Climbing my very first Via Ferrata – in South Tyrol

October 21, 2014 by  
Filed under featured, Italy, Leisure, Nature, South Tyrol, video, Walking

Before today I thought that a Via Ferrata was a hiking trail with some sections of ladders and cables to keep you safe on the tricky bits. Now I’m in South Tyrol, in the heart of the Dolomites, I quickly realise that a Via Ferrata is not a hiking trail, but a rock climb and since I’ve never climbed in my life it’s a somewhat scary prospect. On my previous hikes in the Alps on the Tour de Mont Blanc I’d come across the odd cable or ladder, but always managed to find an easier alternative route. Today there’s no escape.

Heather peak

I meet my guide Veronika at the Catores Mountain Guide offices in Ortisei where she fits me out with the helmet and harness I’ll need, as well as the two karabinas and the rope that she’ll secure to my harness. The back story here is that these climbing routes, literally “iron roads” were originally built with ladders and cables to enable soldiers in the First World war to move around the Dolomites safely. Italian and Austrian solders, just as young and fit as the climbers I’ll meet on the mountain today, fought to dominate this area, building trenches and trying to blow each other up on the mountain.

I hope you enjoy my video below of climbing the Via Ferrata in South Tyrol

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Despite the Austrians having won the battle, the Italians won the war because they were on the side of the Allies and in the post-war division of spoils were given the province of South Tyrol to add to their territory. These days the Via Ferrata have been restored to allow climbers to enjoy the Dolomites, beginners like me in the company of a guide, while more experienced climbers can use them on their own so long as they have the right equipment.

Taking the cable car to the start of Piccolo Cir Via Ferrata in Val Gardena, South Tyrol Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Taking the cable car to the start of Piccolo Cir Via Ferrata in Val Gardena, South Tyrol

The cable car takes us up the mountain to the start of our climb, although by now the cloud is swirling around us and hiding the peaks opposite from view. The path climbs steadily above the mountain restaurant, getting progressively more steep, while I get progressively more breathless. As I walk up mundane thoughts swim and swirl around in my head. Will my nails, newly manicured and polished for this trip stand up to the battering? What are the kids doing back home? How can I capture the experience (for your benefit dear readers) without my iPhone slipping from my hand and plunging down to the valley below?

Views of the Dolomites from Piccola Cir, South Tyrol Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Views of the Dolomites from Piccola Cir, South Tyrol

I scrabble for handholds to steady myself on the dusty rocks, wishing that I’d worn my fingerless cycling gloves that Veronika said I didn’t really need for such a short climb. At the top of the approach Veronika suggests that I take off all my rings as they could get caught or damaged on the rocks and I very carefully zip them into my pocket, terrified that I’ll drop my wedding ring and it will roll all the way down the mountain.

“Where are all the ladders and cables?” I ask. Veronika points up the mountain and tells me “this is just the start”. I look up at what seems like a sheer wall of rock with a cable running up it. Fear takes hold. I’m no climber. How on earth will I get up there?

At the start of the cable, Veronika shows me how I should clip on both my karabinas and slide them along with one hand while the other hand finds a hold on the rock. At the places where the cable is secured to the rock I unclip one karabina and clip it back on the other side of the metal bar, then do the same with the other karabina, always secured to the cable in case I fall.

Climbing my Via Ferrata in the Dolomites Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Climbing my Via Ferrata in the Dolomites

Veronika points out an edelweiss, an increasingly rare sight on the mountain. I once posted a photo of what I thought was edelweiss when I was walking the Tour de Mont Blanc, quickly to be corrected on Twitter that it was a thistle! This is the real thing – looking like a felt flower that you might tuck in your hat. Set into the side of the raw rock nearby, I spot a little shrine with a statue of the Madonna. “She keeps us safe on the mountain,” Veronika tells me.

A group is climbing up below us and I start to panic slightly – will I need to speed up or will I be holding up the entire mountain? They all look like they know what they are doing with wrap around sunglasses and tanned muscular arms. Veronika is endlessly patient as she waits for me to take my time and progress slowly upwards. In the meantime she takes out her camera and takes photos of me grinning up at her. I AM enjoying this, I tell myself.

Concentrating at a tricky bit on the Via Ferrata Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Concentrating at a tricky bit on the Via Ferrata

Now I start climbing in earnest and everything is focused on this moment. Everything becomes very small. One step up. I look up to find the next handhold. Now the next foot. Will I really be able to balance my weight on such a tiny ledge? Don’t look down. It’s just about the next handhold. It’s just about the next foothold.

Now I understand how climbing can be a kind of meditation to clear your mind of the jumble of thoughts and crumbs of everyday life. As I climb it’s not about admiring the views or the wonder of the Dolomites. It’s about this moment of concentration, the next foothold, the next handhold. Like a mathematical problem to be solved, there’s a sequence of moves that will get me up the rock face. If my hand goes here, then my foot can go there and my next hand here and my next foot there.

“Small steps”, says Veronika encouragingly “small steps”. But there are places where only a big step up will do, as I hoist myself up inelegantly, praying that the tiny ledge I’ve chosen as a foothold won’t give way. My upper body strength is pathetic and I’m feeling every old twist or sprain in my arms and wrists. I can see why climbers are so lean and strong and why they seem so calm and confident. Up here on the mountain is no place to get excited, you can’t take your frustration out on the mountain because the mountain will win.

Climbing the Piccola Cir Via Ferrata in South Tyrol Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Climbing the Piccola Cir Via Ferrata in South Tyrol

It’s a relief when we arrive on a flatter path with sheer drops on either side and take the opportunity to pose for a few photos. Now I have the chance to look around at the view. The cable car station is a toy town building down in the valley with the access track snaking up to it and the cloud hanging over the plug of rock that is Sasso Lungo.

Veronika is agile as she trips lightly up the steep slope, surefooted as a mountain goat. I scrabble behind her on all fours in undignified fashion trying to find handholds on the slope ahead of me, more of a spider than goat. A short climb later and we’re suddenly at the top, sharing a tiny peak of rock with two other ladies of my age who are chatting away as if this were  a social gathering (which it probably is for them). Once I am settled with my bottom on that peak they head down and now we have the whole of the Dolomites to ourselves. Without moving my bottom an inch I gingerly get out my camera and twist my body round to take in the panorama of jagged peaks around me.

Made it to the top of the Piccola Cir Via Ferrata Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Made it to the top of the Piccola Cir Via Ferrata

Veronika takes more photos of me sitting there, clambering surefooted up to the next bit of rock and leaning so far out to get the perfect shot that I feel sure she will fall.  I savour the moment of my success in getting up here but then the realisation dawns that I’m going to have to get down again. “Don’t worry” says Veronika “the way down is much easier”. I’m relieved that I won’t have to climb back down that vertical rock face, but first we have to rappel the short distance down off this peak to where we pick up the cable again.

Veronika instructs me how to lean away from the rock face, letting the harness take my bodyweight. “Two hands on the rope” she calls to me but I’m too scared and my hand reaches out for the cable, half scrambling, half abseiling down. Just below the peak we pick up a different path, easier than the sheer rock face as Veronika has promised but still not a walk in the park.

Walking back down to the valley Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Walking back down to the valley

We are still clipped to the cable but the dusty shale and rubble slides underfoot and my muscles are now rebelling against the contortions they’ve been put through. I’ve scraped my knee and my thighs keep going into spasms. After my brief success it’s time to focus again, we’re not down yet. The cable snakes down a rocky couloir and again I scrabble as Veronika follows surefooted behind. At some point we abandon the cable but she still has me on the rope. Finally she expertly winds up the rope and we’re walking over the dusty rock on a path that’s barely there. Down to where the rock ends and the grass starts, down again to the cable car station and down again to the valley to pick up the car and drive back to Ortisei.

Thanks to my ever patient guide, Veronika Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Thanks to my ever patient guide, Veronika

Back in Bolzano that afternoon I meet a local lady and tell her of my daring exploits climbing in the Val Gardena. “Oh yes” she smiles, “that’s where we love to take the kids climbing on a Sunday”. My bubble bursts as I realise that for the locals a family climb in the Dolomites really is a bit like a walk in the park. But even though it’s not quite Everest, I still feel secretly thrilled at the achievement of climbing MY first Via Ferrata.

If you’d like to try a Via Ferrata in South Tyrol

The Piccola Cir Via Ferrata took around 4 hours door to door from the Catores office and around 2.5 hrs from the top of the Dantercepies cable-car station (1.5 hours climbing up & 1 hour down). All safety equipment (harness and helmet) was provided as part of the climb.

Thanks to my guide Veronika Schrott who can be contacted via the Catores Alpine School in Ortisei, Val Gardena e-mail: info@catores.com. The main office of the mountain guides is at Via Rezia 5 in Ortisei where you can arrange guided climbs, hikes and ski safaris in South Tyrol with routes suitable for families and beginners as well as advanced climbers from €95 per person as part of a group. Four people is the maximum each guide can cover.

For more technical details of the Piccola Cir Via Ferrata visit the Sentres website

Information, articles and resources for South Tyrol

For more information to plan your own visit, find accommodation and discover all the things to do in South Tyrol, visit the South Tyrol Tourism website and watch videos about the region on their YouTube channel. For updates on things to do in South Tyrol follow the South Tyrol Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Instagram pages

My thanks to the South Tyrol Tourism Board for their support in this trip in collaboration with Travelator Media

This article by Heather Cowper is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com – Read the original article here

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Cruising the Mediterranean on MSC Splendida? – here’s what you need to know

I’m relatively new to cruising so my week’s cruise in the Mediterranean with MSC Cruises was a very enjoyable way of learning what cruising’s all about and how to get the most from this kind of holiday. I’ve realised that, just as there is a style of hotel or resort to suit each person’s taste and budget, every cruise line and cruise ship brings a different flavour, so it’s important to research carefully before you book your cruise. We had a wonderful week with MSC Cruises and if you’re thinking of booking or have already booked on MSC Splendida, here’s what you need to know to get the most from your cruise;

Ready to board MSC Splendida at Tunis

Ready to board MSC Splendida at Tunis

About MSC Splendida – big is beautiful

First the vital statistics. There’s no getting away from the fact that MSC Splendida is a big ship, with over 1600 staterooms and room for 3247 guests – or more if you happen to be travelling in the holiday season when there will be plenty of children to swell the numbers on board. She’s a relatively new ship too, built in 2009 and one of the four “Fantasia” class of ship in the MSC fleet which incorporate the most modern designs.

We found that MSC Splendida was a beautiful and glamourous ship and everything on board was extremely well maintained. A big ship has pros and cons – it means that there’s lots of choice of things to do and many different bars and restaurants to spread out, but you do need to be aware that the most popular areas such as the pool decks will become very busy especially on sea days.

I hope you enjoy the video below – my tour of MSC Splendida with MSC Cruises

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Who are the other guests on an MSC Mediterranean Cruise?

One of the key differences with MSC Cruises is that this is very much an Italian run cruise line, attracting a large proportion of European guests on the Mediterranean routes. Since passengers can board at different ports such as Barcelona, Marseille and Genoa, the majority of guests on our cruise were from Italy, Spain and France, with a few from China and Japan and a minority of English and Irish. This was never a problem from a language point of view since all announcements were made in 5 languages, including English and we were left in admiration at the multilingual skills of the crew.

The European flavour also extends to the way things are done on board, for instance the dress code is less formal, charging for bottled water seems strange for the British but is acceptable for European guests, and the service is friendly and efficient but less effusive than you might find on a North American ship.

The broad mix of European nationalities also meant that the entertainment could not rely on the language – so no comedy acts but more song and dance shows with a broad appeal. If you want a very British ship this may not be the cruise for you but if you are travelling as a family group or with friends then the cosmopolitan mix of guests will probably suit you.

MSC Cruises is also doing a great job in attracting a younger audience to the cruise market and on our cruise there were plenty of families, couples and groups of friends from 30+. This cruise certainly dispelled any preconception that cruises are only for the retired and the age range was similar to that you might find in a large resort hotel.

Atrium of MSC Splendida with   MSC Cruises

Atrium of MSC Splendida with MSC Cruises

Dining options on MSC Splendida

There were two formal dining restaurants on board MSC Splendida, where you can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner as part of your inclusive cruise package. We were assigned to the Villa Verde restaurant on Deck 6 which was at the back of the ship, giving some nice sea views which we enjoyed at breakfast and we shared a table at dinner with a Norwegian and German couples who luckily spoke some English. The La Reggia restaurant was a two-level restaurant on deck 5 and 6 in the middle of the ship and we ate there for lunch on the sea day. The menus were the same in both restaurants and were excellent quality 3 or 4 course menus serving a mixture of European and Mediterranean dishes, with a few different choices of appetisers, soups, pasta, meat or fish dishes and deserts. Most guests were assigned a set dining time of 7pm or 9.30pm although in La Reggia there was also a flexible dining time option which you needed to opt for before your cruise.

La Reggia restaurant on MSC Splendida with MSC Cruises

La Reggia restaurant on MSC Splendida with MSC Cruises

For informal buffet-style dining, there were the adjoining Pago Pago and Bora Bora buffet restaurants on Deck 14 which merged into the pool area, with some seating outside. At main meal times there buffet restaurants were very busy and so we preferred to eat in the formal restaurants most of the time, although we would often dip into the buffet for a snack or a cake on our return from a shore excursion. The variety of food in the buffet restaurants depended on the time of day with a wide selection at meal times and at other times plenty of fresh pizza, sandwiches, fruit and cakes on offer.

Bora Bora self service Restaurant on MSC Splendida with MSC Cruises

Bora Bora self service Restaurant on MSC Splendida with MSC Cruises

We also took the opportunity to eat in the Santa Fe Tex-Mex Speciality Restaurant on Deck 7 which served exceptional steaks as well as other Tex-Mex specialities and brilliant Margaritas. There was an additional charge, depending on what you chose, just like a normal restaurant, rather than a fixed cover charge as I’ve found in other speciality cruise restaurants. Interestingly the restaurant seemed to be not very busy which could be that the guests were not looking to pay extra for dining on this cruise.

Overall the food on board MSC Splendida had a very Mediterranean feel with plenty of pizza and pasta and was high quality in taste and presentation. However, the speciality dining options were more limited than some other cruise lines so I would say that if you are looking for a gourmet experience on board, with a focus on trendy or more unusual food experiences, this may not be the ship for you.

Our Balcony Stateroom

We loved our balcony stateroom on deck 13 (room 140) which had a modern, Italian feel in the decor and a coffee and gold colour scheme. There was a seating area with sofa which could become a third bed and desk next to the windows, a fridge with mini bar and a flat screen TV. The bathroom had plenty of space with a moulded vanity unit and mirror above and a powerful shower with a curtain and some shampoo and soap in large refillable containers. Our balcony had room for 2 lounger chairs and the small table by the sofa could be used for drinks. The stateroom was a lovely place to relax before dinner or on the sea day when other areas of the ship were quite crowded, and we sometimes would pop up to deck 15 to get a coffee or cake and enjoy it in our room.

Stateroom 13140 on board MSC Splendida with MSC Cruises

Stateroom 13140 on board MSC Splendida with MSC Cruises

What additional charges will I need to budget for?

As with all cruise lines there are some things that are included in the price of your cruise on MSC Splendida and other things that you will need to budget for. My impression is that MSC Cruises pitch their cruises at a competitive entry price but that you may then need to budget for extras that some other cruise lines would include in the price, such as bottled water and bus transfers. Here’s what you need to budget for;

  • As on most cruise lines gratuities are something extra you need to budget for and are not really optional. On MSC a service charge of  7 euros per person per day is added automatically to your bill, so there is no need to tip individual members of staff unless you have received exceptional service. An additional 15% service charge is also added to speciality restaurant, bar and spa charges.
  • If you wish to take excursions, the prices are published on the MSC website and range from around €50 for a city tour to €80 for a longer all day tour.
  • If you decide not to take the ship’s excursion but to explore on your own you may need to pay for the coach transfer to and from the port which may be some distance away. The price for the MSC bus service was typically €8-15 per person return. Another option is to take a taxi (likely to be a similar price to the cruise bus) or take public transport which requires some advance research.
  • On MSC many people purchase a drinks package in advance which is likely to save you a lot of money, even if you are a moderate drinker and gives you the peace of mind of knowing that your drinks are at a flat rate. For our 7 day cruise on MSC Splendida the Cheers Adult drinks package was €115.50 per person allowing table wines, beer and soft drinks at lunch and dinner as well as soft drinks and coffee from the bar while the Alegrissimo package for €161 per person allowed the same type of drinks including drinks from the bar on a 24 hour basis.
  • If you wish to try out the speciality restaurants on board (the main one on MSC Splendida being the Tex Mex Santa Fe restaurant) there will be an additional charge depending on what you choose from the menu – from memory a steak meal was around €20 supplement.
  • If you enjoy spa, hair, nail or beauty treatments as part of your cruise obviously you would need to budget for these and there are plenty of different packages and special offers that you can check out when on board.
  • Wifi is another extra and tends to be both expensive and slow (since it has to come via satellite) so it’s probably better to forget about catching up on your e-mails and use the time to relax.
Dinner in the Santa Fe restaurant on board MSC Splendida

Dinner in the Santa Fe restaurant on board MSC Splendida

So if you are a moderate drinker and take a couple of excursions during the cruise, you should budget €250-300 per person on top of the price of the cruise, more if you want to enjoy spa treatments, speciality dining and a wider range of drinks.

Purple Jazz Bar of MSC Splendida with MSC Cruises

Purple Jazz Bar of MSC Splendida with MSC Cruises

What’s there to do on board?

In my experience so far, you’ll never be short of things to do on a cruise, but will leave wishing there were more than 24 hours in a day to take advantage of everything on offer. For us one of the attractions of this cruise was being able to visit a different destination on each day of the cruise, which left us with limited time to try out all the entertainments on board. We did however very much enjoy the evening show each night, with two separate performances designed to fit in before or after your dinner sitting. The shows were mainly song and dance routines that would appeal to a wide audience with some juggling, balancing or acrobatic elements incorporated. Over the course of the cruise the evening shows transported us with different themes to Paris, Ancient Greece, Italy, the land of the Aztecs, as well as a Luciano Pavarotti tribute show one evening.

Aqua Park on MSC Splendida with MSC Cruises

Aqua Park on MSC Splendida with MSC Cruises

Of course one of the most popular parts of the ship is the pool deck and MSC Splendida had much to offer with an outdoor Aqua Park including jacuzzis and fountains as well as the pool. The second indoor L’Equatore pool area was ideal for younger children and families and had a retractable roof but was covered during our cruise. At the back of the ship was the smaller Playa del Sol Zen area, although the “Zen'” could be a bit misleading as this area was just as busy as the others. The Aqua Park was full of families and groups enjoying themselves with music, karaoke and dance classes taking place at one end, so great if you like a buzz of activities but not if you are looking for peace and quiet on your cruise. You would need to lay out your orange towel early to be sure of a sunbed in any of the pool areas although you could retreat to the Top 18 solarium area for an additional charge.

Sports court on MSC Splendida with MSC Cruises

Sports court on MSC Splendida with MSC Cruises

During the day and into the evening there was a wide range of entertainment including dance lessons, bingo, quiz events, sports tournaments, culinary demonstrations and Karaoke. We did attend a destination talk on our first day but this was mainly to provide information on the excursions on offer and one thing I did miss was any insights about the ports of call that we were about to visit. We found that the activities on board MSC Splendida were mainly about entertainment rather than education or culture, perhaps due to the issues of operating in multiple languages. So if you are a culture vulture or are looking for education from your cruise, you may have to create your own, but if you like plenty of lighthearted entertainment, there’s lots on offer.

L'Equatore pool on MSC Splendida with MSC Cruises

L’Equatore pool on MSC Splendida with MSC Cruises

Fitness and spa on MSC Splendida

Because we were so busy on this cruise visiting all the interesting ports of call, we didn’t make much use of the fitness facilities on board. However, Guy did use the gym a couple of times and on our sea day I had the treat of a lovely facial and Balinese massage. The spa has a large seating area with healthy snacks and drinks to order at the bar and a shop area selling sportswear and beauty products. I had a lovely relaxing facial and on a separate occasion indulged in a Balinese massage with scented aromas and soft music leaving me with my skin soft and glowing and in a soporific mood. It’s worth checking for special offers and packages if you are someone who enjoys a relaxing spa experience as part of your cruise.

Swan towels in the Aurea spa on MSC Splendida with MSC Cruises

Swan towels in the Aurea spa on MSC Splendida with MSC Cruises

What do I need to wear on board MSC Splendida?

Cruise ship dress codes can vary widely between different cruise lines and ships and also depend on the route and itinerary. Most people will pack comfortable clothes and shoes for sightseeing on shore excursions, something casual for relaxing around the pool on sea days and a few smart outfits to dressing up in the evening. However, the thing that concerns most guests who are new to cruising is what they need to pack for formal nights on board.

Gala night on MSC Splendida with my Eileen Fisher sparkly evening top

Gala night on MSC Splendida with my Eileen Fisher sparkly evening top

I was also unsure whether I should be packing my long evening gowns and whether Guy needed his dinner jacket/tuxedo as would be the norm on some more traditional and British cruise lines. However a bit of advance research told me that most guests on an MSC Cruises around the Mediterranean adopt a more European style of dress, since there are so many Italians, Spanish and French on board.

On our cruise noticed that there were not so many ladies on gala evenings were wearing long dresses, but they tended to adopt a more ‘cocktail’ style of glamour and that the men were wearing a wide range of different jackets but very few went for the “black tie” or tuxedo. In the end my sparkly Eileen Fisher sequin top and my versatile black Joseph Ribkoff evening cover-up were perfect for the two gala evenings on board and on other evenings I dressed as you would when going to any nice restaurant, while Guy wore a blazer and open neck shirt.

Gala night on MSC Splendida with my Joseph Ribkoff evening jacket

Gala night on MSC Splendida with my Joseph Ribkoff evening jacket

Did I say there were two gala evenings on our week’s cruise? This was because the Mediterranean route we sailed on MSC Splendida calls at many different ports on a circular route and so guests are able to start their cruise at different points such as Barcelona, Marseille and Genoa. Two different gala evenings gave everyone the opportunity to experience a formal night wherever they boarded. On other nights there were different party themes that included “Carnival Party”, “Flower Glory – a trip to the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s” and “White party” but I never saw anyone but the crew dress to these themes, since most guests would not know about them before they came on board.

On board MSC Splendida with my Eileen Fisher linen vest

On board MSC Splendida with my Eileen Fisher linen vest

On the sea day, dress around the ship was much more informal, such as you’d wear around the pool or for a day at the beach. You can read more about what I packed for my Mediterranean cruise in my article – What to wear on your Mediterranean Cruise – my 6 top tips

Who is this cruise suited for?

As I said at the beginning, there’s a cruise for every taste, so who is a Mediterranean cruise on MSC Splendida best for? In my opinion

You will enjoy this cruise and ship if…

  • You enjoy visiting a lot of different destinations in one cruise
  • You are looking for a lively atmosphere, lots of entertainment and plenty to do on board
  • You enjoy a cosmopolitan European atmosphere on board
  • You want a cruise with a youthful feel which is ideal for families with young children, groups of friends, multi-generational groups and those from their 30s upwards.

But this may not be the cruise for you if…

  • You are looking for peace and quiet on your cruise
  • You want a cruise that offers a gourmet experience or wide range of speciality dining options
  • You enjoy a lot of cultural and educational activities
  • You want to mix with passengers from an older age range
  • You are looking to mix with mainly British or North American passengers on a ship that is mainly English speaking

Other articles in my Mediterranean Cruise series

Join me on a week’s Mediterranean cruise with MSC cruises
All aboard at Barcelona – Day 1 of my MSC Mediterranean Cruise
Bonjour Marseille – Day 2 of my MSC Mediterranean Cruise
Palazzo and Gelato in Genoa – Day 3 of my MSC Mediterranean Cruise
Naples and an excursion to Pompeii – Day 4 of my MSC Mediterranean Cruise
Messina and an excursion to Taormina – Day 5 of my MSC Mediterranean Cruise
Tunis and Carthage – Day 6 of my MSC Mediterranean Cruise
A day at sea and back to Barcelona – Day 7 of my MSC Mediterranean Cruise
What to wear on your Mediterranean cruise – my 6 top tips

MSCCruiseslogoThanks to MSC cruises who hosted Guy and Heather’s Mediterranean cruise. Heather and Guy travelled on MSC Splendida from Barcelona on a 1 week cruise calling at Genoa, Marseille, Naples, Messina, Tunis. Prices for a similar cruise start at around £700 per person. For more information, visit the MSC Cruises website or follow them on Twitter @MSC_Cruises_UK or on the MSC Facebook page.

This article by Heather Cowper is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com – Read the original article here

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You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey

Walking the beaches of the Gower – staying in our luxury Mumbles cottage – video

Friday night and it’s time to cross the Severn Bridge and exchange a working week in Bristol for a weekend exploring the glorious beaches of the Gower peninsula and the seaside nostalgia of Mumbles. This part of South Wales is no stranger to me, in fact I was in Swansea only a couple of weeks earlier on the trail of Dylan Thomas and visiting my son who is at Swansea university. This time I wanted to see more of Mumbles, all lovespoons and Welsh-Italian ice cream, as well as combining my favourite activities of walking and being beside the sea (but not necessarily in it).

Caswell Beach, Gower Peninsula, South WalesPhoto: Heatheronhertravels.com

Heather and Guy at Caswell Bay, Gower Peninsula, South Wales

Mumbles is one of those happy seaside towns that enjoyed its heyday in the early 20th century, when a trip to the seaside was a highlight of the summer for every family. With the establishment of the railway and steam trains running from Swansea from 1877, the population of this little seaside village grew and it became popular for the people of Swansea to visit Mumbles at the weekend and for holidays. Here you could enjoy an ice cream or pot of tea, take a walk along the promenade to the pier and reach the beaches of the Gower Peninsula that lie beyond.

Promenade View, the luxury holiday house that was our base for the weekend lived up to its name, with a perfect setting on the sea front and views through the trees across the curve of Swansea Bay. From our first floor bedroom we could watch a constant stream of walkers and cyclists passing up and down the promenade on the path that runs all the way from Swansea to Mumbles pier. In front of the house is a stretch of seaweed-strewn pebble beach where children were playing, with sailing boats parked in rows further up the promenade. The train line no longer exists, but there is a little tourist train that runs up and down to Mumbles from Blackpill Lido.

On the Promenade at Mumbles Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

On the Promenade at Mumbles

From Promenade View we took a stroll past Verdi’s Italian Cafe, a large glass building on the seafront where the participants from the triathalon earlier that morning were draped over the chairs outside, basking in the sunshine with wrap-around shades and wetsuits rolled down. Fishermen sat in their deck chairs with their rods propped up, where the restaurants and cafes that line the main road give way to houses with the rocky cliff rising steeply behind them.

Past the rocks exposed at low tide, where seagulls hopped between the stagnant rock-pools, we reached Mumbles Pier. Newly restored to its former glory, the building at the pier entrance was garlanded with exhuberant hanging baskets, with the Beach Hut Cafe serving fish and chips, a small boating pool for children to navigate pirate ships and the thumping and clanging of slot machines in the background. The man taking money at the pier entrance wasn’t doing a roaring trade but we were impressed by the secret sandy beach that you can reach by the steps down beside the pier.

I hope that you enjoy the video below of our weekend in Mumbles exploring the glorious beaches of the Gower

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Promenade View Holiday House

Our Promenade View holiday home provided a delightful weekend base for exploring Mumbles and the Gower peninsula where we were hoping to do some walking on the coastal path. The house has been recently renovated by owner Kim Davies, who grew up in Swansea and often returns to visit family. The colours are light and soft with a subtle seaside theme, plenty of personal touches and the amenities that you would normally expect from a hotel. Kim eventually hopes to run the house as a boutique B & B, so every room has its own en suite bathroom, with fragrant toiletries, limestone tiling, oak topped vanity stands and walk-in rain showers (or rain-forest showers as our kids know them).

Our master bedroom on the first floor had a practical wooden floor with soft green Welsh wool throws and cushions and a cosy rug on the floor. With the plantation shutters open we could lie in bed and watch the world go by, with a fabulous view of Swansea Bay through the picture window.

Promenade View Holiday Cottage in Mumbles, South Wales Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

The Master bedroom at Promenade View Holiday Cottage in Mumbles, South Wales

The two other bedrooms on the second floor were beautifully furnished in similar light, muted colours. The double bedroom at the front also had views over Swansea Bay and was decorated in a dove grey theme with woollen throw, linen cushions with a Welsh dragon motif and sparkly bedside lamps. The third bedroom which can be set up either as a double or twin had a velux window giving views over the trees and rooftops at the back of the house, with navy and white striped knitted throws and a large en suite bathroom. All the bedrooms had a flat-screen TV and we spotted kettles, hairdryers, full length mirrors and all the little conveniences that show the care and thought that has gone into making this house a home-from-home.

Promenade View Holiday Cottage in  Mumbles, South Wales Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Promenade View Holiday Cottage in Mumbles, South Wales

Downstairs, we relaxed in the elegant sitting room with the same plantation shutters that are found throughout the house, allowing light in while giving privacy from passers by. The wooden floor was covered with pale striped rug and we sank into the cream linen squashy sofas, with cushions of striped silk and soft, shaggy sheepskin. Under the flat screen TV was a cream leather Barcelona chair with cosy knitted throws and plenty of seaside touches like the jar of polished pebbles, pottery lighthouse lamps and rope covered doorstops.

At the back of the house, the kitchen and dining room had been knocked through to make one large area, with a painted dining table and chairs where we found a vase of flowers, as well as a welcome pack of some local goodies like Welsh cakes and biscuits, milk and breakfast cereal. The kitchen was extremely well equipped with plenty of attractive touches and the sunny patio at the back was the perfect place to sit with a coffee. We really enjoyed the many personal touches around the house, such as the old prints of a town in Italy that Kim had visited and the model sailing boat in the dining room, given to Kim by her sister.

If you’d also like to stay at Promenade View, you can check out the Facebook Page and book through local holiday rentals company HomefromHome.com.

Promenade View Holiday Cottage in Mumbles,  South Wales Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Promenade View Holiday Cottage in Mumbles, South Wales

Vintage motorbikes in Bracelet Bay

For the three years our oldest son has been at university in Swansea, I’d always planned to walk the coastal path that encircles the Gower peninsula, with views of some of the most stunning beaches in Europe. Since he’s now finished, this weekend was going to be a case of better late than never, but I was determined to cover at least some of the distance. On Saturday morning we strode forth from Promenade View, wearing our walking boots and an optimistic covering of sun cream.

Once we reached the Mumbles Pier, the path took us up the steps for a view of the lighthouse and round the headland to Bracelet Bay where the annual “Under Milkwood” classic vehicle road run was gathering in the car park. Guy immediately spotted one of his favourite classic motorbikes, an Enfield Bullet and we stopped for an in depth discussion and photo opportunity with two older gentlemen of the road, Terrence and Derek, or “Tel and Del” as they introduced themselves. They would be taking their vintage motorbikes to the Dylan Thomas heartland of Laugharne later that day, while we continued a little further down the road to Limeslade Bay.

Vintage Enfield Bullet at Bracelet Bay, Gower Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Vintage Enfield Bullet at Bracelet Bay, Gower

Gelato at Limeslade Bay

Here we found more distractions in the form of Fortes ice cream parlour, another of the numerous cafes run by Italian families who emigrated to South Wales in the early 19th century. We stopped in conversation as we ordered our cones from the young lady behind the counter, ” Is it still heaving in Mumbles?” she asked, “we were very busy this morning with the triathlon” . We asked whether the ice cream was made on the premises, and she confirmed as we expected, “yes, my Mum makes it out the back”. We took our black-current and caramel ices and walked on licking them, following the path as it climbed away from the road.

The path here was newly paved in concrete, cutting through heathland above the old one lower down the slope, which looked as if it had been about to slide off the cliff. Below us the swell of the sea rose and fell with the white foam licking the rocks and a little robbin hopped in the hedge beside the path then flew away. A couple of cyclists passed us and got off to push as the path steepened, then turned into steps as we neared Langland Bay.

Limeslade Bay, Gower Peninsula, Wales Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Limeslade Bay, Gower Peninsula, Wales

Retro beach huts at Langland Bay

Langland Bay has a wide expanse of beach which is popular with both families and surfers, since there is easy parking and it’s not too far from Swansea. Along the back of the beach are rows of cheerfully retro green and white beach huts that are in hot demand to rent for the season, where you can store all your beach essentials, make a cup of tea and sit in a deckchair sunning yourself with your friends. The good weather had brought the families out in force, making sand castles, playing with dogs and passing round the sandwiches, surrounded by colourful wind breaks and beach tents.

Green Beach huts at Langland Bay, Gower Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Green Beach huts at Langland Bay, Gower

Langland beach has an almost tropical air due to the spiky palms planted in front of the beach huts. The tide was a long way out and we could just spot a few surfers and a kayak lesson going on. Walking along the path above the beach we reached the Langland Brasserie at the end, the smartest of the three beach cafes, where we had enjoyed a coffee in the rain on a previous winter visit to Langland and Caswell.

Langland Beach, Gower Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Langland Beach, Gower

Buckets and Spades at Caswell Bay

After Langland Bay, the path was still good but the flat concrete surface disappeared and the shore became wild again with pock-marked rocks like calcified sponges exposed at low tide. On our right the heathland sloped upwards, with new growth sprouting in places and other patches that were dry and brown, even blackened as if by fire. Offshore a lone paddleboarder was taking a parallel course to us, making surprisingly good progress despite or perhaps because the sea was calm with hardly any waves. The day was warm but now becoming overcast, with a patch of blue sky topped by a lid of grey clouds and we hoped there wouldn’t be rain ahead as Caswell Bay came into view.

Where Langland has a touch of old world elegance about it, Caswell feels much more buckets and spades, candy floss and burgers. I had been rather looking forward to stopping for a light lunch in the Surfside Cafe, but Guy was put off by the crowds on the beach and so we only stopped long enough to eat our Welsh cakes and have a swig of water. We continued across the sand in front of the lifeguard hut to where the path passed through woodland and around the cliff.

Caswell Beach, Gower Peninsula,  South Wales Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Caswell Beach, Gower Peninsula, South Wales

Wildflowers and woodland by Pwll du Bay

The path was so narrow in places that there was not much to stop you falling down if you missed a step, although we could look back down on Caswell with a sheen of water like a mirror over most of the surface. The coastal path took us through a very pretty stretch of lush undergrowth with wildflowers like ox eye daisies and pink foxgloves blooming, contrasting with the lunar landscape of rocks below us, exposed at high tide.

Through a stretch of woodland we came down to the National Trust beach at Pwll du Bay which was more remote than the others we had passed with no car park and access that seemed to be only via the footpaths, although there were a couple of cottages with cars outside. A large bank of shale backed the beach and behind it a stream was running, creating a marshy area with a small pool and a bridge to cross. The area was once a limestone quarry and the buildings that remain were inns for the thirsty quarry men (and maybe smugglers) according to the National Trust website.

Up the steep path we now skirted the open headland through a field of cows, heading for Pennard where we were able to catch the bus back to Mumbles using the excellent regular bus service that makes it easy to walk parts of the coastal path as we had done. The information leaflets in the welcome pack that came with the cottage gave us plenty of information about the walks and bus service but you can also pick them up in the local tourist information office or check the BayTrans website here.

Llangennith Beach on the Gower Peninsula, Wales Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Llangennith Beach on the Gower Peninsula, Wales

Surf’s up at Llangennith

On Sunday morning we decided to check out one of the Gower beaches that I’d heard a lot about from my son, but never visited, the surfer’s favourite beach at Llangennith. Half an hour’s drive from Mumbles, we parked by the cafe above the Hillend campsite and walked down to the beach, although we afterwards realised that we could have parked right by the sand dunes.

This beach is huge and extends in both directions, bounded by Rhossilli at one end and Broughton Bay at the other. As we arrived it was low tide and there was a constant stream of surfers walking through the dunes with their boards under their arms, across the flat sand, sheeted with water and down to the surf. As every good surfer knows, winter is by far the best time for surfing, when the wind and storms in the Atlantic create the swell, but in June the water was quite flat. Every so often a surfer would pop up and make a few curves, otherwise there seemed to be a lot of bobbing heads in the water.

Llangennith Beach on the  Gower Peninsula, Wales Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Llangennith Beach on the Gower Peninsula, Wales

There were plenty of people sitting close to the beach entrance through the dunes, but as we walked further along we had the beach to ourselves with wide open skies and a gentle breeze. I love the sense of freedom and space you get beside the ocean on a wild, unspoilt beach like this. Those in the know were pulling their belongings along the sand in a beach cart so that they could walk further along to the quieter end of the beach. Even in the most crowded weekend in August I imagine you could have plenty of space here if you can be bothered to walk.

By lunchtime it was time to head back to Mumbles, leaving Promenade View and on back to Bristol, our heads a little clearer for the coastal walking and sea breeze. Next time I’d love to continue my walk around the rest of the Gower, passing some of the other fantastic beaches of Three Cliffs Bay, Oxwich and on to reach Rhossili and Llangennith again. Until then I’m holding on the memory of that wind in my hair and the lovely, luxurious Promenade View in Mumbles.

Visitor Information for Visiting Mumbles and the Gower Peninsula

Our holiday house at Promenade View can be booked through local holiday rentals company HomefromHome.com and you can also follow the Promenade View Facebook Page . Promenade View has 3 en suite bedrooms and sleeps up to 6 people in comfort with off street parking for one car and a small courtyard garden. The house is very well equiped with washing machine, dishwasher, dryer, internet as well as games and useful information for the area supplied in your welcome pack. Promenade View can be rented by the week from £535 (low season) – £1085 (high season) per week

You can find out more about visiting the area on the Visit Swansea Bay, Mumbles and Gower Website and for holidays in Wales on the Visit Wales Website

Thanks to Kim Davies who extended me a complimentary weekend stay at Promenade View

View my photos on flickr here.

More stories from Swansea and South Wales

A winter weekend on the Gower in Wales – Langland and Caswell
An ugly, lovely town Part 1 – a return journey to Swansea with Dylan Thomas
A long day’s walk on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path

Sunset from Mumbles, South Wales Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Sunset from Mumbles, South Wales

This article by Heather Cowper is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com – Read the original article here

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