A Budget-Friendly Swiss Family Hike in the Clouds

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Walk in the CloudsSomewhere along the way we became that hiking family. You know, the ones with seriously ugly boots and those weird zip-off pants. I shudder to admit this, but I now consider SPF protection and water resistance rather than style when looking to buy new clothes. Please send help.

When our family was driving back from the amazing Kaltenberg Knight’s Tournament, my husband and I tried to figure out just when this switch happened. Exactly when did we realize that hiking was our family’s “thing?” And, someone please tell me, when did our four year-old decide that he (1) was not only capable but (2) actually enjoyed walking for hours in the woods?

When planning the aforementioned trip, I asked for trail recommendations in the TripAdvisor forums. I wrote this:

We have two kids, 4 1/2 and 6 1/2 that are accustomed to hiking (max 15km, 10km is ideal).

Later in the day, the full impact of what I wrote hit me, and I had to pause. Seriously, when did hiking TEN KILOMETERS with my kids become “ideal”?!

I have no doubt there are other hiking families with little ones out there. I just don’t know any of them. Will the non-poser hiking families please stand up?

Anyway, I guess now we (mostly) just forgo fashion for natural beauty – as in rivers, trees, rocks, mountains. This is starting to sound like we’ve gone completely tree-hugger, but that’s not entirely accurate. I mean, at least I still shower. Goodness.

Plus, even if fashion is your thang, I don’t care how GQ you are – no one holds a candle to the Swiss Alps. Oh, golly do I love the Alps. In fact, I’m smitten.

And while it just feels right to snack on a sandwich at 3,000m, what I usually can’t stomach are the Swiss prices. I can only fork over so many francs in the summer hiking season.

It was, therefore, with great delight that I came across Moms : Tots : Zurich’s post about a hike in the Engelberg valley that only required a one-way cable car ticket and clocked in at a very reasonable 12 CHF per adult. For the hiking newbs, you ride the cable car up and walk back to your car. I completely understand if this sounds like torture to you.

As soon as the weather looked something like summer, we stocked up on trail mix (dear me, now we’re granola) and hit the road.

We did our usual bagel breakfast in the car, and arrived at the Fürenalp cable car just after it opened.

Unfortunately, even though the weather was warm enough to be classified as “not winter,” the skies weren’t entirely clear. In fact, the clouds changed about every twenty seconds.

As I usually do before venturing into die Schweiz, I stalked the weather forecast and webcam for days, comparing the predictions from several sites with the actual weather throughout the day from the 360° webcam. In the end, it’s always a gamble, and we decided we’d rather go to the Alps on a cloudy day than not go at all. Besides, everything in Switzerland can’t always be perfect, right?!

Well, since I know many of you aren’t hiking weirdos with convertible pants and trekking poles, I thought I’d just show you the hike in pictures rather than just yapper on and on about the trail.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

The Fürenalp cable car is much smaller than the ones we are used to. They hold 6-8 people, and the ride only lasts a few minutes.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

There’s a photo at the station here that shows an old version of the cable car. It basically looks like an open crate, and the photo shows two children sitting alone in it and sailing up the mountain. Yikes.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Thirty francs later (kids under 6 are free), we’re off!

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Goodbye, Engelberg! This turned out to be the clearest view we had of the valley the whole day.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

In Switzerland, there’s always a restaurant at the end of any cable car line. Note that the prices are as impressive as the views.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

But, more importantly, there’s usually a playground at the top, too. This one did not disappoint. Not pictured: a giant trampoline to really get the altitude sickness going.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

As we studied the trail map, Bessie and her buds moseyed up to eye the new trail meat. And yes, that strip of rocky dirt is the start of the Grotzliweg trail.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

The kids liked the cows, but Doc Sci was a little chicken to share the trail with them so we took a parallel path. At the time I kind of ragged on him about it, but later, I read Tanya’s post about scary cows. Better leave those heifers alone.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Goodbye, awesome playground and potentially dangerous bovines.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

The trail starts out nice and easy. As Tanya mentions, you can’t take a pram here, but the terrain isn’t too rough for smallish hikers.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

I noticed a sign pointing toward a small mirror lake (Spiegelseeli), so I left the boys on the main trail and ran up to check it out. I imagine this would be a perfect place for the kids to splash and frolic about when the temperatures oblige.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Had the clouds not been so annoying, here’s all the things we could’ve seen (including the more popular and MUCH more expensive Titlis). Sometimes we could see somber black mountain faces smattered with rotting streaks of snow. Other times we caught glimpses of those same streaks morphing into wild waterfalls that careened down the sheer drop-offs. And, in between, we couldn’t see anything but wispy haze that clouded the views we coveted of those majestic Alps.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Along the way, we passed another even smaller cable car station, a handful of dairy farms selling fresh-from-the-cow products, a few restaurants, and the same four pairs of hikers. Everyone took breaks at different times and places, passing and being passed in a funny trail dance that bordered on annoying by the time it was over.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Speaking of that other cable car, if you find that you’ve bit off more than you can chew with a 9km walk, you can catch a ride down on it, and that would probably cut that distance in half. But if you’re game to keep walking, the station makes a lovely picnic spot.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

After lunch, Bravo spotted one of the biggest cowbells we have ever seen.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

One of the highlights of the hike is the Stäuber waterfall. It’s not really a place to wade or swim or test your luck in a barrel, but this section looked okay for the kids to dip a toe or two in (under supervision, of course).

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

The waterfall isn’t particularly high, but it still had plenty of water flowing thanks to melted snow. Maybe it’s less impressive in the late summer/early fall.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

The alpine flowers were in full bloom, and we actually saw more critters than usual (read: more than zero). We saw everything from dung flies to butterflies to a laminated frog (tractor tire?) and a silvery snake. All this in addition to the cows that, despite Doc Sci’s efforts to avoid, populated many of the paths.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

The route back down toward Engelberg follows this river which flows from the waterfall. The flow calms down a bit further on. We saw several places to wade in the frigid water, but it was still too chilly to do that, even in mid-June.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Toward the end of the hike, we entered a forested area that was rather unremarkable, except for this billy and his buds.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Once we cleared the forest (and another herd of cows), we found ourselves in a big open field with a view of the cable car and a bit of the Engelberg valley. An impressive finish, to say the least.

Whew! We did it – 9 kilometers completed, 30 francs spent, and untold numbers of treacherous cow pies avoided.

Even though we were the only family with kids that day, we still made it down the mountain in roughly the same amount of time as everyone else. We started our hike at 10:30am, and we finished just before 3:00pm. We stopped two times for snacks as well as at the waterfall to let our jaws hang loose while we stared at the simple yet amazing power of rushing water. Yes, despite the cloudy conditions, a good day was had by all.

This post is the first of three short trips to the Swiss Alps. In order to ease you into the sticker shock, I’m starting with the cheapest. But if you’re ready to jump in and bleed as much cash as possible, you can read about our pricey (but amazing) trip to Schilthorn last summer here. Stay tuned for our next stop – Mt. Pilatus!

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Conquering Kotor, Montenegro

Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of KotorMontenegro. Say it.

It sounds… exotic, feisty, mysterious.. even dangerous.

These qualities (obviously) mean I should add it to my list of places to go with three young children, right?

Wait, are we nuts?! Probably. I know there are other families that take their kids even crazier places than we do, but, man, we are so far gone from pretty little Disney holidays.

Today’s adventure takes place in slick little Montenegro, another former YU country (sorry, I know I put it on our bucket list and it’s not technically Croatia, but just go with it). Known as Crna Gora / Црна Гора to locals, most people young, rich, and/or famous know it as a fabulous place to party (Budva).

But, we know it as a (literally) breathtaking place to drink in views of the fjord-like Bay of Kotor.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

Bay of Kotor.

Kotor is a popular day trip from Dubrovnik given that it’s supposedly only an hour and a half drive (see Notes at the end of this post). If you like collecting stamps in your passport from random small countries to up your count or exploring old stone cities steeped in history, Kotor might be for you.

Just don’t come here to climb up to St. John’s Fortress like we did.

No, no, no.

The city of Kotor, located on the bay of the same name, is quite small and can be explored in an hour or two. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Kotor is cute, and sweet (which is about the opposite of how Montenegro sounds). Plus, it’s less crowded than its flashy friend to the north, Dubrovnik. Cruise ships have started docking in the city, but you can check the schedule in advance and adjust your itinerary to visit on a different day.Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

So, what do you do after you’ve strolled the ancient streets? You could do something normal and sane like sit down at a cafe, have a drink, and and enjoy the atmosphere. Or you could set your sights on higher and more insane things like conquering St. John’s Fortress… with children.

I cannot officially recommend schlepping kids up 1,350 stone steps, so I won’t. But I will tell you how it could be done if you thought you might be hare brained enough to entertain the idea. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Pick up a map from the tourist information kiosk just outside the city walls. Or, just walk away from the bay and toward the mountain. You can’t miss it. Bring euros for the small entrance fee as well as water, snacks, and bribes for the hikes. You’re going to need it.

The first thing you’ll notice is that you have two choices: walk on stone steps or a somewhat flattened pile of rocks, both of which are quite slick in the rain (did I mention it was raining?!).

If you’re a parent, your two options become one option. Walk on the rocks while your child walks on the steps. Well, except for the parts of the climb where the low wall that provided a false sense of protection against a nasty tumble down the hillside is, conveniently, missing. Then, you can switch places until the wall reappears.

About fifteen minutes into the climb when you’re soaked to the bone underneath your rain jacket because good golly is this thing steep or what, you’ll reach the Church of Our Lady of Remedy.

Fabulous, you’re nearly there, right? Ha, no. But you can take a rest with the chain-smoker that’s more than happy to sell you an over-priced bottle of water. People watching is, of course, complimentary.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

Just passing the Church of Our Lady of the Remedy.

Try to keep your eyes on the route and not on the fantastic panorama unfolding with each step up. You don’t want to slip on those rocks and take the kids down with you. No, no. Oh, and try not to think about why you don’t see any other families along the way.

When you do reach the top, you might want to (again) watch your step. It’s not like the fortress is falling apart or anything, but, well, yeah, it pretty much is. And the edges don’t have secure railings, so you might want to embarrass your kids by tagging along when they need to take a leak so they don’t tumble when they tinkle.Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

If you’ve made it this far, pat yourself on the back because that was one heck of a climb. And one seriously ridiculous idea with tots in tow. But the view, the view, the view, THE VIEW!Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

It’s easy to understand why this spot was chosen to fortify. From here, you can see so much of the Bay of Kotor, the city of Kotor, and the surrounding terrain.

Set up the self-timer, and burn up the camera. This is a perfect place to take a family photo. Just don’t position expensive cameras or precious children too close to the edge of anything.Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

On the way back down, try to ignore those shaky legs. What are you, a weakling? You just owned that climb up to the fortress! Promise the kids they can have  a n y t h i n g  they want to eat from the grocery store if they just make it down in one piece.

Bonus: Groceries in Montenegro are CHEAP, so they can have the chips, the ice cream, and the juice for all I care.Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

Why yes I did just sweat my way up and down the mountain behind me, thanks for asking.

I’m (obviously) being cheeky here, and just in case the sarcasm is lost on you (Sheldon Cooper), I don’t want you to think we didn’t enjoy Kotor. In fact, we loved it, and it goes down as one of the best days of our Croatian adventure.

Also, I probably should add that for all my groveling here for the sake of humor, actually our kids made it up with hardly any whining. Reading that statement from my trip notes and typing it again here, I can barely believe it, but it must’ve happened. Just don’t expect a repeat performance, right?Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

By the way, I’m partly blaming my desire to conquer the climb up to St. John’s Fortress on Calli and Travis of Have Blog Will Travel. Their post got me hooked on the idea, and, well, we’re suckers for a good view. If they did it, why couldn’t we? Oh right, because we have THREE LITTLE KIDS with us. And apparently I just skipped over this little line, “The hike isn’t an easy one, as many of the pathways are still a work in progress,” and instead focused on the fact that, “the views at the top are more than enough reward.”

Well said.

To see the fortress walls of Kotor all lit up at night, click here. And then tell me, what would you do for a good view?

Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

Stuck at the border. This line took us nearly 1 1/2 hours..

More Notes on Montenegro:

  • Driving directions will tell you that Kotor is about 1:30 – 1:45 from Dubrovnik. Don’t believe everything you read. Double that time to allow for long lines at the border (maybe triple it in summer). We were only about 12 cars away from the crossing and it took nearly 1 1/2 hours. Apparently there are problems with drugs, guns, money, and the like in and out of MNE so that’s why the checks are thorough. See? I told you, dangerous…
  • The roads were horrific – one lane in each direction, winding and twisting around the water with 40-60km/hr speed limits, slow old beaters and big trucks.
  • Bring loads of snacks and entertainment options (or practice your hand at these games that don’t require any equipment) in case you get stuck.
  • Living in Germany, we have become quite accustomed to not bringing our passports when we pop over to France or dip down to Switzerland. They’re never asked for or checked. But you definitely need your passport with you when crossing any borders in this region.
  • There’s a ferry option to cross the bay of Kotor, but it is not much faster than driving around the bay and the second option is much more scenic. Plus, if you drive around the bay, you can stop in Perast.
  • To up the awesomeness of your time in Kotor, park in Perast and take a boat out to the island of Our Lady of the Rocks. We didn’t make it out there, unfortunately, but I believe the boat costs 5 euros per person. At the very least, pull over and have a look; the two little islands are lovely to look at from the shore (see the second photo in this post). Check out Travis and Calli’s post on getting to Perast via public transport here.
  • Parking outside of the city gate in the town of Kotor is quite cheap (around 1 euro/hr) and convenient.
  • You can find small grocery stores inside the city walls or larger supermarket-type stores a bit further out.

Signature Thrifty Travel MamaThis post is part of Our Croatian Family Adventure: Ten Days on the Dalmatian Coast series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!

Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes (Plitvička Jezera)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National ParkThe scenery at Plitvice Lakes is the kind of thing travelers’ dreams and coffee table books are made of. One of seven Croatian UNESCO World Heritage sites and eight Croatian National Parks, Plitvička Jezera deserves a spot on every traveler’s bucket list.

Unfortunately, that’s also the reason it’s often quite crowded, but more on that later. No need to start on a negative note…

Getting There

While we mostly had an enjoyable visit to Croatia, a stressful ordeal with a smarmy rental car company nearly ruined our day trip out to this amazing national park (and the next few days trying to sort it all out). Wait, I said I wasn’t going to start out on a negative note.. Fortunately, our experience with Croatian roads was better than with the sleazy sales rep!

The interstate in Croatia is very modern – smooth roads, rest stops, slick tunnels, and tolls (calculate at viaMichelin). Leaving Zadar, we found ourselves wandering through terrain that reminded me of the Burren in Ireland, rocky and desolate.

We then turned off onto another local highway that meandered though villages and fields of sheep, goats, and cows. Many of the places looked abandoned, and we noticed quite a few cemeteries, some that just seemed to be plopped in the middle of a pasture (former battlefields?). Thanks to the whatever-floats-your-boat speed limit, we found ourselves at Plitvice in no time.

Getting In

After paying the (somewhat) reduced admission fee for visiting during the off-season, we consulted the map. The park has seven outlined routes which you can browse in advance here. We chose a medium-length trail, Route C, and skipped off in the direction of the rushing water.

Notes and my thoughts on our route choice can be found in the practical tips below.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National ParkThe Lower Lakes

One of our first glimpses of the falls was this postcard-worthy photo. Sheesh, even those not that into nature would be hard pressed to not gasp at the cascading emerald waters.

We found out that the Lakes are NOT pram-friendly about five minutes into our visit when we decided to veer off from the crowd and explore some very steep, damp steps. Good thing Charlie was securely strapped into our trusty backpack carrier…

At the bottom of the steps, we realized we’d found Šupljara Cave rather by accident. Rick Steeves tells me that this site is popular with German tourists due to its use as a film location for a “Spaghetti Western” from the 60s. Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National Park

Beyond the cave, it’s pure boardwalk bliss. Walking nearly on the turquoise water, this is as close as any visitor will get to taking a dip since swimming inside the park is prohibited. The wooden paths are narrow, and beware that oohing and ahhing when it’s crowded could result in a big splash and an even bigger fine. But do keep moving, though; the “big one” awaits..

My boys squealed with delight once we reached the Great Fall in the Lower Lakes because the cascading water was spitting at the visitors as it tumbled over the cliff. Kissed by the mist, we elbowed school groups in order to get thirty seconds alone for a family picture with the biggest rush in the park.

We then made our way through the rest of the Lower Lakes, fighting the urge to photograph every last little waterfall along the way. There are just SO MANY that by the end of our visit that (spoiler alert) I was suffering a bit from waterfall overload. I know, I know, first-world problem..

An electric boat shuttles visitors between the Upper and Lower Lakes. We took this opportunity to rest and refuel. Five cheese sandwiches later (that’s total, not each), we began our tour of the Upper Lakes.

The Upper Lakes

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National Park

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National ParkIn many ways, we enjoyed the Upper Lakes more than the Lower. While the wooden walkways in the Lower Lakes seemed to be right at water level, the Upper Lakes allows visitors to literally walk over waterfalls. It’s such fun to see the gurgling foam flood out beneath your feet.. provided of course that your children aren’t delighting in the obvious lack of rails along the path…

Also, the Upper Lakes are quieter. Fewer tourists make their way here since many are day trippers that only have enough time to see half of the park. The appeal of the Upper is breadth while the Lower draws the masses with height.

Plus, we spotted fluorescent green lizards along the Upper paths, but (thankfully) no other reptiles.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National Park

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National ParkThrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National ParkAfter we’d had our fill of that soothing rushing water sound, we decided to call it quits. One could easily spend two days exploring every possible footpath in the park, but a half day was enough for us to capture the best of the best.

When I think back on our day at Plivice Lakes in late April, what I remember most is the color, the sound, and the vast variety in the waterfalls. No photo, no video could do a visit here justice. One must see it to believe the jade waters are really that shade and not just Photoshopped so. So, jot it down on your list – Plitvička Jezera is THE Croatian natural wonder to see!

Plitvice Lakes can also be visited in winter (see here). Would you rather go in spring when the waters rage or in winter to see the cascades magically frozen?

Practical Tips & FAQ’s for Your Visit to Plitvice Lakes:

  • Parking is available in two lots, P1 and P2, but both may not be open year-round. We parked in P2 because it was the first one we reached when we drove up from Zadar. The attendant told me that the parking lots aren’t much different if you want to see the whole park. If youw ant to see the Lower Lakes only, park at P1. At the time of our visit, parking cost 7kn/hour.
  • The national park’s website offers seven route choices. We chose C. It appears that this is the same route as H, just reversed. Rick Steves recommends this route (C) because you encounter the falls head on. However, it is all uphill; go with H if you’d rather walk downhill.
  • You can bring your own picnic to the park or you can grab lunch at one of the cafes or restaurants. Check opening times though, because they’re not all open all year. We took advantage of the wait times for trains and the boat and ate then. Not exactly the most scenic, but efficient if you’re trying to cut down your total visit time.
  • A note on weather… We visited in April and were threatened with rain all day. However, this was a blessing because the cloud cover meant we were shielded from the blazing sun. I’d guess Plitvice is a sweltering mess in the summer with 10,000 tourists and intense heat. Bring sunscreen and a waterproof jacket in case of unexpected rain.
  • A bonus of visiting in the spring – powerful waterfalls from melting snow and spring rains. I’ve read elsewhere that visiting in late summer can be rather disappointing if the waterfalls are merely trickling. Winter at Plitvice is a totally different experience. See my note in italics above for a link to winter photos.
  • Beware the crowds in summer! If you visit during the high season, you may not be able to double back on the platforms (cheat on the routes as mentioned above) or easily pass slower groups.
  • Take note of where the bathrooms are. There’s a map on your ticket, and the potties are marked on it. Pay close attention! Across the lake from P1 at the start of P2, there’s no bathroom, so be sure to make a pit stop before you cross over and begin walking the Upper Lakes. There aren’t ANY bathrooms until you read the train station at the end of the Upper Lake path. The bathroom in the parking lot (P2) was a squatty potty, but the others we visited had proper toilets.
  • What time of day should one visit? We arrived at noon, which ended up being perfect. Most of the morning day trippers had already cleared out and we only had a few student groups to contend with on the narrow boardwalks.
  • Can I take a pram or stroller? No, you definitely cannot/should not. The pathways are uneven, rustic wooden slats. There are also stairs, and we experienced muddy paths in some places. We did not see any babies or toddlers under 3 the whole day. However, we did see tons of families with children (mostly Germans – ha!).
  • Does Route C really take 4-6 hours? Well, that depends. We cheated on a few parts of the route by doubling back and cutting off a loop here and there. Our whole walk took only 3 hours. I suppose if you walked every bit of the route and stopped a lot for breaks, a picnic lunch, etc., it might take that long.
  • Is the route strenuous? In our opinion, no. We saw many elderly people and families with children, none of whom were complaining. As I mentioned above, we did visit for 3 hours, but some of that time was spent on trains/boats and waiting. It’s more of a walk than a hike, but the route from the Lower to Upper Lakes is uphill.
  • Is it safe for kids to visit? As I mentioned, we saw tons of families with children. But, please know that the paths are without railings. I think two things helped our visit: first, we emphasized the “no swimming in the park” rule in advance, and second, the park wasn’t crowded so I didn’t need to worry about the kids being accidentally or “accidentally” pushed in the water.

 

Signature Thrifty Travel MamaThis post is part of Our Croatian Family Adventure: Ten Days on the Dalmatian Coast series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!

Where to Find the Best FREE View in Edinburgh

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in EdinburghIn most cases, I prefer to write and post about our travels right after we’ve finished them. The details are fresh in my mind; the information is current, relevant. But I also think there’s value in revisiting a trip months (even years) later.

In looking back, it’s much easier to see the places, the people, the moments (the burrito) that made the most impact.

For our family, it’s usually all about the view… and the burritos. But that’s a post for another day.

In my I’m-sorry-I-love-you-but-I-need-to-take-a-break post, I teased you with a shot from our trip. Now, I finally have time to tell all, and I’m starting with that breathtaking view.

Arthur’s Seat

Edinburgh – okay, the whole of Scotland – is notorious for its crappy weather. So, you can imagine my surprise at our good fortune when we stepped off the plane in early November and the sun was shining. Oh, the horror!

We stashed our stuff at the vacation rental and dashed off in the direction of Holyrood Park. We waved hello to the Queen’s Scottish residence, Holyrood Palace, and continued on toward the massive rock behind it.

As we got closer, however, we saw that there were actually several peaks in Holyrood Park. We wanted to climb Arthur’s Seat, not Arthur’s footstool. We asked around but couldn’t get a clear answer from anyone. Since we didn’t have much daylight left, we gambled on the highest of the bunch and went for it.Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

All roads might lead to Rome, but only half of the footpaths in Holyrood Park lead to Arthur’s Seat. The most direct is from the east near Dunsapie Loch (more on that below). The kids scampered up the wide path until slippery rock slopes slowed them down. Little ones will (literally) need a hand to reach the top safely.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

The summit at Arthur’s Seat.

Once we rounded the last craggy bend, we were rewarded with an astonishing panorama. From Arthur’s Seat (on a clear day, duh), one can see Portobello Beach, Meadowbank Stadium, Calton Hill, Waverly Station, Cramond Island, and even the amazing Firth of Forth Bridge.

Oh, right, and of course you could also see the city’s crown jewel, Edinburgh Castle.Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

Edinburgh Castle is a must-see, and the views from the castle are (usually) wonderful. But, just as the best view in Paris is not from the Eiffel Tower itself, so the best view in Edinburgh is not from the castle. Well, at least not when it looks like this…

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

Completely fogged up view from Edinburgh Castle.

The wind at the top of Arthur’s Seat is somethin’ fierce, and the weather up there can change rapidly. Luckily, we had brought decent outdoor clothing, but we still shuddered in the waning afternoon sun that set the whole of Edinburgh ablaze in brilliant orange.Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life: The English Speaking Bubble, Edinburgh

When our eyes could take it no more, we picked our way carefully back down the same way we’d come just an hour earlier. We could’ve gone a different route back, but I wanted to see Dunsapie Loch.

A friend of mine that lived in Edinburgh for a year told me that this was her kids’ favorite spot. They’d often go to the loch to feed the swans. When we walked up, there were the swans, just as she said, floating under the pink clouds of sunset and guarded by a hilltop ruin that hovered over their watery home.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

The swans of Dunsapie Loch, flocking to their next crusty handout.

Edinburgh, you were beginning to get to me. I actually started to imagine that was our family’s favorite spot. But then I pinched myself and sobered up – not all days in Edinburgh are as gorgeous as this one.

Honorable Mention – Calton Hill

While Arthur’s Seat was an easy walk from our vacation rental in Abbeyhill, it might be more of a bus ride for those staying closer to the city center. (Not that riding buses in Edinburgh is a problem – in fact, the city’s transportation system is excellent.) But if you’d like to take a stroll somewhere closer to the castle, say, then a mighty fine view can also be had from Calton Hill.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

The view OF Arthur’s Seat from Calton Hill.

Wind is a theme that can’t be shaken whenever one goes to great heights in Edinburgh. If you can keep the hair out of your mouth long enough to open your eyes, you’ll be treated to a closer view of Edinburgh Castle, the Firth of Forth, and Cramond Island.Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

The climb up to Calton Hill is easier and less treacherous than the ascent to Arthur’s Seat. I think my boys enjoyed Calton Hill more because there’s plenty of space to run around without fear of toppling over a rocky cliff. Plus, there’s an old canon in the park which always makes for a good time in their book.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

The unfinished National Monument of Scotland in the park atop Calton Hill.

Whether you choose Calton, Arthur, or both is up to you – they’re both completely free and worth the physical effort required. Just consider yourself warned: the views from these summits are intoxicating. Brace yourself; you’re about to fall in love with Scotland, grey skies and all.

Do you love a good view? Would you rather pay for a panoramic view in physical exertion or paper money?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

This post is part of the Sunday Traveler series at Chasing the Donkey. Please head here to get the best of this week’s travel-related blog posts!

 

Ketchup: The Past Four Months + the Future in 1000 Words (or More)

Practicing our Spiderman skills in Croatia

Practicing our Spiderman skills in Croatia

So now that I’m back in the saddle, I thought I’d try to close the distance between where I left you and where we are now.

I’d like (you) to think I’ve been nothing but a good student for the past four months, but I’m a terrible liar. While it’s true I always did my best to complete my homework, it’s equally as true that I played hookey a good bit during my studies. In between the worksheets and flashcards, our little family has had plenty of adventures near and far, both exceptional and everyday.

Ready for the recap?

In no particular order..

Multicoolty, a blog that compiles stories about expats living in Germany, featured me in May, though I wrote my thoughts way back in January. Check out what I had to say and a silly old picture I dug up from our first trip to Berlin here.

Cologne

Köln (Cologne)

My husband gave me a fantastic birthday gift this year – two days alone (ALONE!!) in Köln (Cologne). This was before language lessons had started, so it was a blissful quiet time to do whatever I fancied whenever I pleased.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Keukenhof Gardens with Kids

The biggest boy exploring the tulips with me at Keukenhof in the Netherlands.

To ease my disappointment over last year’s pathetic lack of tulips at Keukenhof in the Netherlands, I took my oldest son on a quick trip for a better look. We took the overnight train up to Amsterdam, bussed over to Keukenhof to gawk at the fields of tulips, made our way back to Amsterdam, scarfed down a pancake dinner, and caught the night train back home. Whew! And yes, it was actually fun, and yes, he was a champ on the overnight trains. I would definitely do it again!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro

Flying away in Zadar, Croatia.

Several days after our up-and-back Netherlands trip, the five of us flew to Croatia for ten days. During our trip, we stayed in Zadar, Dubrovnik, and Split. We also drove through a bit of Bosnia and took a day trip to Montenegro. One of the most fun moments of the trip was meeting SJ of Chasing the Donkey and her family!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mexican Food in Germany

The taco truck!

While we didn’t find any Mexican food in Croatia (and opted out of another fantastic dinner at Los Pilones in Amsterdam in favor of a pancake feast), we have been going gangbusters at the Holy Taco Shack taco truck. We took our American-expat-in-Luxembourg friends there a few weeks ago. They’re just as salsa-crazed as we are, and they gave the burritos two thumbs up. Now, if I could just get the taco truck to deliver…

Thrifty Travel Mama | potty trainingThis little champ has kicked daytime diapers and now only uses a nappy at night and during his nap. We did the same thing with all three boys – an awful, torturous, bodily-fluid-soaked potty training boot camp for a weekend followed by the shock and awe of daytime dryness.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Picking Strawberries in Germany with KidsStrawberry season came earlier this year, and we hit the fields several times. We made many of our favorite recipes from last year including strawberry fruit leather, strawberry syrup, and strawberry shortcakes.

Those strawberry shortcakes were made with coconut cream for me as I went dairy-free at the beginning of the year and have kept it up except for a four-week break while we traveled to Croatia. P.s. – I miss cheese and there is NO substitute that even comes close..

Thrifty Travel Mama | Losing TeethOur oldest little adventurer has lost enough teeth to officially apply for Jack-o-Lantern status, and the tooth fairy is flat broke. This photo is a few months old. He’s now missing three teeth on top, and two on the bottom!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Riding a LaufradThe youngest learned to ride a bike without pedals (Laufrad). And now we are losing sleep over his daredevil ways that now are ON WHEELS. Yikes.

Can you guess why we called it the poo hike?

Can you guess why we called it the poo hike?

As soon as the thermometer sailed over the 12C mark, we flexed our hiking muscles. In between our travels, we’ve been able to do a handful of hikes, including one we affectionately call the poo hike and one insane 15km trek with four kids and nearly no complaining. Kilimanjaro, here we come!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking in the Alps with kids

Back in the Alps!

And, speaking of hiking, we (okay, mainly me) became obsessed with the Alps after our excursion to Schilthorn last summer. Last weekend, we took our first summer hike near Engelberg, and we’ve got more ideas for Swiss outings than there are Saturdays before the snow falls again.

Due to an insane amount of planning and the wonderful generosity of friends, I managed a week of solo parenting (single parents, I know this is wimpy – hats off to you!) while my husband went off to Milan for a conference.. and to look for a new job.

 

The last point brings me to a big change coming for our family…

We have decided that Doc Sci won’t be renewing his employment contract here in Germany when it ends later this year. Professionally, he needs to move on; unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an opportunity to do that where we currently live.

Where will we end up? Only God knows, but most likely, we’ll move back in the US, though we may consider something in Europe if the circumstances are right. This is a decision we have wrestled with for months. We love so many things about living in Europe; it will not be easy to leave our life here behind. But, ultimately, we both know our days in this city are numbered. Sigh.

And, if you will forgive me for throwing one.more.thing your way, I’ve decided to change the boys’ nicknames here. When I started this blog, I never dreamed that anyone would read it, let alone the hundreds that do. I also never thought I’d be writing for nearly four years. In that time, the boys have painfully outgrown their silly pseudonyms.

This also may be a good time to explain why I use nicknames. Yes, there’s the usual safety concerns, but really, it’s a matter of respect for me. My kids aren’t old enough to know that I write about our life on the internet (heck, they don’t even know what the internet is). As such, they have no say in the things I post.

When they are older, they may not wish to have their faces and names plastered all over this space for public viewing. So, until the day when we can have a conversation about their wishes, I’ll respect the option of anonymity by using nicknames.

But then, there’s the matter of what to call them. I thought Small, Medium, and Large was good enough for me, basic… but boring. I tried it in German, but I just can’t call my kid Gross (large).

I’m still keeping it simple, but I’m steering in the ABC direction. The boys will now go by the first three letters of the Pilot’s Alphabet that is commonly used in the travel industry – Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie. Plus, these names are actually spot on when it comes to their personalities, Creepy!

I’m seriously over my 1,000 word target, and that’s about all the changes and updates I can handle. If you have a blog, post a link (or three) below with exciting news, fantastic trips, handy DIYs, or winning lotto numbers. I’ve love to catch up with you, too!

Now, tell me, which of our adventures above would you like to read about first?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

 

Berchtesgaden With Kids: Hiking Through the Almbachklamm

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with KidsAfter such a strenuous day hiking around the Königssee, we decided to give our tired legs a rest and take it easy.  Apparently, I define easy as one hike instead of two, one half of the day instead of the whole (!).  The destination for our last day?  The Almbachklamm (Almbach Gorge) on the outskirts of Berchtesgaden proper.

In researching hikes in the area, I discovered that the meadow used in the opening scene of The Sound of Music was located nearby in the village of Ettenberg which is just above the gorge as the crow flies.

Okay, you can throw rotten tomatoes at me if you want, but I admit I love the film, The Sound of Music.  When Doc Sci and I visited Munich in 2005 BK (before kids), I insisted that we do the hokey movie tour in Salzburg.  It was, well, one of my favorite things.  Really!

To reach Ettenberg, one can either go by car up from the main road or on foot via a trail that begins at a marble mill (Kugelmühle) and meanders through the Almbachklamm.

I don’t think I have to tell you what route we chose.  An incredibly scenic hike that ends at the Julie Andrews meadow?  Sign. me. up.

The Gorge

For the bargain price of 3 euros per adult, we were granted entry into a water wonderland.  Crystal clear falls, one right after the other, cascading into pools of jade and turquoise.  With every twist, turn, and climb, we exhaled.. wow…

Often, in helping families craft itineraries, I find myself repeating, “keep your expectations rock bottom low.”  Well, whatever expectations I had for this hike, they were completely blasted to bits.  I couldn’t shut up about how surprised I was by this place.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with Kids

The Warning

Now, before you start packing your bags for Berchtesgaden, I need to tell you that this hike is tricky with tots and wild-at-heart children.  If your kids don’t sit, fetch, and roll over very well, you may very well turn into a nervous wreck on the path.

Some areas are enclosed with railings (see the title photo), but many are not.  The footpath is barely wide enough for two, and the dropoffs end in the river which just so happens to be racing intently toward a series of waterfalls.

Yikes.

But, if you can keep a leash on those whippersnappers, you’ll be rewarded with one jaw-dropping view after another.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with Kids

the Julie Andrews Meadow

To get to Ettenberg, one can either leave the Almbachklamm at bridge #17 or bridge #25.  We should’ve gone with 17, but I’m an overachiever and the thought of missing something amazing, say around 23, compelled me to march the troops on. Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with KidsWe discovered a huge waterfall shortly after 17, but it would’ve been a better choice for our haggard limbs to simply turn around instead of continuing on.  If you want to tack on an extra hour to your hike, 25 is your number.

Climbing up from the floor of the gorge, we found ourselves in a wide open meadow surrounded by fall foliage.  Nestled in fog, we felt on top of the world. Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with KidsBut as picturesque as it might have been, it was, ahem, most definitely not the Julie Andrews meadow.  Just between me and you, it makes for lovely photos and is quite convincing for those not in the know.

NOT the Julie Andrews meadow.

NOT the Julie Andrews meadow.

The real meadow as seen over the hedge which just so happens to hide an electric fence.  Boo.

The real meadow as seen over the hedge which just so happens to hide an electric fence. Boo.

The real meadow is next to the white and marigold Ettenberger Chapel, and it’s guarded by an electric fence and killer cow pies.  So take your fake photos before you reach the village.  Besides, there’s no one out there to hear you belt out, “The hills are alive!”  Not that I would know anything about that…Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with KidsA mere ten paces from the church stands the Mesnerwirt Gasthaus where visitors can buy hot meals and cold, fresh buttermilk.  I wanted to taste the tart milk but not enough to wrangle boys around a restaurant.  The server offered to fill our water bottle, and voila!  Dairy to go.

We each sipped the thick liquid, wincing at the acid and the chill.  The boys enjoyed it more than we did and almost came to blows over the remains of 400ml.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with Kids

The Descent

Fortified by food and sour drink, we began our trek back to the car.  The way down the mountain from Ettenberg to the Kugelmühle (marble mill) is all steep steps and switchbacks.  Our legs quivered in protest as we descended, but soon enough we found ourselves back at the entrance to the Almbachklamm.

Hey, mama, there's our car!

Hey, mama, there’s our car!

Before piling in to the car, Doc Sci insisted we make a quick stop to see the marble mill in motion.  Remember those waterfalls at the beginning of the hike?  Well, they lead to a small, old mill.  The boys’ eyes followed the water, gurgling over the stones and leaving behind perfectly smooth spheres.

I zoned out when Doc Sci starting flinging physics terms around and meandered over to the souvenir hut.  Expert tip: Either bring loads of cash or don’t let your kids peruse the goods unless you enjoy a healthy dose of sticker shock.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with Kids

The Verdict

Experiencing the Almbachklamm is both simple and beautiful.  But beyond that, it’s one of the most unique paths we’ve explored.  You won’t find it on any foreign guidebook’s top ten list, but that makes it even more special since you’ll likely have the place to yourself.  In case you need me to spell it out, do not miss this hike!Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with KidsOther top notch outdoor attractions in Berchtesgaden to explore with kids: the Eagle’s Nest and the Königssee.Signature-Marigold

Berchtesgaden With Kids: Lake Königssee

Thrifty Travel Mama | Berchtesgaden: Lake Koenigssee with KidsThe next stop on our Berchtesgaden natural wonder tour?  The Königssee, a deep and fjord-like lake near the Austrian border.

In addition to the stunning mountain backdrop and mirror-like water, the lake is touted as Germany’s cleanest.  For those who enjoy a good arctic chill, swimming is permitted in most areas.  However, if you prefer to stay warm and dry, the only way to cross the clear waters is via electric or row boat.

Fog covers the lake in the mornings, but lucky for us it melted away just as we set sail.

Fog covers the lake in the mornings, but lucky for us it melted away just as we set sail.

The battery-powered schooners ferry visitors to several ports: Seelände (Schönau), St. Bartholomä, Salet, and Kessel (on request).  Excellent hiking awaits the adventurous at each of these destinations; but if that’s not your thing, you can still stop off for coffee and cake or just a glass of fresh buttermilk.

Since we are wannabe hikers, we chose two paths to tackle in one day, the Ice Chapel (Eiskapelle) and the Röthbachfall (the highest waterfall in Germany.. for reals).

Spoiler alert: we definitely bit off more than we could chew.  If you’re in the company of short legs, stick to only one alpine excursion per day.

Goodbye fog, hello crystal clear.

Goodbye fog, hello crystal clear.

Boarding the boat at Schönau was a cinch, since we arrived early.  Lines increase as the day goes on, so get in early if you hate to wait.

The small electric ship putters its way to St. Bartholomä in about 45 minutes.  This is a long ride for little ones, so break out the snacks as soon as the skipper starts his speech.  Pause for a bit when he plays a tune on the trumpet to demonstrate the excellent echo present at the Königssee.  Heads up – the hat will be passed in a shameless request for tips.

The famous pilgrilms church at St. Bartholomä.

The famous pilgrimage church at St. Bartholomä.

Arriving at St. Bartholomä, it’s tempting to snap photos with the onion-domed church.  But the day is short and the hikes are long, so hit the trails first.Thrifty Travel Mama | Berchtesgaden: Lake Koenigssee with KidsThe Ice Chapel route starts out in the forest; our view that day was tinged with autumn.  Scarlet here, a hint of gold there.  Most impressive, though, was the looming presence of the Watzmann – a rugged, lavender mountain face gently kissed with lime.

The eastern face of Watzmann.

The eastern face of Watzmann.

Not far after happening upon a small white church (see photo), the “easy” blue trail turns challenging with plenty of rocks to scramble over and an incline that’ll have you huffing and puffing.  In case you’re wondering, this is not a job for Nike or Puma.

Let's name this one "NOT the Ice Chapel."

Let’s name this one “NOT the Ice Chapel.”

The Eiskapelle is formed by avalanches in the spring that pile snow in a corner of the valley.  When the weather warms, the bottom of the pile melts, leaving a giant hole in the ice that some say looks like the entrance to a chapel.  However, the entrance is all you’ll see, because extreme danger and the possibility of death are the only rewards for those who cross the threshold.

Unfortunately, we must have missed the glory days of the 2013 snow church.  After crossing the most challenging terrain of the hike (the path switches to red once you reach the valley), we realized that only a rotten patch of snow remained where the chapel should have been.

Ah, well, it was still a splendid place for a picnic, if I do say so myself.

That white speck to the right is what remained of the Eiskapelle.

That white speck to the right is what remained of the Eiskapelle.

My mountain man.

Doc Sci, my mountain man.  Btw, this little rock is taller than he is.. and there’s a baby on his back.

Saying goodbye to St. Bartholomä.

Saying goodbye to St. Bartholomä.

We picked our way back over the rocks and down the mountain trail to the dock where we waited only 10 minutes for the next boat to Salet.  It’s only possible to visit Salet from the end of April to mid-October, and I highly recommend timing your trip to occur between these months.

The cows at Salet.

The cows at Salet.

Upon arriving at Salet, the last stop on the Königssee boat route, an alpine fairy tale awaits.  The air is quiet, crisp.  The mountains keep a stern watch over the glassy sea.  Cows amble about as they graze, their tinkling bells breaking the silence.

But your dream world comes crashing down all around you once you realize those aren’t mounds of mud your kids are stepping in…

Cow chips the size of dinner plates.

Cow chips the size of dinner plates.

Seriously, watch the poop.  It’s somethin’ fierce.

Once in Salet, anyone and everyone strolls past the cafe and hokey souvenir hut and on toward the picturesque Obersee.  This small lake will have you oohing and ahhing at how the water mirrors the majestic jewel tones of the surrounding peaks.

Don’t be fooled by the guidebooks that tell you the Obersee is a quiet respite.  Since the path is so easy (prams are ok), those picture perfect photographs will be crowded with fellow tourists.

Obersee looking toward the Fischunkelalm.

Obersee looking toward the Fischunkelalm.

Gorgeous mirror lake.

Gorgeous mirror lake.

To reach the second destination of the day (Röthbachfall on the far side of the Obersee), follow the signs to Fischunkelalm.  The route seems easy enough at first, but check your pram at the livestock gate because things are about to get seriously steep.

Step by step, we scaled the rock stairs but with bated breath.  With each slippery stone, I fretted about falling, but it was too late to turn back.  We were halfway up, and turning around would be difficult with two-way foot traffic on the narrow, chiseled path.

In hindsight, we should’ve just admired the Obersee and ditched our record-breaking waterfall aspirations.  It was the end of the day: feet tired, legs sore, protests a plenty.  But, we really didn’t think.  We just put one foot in front of the other.

The refreshment hut at Fischunkelalm.  Only stop here if you fancy spending 20 minutes in line only to find out when you order that they're out of everything you had any desire to order.  I'm not bitter... really..

The refreshment hut at Fischunkelalm. Only stop here if you fancy spending 20 minutes in line only to find out when you order that they’re out of everything you had any desire to order. I’m not bitter… really..

I'm not sure I want fresh milk from this rustic kitchen anyway...

I’m not sure I want fresh milk from this rustic kitchen anyway…  Is that Schnapps on the counter?!

Once we reached the little hut at Fischunkelalm, we still had to cross another meadow teeming with gaseous bovines and steaming landmines.  But, suddenly the towering rock face appeared and, wait, oh, yep, sure enough, that pathetic trickle that’s barely more than a leaky faucet is the Röthbachfall.

Yeehaw.

The totally-not-at-all famous Röthbachfall.

The totally-not-at-all famous Röthbachfall.

As I’m sure is blaringly obvious to you, these two hikes were more than our boys could really handle in one day.  Going in, I thought with enough food, breaks, and “boy stuff” (sticks, boats, cows, mounds of poo) we could make it happen.  In all honesty, we should’ve picked a favorite and gone with only one strenuous hike. 

Aye, but there’s the rub.  Choosing a favorite.  Perhaps if I had known in advance that the Ice Chapel had evaporated into thin air or that the highest waterfall in Germany was a dribble instead of a downpour… Eh, if I could do it over again, I really don’t know what we would’ve changed.

Okay, the tantrums.  I would’ve erased those.  But the rest of the day was.. epic.

Just one more shot...

Just one last look…

The looming peaks, the glassy water, the luscious meadows, the golden leaves, the enchanting fog.. the Königssee is one of the most impressive natural spectacles I have ever seen.  Whether you muscle your way up the trails or just mosey along around the ports of St. Bartholomä and Salet, an excursion the Königssee is guaranteed to knock your socks off.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Berchtesgaden: Lake Koenigssee with KidsPractical Tips for visiting the Königssee with kids:

  • Do NOT forget your camera!!  The area is gorgeous, even in the rain and fog.
  • If you’re staying at a Berchtesgaden area hotel, don’t forget your guest card!  It’s good for public transportation in the area as well as discounts on parking at the Königssee / Jennerbahn lot and on tickets for the Königssee boat.
  • A quick note about Jennerbahn… the view from the top is almost the same view as from the Eagle’s Nest / Kehlsteinhaus, so do one or the other (although there are trails around Jennerbahn that will obviously give you different views).
  • Decide in advance if you want to go to Salet or just St. Bartholomä.  It’s not possible to extend your ticket to Salet once you’ve reached St. Bartholomä.
  • Sit on the right hand side of the boat next to a window that slides open for the best photographs.
  • Prams are possible on the boat and at the area around the church at St. Bartholomä.  You can also push a pram from Salet to the Obersee.  Anything beyond that requires a backpack carrier.
  • Public restrooms and fresh water fountains can be found at both of the ports.
  • If you don’t want to take the boat, follow the signs from the docks at Seelände to Malerwinkel, a family-friendly trail with excellent views of the lake.

More Berchtesgaden!  The Eagle’s Nest and the Almbachklamm gorge.

Signature-Marigold

Hiking with Kids: The Ravennaschulucht

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtI see looooooads of hiking in our family’s future.  Exploring nature – hopping over streams, listening to rushing rivers, searching for perfect walking sticks – is something every one of us enjoys.. well, except Big Foot.

He’s generally grumpy because he has to be bolted into a backpack whenever we wander about.  But I have hope that he’ll come ’round when his legs are strong enough to carry him and his will is soft enough to decide that listening and following directions really wouldn’t be so. incredibly. awful.

We’re rather fortunate to find ourselves within an easy drive of the Black Forest  in Germany which just so happens to be chock full of trails and adventures suitable for little ones.  My friend Nancy (hi, Nancy!) lent me an ADAC book on hiking in the Schwarzwald with kids (this one, if you’re interested) and insisted we take on the Ravennaschlucht.

The Ravennaschlucht is a wild and romantic gorge with a stream and several waterfalls chasing through it.  As if that wasn’t enough of a draw, the ADAC itinerary tacks on other attractions including several saw mills and a glass blowing studio… all in less than 8km.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtFancy a go at the gorge yourself?  Well, grab your trusty boots, and come along!

We followed the route set forth in the guide, starting out at Hinterzarten.  I balked at paying for parking at the train station, so we drove a bit further along Alpersbacher Str. where we discovered a free parking lot.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: Ravennaschlucht

As you walk along Löffeltalweg, you won’t be able to ignore the swelling sound of rushing water.  The Rotbach stream was used to power several saw mills located along the footpath.  My boys were in awe of the gigantic blades and completely confused as to how prickly, uneven logs turned into perfectly flat boards despite Doc Sci’s best efforts to explain.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtLeaving the mills, you’ll be treated to a series of waterfalls, several close enough to touch.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtSoon you’ll have to make a choice – continue on or face the B31.  I wasn’t sure how we’d cross three lanes of whizzing traffic on the “Hell’s Valley” highway.  Fortunately, my worries were needless – a tunnel for hikers and bikers had been constructed underneath the road.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtNext stop – the Hofgut Sternen, a small village composed of a hotel, restaurant, a large glockenspiel, and a glass blowing studio (with a gift shop, of course).  Scarf down a snack or two here, because the path through the gorge doesn’t offer many places for pit stops.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtAfter everyone is fully hydrated, have a look at the artist fashioning everything from vases to earrings to wine glasses to Christmas ornaments from the blazing hot and stringy glass.  I should mention that only well-behaved or independently wealthy children should enter the shop… Everything is within reach of the curious and clumsy.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtMake your way to the Ravennaviadukt, an imposing railway bridge that marks the entrance to the gorge.

Once you climb up the first set of steps, you’re in hand-holding territory.  Though I never felt unsafe, some parts of the path can be rather dicey with steep drop-offs and thinly railed bridges.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: Ravennaschlucht

As we hiked higher and higher, I couldn’t help but wonder when the gorge was going to end.  I don’t like being lost, and the ADAC guide only mentioned that the path would end.  Not when or how or where.

When the trail finally did terminate, I was even more surprised at the lack of information.  You’ll know you’re at the end of the gorge when a lovely biergarten with a playground appears.  I guess this is so German that the writer didn’t think to include it!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtCarrying on, we made our way back to the ferocious B31 and, again, crossed underneath it.  We found ourselves in the company of some lovely cows on the grounds of the Birklehof boarding school.  Once you see the onion dome, take a quick detour around the back of the building.  There you’ll find a fantastic playground and fire pit.

We ended the day with cookies in the car as a reward for excellent little boy behavior.  Hooray!

If you’d like to hike Ravennaschlucht yourself, I’d like to suggest a few variations from the ADAC itinerary:

  • If you have a car, park at the Hofgut Sternen and start your hike from there.  You won’t have to pay for parking near the Hinterzarten train station, and more lunch options will be available in town.
  • If you only want to hike the gorge, I’d again recommend parking at the Hofgut Sternen.  Keep in mind that you will have to double back.  This would be a good option for the littlest of legs.
  • However, if public transportation is how you’ll be traveling, then the only option is to begin and end at the train station.
  • Consider hiking the reverse of the order I’ve mentioned here.  You’ll be walking downhill instead of uphill through the steepest part of the gorge.  The slope near the saw mills is rather gentle in comparison.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtMore family-friendly places to explore in the Schwarzwald area of Germany – Triberg, Kastelburg, Staufen, Steinwasen Park and Schauinsland (from our first month here – four years ago!).

How about you?  Been on any good hikes lately?  Are they within driving distance of southwest Germany? 🙂Signature-Marigold

Schilthorn – The Swiss Alps… with Kids! (Part II)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Schilthorn, SwitzerlandThis post contains Part II of our day trip to the Swiss Alps.  Click here for Part I.

Where were we?  Oh, right, gazing at the top of Europe!

We spent about 2 1/2 hours at the Schilthorn summit before deciding to check out the lower mountain towns.  Birg offers little more than a picturesque observation platform.  Make a quick stop there, or continue on to Mürren.

Going down..

Going down..

The platform at Birg.

The platform at Birg.

The view of the playground from the cable car.

The view of the playground from the cable car.

As we approached Mürren, we noticed a children’s playground underneath the cable line and decided this would be the perfect place for our picnic lunch.  Lucky for us, the way was signposted (look for Kinderspielplatz though I believe it was also in English).  The route is short, but the path is steep.

Just around the corner from the Mürren cable car station...

Just around the corner from the Mürren cable car station…

You can refill your bottles or splash your face with fresh Alpine water.

You can refill your bottles or splash your face with fresh Alpine water.

And then follow the signs up the mountain...

And then follow the signs up the mountain…

To this playground!

To this playground!

A great spot for a picnic...

A great spot for a picnic…

Watching the cable cars go by.

Watching the cable cars go by.

The boys scurried around, trying the swings, the slide, the rocking horse.  Doc Sci and I unpacked the sandwiches on one of the available picnic tables.  Afterward, we lay on the soft grass in the sunshine, still trying to absorb the Alpine landscape that surrounded us.  The hot sun soon became too much, and we went off in search of the stream we could hear rushing in the background.

Peeling off shoes and socks, Doc Sci plunged his feet in first.  Not even five seconds later, he hobbled out with toes nearly frozen by the frigid glacial water.

Taking a short dip in the stream.

Taking a short dip in the stream.

Though Rick Steeves thinks rather highly of Gimmelwald and Mürren, I can’t say I was too thrilled by either.  Mürren seemed too touristy (but the views peeking in between houses are fabulous), and Gimmelwald was barely more than a half dozen houses (make a quick playground stop).

Mürren.

Mürren.

Of the two, Mürren has more to offer.  With a grocery store, post office, and railway station connecting to Lauterbrunnen and Interlaken, it’s the more happening of the two villages.  If you’re in the market for some Swiss trinkets, Mürren would be your best bet.

We ran into an American family at the Piz Gloria that just happened to be lodging in Gimmelwald.  They mentioned that it’s possible (even with children) to walk downhill from Mürren to Gimmelwald.  The way is paved, and the trek takes about 40 minutes.  Short on time, we skipped this hike.

Gimmelwald.

Gimmelwald.

Though the boys went nuts over the giant slide in Gimmelwald, the most interesting part of this village for us was The Honesty Shop.  This hole in the wall (almost literally) offered everything from bananas to postcards.  Prices were clearly posted, and shoppers were expected to total their merchandise before leaving the correct amount of cash in a small wooden box.  Cool, right?

Maybe I would’ve enjoyed Gimmelwald more if we would have had a few more hours to hike the surrounding countryside.  But alas, nap time was calling; babies were bored and bawling.

For us, the most amazing part of the whole experience was being dwarfed by the massive Alpine peaks: Schilthorn, Jungfrau, Mönch, Eiger.  These giant mountains issued a sobering reminder that we are but small specks, our lives a mere vapor in the wind.  And who is this Creator that he is even mindful of us?  I cannot fathom it. Thrifty Travel Mama | Schilthorn, SwitzerlandBudget willing, we wouldn’t mind standing in the shadow of other Swiss peaks.  For now, we’re satisfied, thankful, and thinking often of the amazing day we experienced at Schilthorn.

Here are those insipid yet indispensable details I mentioned…

  • Planning: If you’re coming/going to northern Switzerland, I would recommend the route through Bern (A2/A6) over Lucerne (A1/A8).  If you choose the latter, get ready for a wild mountain ride and a slew of tunnels.
  • Currency: You can pay in euro or Swiss francs (CHF).  If paying in euro, the exchange rate is poor, and change is given in CHF.  But this was still more practical for us than trying to locate an ATM in the boonies at 7am.
  • Ready: The temperature is a lot colder at the top than at the other stations.  Pack a windbreaker, hat, and scarf, just in case.  Also, slather the family in sunscreen before ascending.
  • Accessibility: It’s certainly possible to take a pram on the cable cars and on the paved village roads.  A lift at the Piz Gloria takes you to the observation tower.  But, you’d miss out on the second observation tower as well as any mountain trails (and the playground at Mürren).
  • Affordability: Prices in Switzerland are unreal.  Bring your own food and drink whenever possible.  I noticed a grocery store (Coop) in Mürren if you need to grab a few necessities.
  • Freaky: The very last cable car ride from Gimmelwald back to Stechelberg swoops noticeably down which, in turn, solicits some serious squealing from passengers.
  • Risky: My five year-old was fascinated by the paragliders.  Several landed right next to our car as we were leaving.  If this is your thing, have a look at Airtime.  The staff were super cool to talk to and even lent us their parking pass when I (stupidly) dropped my paid ticket into a crevice in the console.  Doh!
  • Corny: Get ready to hear the 007 theme song every time a cable car departs.  Oh, and there are statues of movie characters on the observation deck that repeat the same lines over and over.  Yeah, it’s as awesome as it sounds.

Taking the family to Switzerland?  Check our adventures in Stein am Rhein and Rhein Falls with kids!

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Schilthorn – The Swiss Alps… with Kids! (Part I)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Schilthorn, SwitzerlandNote: This post is rather long winded.  I thought a minute or twenty about whether to just post pictures or to release an avalanche of words with aforementioned photos.  Since my hope is to inspire others to travel the world high and low with children, I chose the latter.  Feel free to just ogle if that’s more your thing.

Our family is privileged to see amazing places, things, and people in this world with our own eyes.  A dangerous side effect is the possibility of becoming familiar with the sensation of newness, numbly chasing after the next scenic thrill.

But every once in a while, the beauty of a particular place stays with you, haunts you, even changes you.  We recently trekked to the Swiss Alps and hitched a ride to the summit of Schilthorn.  What we saw there is still taking our breath away.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Schilthorn, SwitzerlandWow.  Just.  Wow.

My wish would be that every one of you could have the chance to gaze at these peaks, mouth gaping in awe of creation and the Creator.  But, practically speaking, that may not be possible.  So, come along with me, and let’s experience the Alps together.

The valley floor near Stechelberg, Switzerland.

Leaving the valley near Stechelberg, Switzerland.

In order to reach the tippy top of Schilthorn, one must ride a series of cable cars.  The first cable car starts out near the village of Stechelberg.  Arrive by car or by post bus (post as in post office!) from Lauterbrunnen.  I was dismayed to find that we had to pay to park, but at least it wasn’t obnoxiously expensive (about 5 CHF for 7 hours).

Ascending from Gimmelwald.

Ascending from Gimmelwald.

Caution: Tickets to reach the summit of Schilthorn are NOT cheap.  However, we chose Schilthorn over other mountains for several reasons.  First, Schilthorn is less expensive than Jungfrau which will rob you of something like 200 euros per person to reach the top.  Second, you can see three major peaks from Schilthorn (Jungfrau, Mönch, Eiger).  Third, the views are 360° which means you see a whole heck of a lot more than just those three mountains.

This is what you see as you go up the mountain...

This is what you see as you go up the mountain…

...and this...

…and this…

...and this...

…and this…

...and this!

…and this!

Fortunately, we discovered one way to save a little on the fare.  Early morning and late afternoon tickets are discounted by about 25%.  Children under 6 ride free.  In all, we shelled out about 130 euro total for two adults.  Though this doesn’t scream “bargain,” I felt like we got what we paid for, and I can’t ask for more than that!

A little note about the early morning tickets… I highly recommend this option.  Not only are the tickets cheaper, but the crowds are nonexistent.  Not so later in the day.  Plus, visibility and weather conditions are often at their best first thing in the morning.  As the day goes on, the clouds roll in.

The clouds started to roll in around noon.

The cloudy afternoon skies.

Obviously, you don’t want to pay Swiss ticket prices to ride to the top and not see anything.  Check the weather first!  Several days before our trip, I hovered like a hawk over the forecast, religiously clicking every few hours to ensure that we would have clear skies.  I like this website since it allows users to check conditions at three altitudes.

For more insipid yet indispensable details, have patience!  I’ve included them in Part II to be published Thursday.

Enough – back to the climb!  Board the first car at Stechelberg.  The ride to Gimmelwald takes approximately 5 minutes.  Switch, and take the second car to Mürren.  Another change, and another car glides up to Birg.  From Birg, the last leg of the journey takes visitors up to the Piz Gloria restaurant on the Schilthorn summit.

Birg, the second to last cable car station.

Birg, the second to last cable car station.

Leaving Birg...

Leaving Birg…

Don't look now, but there's a hiker making his way on foot to the summit!

Don’t look now, but there’s a hiker making his way on foot to the summit!

He's got his eye on the James Bond 007 Breakfast Buffet at the Piz Gloria restaurant.

He’s got his eye on the James Bond 007 Breakfast Buffet at the Piz Gloria restaurant.

At 2790m (9740 ft) above sea level, we were huffing and puffing just climbing the stairs to the observation deck.  We decided to get some fresh air, drink lots of fluids, eat a snack, and take it easy.  We didn’t want to take any chances on developing altitude sickness (read about signs, symptoms, and what to do about it here).

Taking a look around.

Taking a look around.

Identifying the peaks, valleys, forests, and lakes all around.

Identifying the peaks, valleys, forests, and lakes all around.

Could this place BE any more awesome?

Could this place BE any more awesome?

Babies younger than one year should generally not ascend higher than 2500m.  Since Big Foot was the size of a one year-old and two weeks shy of his birthday, we were comfortable taking the risk.  I didn’t see any other babies at the summit, though I did see a few in the other, lower Alpine villages.  Make sure to talk to your doctor before traveling with an infant to high altitudes.

The main attractions on the Schilthorn mountain are the views (obviously), the rotating Piz Gloria restaurant (pricey), and Bond World (hokey, but included in the lift ticket price).

Since much of the 1969 James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was filmed here, it’s impossible to escape 007’s influence on the place.  A new museum chronicling the filming and movie highlights was recently completed.  Fan or not, do stop in with the kids.  My boys couldn’t get enough of the helicopter cockpit, and Doc Sci was geeking out at the ginormous smart table.

One of the many breathtaking views.

One of the many breathtaking views.

The Piz Gloria rotating restaurant.

The Piz Gloria rotating restaurant.

Bond World!

Bond World!

Exit through the gift shop, of course.

Exit through the gift shop, of course.

After filling the camera memory card with Alpine images, brave parents can step out onto the partially fenced path leading to a second observation platform.  Keep your kids close, and insist on hand holding at all times.  If you’re feeling up to it, photo opportunities are better down here sans unattractive guard rails.  Ask fellow gawkers to swap photographic favors.

Hold on to your kids and your nerves.. we're steppin' out.

Hold on to your kids and your nerves.. we’re steppin’ out.

I wouldn't recommend trying to get this shot with the kids...

I wouldn’t recommend trying to get this shot with children that aren’t strapped on for safety…

For more jaw-dropping views and picture-perfect Alpine villages, you won’t want to miss reading Part II here.  Along with notes on the intermediate cable car stops, I’ll show you one of the best picnic spots ever as well as share what you need to know before YOU take the family to Schilthorn in the Swiss Alps.  Stay tuned!

Taking the family to Switzerland?  Check our adventures in Stein am Rhein and Rhein Falls with kids!

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