual restaurants in the city.  (Something as basic as a bratwurst at a cart is 6 Francs.)

In Denner, these are some of the prices I noted (all are in Swiss Francs):

Yogurt- 175 grams (about 6 ounces) = 1.25

Bag of four small oranges = 2.25

Baguette = 2.20

6pk cans of Coke = 3.95

1 kg (2.2 pounds) of sugar = 1.95

100 g (3+ ounces) of Denner store brand chocolate = .45 (Wooohooo; what a deal!)

So, my conclusion was that some prices were comparable to prices in our stores (cereal and several other items were priced the same), however, others were steep.  Basically, if you do all of your own cooking and avoid dining out, you would be ok in Switzerland.  But, their standard of living and income is one of the highest in the world, so it is all relative.  The lowest annual salary anyone makes there is 30,000 Swiss Francs.

As for how the prices affected me, I quickly learned to only photograph the chocolate in the chocolatier displays and admire their artistry.  At US $60 per pound, on average, purchasing any was not an option.  Instead, I stocked up at the three grocery store chains, mostly buying their store brand at bargain prices.

“Dining” on our own was stopping for to enjoy Gelati for lunch or eating a bratwurst at a cart in the square.  One night for dinner, we found a back street takeaway and picked up a couple of falafels that we ate at the little café table outside.  It wasn’t a bargain at 8 Swiss Francs, but it sure beat the ridiculously high price of dining.

Mom was determined to dine by the river just once, though, so she treated us to a shared Tarte Flambe and main course-sized Swiss salad (with Swiss cheese, sausage and mixed greens).  Thanks Mom!

Our last night was lovely, dining at the Palace Hotel with a view of the lake.  It was our included farewell dinner and we dined in style.  What a wonderful way to end a spectacular trip on a high note!  And, to cap it off, Mom and I took the funicular to the hotel up the hill from ours, so we could soak in this gorgeous view:



And, on that note, I will wrap up this marathon post by saying this trip was no less than PERFECT.


Nico was a wonderful program manager (our guide for the 44 of us in the yellow group) and Vantage Travel was excellent.  I feel completely comfortable highly recommending them, so please let me know if you are interested, so I can provide them your contact information to receive a catalog.  Disclaimer:  I do receive a $100 discount on future travel if somebody I recommend books a trip; however, that is not my motivation.  Besides, whomever I refer ALSO gets $100 credit!  Vantage Travel is fantastic, and, from what I hear from other passengers, a better deal than competitors and (almost) everything is included in the price.

Thank you for sticking with me and reading my posts; I hope you enjoyed them!




We were supposed to spend all three nights of our post-extension in Lucerne; however, there were no hotels available in Lucerne for the first night, because of a huge music festival.  So, our first night was spent in Bern.  Nobody was disappointed, because we all fell in love with Bern during our walking tour, before we even checked into the hotel.  And, as an extra bonus, Vantage Travel booked us into the top five star hotel; the same place where heads of state stay, as well as the rich and famous.  It was THE hotel in Switzerland’s capitol. We sure were spoiled…

Lucerne, however, was fabulous.  The Palace Hotel wasn’t quite at the level of the Bellevue, but it was a top hotel located right on the lake and close to the city center.  (I mean, when you are used to staying at Microtel Inns like I am, how could I complain?  Don’t get me wrong; Microtels are the top-rated chain for their price, but they are far from the 4-5 star hotels we stayed at during our pre-extension and post-extension!) And, the weather was fabulous, once we got past the few drizzles we encountered our first day.  Yesterday, however, the sun was shining and temperatures reached the mid-70’s; quite a bit above normal for this time of year.


The Palace Hotel


The Place Hotel in the distance.


The view from our hotel.

The first day, we had a walking tour after we arrived and free time on our own for the remainder of the day.  It was very enjoyable, because Lucerne is such a great city for walking!

Lucerne is a gorgeous city, located on the lake and surrounded by mountains; Mt. Pilates being the most famous one.  Since the city was built on both sides of the lake, there are several bridges connecting each side.  But, the bridge that draws the most visitors (and photographs) is the famous Chapel Bridge, built in 1333.  All along the bridge are beautifully painted gables.  And, hanging along the exterior of each side of the bridge are loads of flowers of every color, in perfect bloom.  It was so colorful and picturesque!  And, since many of the locals and tourists come there with scraps of bread to feed the swans, the water was full of snow white swans hoping for a free handout.  There were a few ducks though; outnumbered but a lot quicker, so they fought for their share- and won.








The (very) old city center was quite attractive and interesting, because of the numerous buildings with beautifully painted facades.  And, there were many outdoor cafes; a typically European feature.  Along the lake front, there was one right after another; most with only outdoor seating. 

















After returning to the hotel to unpack and kick up our feet to rest for a short time, we were back at it, walking into town for a light dinner and some night photography.  Most of the buildings were not lit up enough to photograph, but I did get one shot of this church, as well as one of our hotel.






This will be a rushed post, because I will be walking back into town with my mom for dinner soon.  We are in Lucern, now, but I have fallen behind with my posts, now that we are off the boat and are spending our evenings walking around these beautiful Swiss cities!

Yesterday, we were in beautiful Bern and got our first glimpse of the snow-covered Swiss Alps.  This was the view from our hotel; not a good shot, I know, but I have no time to do any editing, so I am just throwing some photos up here for now as a teaser!

When I get the chance (perhaps not even until I return home), I will go back and edit this post to include more (or better) shots and tell you a little more about our last two stops:  Bern and Lucerne.

For now, I will give you just a quick impression of our day and night in Bern.  It’s a very unique city with the city center filled with 4 miles of covered arcades with arches, rather than just open sidewalks.  They are full of one-of-a-kind shops and boutiques; all quite stylish and unique.

Since Bern dates back to 1191, it is VERY old and interesting!  the architecture is fantastic and the coblestone streets are filled with interesting fountains, right in the middle of the street.

Bern is a great walking city and we enjoyed our day and evening there very much, before retiring to our gorgeous hotel for the night.  The city is named after the bear and they are proud to have the bear as their symbol on their flag (and everything else).  We visited the Bear Pit; a huge enclosure open to the public 24/7.  It was located up on a hill overlooking the city and had three bears roaming the pit.  This was the view from the stair way leading down from the pit to the river:




The view from our hotel was fantastic!




Here are more scenes from our day…








I wanted to swim in that awesome pool!



























We have left France and Germany behind (sort of) and are now in Basel, Switzerland, for the last day aboard ship, before departing for our post-extension in Bern and Lucerne.  I say “sort of”, because Basel is in the northwest corner of the country, just across the river from France and next door to Germany.  Each day, 30,000 commuters come from France and Germany to work in Switzerland, then return to their countries in the evening.

Although Basel, the third largest city in Switzerland has a population of only 90,000, it is quite a cultural mecca, with 30 museums, a symphony, and a large theater.  It is also home to Switzerland’s oldest university.

In addition to being an important banking center, Basel is also known for its chemical and pharmaceutical industries, as well as publishing.

I found it interesting that Basel has three railway stations; one French, one German, and one Swiss!

What I wasn’t surprised about  and definitely expected was the high cost of EVERYTHING.  The Swiss Frey chocolate bars I bought at Migos, yesterday, in Germany, were actually cheaper than at the Migos, in Basel!  And, a Toblerone bar that was on sale for 5.49 Euros (regularly 10 Euros) at the German Migos was priced at anywhere from 16-19 Swiss Francs (CHF), in Basel.  Keep in mind that the exchange rate was 1 Euro = 1.20 Swiss Francs.

The small chocolatiers were outrageous, so I passed on making any purchases.  One chocolatier was charging 26 CHF for 250 grams of chocolates; about one half pound.  The exchange rate for U.S. $1 = .75 CHF, so do the math and those are some expensive chocolate!

How about paying 5.90 CHF for 100g of salmon?  100 grams is only 3oz.!

Rather than return to the boat for lunch, following our walking tour, Mom and I stayed in town to do more exploring, then took the shuttle back later in the afternoon.  But, we passed on dining at one of the cafes.  Instead, we split a bratwurst at the Market Square; a 6 CHF purchase.


After lunch, we continued our exploring of the downtown streets.  The following are pictures taken during our morning walking tour, as well as during our free time.


















Although we enjoyed our day (and it was a beautiful one at that), Basel doesn’t rate at the top of my list for favorites on this cruise.  The highlight, by far, was our day spent exploring the Alsace wine region’s quaint villages.  My next favorite would be Bernkastel-Kuse, in Germany.

Overall, this was a fabulous cruise and we were lucky to have mostly terrific weather.  The food was excellent on board and the service and friendliness of the staff was fabulous.  Where else would the Executive Chef pick up special chocolates for a passenger, just because we had a conversation about it and he knew I was crazy about chocolate?  I returned the favor by sharing my Bernkastel truffles with Chef and my mom, two nights ago, in a makeshift tasting session in the lounge, after he was finished with his dinner duties.  And, during our tasting, he couldn’t say enough good things about Vantage Travel, their management, and the staff; his “family”.  I agree! I will always choose Vantage Travel for my river cruises.  There were several people on board who have traveled with Grand Circle, Uniworld, and Viking, however, they all preferred Vantage Travel by a long shot.  And, in the end, it is less expensive.  Everything is included with Vantage, however, the others nickel and dime you to death, so we were told.  In the end, although the cruise was less expensive at booking time, by the time they were done, it had cost them more per day.

So, tonight, we spend our last night docked in Basel, and then depart for Bern in the morning.  We will spend one night in Bern, followed by two nights in Lucerne.  Originally, we were supposed to spend all three nights in Lucerne, however, there is a huge music festival, so none of the hotels were available for the 40 of us doing the post-extension.

I sure hope this gorgeous weather holds out!

European River Cruise Itinerary- One Week Until Departure!

After my last lengthy post, I thought I would give you a break with a shorter one!  I only have one week to go before my upcoming river cruise, so I will have to return to posting excerpts of my past travelogues at a later date.  Instead, I thought I would post the itinerary for my upcoming trip.

My third European river cruise with Vantage Travel (and my mom as my travel partner) begins with a three-night pre-cruise visit in Bruges and Ghent, Belgium. Next, we join the River Navigator, in Amsterdam, for a 16-day river cruise. Finally, we will wrap up our adventure (and photography/ chocolate buying trip) with a post-cruise visit to Basel, Bern, and Lucerne, Switzerland.

The following is our itinerary:                                                                                              August 20, 2011 – Fly to Belgium for pre-cruise extension                                            August 24 – Arrive Amsterdam / Embark ms River Navigator                                         August 25 – Amsterdam                                                                                                   August 26 – Cologne, Germany                                                                                      August 27 – Cologne and Cochem                                                                                August 28 – Piesport (Luxembourg)                                                                               August 29 – Piesport and Trier, Germany                                                                      August 30 – Trier and Berkastel                                                                                       August 31 – Rüdesheim                                                                                             September 01 – Rüdesheim and Mainz (for Heidelberg): Depart for Speyer in the evening September 02 – Speyer and Rastatt (for Baden-Baden): Depart for Strasbourg, France, in the evening                                                                                                                      September 03 – Strasbourg                                                                                    September 04 – Strasbourg and Breisach, Germany                                                        September 05 – Breisach (For Freiburg) and Basel,Switzerland                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         September 06 – Basel                                                                                                              September 07 – Basel/ Disembark ship / Begin 3-night Lucerne extension

I have been doing some research on our cruise stops and it sure looks like it is going to be a fascinating (and gorgeous) cruise!  If/when time permits, I will blog along the way, so stay tuned!

Meanwhile, If any of you have any chocolate recommendations for these countries, please let me know!  As I posted earlier, I collect wrappers and labels of chocolate from around the world.  And, I also savor each and every chocolate I purchase, so I seek out the best!  (See “CHOCOLATE!” for a complete list of what I have already collected.)