Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Hualien - The City of Earthquakes

Hiking in Taroko Gorge


Hualien is a small city located about two hours by train from Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. It's in between the Central Mountain range and on the coast of Pacific ocean which makes it a great location for different purposes as you can enjoy the city life but also go hiking, whale watching and more. We had two reasons to go there, the Taroko Gorge and frequent earthquakes.

Amazing Taroko, Hualien


Hualien is known for it's notorious location being prone to earthquakes. By frequent we mean daily. On our four day stay we experienced at least two earthquakes per day, every day, three on average and the biggest being 5.6M. I guess it was some sort of a small peak which seems to happen every now and then. You can see a list of most recent earthquakes in Taiwan here.

Earthquakes in Hualien, Taiwan


Scootering away 


For the locals it's not a big deal. They seemed to go on with their daily activities as per usual even when we were having lunch and the whole restaurant started shaking. The locals only seemed to raise their heads to calmly observe the situation. For us, staying on the 15th floor of our hotel and waking up around 4 in the night was quite intense. Interesting, once-in a lifetime intense kind of a way. I had been hoping to experience a small earthquake already for a very long time starting from our trip to Iceland, where nothing happened at all to Bali where I think I woke up to a tiny quake during the night but am not sure. In Hualien it finally happened up to the point that eventually, on our departure day, we were actually quite happy to leave and return to more stable grounds.


Apparently there has been sun in Taroko


We ended up staying in Hualien for a little longer than expected. Initially the plan was to drive from Taipei to Hualien where we wanted to stay two days and then continue to Sun Moon Lake. However, we didn't know we needed The International Driving Permit which lead to the cancellation of the car rental. It all went quite smooth, though. The local Avis Car Rental employees, who were already used to a situation like this, helped us make other travel arrangements so  it only took us less than an hour to get ourselves on a train to Hualien. We had a nice hotel booked in Hualien so staying there was no issue at all, although we would have loved to stay in the mountains also.


Taroko Gorge, Hualien, Taiwan

The highlights of the area, aside the earthquakes, was the Taroko Gorge, the Pacific Ocean and the food. Hualien city itself is quite small so a day or two is enough. We had all sorts of hikes planned for the time we stayed in Hualien but due to the weather and the earthquakes we decided to skip most the longer and more demanding trails. We did hike some shorter, less demanding paths that were nice but not particularly challenging.


Taroko Gorge


There are a few things we didn't realize to consider but should have, when planning hiking trips in Taroko Gorge.


  • Some hiking trails were recently closed due to recent land slides
Frequent earthquakes and rain causes landslides. A few of the trails we planned to hike were closed very recently as there had been many earthquakes lately. Have a few back-up trails in case you can't hike the one you originally planned. 

  • Land slides are very frequent
Taroko has been the only location where we decided to skip hiking for safety reasons. We had rented a scooter to drive around the Taroko National Park and on our way back we saw several fresh landslides or huge fallen rocks on the road that were not there when we drove by only less than an hour earlier. Maybe, if we hadn't experienced all the earthquakes during these days we would have gone hiking but with the trembling ground beneath our feet and the closed hiking paths (due to land slides) we had to turn back from were enough to convince us to reconsider.


  • Some trails also required a permit which was surprisingly difficult to obtain without a local guide.
Try and find a local to help you out getting a permit to hike some of the most interesting trails. Do this well in advance as it takes time to arrange everything. Also, note that you need a local phone number as the park ranger will try and contact you to verify the permit. If you don't have a local contact or a guide,  you can try and get a prepaid SIM card once you arrive. For this you need to pay a visit to a mobile dealer (don't forget to take your passport). Note that it's quite a hassle to get the hiking permit if you don't speak the local language. You might want to start the permit process before you depart to Taiwan or latest the first day you arrive.

Taroko is an amazing place to hike, just be well prepared and careful. There are also lots of easy trails that are accessible and much less dangerous. 


Hualien city, Taiwan

Cityscape, Hualien


Eventually with all the changes in our plans we had lots of time to spare. We enjoyed the spa at our hotel, rented a scooter to explore Hualien and surroundings, cycled around the area and definitely didn't skip a chance to eat at one of the many restaurants.


One of the temples in Hualien

..and more temples..

and another one.


We hired a scooter and drove around the area exploring and taking pictures. Technically the International Driving Permit is required also for two wheelers but some shops might overlook this, like they did in our case.


View from Parkview Hotel, Hualien, Taiwan

Hualien, Taiwan

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Why Price Match and Free Cancellation are important

Tokyo, Japan
Here's a great example on why Price Match and Free Cancellation are important when booking a hotel. We recently booked a hotel costing a little over 800 EUR for an upcoming trip. We are quite loyal customers of Hotels.com because of the great loyalty program they have but sometimes are forced to book from other sources. This time Hotels.com didn't have this specific hotel and due to certain circumstances we had to go to this exact hotel, so we ended up using Booking.com. 

Luckily Booking also had the Price Match and Free Cancellation policy on this hotel.

As per my usual habits, I was checking the price of this hotel regularly even though it was sold out long ago. I do this for our hotel bookings almost daily, to make sure we are getting the best price. Once it becomes a habit, it only takes two minutes a day. 

Two weeks before the trip, KABOOM, there it was, the same hotel with exactly the same room for almost half of the original price. To top that, this room was now also available on Hotels.com.

Pool are of our hotel in Sanur, Bali, Indonesia

So I booked the room on Hotels.com.

Cancelled my booking at Booking.com.

Sent the Price Match request I found from another source which was later approved.

We got the room for about 480 EUR.


The next day, the hotel was sold out again. Had I not consistently checked the price almost every day, we would have lost the discount.

With the money saved on this stay, we got to book flights to Munich for the both of us. Not only did we save actual cash on the hotel stay, we also got to collect 7 reward nights on Hotels.com which often equals to additional saving of 10%. It means that for every 10 nights you collect, you get one for free (for the value of an average price of those 10 nights). This might seem like a little but last year we collected roughly 50 nights in a hotel. Calculating all together, we save about 750 EUR every year only by preferring one hotel booking website.

To top that, annually we also save over 1000 EUR on matching prices we find on other hotel booking sites. Normally the savings are small, some tens of euros per hotel booking. But sometimes it's more, even hundreds of euros. 

Another great example is our hotel in Munich. By searching for a lower price after booking I managed to save 40 EUR, which basically means a day of free car rental!



Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Visiting three countries in three days while even getting some sleep! This is how we did it.

We recently took a long weekend trip of three full days visiting three countries. In Switzerland we had a quick & clean city stay in the city of Basel, in Liechtenstein it was mini-sightseeing with shopping and in Austria we went hiking in the Alps. Sounds like a lot but is completely doable even in as short time as three days, and makes you feel like you’ve been on a week-long vacation! And you even have time to sleep! Here’s our detailed plan on how to make it happen - with some comments and advise!


Basel, Switzerland

- Don’t pick huge and insanely interesting cities for short 1-day stays as you’ll most likely end up staying too long or regretting not having enough time.

- Keep driving distances short and don't forget to consider general driving conditions. Smaller roads in the mountains can take much longer than estimated.

- Pack enough for a versatile trip. You might be short on time buy you don't have to stick to a monotonous trip.

- Make sure you plan your dining beforehand. Searching for a restaurant can take lots of time. Searching for places to eat near your hotel or route beforehand makes life so much easier!


Friday

We flew out from Amsterdam on Friday afternoon after work and arrived to our Basel hotel at around 19.00. Basel is an hour flight away from Amsterdam which is perfect for quick trips!

We rented a car which, at the Basel-Mulhouse airport, was super quick and easy. We were sitting in the car within 10 minutes after getting our luggage. What’s important to know is that you might have to buy a vignette when crossing the border to certain countries, therefore do your research beforehand and be prepared for this to avoid unpleasant fines. You could also ask the rental company for a car that already has a vignette for Switzerland.

Having booked a restaurant near the hotel beforehand we were all set for dinner at 20.00 and back at hotel around 23.00. Used TripAdvisor’s fantastic Browse Nearby feature.

Saturday

Getting up in the morning, enjoying breakfast at the hotel and off we went for a quick 2-3 hour stroll across the town. We were out of the hotel around 8.30 in the morning. Make sure you know where to get your breakfast from not to waste too much time on this in the morning.

We found a nice city walk (Googling and ending up on TripAdvisor’s Forum) which was truly great and covered the most important sights and areas you’d probably want to see. As Basel is quite a small town we felt this walk was definitely enough. I guess you could spend good 1-2 days there (especially if you like museums) but anything more than that is probably too much. Half a day is more than enough.



Basel city walk, found on TripAdvisor by MAEZLI:


Start on the northern bank of the Rhine on Middle Bridge,( Mittlere Brücke) the center of the city. Walk upstream and take photos of the river and the mediaval skyline with the cathedral behind it.

Take the ferry boat hanging at a rope, and then climb up to the cathedral, 11th century, high upon the Rhine, to the Pfalz and take a photo of 3 countries in one picture, explore Cathedral place (Münsterplatz), then walk through Augustinergasse, Martinsgasse until you can take the stairs down to Marktplatz. See the town hall, 15 th century, leave the place on the opposite side and enter Sattelgasse and then Schneidergasse. Try to find the very narrow Imbergässlein (Ginger lane), next to Restaurant Hasenburg, and walk uphill to Nadelberg, turn left towards to Spalenberg, then some meters down and the right through Gemsberg a U-turn to the right up to a place called Lyss. There you will see in 200 m distance the famous Spalentor.


Started driving to Liechtenstein at 11.00. Route: A3, Basel – Vaduz, Liechtenstein, driving time: 2h.

The scenery was incredibly beautiful and traffic nice and efficient. We didn't make any stops during the drive as we didn't feel it was necessary. No matter where you drive in these countries, you'll always be surrounded by amazing scenery. therefore don't panic if you miss a nice view, there'll be next one around the corner.



St. Florin Cathedral & The Alps
Liechtenstein is tiny! We had planned a few different locations to visit, such as the Vaduz Castle, Burg Gutenberg, Malbun and Triesen chapel but as soon as we arrived to Vaduz, we quickly decided to skip most of them and only walked along the main street of the city and went up to the Vaduz Castle. We skipped the rest because those locations were mainly for the great views but we felt it was unnecessary to drive around as the view was all around us all the time anyway. Also, we wanted to save time for shopping. Obviously.


Vaduz Castle
Landquart Designer Outlet (Tardisstrasse 20a, 7302 Landquart, Switzerland, 20min drive from Vaduz) was quite good. It's not huge but the things they sold were quite high quality (not that bulk outlet stuff some shopping villages have) so we made a few great buys. Most of them were Finnish brands, though. A fun coincident to buy Suunto and Rukka in Switzerland for half the price.

Vaduz Castle

After a nice shopping spree it was time to drive to the final destination, Innerbraz in Austria, about an hour drive from Liechtenstein. We had booked a nice, traditional gasthof (German for guesthouse) with a very highly rated restaurant, therefore no need to search for restaurants! Luckily the restaurant was incredibly good so we had no reason to search elsewhere.

The gasthof we stayed at was called Gasthof Rössle in Braz. We loved the traditional wood paneling all over the hotel, it was such an authentic experience.

Sunday

Alpine trekking!

Going up Vorarlberg in Austria
The next morning, after a quick breakfast, we headed out to the mountains. Austria is one of the best locations for people who enjoy spending time outdoors in the nature and they have great resources for this also. I did struggle a little at first while trying to find hiking trails but searching by the area name or even nearby mountains will help. To top up the efficiency, lay out all your hiking clothes the night before, fill the water bottles and pack everything else you’re planning to take a long. 

We chose a hike on Vorarlberg (click on the link for the trail map) suitable for winter time (without special gear) which was perfect for us. It was quite easy with a nice ascent to the Lindauer Hü
tte (alt. 1744m) on Montafon. Would definitely want to hike this trail also during the summer and stay at the cottage. This time we only walked up (and slightly further from the cottage), had a cup of coffee there and went back down. The weather was absolutely fantastic that day. We had clear skies all day long and temperature was high!

For Sunday we didn’t have anything else scheduled than hiking. We knew when the sun was setting and had reserved a table at the restaurant of our hotel for 19.00 meaning we had quite a relaxing day ahead.


Made it up and down we go!


Vorarlberg, Austria

After finishing our fantastic hike, we went back to the hotel and prepared for the dinner, being completely exhausted and tremendously happy the restaurant was right there at the gasthof. To make things easier for the departure day, we packed majority of our stuff after coming back from the hike so we could just fell on the bed right after dinner and get some much needed sleep.

Monday

On the last day we had lots of time and decided to avoid highways and take a look at some alternative routes. This was fun as we definitely enjoy driving around exploring! The route from Innerbraz in Austria to Mulhouse airport in France took us through the total of five countries (in only 2-3 hours!) covering also Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Germany. We made it back to the airport right on schedule and were back in Amsterdam at 20.00 on Easter Monday and ready for work the next day.

Somewhere in Switzerland
Somewhere on the road from Austria to France

We were traveling with the total of 35kgs of luggage which is quite insane but necessary as we brought our own hiking gear (clothing, shoes, backpacks, hiking sticks) and bought some wine to bring back home. However, the amount of luggage wasn’t a problem at all with a relatively big car we had rented.

So there! Not so busy but completely versatile and full of new experiences. We were exhausted from the hike even a couple of days after the trip but it was more than worth it!


Approximate driving route from Base-Mulhouse airport to Innerbraz, Austria via Basel and Liechtenstein . On the way back we took a scenic route avoiding highways.



Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Nature lover visiting Helsinki? Look here!

Tourists often go north when they want to enjoy the Finnish nature, but you can do the same even when visiting Helsinki, all year round. Porkkalanniemi is a peninsula located south-west from Helsinki. By car you can make it there in roughly 45 minutes, which is also the only way to get there as there's no public transportation heading to the peninsula. There are no northern lights or reindeers but there is the sea and, well, normal deers, the ones without Santa. And a magnificent landscape! To top it all, its completely free - you can hike, camp, swim, make a fire or pick wild berries and mushrooms without permits or entrance fees. It's also a very popular area for bird watching. 

"Around the corner" from Porkkalanniemi, it's almost mandatory to drive to Linlo, another beautiful spot to enjoy the nature. Linlo has a slightly different landscape as it's further from the open sea and is surrounded by tiny islands. It's a fantastic destination for kayaking. 

When we lived in Finland we visited this area all the time, all year round and it's one of the things we miss the most from Finland. The best memories include sliding down a cliff into the sea, barbecuing during a sunset, sunbathing and swimming in July, watching deers and moose in August, making baked potatoes in the barbecue hut in January and walking on the frozen sea in February.

Here's a few of the reasons we miss it so much!


March (same spot as below)


April (same spot as above)
May
June

July
July

August

September

October

October

October
October

December

January


January

February

From Helsinki to Porkkalanniemi and Linlo. 45 minutes to Porkkalanniemi and another 45min to Linlo.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Sarajevo

Present day Sarajevo is a beautiful, multicultural and a colorful city! What you experience is life at its best. It’s hard to describe but you’ll know what we mean when you get there. It has a very special feeling, as if all of the people of Sarajevo are truly enjoying the very present moment. It’s more apparent in the evenings when people sit in café’s and restaurants. It feels like true joy we haven't experienced anywhere else so far. 


Walking along river Miljacka
By the famous wooden fountain Sebilj, in Sarajevo

We drove to Sarajevo after Pluzine in Montenegro. Crossing the border took a little more time than in other countries on this trip but we were done with the border formalities in max. 10 minutes. The scenery was beautiful although the condition of the roads varied from gravel and potholes to fresh and smooth asphalt. Traffic was decent, not too many insane over takings or other strange death-wish driving habits as in a few of the other countries in the region. Don't start driving with an empty tank as gas stations can mostly only be found in towns and cities. We followed all of the advice we got on parking the car in a trusted parking garage (in our case it was the parking of Hotel Europe) that was recommended by our hotel. I remember reading stories on how it’s not advisable to drive with Croatian plates in Bosnia but we really had no problems what so ever, so I guess it’s outdated information.


We stayed in Sarajevo for four days which was a good time to explore the city. It's not very large, therefore few days should be enough. 


On the road from Pluzine to Sarajevo


Nature in Bosnia

Tourism in Sarajevo is growing fast although it lacks consistency. You see a lot of people doing their best, really making an effort, many tourist organizations are doing incredible work to support tourism in their country but they lack support from the government which is what they really need the most. According to the World Tourism Organization, Bosnia and Herzegovina will have the third highest tourism growth rate in the world between 1995 and 2020. However, because of these active people, you get a very personalized experience and definitely feel cared after.


Take a seat in Sarajevo

So what is there to do in Sarajevo?


Sarajevo was founded by the Ottoman Empire in the 1450s and you can see and feel the rich history everywhere. It's such a fascinating place with many cultures and religions living side by side. Many other cities in the area claim the same but in Sarajevo you can truly feel the mix of different cultures and religions living together in peace. 


Ottoman street in Sarajevo

Sarajevo is still being rebuilt after the war but you have some architectural gems to explore in many parts of the city. It's quite safe to walk around at any time of the day but you might want to keep your eyes open in remote areas. 


Festina Iente bridge

History

There is so much to see in Sarajevo as it has such a rich history! The old part of the city is full of historical Ottoman architecture as well as churches. You can visit the street where the archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was shot, that gunshot is also known as the gunshot that started the 1st World War. The newer part of the city has more modern architecture, shopping centers and also more signs of the most recent war - some by purpose, others are still waiting for reconstruction, demolition or rebuilding. All over the city you will also find Sarajevo Roses, a sad reminder of the victims killed in the most recent war. 

Sarajevo Rose is a site of a mortar shell's explosion that was later filled with red resin to mark where mortar explosions resulted in one or more deaths (wikipedia).


Sebilj, Ottoman-style wooden fountain


Sarajevo Rose

We joined a free walking tour by BH Spirit City Tours and Excursions and continued with the Sarajevo Under the Siege and also Tunnel of Hope tours by the same company. This is something you really cannot miss in Sarajevo. The tours are incredibly informative and all of the people you meed during these tours have actually lived it, therefore they are the best to share the stories.

First steps in the Tunnel of Hope



Sarajevo Olympic Bobsleigh and Luge Track, now an attraction


Old Jewish Cemetery overlooking the UNITIC Business Center and  Avaz Twist Tower.


Tony with Abid Jasar, one of the brave men who built the Tunnel of Hope. Abid Jasar passed away in November 2016.


Map of Sarajevo

Food:


You will not feel hungry in Sarajevo. The food is fantastic! You must try ćevapčići which is grilled minced meat in a form of a sausage, usually served with flatbread, onion and sour cream. To eat with the locals as well as tourists, go to a restaurant called Petica on Bravadžiluk 29, in the old part of the city. Not far from here is also Buregdžinica Bosna (Bravadžiluk 11), which is well known for it's magnificent meat pies.

ćevapčići 



You will not be hungry in Sarajevo!

Shopping:

There are a few shopping centers in the city but the selection is somewhat limited. The western European and US brands are present but the value is not good. However, if you are into some less-known brands you can make some great finds, especially clothes and shoes made in Turkey are great.

In general:

As the rebuilding of Sarajevo hasn’t been as fast as the people have been hoping it was, we recommend to pick a nice hotel.

There was a certain level of curiosity to travel to a country with such a colorful recent history with the days of glory in the 80’s which quickly turned into a long, dark war. It was our first time visiting a country that underwent such a bloody war during our life time, only 20 years ago. And it all happened right here in Europe! That was not the reason for us to travel there, though. It might have been a reason not to travel there, I guess that’s how it is for many people. But we challenge you to visit Bosnia, especially Sarajevo, and open your heart to everything it can offer. 

Destruction

For me it took a day and a half to get over this strangely emotional anxiety I felt seeing all the war scars on the buildings and to see beyond all of it. I felt devastated and heartbroken. Tony took it much better immediately. I couldn’t get over the fact that about half of the people we saw around us, people our age, experienced a war only recently and had such a tragic childhood while we were living a normal life only 2500 kilometers away. It was very difficult to understand how this could happen and how it could last for such a long time. 

Sarajevo is one of the most memorable places we have visited. Even after visiting more than 50 countries and probably three times as many cities, Sarajevo is definitely number one.


Sarajevo today