Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Mad King's Fairy Tale Castle

It’s the perfect castle in the perfect setting. Perched high in the German Alps, Neuschwanstein Castle is the epitome of the fairy tale palace with its beautiful white limestone facades accentuated by numerous turrets and spires. Windows are carved out of every wall and help attest to the fact that it was built as a home, not a fortress.

Standing at the base of the path, I watched a bus loaded with tourists pass me and was glad I had chosen to take the 30-minute hike from the parking lot to the castle. Aside from nearby Hohenschwangau Castle, there isn’t too much else to do. Nor is anything else necessary.

Neuschwanstein Castle towers over the village of Hohenschwangau, which is just a short bus ride or drive from Fussen, where the nearest train station is located. The mountains are dotted with evergreen trees and conceal numerous lakes graced with swans, the royal symbol. King Ludwig II, who ordered the castle built in the late 1860s, was a nature lover, and the views along the hike are spectacular.

I watched the shadows of clouds float lazily over a landscape dotted with villages that, aside from the modern roads, might have looked the same for centuries. The lakes were a rich blue, and all the vegetation was a lush green. When I rounded the last corner and got my first glimpse of the castle up close, I just stopped and stared.

It rose out of the rocky foundation and seemed to flirt with the sky. I knew right then why Disney chose to build the castle in Dinseyland in its likeness. My tour wasn’t for 20 minutes, so I walked around the base of the palace and climbed to its upper courtyard.

From the walls, I took in the same scenery I had seen on the hike up, but I saw it now as Ludwig II would have. For a moment, I let myself pretend it was my realm, and I was overseeing it from my seat of power.

I looked across a gorge at the Marienbrucke bridge spanning a small stream and waterfall. It was crowded with tourists from all over the world, and I realized I was making it into a few hundred photographs. I wanted to walk over and join them, but it was time for my tour.

I found the line I was supposed to be in and waited for the rest of my group to show up. The group in front of me was German. Though guided tours are only offered in German and English, many other options are availably by audio guide, and I heard a plethora of languages, including French, Italian, English, German, Japanese and Spanish.

When enough of us were there, our guide led us through the doors and into the first rooms, which belonged to the king’s servants. With their oak-paneled walls and carved furniture, even they lived well.

The tour seemed to jump around a little bit due to the fact that King Ludwig II died under mysterious circumstances before the castle’s completion, and the building was never finished. He supposedly drowned in a lake with his doctor, but both were excellent swimmers, and Ludwig had many enemies in his government who thought he was squandering resources on his retreat.

Walking through rooms with finery I had only thought existed in Versailles, I marveled at the beautiful paintings and depictions of medieval legends and heroes. Every inch of the interior dripped with elegance.

The throne room was particularly breathtaking. Though there was no throne, the platform for it was flanked by tall candelabras and capped off by a dome on which was a painting of Christ and His canonized kings.

As we walked, our guide related some of Ludwig’s and the castle’s history. The two are equally intertwined with the composer Richard Wagner, a close friend of the king. It was in a letter to Wagner that Ludwig first wrote his concept for Neuschwanstein.

After seeing the rest of the interior, the tour was over and I found myself back in the courtyard. I gazed over a parapet down to Hohenschwangau Castle, which should be seen in conjunction with Neuschwanstein on the combined admission ticket for €17. It’s a sight in its own right, but is outdone by Neuschwanstein.

Aching to see the castle from another angle, I took the short hike over to the Marienbrucke. And stopped. I don’t have a huge fear of heights, but the thought of walking out onto a bridge built more than a hundred years earlier and paved with wood planks made me hesitate. After all, I could see the castle just fine from the solid hill.

But I had to walk out there. It’s where the best photo of the castle’s side is. So I stepped onto the planks and rolled my eyes as they flexed with my movements and those of the rest of the tourists. I stared down at the waterfall farther below me than I cared to think about, and eventually let my eyes rise to see the castle again.

It was so easy to imagine the castle as the setting for any number of fairy tales. That it was real and I was standing, gazing at it took a while to set in. It simply awed me. To me, it will always be the most beautiful building in the world.

---This was first published here in a slightly different form.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Taste of Travel: Hawaiian Delight

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Honolulu, Leonard’s Bakery is the home to a food that has enjoyed a culinary version of the American Dream.

Not unlike donuts, malasadas are deep-fried pastry puffs coated in cinnamon and sugar or stuffed with tasty fillings. Originally part of the traditional Portuguese celebration of Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday), malasadas immigrated to Hawaii in the early 1950s, when Leonard DoRego opened his bakery, and were an instant success.

It took me seven trips to Hawaii before a local turned me on to the small establishment off the beaten tourist path. I’m not much for breakfast – usually preferring more sleep – but he convinced me over ahi tuna steaks and margaritas that it was something I simply couldn’t miss.

When I walked up to the front of the innocuous building the following morning, it had the look and feel of a local favorite. The workers greeted me and my family with an enthusiastic “Aloha” and let us look over the selection. They had the whole pastry spectrum covered, from Danish tea cakes to run-of-the-mill glazed donuts, but I was there for malasadas.

I don’t remember exactly how much they were, but it was something like 40 cents each. I went for the standard sugar-coated one and one with a cream filling. My parents and sister each got a couple, and we decided to eat them in the car on the way to climb Diamond Head.

I picked up one of the fresh-baked malasadas, feeling the warmth in my hand as we passed palm trees and beaches with Diamond Head looming in the distance. I took my first bite, and was instantly hooked. The plain one wasn’t too heavy, with a nice airy taste to it as it melted in my mouth. The cream-filled one was also excellent, but the original one was better. They were, in a word, delicious. They rival even the best French croissant.

After returning home, malasadas joined the sandy beaches and pristine big-sky feel of Hawaii in the corridors of memory. I had never seen them on the mainland, and didn’t expect to. It was, therefore, a surprise earlier this week when I was eating at an L&L Hawaiian Barbecue restaurant to hear that I could order them less than a quarter of a mile from home.

From a Portuguese tradition to a Hawaiian favorite, malasadas now grace the mainland, and I couldn’t be happier.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


The German Alps rose in front of me, and I eyed the snakelike steel track winding its way down the hill before me. Schloss Neuschwanstein, (you can read my article on it here) was a picturesque accent on the slope behind me. Then I pushed the stick on my black plastic sled forward, releasing the brakes, and practically flew down the mountain.

The sled vibrated beneath me, and I was going so fast that I was riding up on the sides of the curves, but I wasn't about to slow down. My sister was in front of me, and as I steadily closed the gap, I shouted, "Schnell! Schnell!" Knowing I would sooner rear-end her than slow down, she sped up, and we reached the end giddy with excitement.

I'd heard similar metal luge courses were once coupled with the ski resorts in the Sierra Nevadas, 90 minutes from my home, but they were long gone by the time I was old enough to ride them. The Germans and Austrians, thankfully, have held on to the rides. The tracks are heated to melt snow, making them a year-round attraction. They are the perfect way to spend a quick half-hour after seeing one of the nearby monuments.

At slightly less than two dollars per ride, the thrill is well worth it. My first run was marked with timidity, but that wore off quickly. On my subsequent downhill dashes, I pushed the limit. When the inevitable happened and I went too fast for the track, I found myself sprawled sideways, with two of the sled's four wheels off the track and my knee and elbow taking their place. My jacket and pants had gray patches from the metal, and my knee was raw.

I could have spent all day there, but time was limited, so I settled for three rides, followed by a bratwurst and a beer at the adjoining food counter before heading North to Munich. I was delighted, therefore, to find an identical attraction a week later while visiting Salzburg's Lake District. I repeated my experiences from Germany, minus the skin removal, and found that it was one of the rare things in life that can live up to expectations the second time.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Perfect Like a Corona Commercial

Since I’ve never been standing on the dock watching the stern of the ship shrink in the sunset, I’m still of the opinion that most cruise ship shore excursions are a waste of money, since I see the only real benefit being that the ship won’t leave without one of its excursion groups.

Some activities, like riding zip lines or sailing outriggers, can’t be easily done without the crew’s organization and contacts. For the rest, however, I found it more fun and significantly cheaper to go it alone.

Such was the case when I was on the Carnival Glory, sailing into Charlotte Amalie, on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. A late-night bar encounter with a cruise veteran had turned me on to the lure of Trunk Bay, on nearby St. John.

Hustling off the ship in the rush of passengers out to spend as much time as possible ashore, I soon found myself waiting at a bus stop on an ordinary stretch of road surrounded by ’60s era apartments.

After five minutes waiting for the bus to Red Hook, where the ferries to St. John made landfall, an elderly local told me and my family that there was only one bus, and no guarantee as to when it would show up.

Suddenly the $45 per person snorkeling excursion to St. John seemed like money well spent. But it was too late for that.

Fortunately, the woman suggested we take a safari, one of the many pickups converted to carry passengers in the bed. The fare to Red Hook, on the other side of the island, was $1 per person.

Arriving in Red Hook a half-hour later, we found the ferry and paid our $3 per person fare.

Riding in the boat, I felt like I had come straight out of a pirate movie. We sliced through the crystalline waters surrounded by lush islands rimmed in alabaster beaches. The sun warmed my skin through a cloudless sky, and there was even a Jolly Roger flying from the bow and a cigar-chomping skipper.

Upon docking, we skipped the taxi line and opted for another safari to take us to Trunk Bay, for the seemingly standard $1 each. The driver knew what we were there for, and paused at an overlook before descending to Trunk Bay.

Looking past the lush foliage, the white-sand beach stretched out for several hundred yards under a few clouds that had magically appeared from nowhere, and I could see why Trunk Bay was one of the top-10 beaches in the world. The water shimmered as it enveloped an island surrounded by snorkelers. The whole scene reminded me of a Corona commercial, and I jumped back in the safari for the final descent.

Once we reached the beach, our driver agreed to meet us four hours later to take us back to the ship, then we rented snorkel gear for a few bucks each. I put my fins on and sealed my mask to my face as the water gently lapped at my ankles. From where I was standing, I could already see schools of fish 30 feet out.

I swam just feet above brightly colored fish and clusters of coral clinging to the rocks dotting the otherwise uninterrupted white of the sea floor. Just as I was wondering what types of fish I was looking at, I spied a plaque on a rock detailing some of the fish species. Another plaque a few yards farther up identified the coral. I wasn’t sure what to think about the obviously manmade items permanently affixed to an area of such immense natural beauty, but it helped me understand what I was looking at, and that is the ultimate goal.

Once I had my fill of swimming, I ambled over to a shack and bought a sandwich and a margarita. As I sat on the beach having my lunch, a bus showed up and disgorged a group of 60 or so passengers from the Glory. They raced into the ocean like the charge of the Light Brigade and snorkeled furiously.

I finished my lunch, read a chapter in my book, and decided to head back in. By that time, the Glory folks were packing into the bus and taking off. I checked my watch to see that I still had another hour before I had to leave.

We snorkeled a bit more before meeting our driver in the parking lot and heading back to the ferry dock. Once back on St. Thomas, we paid our driver an extra dollar per person to take us the long way around the island, past the world-famous golf courses and within view of the homes of some of the rich and famous.

When we got back to Charlotte Amalie, we browsed through some of the diamond shops and liquor stores. I filled my pants’ cargo pockets with tiny plastic bottles of rum that the ships’ metal detectors wouldn’t find. Once I was back aboard, I searched out some of the people who went on the Trunk Bay excursion to hear what they had to say.

It was all I could do to keep a straight face as they told me a bout their (remarkably short) time at the beach on the (grossly overpriced) excursion. There is, however, something to be said for not having to plan a thing, and perhaps the excursion is worth the peace of mind to some.