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July 28, 2017

Experience the nostalgic pleasure of steam train railways around North Wales

Experience the nostalgic pleasure of steam train railways around North Wales

Four steam trains in three days – what a treat. I was on on a very special trip to experience the delights of North Wales Heritage railways, sampling itineraries from specialist railway tour operators Great Rail Journeys and Rail Discoveries.

Ffestiniog Railway

Ffestiniog Railway steam train Merddin Emrys

Engine driver Paul on Merddin Emrys

The heat is overwhelming. There’s a smell of coal dust, hot metal and sea-salt. Steam hisses and a seagull squawks overhead. Adults ready their cameras, children giggle with excitement and the sense of anticipation builds. “Keep right in to the side there and watch that pipe; it’s boiling hot and will give you a nasty burn if you touch it.” Engine driver Paul ensures I’m ensconced in my tiny corner of the cabin, gives a brief nod to stoker Andrew, a piercing whistle shrieks across the river estuary out to sea, there’s a chuff-chuffing from the steam train and we are on our way.

View from inside Ffestiniog Raliway steam engine cab

View from inside Ffestiniog Raliway steam engine cab

I’m on the footplate of the very splendid Merddin Emrys, a push-me pull-you Double Fairlie locomotive, on the  Ffestiniog Railway, fulfilling a life-long dream to travel on the footplate of a steam train. The Festiniog Railway Company, in North Wales, is the oldest surviving railway company in the world. It opened in 1836 to take slate from the quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog for export around the globe. We used to holiday in nearby Llandudno and I remember seeing the little train chugging along the track and wishing we could go on it … and now I’m finally here.

Minffordd Station - Ffestiniog Railway steam train - photo Zoe Dawes

Minffordd Station

The train slowly gathers speed as we pass fields of sheep and quaint cottages. People wave as we rumble through Boston Lodge and cows stop grazing to gaze at us as we steam by. At Minffordd, where we pass another steam train going in the opposite direction, I have to leave the engine and join the other passengers in one of the lovely old wooden carriages. We slowly start the steep climb into the mountains where the scenery becomes wilder through the glorious Snowdonia National Park. Sunlight glimmers through wooded groves and we disappear into a tunnel before doing a loop-the-loop at the Dduallt Spiral.

Ffestiniog Railway Bara Brith and Welsh Cakes

Bara Brith and Welsh Cakes

Afternoon tea arrives; a plate of local Welsh Cakes and Bara Brith (fruit loaf) are most welcome. Against railway rules I put my head out of carriage window and watch the steam train puff its way round the curve of the narrow-gauge track. The sight and sound of this sturdy little engine brings back many memories of childhood and a world where time seemed to go at a much slower pace. We arrive at Blaenau Ffestiniog Station and we have a quick look at the brand new, very luxurious, Pullman Observation Carriage, with beautiful wood panelling and maps of the railway route carved onto the tables. On the platform we watch as Paul and Andrew jump on top of the engine to check it and fill it with water.

Steam train at Blaenau Ffestiniog

With its twin funnels and gleaming red livery,  Merddin Emrys is a fine example of a Victorian steam train and I feel privileged to have spent some time in its company.

Welsh Highland Railway

Welsh Highland Railway steam train

Welsh Highland Railway steam train

We had started the day in castle-dominated Caernarvon, boarding the Welsh Highland Railway, UK’s longest heritage railway, that took us inland, past the foot of Snowdon and on to the pretty village of Beddgelert. Our train was pulled by a mighty fine black locomotive, NG/G16 No.87, built in 1937, originally used in South Africa and rebuilt in the Ffestiniog Railway’s own Boston Lodge Works. En route we got superb views out towards the Lleyn Peninsula, beside old slate mines and tiny railway stations, past lakes emerging from steamy windows, near rushing waterfalls and on up into the mountains.

Lake View from Welsh Highland Railway steam train North Wales

View from our railway carriage

Clare, our very informative host from Ffestiniog Railway Company, outlined our route on the map and gave us some facts and figures about the company and its rolling stock. Well-equipped walkers got off at one of the halts to hike up Wales’ highest peak.

Welsh Highland Railway route

Welsh Highland Railway route

As we crossed the impressive Glan-yr-afon Viaduct I gazed up towards the summit of Snowdon, shrouded in mist. This stretch of the track is one of the steepest gradients in Britain, 1-40 and we snaked our way back down through the forest toward Beddgelert, Snowdon playing hide and seek along the way.

Welsh Highland Railway steam train Snowdonia - North Wales

Welsh Highland Railway steam train

As we disembarked in Beddgelert, the rain arrived, not so unusual in this part of Wales. However, by the time we’d got our coach to the quirky village of Portmeirion it had stopped and the sun was peaking out again.

Llangollen Railway

Llangollen Railway Station and 80072 steam train

Llangollen Railway Station and Steam engine 80072

The following day we headed off into the valleys for a ride on the Llangollen Railway, the only standard-gauge heritage railway in Wales. As with many other railway lines, this was originally built for the mining industry, but Llangollen has been a tourist destination for many years. It’s a very attractive town on the River Dee and the railway is its biggest attraction. The quaint Station Building sets the scene with old suitcases piled on the platform and uniformed guards, drivers and other staff bustling about making sure everyone gets aboard in time for departure. We had a reserved carriage all to ourselves again, with scones, jam and cream laid out on crisp white linen – very civilized. The velvet-upholstered seats and lacquered wood panelling all conspired to give that feeling of nostalgia for rail travel in stylish luxury.

Llangollen Railway reserved carriage North Wales

Reserved Carriage

We were being pulled by beautifully restored locomotive 80072, built in Brighton in 1953 to run on the south coast, but left to rot for many years after the Beeching cuts of the 1965, which is when the Llangollen Railway also closed for main-line travel. There are few transport sounds more evocative than the huffing of an engine as it builds up steam on its way out of a station. We got that experience a number of times as there were a three stops along the line, which runs beside the sparkling River Dee, to Corwen. The return journey was equally delightful and everyone thoroughly enjoyed our very special steam train journey.

Llangollen Railway steam train -photo Zoe Dawes

Llangollen Railway steam train

After lunch we went on a leisurely glide along the Langollen Canal on a horse-drawn boat – perfect end to a perfect day.

Snowdon Mountain Railway

Wyddfa steam engine Snowdon Mountain Railway - photo Zoe Dawes


On our final morning we set off early to get the 9.30am Snowdon Mountain Railway steam train from Llanberis Up the Mountain. We went up and down in glorious sunshine, pushed up by Wyddfa, a Swiss-built engine from 1893, driven by Paul and stoker Robert. It was a truly epic journey – watch out for the story in another article …

Top of Snowdon with Mountain Railway train North Wales - photo Zoe Dawes

Top of Snowdon with Mountain Railway train

Great Rail Journeys and Rail Discoveries Steam Train Tours

I travelled to North Wales courtesy of Great Rail Journeys and Rail Discoveries. Our group stayed in Llandudno at the very comfortable Dunoon Hotel, with superb food in charming surroundings. We also had an excellent Italian meal at the Wildwood Restaurant in the town centre.

Dunoon Hotel Llandudno

Our group at Dunoon Hotel

Great Rail Journeys Railways & Castles of Wales Tour includes a stay at the award-winning Dunoon Hotel, journeys on the Welsh Highland, Ffestiniog and Snowdon Mountain Railways, and excursions to Portmeirion Village and Caernarfon and Conwy Castles. GRJ Independent can also tailor make holidays to the region for those wishing to travel to Wales on an individual basis Save up to £30pp when booking on or before 15th August 2017.More details Railways and Castles of Wales.

Rail Discoveries Railways of Wales Tour includes a stay at the Kensington Hotel, journeys on the Welsh Highland, Ffestiniog and Llangollen Railways, a horse-drawn boat trip on the Llangollen Canal, and excursions to Portmeirion Village and Caernarfon Castle. Save up to £30pp when booking on or before 15th August 2017. More details Railways of Wales.

Andrew and Paul on the Ffestiniog Railway steam train - photo Zoe Dawes

Andrew and Paul on the Ffestiniog Railway

Love Narrow-Gauge Railways? Read my review of Small Island by Little Train – a narrow-gauge adventure by Chris Arnot.

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North Wales Steam Railways


February 25, 2017

On being coverted to a Motorhome Holiday, having resisted for many years

On being coverted to a Motorhome Holiday, having resisted for many years
Motorhome by Okanagan Lake Canada

Okanagan Lake Canada

It was at delightfully named Peachland in British Columbia, that I knew I was hooked. Sitting on a folding chair, ham salad on lap, gazing out across tranquil Okanagan Lake, surrounded by mountains, the early summer sun shining, all was right with the world. Our motorhome waited patiently in the lay-by, ready at any moment to take us further on our journey across Canada. But for now, we sat and enjoyed the view and appreciated the simple pleasure of lunch al fresco on the journey of a lifetime.

Beside Okanagan Lake Canada

Enjoying the view

Prior to the Canada Road Trip, I had never driven anything bigger than the school mini-bus and very little experience of motorhome travel. My grandfather had an old Bedford campervan but never took us on trips in it. I’d been on a couple of caravan holidays when I was a teenager; in those days caravans were fairly basic and I remember the rain dripping in through the roof on a stormy night in Wales. More recently I’d travelled to Cornwall in a friend’s campervan on a family holiday but we’d not stayed in it. Though a VW campervan is synonymous with cool surf-dudes, I had a bias against caravans and motorhomes, thinking they were a bit fuddy-duddy, for ‘oldies’ and definitely not ‘my thing’.

VW Campervan at Caravan, Camping & Motorhome Show NEC Bormingham

VW Campervan at Caravan, Camping & Motorhome Show

Rocky the RV changed all that. Photographer Ali Bailey and I travelled over 3,000 miles from Vancouver to Calgary via the Rockies, in a Cruise Canada RV (Recreational Vehicle) and felt so attached to our motorhome that we gave him (oh yes,) a name. What I loved was taking everything with us, not having to unpack and pack every night, being able to stop in the middle of nowhere and rustle up a meal (or use the loo) and the cosiness of having our own ‘home on the road’.

BBQ by motorhome in Jasper Rocky Mountains Canada

Eating out in the Rockies

I was nervous about driving such a big vehicle but surprisingly quickly got used to it and by the end of the trip was actually enjoying it. We stayed at some lovely campgrounds; Canada is well set up for motorhome sites, which are usually ‘fully-serviced’ ie with electricity, water and sewage connections. They’re also very convivial places. Highlights included waking up on our first morning to a glorious sunrise over Osoyoos Lake – our pitch was on the water’s edge.  Chatting to the ‘good  ol boys’ from mid-west America about the upcoming elections beside Osoyoos Lake, eating kebabs and burgers cooked on our BBQ in Jasper, waking up to hear elk wandering around outside the motorhome and drinking beer as sun set over the Rockies in Banff.

Motorhome memories in Canada

Motorhome holiday memories

Since returning to the UK I’ve been extremely envious of anyone who owns a motorhome … Two of my best friends bought one a couple of years ago and rave about the freedom of the road and the fun they have getting away as often as possible. They’re fanatical cyclists and simply strap the bikes to the back of the ‘van’ and off they go. So when I got an invite to this year’s Caravan, Camping and Motorhome Show at the NEC Birmingham I leapt at the opportunity. Five halls crammed full of every kind of caravan, motorhome, campervan, tent, holiday home and accessories you could ever wish for.

Caravan, Camping and Motorhome Show NEC Birmingham

The Caravan, Camping and Motorhome Show

On the first day of the show, the ‘Caravan Club’, founded in 1907, announced its brand new name, ‘The Caravan and Motorhome Club, in line with the increased interest and motorhome ownership in the UK and around the world. Chairman Grenville Chamberlain explained, “We’re responding to today’s market and becoming more inclusive whilst retaining our core values and heritage.” Marketing Director Harvey Alexander was clearly very excited about the changes. “Our new logo and name reflect the evolving nature of the club. It may take some members time to get used to the change but so the overall response has been incredibly positive.” Everyone I spoke to thought it was an excellent idea and would will encourage more people to join ‘the biggest touring community in Europe’.

The Caravan and Motorhome Club - new name and logo

The Caravan and Motorhome Club

I think it’s a very positive move. As a recent convert to motorhome holidays, I can vouch for the pleasure to be had taking a luxurious ‘home from home’ on the road and choosing different places to stay along the way. Find out more about The Caravan and Motorhome Club here.

Arctic Adventure Caravan

The ‘Arctic Adventure’ Caravan

As I was leaving the show, I had a quick look at the #ArcticAdventure Caravan. It will soon be setting off to the Arctic Circle, 5,000 miles through 12 countries in just over two weeks. Now that really is quirky travel. Wonder if they need a travel blogger to go with them …

Take a look inside our Motorhome

June 20, 2015

Is this the Golden Age of Travel?

Is this the Golden Age of Travel?
Queen Elizabeth cruise liner Cunard - photo zoe dawes

Queen Elizabeth marquetry panel

I can hear you scoffing at the question, “Is this the Golden Age of Travel?” You might be about to face the joys of a 21st century airport departure, with its lengthy queues, invasive security checks, draconian baggage limits and garish shopping malls. You’re herded onto a packed plane, squashed into a narrow seat next to a screaming child and served plastic food on a plastic tray with a plastic bottle of wine poured into a plastic cup. On arrival, there may well be stringent visa and passport controls and the hassle of getting the right transport to your destination.

Gare de Lyon railway station Paris - photo zoe dawes

Gare de Lyon Paris

Maybe you’ll be ‘letting the train take the strain’ as you travel through the UK, across north America or down to the Mediterranean, sitting in some soulless waiting room, squashed into a lumpy seat, or worse still, standing in a luggage filled aisle, eating an uninspiring sandwich with a can of luke warm lager, whilst a family squabble at the table behind you. An unintelligible voice announces heaven knows what as you whizz through grimy towns and dull countryside.

My Ferry Link across The Channel - image zoe dawes

Ferry across The Channel

Perhaps you are getting a ferry to France at the start of the summer holidays, along with thousands of other travellers keen to escape headlong to pastures new and warmer in the same crowded ship. You sit in an over-stuffed car, getting over-heated as you wait for your passports to be scrutinised by an unsmiling official. On board, if you are lucky, you’ll find a seat and pray for a smooth crossing with nobody throwing up.

Golden age of travel posters

But was it so great in the past? Well, yes, airport travel was less stressful, with smaller airports, shorter queues and faster boarding times. We’ve all seen pictures of smartly attired BOAC air hostesses with charming smiles and glasses of champagne tending passengers with great solicitude. A friendly pilot wanders through the cabin chatting to all and sundry whilst some lucky child or aviation enthusiast gets to sit in the cockpit as the plane lands. (Anyone seen the wonderful spoof movie Airplane!?)

Marlene Dietrich on SS Bremen cruise liner

Marlene Dietrich SS Bremen

Black and white films show ticker-tape arrivals and departures of movie stars draped in expensive furs and sporting caps at jaunty angles aboard luxury cruise liners. We admire beautiful lounges decorated with priceless works of art and restaurants serving haute cuisine and watch elegant passengers dressed in linen playing deck quoits or relaxing in steamer chairs in the afternoon sunshine.

Railway enthusiasts extol the glories of the ‘Age of Steam’ embodied in the idyllic scene described in the poem ‘Adlestrop’ where a steam train stops briefly at an English station on sunny June day. We may remember travelling on one of these mighty machines with their smooth wooden interiors and cheerful ticket inspectors, enjoying the steam and yes, even the smuts in the eye. That wonderful classic movie ‘Brief Encounter’ sums up the romance of a more innocent time long gone. Who hasn’t dreamt of travelling in comfort and ultimate luxury, though possibly without the drama of a ‘Murder on the Orient Express’!

As with everything, there are pros and cons to travel today compared with yesteryear, as you can see in this excellent article by Expedia on the Golden Age of Travel. I have been fortunate enough to fly in a WW2 Dakota – great fun if rather noisy and bumpy – and enjoyed a glass of bubbly as I zoomed across Switzerland on the Glacier Express. I’ve experienced timeless luxury on a Cunard cruise (and yes, there was a croquet lawn on board) but I’ve also been stuck on nightmare cheap flights, stayed in lousy hotels, had people throw up on me during a nightmare ferry journey and had to sit on a train carriage floor from London to Birmingham. However, for all the drawbacks of modern travel, it’s safer, faster, cheaper and available to a lot more people. I’d say that though today may not be the ultimate Golden Age of Travel, it is at the very least silver-gilt, or maybe even gold-plated … What do you think?


This article was inspired by Expedia’s ‘Golden Age of Travel’ post (see link above).

March 31, 2015

9 tips for a stress-free airport experience

9 tips for a stress-free airport experience

It’s well-known that the most stressful part of a holiday or business travel for most people is the time spent getting to the airport then dawdling in lengthy queues for check-in and security, whilst we wonder if we will ever actually get on the plane. Here are a few simple tips for a stress-free airport experience.

9 Top Tips for stress-free airport travel

1. Check in online

These days some airlines insist you check in online and nearly all offer the option. If you don’t travel independently very often you may not have done this before. It is relatively easy and ensures you get not only a guaranteed seat but also save (a bit) of time at the airport. Do look at the requirements on your airline ticket as there are sometimes specific times when you can/can’t book.

2. Organise your luggage before you go

Fogs carrying lugggage

Get the lightest luggage you can, label it clearly and make sure you have a padlock. If it’s black or other popular colour tie a red ribbon or other marker on it so you can find it easily on the luggage carousel. With so many restrictions on what you can and can’t take on board it pays to sort out hand luggage out before you leave home. Put liquids (100ml and under), make-up etc into a small, transparent bag; I use a ziploc sandwich bag. Put it at the top of your hand luggage, easy to get at when you need to show it. Keep passport and tickets together in a safe compartment. A Kindle or other electronic reading device (plus charger) might be useful. Wet wipes, tissues, pen, perfume, mints, camera, phone … Organise your bag so you know where everything is. You don’t have to take a proper flight case but a big handbag/bag means you’ve got plenty of space for last-minute purchases from Duty Free.

3. Leave home early

Yes, it’s blindingly obvious but we all know about best laid plans, mice and men. It really does pay dividends to leave home early and make sure you get to the airport on time (usually 2 hours before) if not earlier. If you’re travelling by public transport get the earlier train/bus/coach for peace of mind. If you’re travelling by car there are plenty of things that can go wrong, from breakdown to traffic jams. I remember a nightmare drive to Gatwick for a flight to Greece. We had a puncture on the dual carriageway and spent about an hour changing a tyre on the hard shoulder whilst cars whizzed past dangerously close. We missed our flight and had to pay for another one the next day. Lesson learnt!

4. Stay in an airport hotel the night before

Radisson Blu Manchester Airport

Even better than having to rush to the airport, this really is one of the best ways to avoid travel-related stress. Book into a hotel on, or very near the airport and you will be able to enjoy the whole experience much more. Yes, it will cost more money but there are some really good deals and they usually include free parking so it could actually save you money. Plus you’ll get a good night’s sleep and wake refreshed, however early your flight. You can read about my Radisson Blu airport hotel stay here.

5. Keep calm whilst you queue

If you’re lucky enough to have Priority Boarding or are travelling First Class, you may avoid some of the hassle of check-in security. However, unless you’re very rich, famous or a member of the royal family, the chances are you will have to stand in line and submit to being made to feel like a petty criminal. Don’t stress. You know it’s going to happen so accept it as part of the trip – hopefully the worst part. Chat to others, think about your holiday, plan your business meeting, text/email friends, read a book – anything to pass the time whilst you shuffle your way into the Departure Lounge.

6. Use the VIP Airport Lounge

Madrid Airport VIP Lounge

You can get various special offers on Airport Lounge passes either for one-off or annual trips. They usually have comfortable seating, daily newspapers, places to work, free wifi and complimentary refreshments and are a really great way to relax before your flight. If you have children, some have an age restriction so do check that beforehand.

7. Go shopping

Airport Duty Free

The days of really great prices in airport shopping may be over but you can still enjoy a bit of retail therapy whilst you’re waiting for your flight. If you’re flying outside the EU you DO get Duty Free rates and you can also claim back tax in some countries. Electronics and camera equipment may be better value. If you know what you want, you can always look up the price online before you buy. For lots more useful and fun ideas check out cheapflights 52 Things to do at the Airport infographic.

8. Leave plenty of time to get to the Departure Gate

Airport Terminal

If you’re flying from an international airport the Departure Gate may be a long way from the main lounges and shops. Do keep an eye on the Announcement Board and give yourself plenty of time to get to your Gate. I well remember running like mad along seemingly endless corridors and slow travelators with a 5 year old in tow at Palma airport, only just boarding in time.

9. Don’t rush to board the plane

If you’ve already booked your plane seat, you don’t need to leap up as soon as your flight is called. The chances are they will call families first so if you have children you’ll be able to board early anyway. If not, then avoid standing for ages whilst hundreds of people jostle and push to get into their seats. As long as you’re at the (correct) Departure Gate the plane won’t be taking off without you so make the most of your seat, assuming you have one, and join the queue as it gets close to the desk.

This article was written in association with cheapflights. Hopefully these top tips will help you to enjoy your airport experience stress-free. Do leave a comment and share your own tips here 🙂

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9 tips for a stress-free airport experience - the quirky traveller

December 12, 2014

Switzerland by train: Interlaken to the Jungfrau

Switzerland by train: Interlaken to the Jungfrau

Exploring Switzerland by train has to be one of the best ways to see this perfect country. Yes, it has excellent motorways and roads but rail travel is a pleasure and often quicker than by car or coach. In winter a large area of the country is covered in snow, but unlike the UK, where a light dusting brings the country to a panicky standstill, Switzerland trains continue to run like clockwork, as you’d expect here.

Matterhorn train from Glacier Express Switzerland - image Zoe Dawes

The Matterhorn train from the Glacier Express

One of the most memorable rail journeys I ever did was from Carnforth to Interlaken then up the mighty Jungfrau on its tiny 100 year old train, on the luxurious Glacier Express to Saint Moritz and finally on to Zurich.  There was snow everywhere, the sun shone nearly all the time and picture-postcard scenery surrounded us on all sides.

View from 1st Class carriage on Glacier Express train Switzerland - image Zoe Dawes

View from 1st class carriage of Glacier Express

Here is how I did this spectacular railway journey through some of the most impressive scenery in Switzerland.

From Interlaken to the Jungfrau

Interlaken Switzerland - image

Interlaken – image

Interlaken was once a popular health resort for the rich Europeans, situated between the lakes of Thun and Brienz. Lord Byron stayed at the Hotel Interlaken (in 1816) as did the composers Mendelssohn and Schumann.


Hotel Interlaken

British visitors put it at the heart of the Swiss tourist map in the early 20th century and that legacy can be seen in the big old hotels that can be found around the town.  Embraced by jagged mountains, with a wide open meadow to preserve the view, the Jungfrau towers over Interlaken, enticing all to ascend its peak.

From Interlaken Ost you can take a circular route up to the Jungfrau. We left the lakeside city in one of the distinctive yellow and blue carriages of the narrow-gauge Bernese Oberland Bahnen (BOB) and tootled off between the lakes and up through the attractive Lauterbrunnen Valley. I took photos from the train, as the scene became more Alpine by the minute.

View of Lauterbrunnen Valley Switzerland from train

View of Lauterbrunnen Valley from train

At Lauterbrunnen Station we crossed the platform to join the Wengeralp-Bahn (WAB) train and off on the narrow rack railway that winds its cheery way up to Wengen, a busy ski resort at 1274m. The most spectacular piste of the region is without doubt the Lauberhorn piste near Wengen, popularised by the World Cup.

There are no roads up here so all the trains are equipped to take skis, snowboards, equipment and luggage. As we climbed ever higher the imposing Bernese Alps loomed over us. As well as the monastic Monch (Monk) 4,099m and splendid Jungfrau, 4,158m. we got a fantastic view of the 3,970m Eiger from the Jungfrau train.

The Jungfrau-Bahn and the world’s highest railway station

At Kleine Scheidegg 2,061m, magnet for skiers, walkers and mountain climbers drawn by the lure of the high Alps, we transferred to the historic Jungfrau-Bahn (Jungfrau Railway) with its quaint wooden carriages. The building of the world’s highest railway line and station was a 19th century masterpiece of logistical planning and construction. It opened on August 1st, 1912 and has to be one of the great railway journeys in the world and the jewel in Switzerland’s railway crown. We were fortunate to be there in the centenary year and caught a glimpse of the original 100 year old train from the window.

Jungfrau train 100 years old - Switzerland

Jungfrau train 100 years old

After trundling up the steep mountain track we entered a very long tunnel (7,122m) with enormous viewing windows. Everyone got out at the Eiger Wall for a fantastic view of the famous North Face and then at Eismeer (Sea of Ice), where the glaciers of Grindelwald and Fiesch flow in sinuous icy splendour.

Swiss Alps Glacier from Jungfrau viewing window - image Zoe Dawes

Swiss Alps Glacier from Jungfrau viewing window

The Jungfrauhoch station, hewn from inside the mountain, brings a frisson of excitement as people disembark into the heart of the mountain. I immediately felt the impact of the altitude as breathing became more difficult and walking was like trudging through treacle. Cut into the glacier is the Ice Palace, with impressive ice sculptures.Lifts take passengers to the Visitor Centre with its Information Centre, cinema, art gallery, shops and restaurants.

Beer on the Jungfrau Switzerland - image Zoe Dawes

Beer on the Jungfrau

Once we had acclimatised we went outside up to Viewing Platform and the Sphinx International Research Station. Apparently Europe’s highest grid-connected solar power plant is situated here too. Icy fresh air cleared our lungs; it’s cold up on the top all year round so warm clothes are essential.

JUNGFRAUJOCH - Top of Europe: Sphinx (3571 m) with view over the Aletsch Glacier. Copyright by Jungfrau Railways By-Line

JUNGFRAUJOCH Top of Europe – photo Jungfrau railways by

We were lucky; there can be cloud up here so if you are planning a visit do check the visibility. We got marvellous views of the mountain tops and UNESCO World Heritage Jungfrau-Aletsch National Park. The return journey took us back via the cosmopolitan village of Grindelwald, the largest ski resort in the Jungfrau region, surrounded by a commanding mountainscape with the Eiger North Face and the Wetterhorn.

Returning to Interlaken is to come back down to earth after being in another world, where railways and nature combine to give visitors “one of the most sensational experiences in SwitzerlandSwitzerland by Train – JMP Guides. This journey from Interlaken to the Jungfrau is detailed in an excellent book for all railway fans ‘Great Railway Journeys of Europe’ Insight Guides.

September 20, 2014

Why you MUST visit the North West of England

Why you MUST visit the North West of England

Having lived in the south of England for some years I know how far away ‘the North’ can seem. But it really isn’t, especially if you let the train take the strain, as they used to say, and it’s so worth the journey.  From the outstanding sea-faring heritage of Liverpool, the dynamic buzz of Manchester, the blowsy charms of Blackpool and natural beauty of the Lake District, this part of the country has attractions and sights to appeal to all ages and tastes.

Singing-Ringing-Tree-Panopticon Lancashire - near Burnley - by Zoe Dawes

The Singing Ringing Tree Panopticon overlooking the Pennines in Lancashire

I make no excuses for focusing on the area I know and love best, so here are a few reasons why you must visit the North West of England.

The North West has soulfully beautiful scenery and natural attractions

A few years ago Wastwater in the Lake District was voted ‘Britain’s Favourite View’ and when you see the mighty lakeland fells reflected in the dark waters of England’s deepest lake, you can see why. Water ripples and furls through this National Park via its lakes, tarns, rivers, streams and waterfalls.

Sunset over Windermere in Lake District - by Zoe Dawes

Sunset over Windermere

With its majestic mountains and sheep-grazed hills the Lake District and Cumbria have a positive Feng Shui feel to it that may explain why so many people talk of the spiritual and healing benefits of this region. The many ancient stone circles from Birkrigg in the south, to Castlerigg to the west and Long Meg in the Eden Valley, tell us that people have lived in this area for centuries. Take the ferry across Windermere, walk up Latterbarrow, wander beside Ullswater or admire the Jaws of Borrowdale from Friar’s Crag – just some of the many ways to see nature at her most impressive.

Not far off the M6 lies the attractive Forest of Bowland where you can wander through ancient woods and take a picnic beside a rippling brook. Walk along Morecambe Bay promenade and see huge flocks of seabirds, featured on Autumn Watch, set at Leighton Moss Nature Reserve. Red Squirrels scamper about Formby pine forest and beside lovely Buttermere. Spooky Pendle Hill may be haunted by the ghosts of Lancashire witches and the undulating Pennines form a natural backdrop up to the Scottish border.

The North West has vibrant, dynamic cities with strong character and illustrious history

Liverpool Liver Building and Docks - by Zoe Dawes

Liverpool Liver Building and Docks

Liverpool and Manchester are not just famous for their football teams. Liverpool has always been linked to the sea, showcased in the Maritime Museum. It’s still a major port and Liverpool Cruise Terminal welcomes visitors from all over the world. You can also explore its less salubrious links on the Liverpool Slavery Tour. Of course the Beatles are celebrated all over the city and music can be heard in the many lively clubs, bars and restaurants. Art lovers of all styles are catered for – the Walker Art Gallery has one of the country’s best collections of Pre-Rafaelite paintings and Tate Modern satisfies contemporary tastes. Make time to see Anthony Gormley’s ‘Another Place’, an evocative collection of figures gazing out sea from Crosby Beach.

Manchester Town Hall - by Zoe Dawes

Manchester Town Hall

Manchester was pivotal in the 18th century Industrial Revolution and its magnificent architecture is epitomised by the impressive grandeur of the Town Hall. With its stylish skyscrapers and sensitive restoration work, a fantastic night life and possibly the best shopping in the north, Manchester has moved far away from its ‘dour and grimy’ image. Wander along Canal Street and nearby Chinatown for a cosmopolitan flavour of this multi-cultural city. Superb classical music performed by the BBC Philharmonic and the Hallé Orchestra can be heard at the acoustically superb Bridgewater Hall. Take the tram over to Salford Quays, where the BBC has set up base in Media City. The Lowry has over 300 art works by the eponymous ‘stick-figure’ artist and the nearby Imperial War Museum tells the story of conflict – and peace – through the ages in sensitive and  fascinating displays.

The North West does ‘seaside and coastal’ with fun, style and historic diversity

Blackpool Tower, pier and beach, Lancashire - by Zoe Dawes

Blackpool Tower, pier and beach

Britain’s most popular seaside resort, Blackpool, is a brash, bold and fun as you imagine it to be. With three Victorian Piers, iconic Blackpool Tower,a heady funfair, Madame Tussaud’s waxworks, an indoor water park, zoo, many theatres and numerous clubs, there really is something for all the family. But it’s not all glitz and kiss-me-quick hats.

Have tea in the graceful surroundings of Winter Gardens and relive the elegance of an era long gone or maybe take a twirl around the floor of the Blackpool Tower Ballroom and imagine you’re a ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ finalist!

Southport Pier train and Marine Lake - by Zoe Dawes

Southport Pier train and Marine Lake

Further down the coast is Southport, pearl of Merseyside, a slightly more genteel seaside resort with plenty of shops along Victorian-arcaded Lord Street, boats on the Marine Lake, a fairground, modern pier, beautiful Botanic Gardens, attractive parks and numerous golf courses. It’s got a long, sandy beach but the tide goes very far out; it’s not the best place for a swim but great for making sandcastles. Discover your inner Hercule Poirot in the Art Deco elegance of the Midland Hotel overlooking the vast sands of Morecambe Bay.

Morecambe Bay fishing boat - by Zoe Dawes

Morecambe Bay fishing boat

On the Cumbrian coast you can discover Roman ruins in the tiny village of Ravenglass, and shelter from the Irish Sea breezes beneath St Bees’ heady cliffs. Whitehaven has moved on from its mining past and is now an attractive harbour town, as is Maryport a little further along the coast.  When you reach sleepy Silloth, you can see the the Scottish Hills across the Solway Firth and stand at the start (or end?) of Hadrian’s Wall.

Horses and riders on Hard Knott Pass, Cumbria

Horses and riders on Hard Knott Pass, Cumbria

Of course, I’ve not even started on our delightful villages, welcoming pubs, delicious local food and very friendly people. You’ll just have to come and visit the North West and find out for yourself …

July 13, 2014

Flying high over England in the KLM Dakota DC-3

Flying high over England in the KLM Dakota DC-3

The drone of the engines got louder as we accelerated along the runway, fields and trees flashing past the window as we gracefully lifted up into the clouded, sun-streaked skies above Durham Tees Valley Airport.

KLM Dakota DC3 take off from Durham Tees Valley Airport - photo Zoe Dawes

Dakota DC3 take off

The clicking of cameras and animated chatter ricocheted though the cabin as the elegant elderly plane forged its way up into the sky.  Just a few minutes before we had been drinking champagne and nibbling canapes at a welcoming reception in the airport terminal.  We’d been invited to join a very special flight aboard a vintage Dakota DC-3 to celebrate 95 years of commercial flights by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.

KLM Dakota reception Durham Tees Valley Airport

KLM Dakota reception Durham Tees Valley Airport

There were only 12 seats and our lucky dozen consisted of competition winners, including one lady celebrating her birthday and Alan Duncan who, with his wife Samantha, was fulfilling a life-long ambition to fly in a Dakota.  Other passenger included local journalists, a couple of KLM staff and me.  Airport ground crew entered into the spirit of the event, dressing up in 1940s RAF uniforms

Durham Tees Valley Airport crew in RAF uniforms to celebrate KLM Dakota flight

Durham Tees Valley Airport crew

To get us ‘in the mood’ even more, a band played 1940s music whilst we chatted and gradually got more excited about our very special opportunity to fly in one of the few remaining Dakota DC-3 planes in the world.  We were called through to the Departure Lounge and out onto the tarmac.  In front of us was the very lovely KLM Dakota DC-3  ‘Prinses Amalia’.

KLM 'Prinses Amalia' Dakota DC-3 - by Zoe Dawes

KLM ‘Prinses Amalia’ Dakota DC-3

The plane is 75 years old and was used during World War Two – the pilot showed us the riveted plate that was put in place during the war.  The Dakota DC-3 changed the face of flying forever, being one of the very first luxury passenger planes to make flying accessible to many – it even had berths to accommodate lengthy overnight flights.  We took lots of photos and posed for a group shot before boarding.

KLM passengers and crew Dakota DC-3 - by Zoe Dawes

Celebrating 95 years of KLM flights with Dakota DC-3

As I climbed up the steep steps of the ‘ladder’ the air hostess (yes PC Brigade, we could call her that) told me that Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands used the plane as did many other Dutch dignitaries and famous folk.

Boarding KLM Dakota DC-3

Boarding KLM Dakota DC-3

Once on board we found our seats and stowed our bags.  I was using my brand new Millican ‘Mark the Messenger Bag’.  I’ve been looking for something good-quality, durable and attractive to carry all the paraphernalia a travel blogger needs.  This includes notebook, pens, a couple of cameras, iPad, phone, batteries, make-up, M&Ms, tissues – you know the kind of thing!  Finally I found it in this great bag, designed by the creative team at Home of Millican in Keswick.  Made from hard-wearing weather-proof canvas (mine appropriately in airforce blue) it’s got deep pockets and compartments, one big enough to take a laptop, a very strong shoulder strap and leather buckles with brass fittings.  Perfect for a quirky traveller …

'Mark' the Millican Bag on Dakota DC-3

‘Mark’ the Millican Bag

Once we had settled into our seats, the pilot went through the pre-flight checks and told us to enjoy our flight in this ‘lovely old lady’.  Then we were off, up into the air and very quickly looking down across the Tees Valley, sandy beaches of Redcar and the blue waters of the North Sea.  The nearer we go to the sea, the clearer the skies became and for the 30 minute we were up in the air we had brilliant weather, which made everybody even happier …

KLM Dakota DC-3 over NE Coast - by Zoe Dawes

Dakota over NE Coast

Being only 12,000 feet up we got a marvellous view and the captains gave us a running commentary on the sights below.  We were allowed to go into the cockpit where old and new technology was being used. One pilot had an old-fashioned map and the other an iPad.  They said it was a privilege to fly the plane and relished ‘real hands-on flying’ with no satellite or computer navigation but plenty of dials, sticks and instruments to play with.

KLM Dakota pilot with map - photo by Zoe Dawes

Dakota pilot with map

KLM Dakota pilot with iPad - photo by Zoe Dawes

Dakota pilot with iPad

We wheeled over the industrial landscape of the River Tees estuary, with a forest of wind turbines dotted around the sea and ships like toy boats heading off to foreign shores.  The steady thrumming of the engines, the whirling of the rotar blades and the thousands of rivets glittering along the metallic wing were somehow hypnotic and strangely reassuring.  It all felt very different from the modern-day airport travel – and much more enjoyable.

KLM Dakota DC-3 over Tees River - by Zoe Dawes

Dakota over Tees River

All too soon we had turned round and were descending towards the airport.  A smooth landing and we were brought to a gentle halt.  I was really reluctant to leave this beautiful aeroplane and took great delight in posing at the top of the steps with one of the friendly crew, feeling vaguely like some latter day film star arriving in Monte Carlo.

The Quirky Traveller on KLM Dakota DC-3

Aboard KLM Dakota DC-3

Watch this short video to get an idea of what it’s really like to fly aboard the historic KLM Dakota DC-3 .

Thanks to everyone at KLM and Durham Tees Valley airport for a splendid day out.  It’s most definitely thumbs up for this truly memorable and unique trip!

Thumbs up for KLM Dakota DC-3 - by Zoe Dawes

Thumbs up for KLM Dakota DC-3

Read: Fun Things to do on Aruba, a Caribbean island with strong Dutch links. You can fly there with KLM via Schiphol Airport.

Aruba - Caribbean island in the sun - photo zoedawes

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