Posted in Travel

Cook Islands – Christmas Day

Day 2 – Christmas Day

The second in a series of posts about our recent trip to the Cook Islands. You can read the first post here, the third post here and the fourth post here.

We woke bright and early – no alarm required. Before I even opened my eyes properly I went out onto the deck and breathed the fresh sea air. There was quite a breeze – the trade winds. After a cup of tea in bed I decided to go for a run. I walked as my Garmin found the satellites – taking 5 minutes to do so – then jogged by the side of the road with the lagoon on my right. This being Christmas Day there was hardly anyone about.

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I saw lots of different flowering plants as I went, as well as a jackfruit tree with huge fruit, a goat, a chicken with chicks, dogs, some birds – terns I think – and a few people. Families seems to be out in their gardens starting a smoky barbecue or just sitting around chatting. I got as far as Chantal’s Concierge, about 1.7 miles from home then turned around. I got a “Merry Christmas” from the guy putting the big flags outside the Maire Nui Gardens & Café.

After a hearty homemade breakfast of cereal and egg on toast and a giant pot of coffee, I sat down and wrote the post about our first day. I texted home in the UK to wish people merry Christmas, and got reports back that the weather was dark and stormy. Those same people were not impressed with my description of Raratonga’s weather!

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View from the deck
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Eleven steps from the deck to the lagoon

At 1pm we headed up the road to the Nautilus resort for Christmas lunch. Parking was an issue but because we had a small car we squeezed into a not-quite-a-space and went inside. This was definitely a step up from Crown and the buffet was good, with some seafood options and some excellent ham, the date cake with custard was delicious and the Christmas crackers on the table were a nice touch. The view over the pool to the lagoon was spectacular (for a change).

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View from Nautilus dining room

Once home we donned the snorkel gear, determined to go further out into the lagoon than before. The tide was going out so we managed to get pretty far and we found the coral and fish were much more varied here as the rocks were more abundant. I can report, since we consulted the poster of fishes at Crown the day before, that we saw Convict Surgeonfish, Orangespine Unicornfish and Threadfin butterflyfish and a Moorish idol, among others, as well as another blue starfish and a giant clam. After about 45 minutes we’d had enough so we drifted back to shore.

 

We spent the afternoon lounging around then improvised dinner at home. Just before sunset we headed along the beach for a walk. As the sun approached the horizon we paused to watch it go down. Someone nearby was blaring “Hotel California” from speakers, and someone else was flying a drone around.

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The sun hardly deviated from a sphere as it approached the horizon, making it strangely easy to visualize as a giant ball of burning gas at the center of the solar system. The conditions were perfect for the possibility of a green flash as there was no cloud on the horizon. Sure enough, we both saw it – our first. Jonathon saw it for long enough to take off his sunglasses for a better look. To me it looked like the last drop of sun turned into a green jewel for just a moment.

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No pictures of the green flash, but this was a pretty good sunset!

That night, I took the camera out for some star photography, and got 5-6 shots in before the mosquitoes found me and I had to beat a retreat.

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Facing north-ish. Orion is visible center left.

Check out my other posts:

Cook Islands – first impressions

Jungle and Lagoon: Raratonga, Cook Islands

Cook Islands Essentials

====

Have you been to the Cook Islands? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

Posted in Travel

Cook Islands – first impressions

Christmas Eve, 2017

The first in a series of posts about our recent trip to the Cook Islands. You can read more about the Cook Islands in my second post, third post and fourth post.

Getting off the plane first is important if you want to get as rapidly as possible to the business of being on holiday in the Cook Islands.

With an entire 777-200 arriving, and only two immigration officers who want to chat with every passenger, the line quickly stalls.

We were fortunate enough to have the bulkhead seats in premium economy, which meant we were the first in line for the visitor queue. We were asked “what brings you to paradise?”, and the customs official only wanted to know if we had alcohol or tobacco with us. A man sitting on top of the baggage carousel was playing acoustic guitar and singing local songs. LAX this was not.

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Raratonga International Airport

Walking out into the pleasant arrivals area at around 7am we were greeted by a driver from Raro Tours who gave us a Ei of fragrant flowers each and drove us to our accommodation. Along the way he pointed out various important landmarks including the island’s two 24-hour gas stations and the abandoned Sheraton hotel. On arrival 20 minutes later at Sea Change Villas, he procured the key to our villa (reception wasn’t yet open) and let us in.

I think this was safely the first time in my life that the pictures of a place turned out to look exactly like reality. From the front door we looked through our self-contained villa to a deck which overlooked the lagoon with the surf crashing into the coral wall some 0.6 km away. There were exactly 11 steps down to the beach, which at high tide was about 6ft wide.

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Our villa was the one on the right

Forgetting about the lack of sleep the previous night on the plane, and the cold I was getting over, we walked straight into the water. Everywhere we looked from “our” beach was a national geographic image. (The excessive amount of photos below were all taken from just outside our villa in the first few minutes after we arrived)

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Our fridge was stocked with eggs, bread, milk, juice, some butter and jam so we made breakfast and sat inside to eat as a rain shower came over and soaked the whole place. Ten minutes later it was sunny again.

Later that morning our rental car arrived from Island Car & Bike – two hours late, filthy and with a “Warrant of Fitness” (roadworthy/MOT) that would expire during our rental. Since it was Christmas Eve there were no other cars to be had, so we were told to just bring the car back after Christmas to get the warrant renewed. We were slightly miffed at this, but eventually decided to live with it since this was the land of “she’ll be right.”

With that settled, the next priority was getting some groceries. Over the next few days many places would be closed for Christmas and Boxing day, so we had to make sure we had some food in the house.

We drove up the road to Wigmores Market, our nearest supermarket. The place was packed (I assume, unless that was normal). We had read before we traveled that there wasn’t much fresh stuff to be had, and things would be expensive. Both of these were true, but we managed to find some cheese, crackers, olives, pasta, pasta sauce, and tinned tuna. Inside the shop there was also an ice cream stall which was extremely popular and people were coming away with towering multicolored cones.

After lunch at the villa, as much as we wanted a nap, we decided instead to avail ourselves of the free reef shoes and go for a walk in the lagoon. A long way out the water was still only knee deep and we found lots of sea cucumbers underfoot.

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View from our deck
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The tide had come in by lunchtime

We quickly decided we needed to get the snorkel gear and have a proper look, and soon we were swimming quite far out looking at an array of colorful fish. Still, the current was pretty strong, and when Jonathon noticed my lips had gone blue we decided we should come in.

After a shower and a nap, we headed over to Crown Beach Resort’s Ocean’s restaurant for dinner. On arrival it was suggested we might have drink overlooking the beach. We agreed, but stuck to mocktails given we were driving.

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Yes please

After drinks and estimating the sunset was more than an hour away (wrong) we went in for the buffet. The most exciting thing for Jonathon was the “Lemon, lime and bitters” on the drinks menu – something we haven’t been able to get in the US. Dinner wasn’t fine dining, but there was plenty of food, including salad (green, potato salad, coleslaw), veg (peas, carrots, mash, pumpkin), meat (ham, lamb and others), and a giant urn of gravy. Dessert was fruit, cake, and ice-cream which the children were taking pains to cram as much of in their bowls as possible. Two men were playing the 60’s greatest hits on guitar and vocals. It was extremely pleasant way to spend the evening.

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Ocean’s dining room

Back at our villa, even though we missed sunset the sky was still red, so I got the tripod out and tried to get some pictures. Before long the mosquitoes started to tow us away, so we went inside and opened one of the mini champagnes we liberated from our car service in the morning. Jonathon hunted down and removed the cricket which was singing loudly from somewhere in our bathroom.

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Later, I risked the mosquitoes for a few minutes to look at the night sky. Even without dark adapted eyes, the stars were still southern-hemisphere spectacular.

Check out my next posts:

Cook Islands – Christmas Day

Jungle and Lagoon: Raratonga, Cook Islands

Cook Islands Essentials

====

Have you been to the Cook Islands? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

Posted in astronomy, Travel

Very Large Array: New Mexico

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Back in January this year, my husband, Jonathon, and I traveled to Socorro, New Mexico, so that he could give a talk at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). This was a new state for me, so I was keen to see what it had to offer.

We flew into Albuquerque on a Thursday afternoon and picked up a car. It was already  late when we arrived so we didn’t hang about and drove south to Socorro, about an hour away.

Jonathon had been talking up the food at Socorro Springs, and it didn’t disappoint. We refueled on pizza and beer then headed to the NRAO guest house on campus via Walmart for some supplies for breakfast.

The guest house was perfect: spartan but comfortable, and very quiet.

Next morning it was cold and grey outside. I stayed in the guest house, working, while husband gave his colloquium.

In due course it was time for lunch and I met everyone at Frank & Lupe’s El Sombrero. It was serving authentic New Mexican food, and I found the menu a little opaque! To save time, someone ordered for me and I found myself eating something delicious and full of chillies.

That afternoon we were given a tour of the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) correlator. I know this already sounds boring, but bear with me. The VLBA is a global network of giant radio dishes which collect signals from space from telescopes around the world. The correlator is the important bit of computer kit which takes all the signals and smushes them together to make one coherent signal. Amazingly, data from telescopes all over the world are mailed here on tape drives and correlated using the computers in this building on the UNM campus. The scientific results are spectacular (e.g. “Astronomers Detect Orbital Motion in Pair of Supermassive Black Holes“).

Once we had finished in the correlator room, our host, Frank Schinzel offered to drive us down to see the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), about an hour east of Socorro.

So along we drove, through terrain that was desert-y but somewhat green, hilly but not mountainous, until we reached a huge plain and saw our first VLA dish (technically, antenna). Each is 25 meters in diameter and steeply curved.

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Very Large Array (VLA) antenna

Because we were with Frank we were lucky enough to get the VIP tour – the first stage of which is to get very up close and personal to one of the antennas. Periodically each of the 27 antennas goes into “the barn” for maintenance.

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We climbed up the outer staircase and went through painted white doors, stepping over ledges and hard pieces of metal, before scaling a ladder to emerge through a hatch into the bowl of the antenna.

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We were instructed not to step in the middle of the panels, but keep to the joints. Standing  more than a view feet up from the center of the bowl was nearly impossible and our perspectives were skewed by all the white around us.

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Next stop on the tour was the site of the Long Wavelength Array (LWA), a project my husband worked on while we were in Boston. It consists of a bunch of funny looking antenna in the field and a trailer full of computer bits which is the loudest place in the world.

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Long Wavelength Array

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Frank stepped into the trailer to do some tinkering and we tried not to become submerged in the cold mud layer beneath our feet. The sunset was magnificent as we left the LWA for a quick stop at the small but impressive visitors center.

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As it was already late, Frank drove us back to Socorro in time for drinks and dinner and conversations with more people from the university. We were well and truly ready for bed that evening!

The next morning we had a few hours to spare before heading to Albuquerque airport, so we decided to go for a “hike” (walk) in Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. This, coincidentally, holds another array that is part of the LWA.

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Another LWA station – white patch in center of image

We had a look in the excellent visitor center, complete with stuffed animal nature displays, then got a map from the guides then headed off on the hike.

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The rain in the distance was a little worrying but it didn’t approach. The fresh air and the calmness was a welcome relief. Though we didn’t see any wildlife to speak of, we appreciated the geological formations, including a fault line!

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The scenery on the drive back to the airport was spectacular, with snow capped mountains and puffy clouds.

I’m happy to check off another telescope from my list! Hope we’ll be back one day.

Posted in astronomy, Life, Travel

Total Solar Eclipse 2017

I use the word “2017” in the title of this post, because I have a feeling we’ll be seeing another total solar eclipse one day. We had such a fantastic experience with this one, on August 21, 2017, that I think we may have become official eclipse-chasers.

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My totality montage

Planning for this trip started earlier in the year with the thought that, of all the states on the path of the eclipse, Idaho was most likely to have clear weather. I spent a decent amount of time looking for accommodation in the path of the totality but found only a Super 8 for some many hundreds of dollars. Eventually I found a double suite at the Riverside Hotel in Boise, ID, which was about an hour’s drive from the center line of totality.

Thinking we were super clever, we found $50 flights to Salt Lake City, and figured we’d drive the 4 hours up to Boise and save ourselves $200 per head each way. Having booked that, time passed, and slowly the hysteria about the traffic started to build and we were panicked about whether we were going to be able to make that drive due to all the traffic. So we changed our flights to come in the day before and booked an airport hotel in Salt Lake City.

Meanwhile, I signed up for the Eclipse Megamovie project, and committed to taking photos of totality. I got myself a 70-300mm lens for my Nikon D3300 camera, and a paper solar filter, and started practicing.  The hardest part turned out to be focusing on the sun, because you can’t look through the viewfinder (eclipse safety) and it’s really hard to see the screen on the back of the camera in daylight. The key turned out to be zooming in on the “live view” screen to see the edge of the sun. Later on, closer to the eclipse, some sunspots showed up, and focusing on them was a lot easier. If it hadn’t been for the Megamovie forums I’m not sure I would have figured this part out.

On the appointed Saturday, August 19th, we flew in the morning from Burbank to Salt Lake City, picked up a rental car and checked into the Courtyard Marriott at the airport. We had an early night, having decided that we needed to get up before sunset to beat the traffic.

On Sunday we had a 4:15am alarm, and drove to our traveling companions’ hotel at just after 5am to pick them up. Yes, our friends Vikram and Emma were crazy enough to join us on this eclipse adventure. We drove through the darkness, and just before sunrise saw the thin crescent moon rise – we knew the next morning the new moon would mean the eclipse!

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Road trip: Salt Lake City, UT to Boise, ID

We changed drivers at some random gas station, and for the rest of the drive Vikram decided to regale us with “interesting” “facts” about Idaho he had just found out from The Internet. “Did you know,” he would say, “that Idaho has the third largest seated statue of Lincoln?” (probably true), and, “Did you know that the Fosbury Flop (high jump technique) was invented in Idaho?” (not entirely accurate), and later, “Did you know that Idaho only has three dry-cleaners” (not true). Arguing about these nuggets certainly passed the miles.

We arrived in Boise early – around 10am – and of course, were too early to check in, so a quick google search revealed a “good” place for breakfast, walking distance from the hotel. We passed gas stations, empty lots and rental car lots, when we finally found the Capri Restaurant attached to a motel. We were not inspired by its looks but when we saw the line outside, we knew we’d come to the right place. It was absolutely packed but we got a seat in about 10 minutes, and had drinks and breakfast in front of us within 15 minutes. It was absolutely delicious, and just what we needed.

Then we decided to walk into town to see what was what. We found our way to the State Capitol Building and went inside to find marble as far as the eye could see. We explored the empty senate chamber and the house chamber and admired the stars in the ceiling of the dome.

Suitably cultured we started back towards the hotel, stopping at a brewery tap room that had opened its doors for the first time just days before, and had some beer. Then it was back to the hotel to check in. I spent the rest of the afternoon checking camera settings, filling the car with fuel and generally running around.

After dinner we discussed our plan of action for the next day. We were going to head to the town of Weiser, ID, on the Oregon border which was completely prepared for an influx of eclipse viewers. As we talked I got worried about parking and emailed everyone on the helpful website parking list to see whether they had space. Two people replied 10 minutes after we went to bed.

The next morning, Monday, eclipse morning, our upstairs neighbor’s alarm went off at 4am. My husband was awake and so we woke Vikram and Emma. I paid someone in Weiser $50 by Paypal to secure our parking place, and we got on the road by 4:45am, panicked by the thoughts of traffic. We even forewent our planned McDonald’s breakfast stop.

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Very early start

It turned out we need not have panicked – the road was clear and we were parked by 6am. It also turned out there was acres of street parking and we didn’t need to pay. However, our parking host gave us some excellent local knowledge – firstly about a open coffee shop, and secondly about a great viewing spot. It turned out the local knowledge was worth the money on its own.

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Weiser, ID welcomes us!

Once we parked, we found coffee and checked out Memorial Park which was full of vendors setting up booths. We partook of their $5 eclipse breakfast while the local news filmed, then wandered over to our chosen spot on the edge of town – the Park Intermediate School, arriving just in time to see the sun rise at 7am and hear a cockerel crow. We decided this was our spot, so returned to the car to collect my excessive amount of camera gear and supplies, and walked it all over (because it was $25 to park at the school).

I spent the next couple of hours taking practice shots of the sun, trying to perfect the focus point on the camera. A few more people joined us on the playing field, but it wasn’t very crowded. Then at 10:10am, the eclipse started. I had all the timings to hand thanks to my a handy app (Solar Eclipse Timer App). I started taking photos, and as the sun got further eclipsed we noticed some phenomena in the environment.

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Soon after first contact (Note: hover mouse over images, or click, to see them in true contrast)

With 30 minutes to go, the app told us to pay attention to the temperature – it had indeed dropped – the sun didn’t feel scorching on our skin. Then we started to notice the shadows becoming sharper and the light becoming just plain weird. Vikram discovered he could see individual hairs in his shadow, prompting him to exclaim that he had “eclipse hair”. We made many pinholes to view the eclipse, and I kept taking photos.

At around 11:20am, with a few minutes to go we noticed it getting considerably darker and cooler. The light was so strange that I started to feel a bit disoriented. Then my 5 minute alarm went off and I set up my little camera to record video. Then my two minute alarm went off and it was getting noticeably dark. A cockerel crowed nearby. In due course, Vikram spotted the shadow on the western horizon and the sun was just a sliver of gold on the back of the camera.

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Then, at 11:25:19am, we reached totality.

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Diamond ring, moments before totality: 1/2000 sec; f/8; ISO 800

Nothing could prepare me for the sight of the black hole in the sky where the sun used to be. People were yelling and pointing. The corona round the sun became visible, and was actually very bright. We noticed the horizon was a sunrise/sunset all around and the sky was definitely not black. The corona revealed itself to be at least two solar radii, with distinct features. I made sure to take all of this in before turning my attention to the camera.

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Husband’s photo of me, pointing, during totality

With the solar filter off, I started on my prepared plan but I soon I realized I needed to  work faster – stop the camera down more rapidly to get to the slower shutter speeds that would capture all the features of the corona, while remembering to pause to let the camera vibrations die down. I got about 3/4 through my range of shutter speeds before my app announced there were seconds to go before the end.

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1/2000 sec; f/8; ISO 800
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1/200 sec; f/8; ISO 800
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1/200 sec; f/8; ISO 800

And then the light started to come back, people were yelling again, I kept clicking the shutter then we had to put the filters back on – the camera and our eyes! The light seemed to get brighter faster than it went dark, though of course it wasn’t, and my husband heard the confused cockerel crow again. After a few minutes people began to come over to each other to talk about their experience. One person wanted confirmation it was only 30 seconds long. It was 2 minutes 6 seconds.

Soon after, people began to disperse. I wanted to capture the whole eclipse so I put in a fresh memory card and kept taking semi-regular photos while trying to get content and photos to my work to post on our social media channels. At this point we noticed that things on our picnic blanket were damp with dew.

By 12:48pm the whole show was over. It was really hot again and so we packed up and lugged all the gear back across town, still high on the experience of totality.

Getting home was another challenge in itself, but that evening we celebrated a successful total solar eclipse and started thinking about the next one in Chile in 2019.

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Posted in Travel

Zermatt, Switzerland

In the tradition of this blog, I’m going to write about a trip that is completely out of season to the time of year this is posted: our Christmas holiday! This is one of several posts I’m planning to write about our trip to Switzerland and the UK this past December.

As usual, our adventures start with an idea by Mum. Zermatt, Switzerland, a picture postcard perfect village in the Alps, is where we were going, and we were going to see snowy mountains.

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Zermatt, Switzerland

Coming from Los Angeles, we packed all the warm gear we had (and bought more) – down jackets, snow boots, long johns, gloves, hats, scarves – and flew via Bournemouth, UK, where we collected Mum and my brother, to Geneva, Switzerland. It was then a two hour drive in the dark to Täsch, followed by a 20 minute train to Zermatt. Because Zermatt is small and car-free, we walked from the train station to the Hotel Butterfly.

Mum had been checking the webcam in Zermatt for about two months, hoping there was going to be snow in the village, but when we arrived there wasn’t even a snowflake.  This turned out to be a Good Thing, because it was already plenty cold enough.

The next morning we decided to go straight up in the cable car and see the Matterhorn. We walked through the village in -6C temperatures and before we’d gone more than ¼ mile the Matterhorn was right there!  While there were machines creating artificial snow on the lower slopes, we could see higher up there was plenty of real snow.

At the cable car terminus we each bought a return ticket for $100 USD (ouch!) to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise – the next mountain across from the Matterhorn – and got in line with approximately one million skiers to board a cable car. Luckily, the cars were only small, so we got one to ourselves, and soon we were climbing high into the mountains.

At the first station, the doors opened but we didn’t get out because we had a really good view of the Matterhorn from where we were sitting.  At the second (or was it the third?) station we had to change cable cars. This final cable car was absolutely packed with skiers. Then finally at 12,739 feet (8,338 meters) we were at the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. We peeled away from the mass of skiers and went up to the viewing platform where it was frigid, but the views were spectacular.

It was crystal clear and the visibility must have been 50 miles. We could see the distant mountains, including Mt Blanc, clearly.

After admiring the view for a while we realized we were turning into icicles so we headed down along the long tunnel to the café. We warmed up in a patch of sun and had hot chocolates and coffee.

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Start of the ski run at Glacier Paradise

Since our extremely expensive cable car pass also gave us access to the “Glacier Palace”, we decided to check it out. The entrance was along a long tunnel that winded downhill straight into the glacier. The walls of the tunnel were made of hard ice. When we got to the bottom there were a wide range of ice sculptures on display and, strangely, an ice slide. It turned out the slide was not all that slippery unless you took a flying run at it… which of course, we did.

After satisfying ourselves we’d got our money’s worth, we went back in the cable car (empty this time!) to the mid-station. We had lunch and watched the skiers, then headed back down to Zermatt, running into a wedding on the way back to the hotel.

That evening we went for a walk around the village, comparing the price of glühwein at pretty much every bar in town (answer: they were all 6-10 Euros/glass). We eventually settled on a tiny bar that seated about 10 people, parked ourselves at the counter, and defrosted with 7 Euro glühwein. Then, thanks to my brother remembering to make a reservation, we had dinner at the Restaurant Whymper-Stube, named after the man who was the first to climb the Matterhorn.  This restaurant brings in the entire sitting at once, several times a night. Inside it was so hot that we had to strip down to our t-shirts. Dinner was excellent.

The next morning we left Zermatt (still no snow) then took a quick drive up to Verbier for lunch before Mum and my brother dropped us at the town of Montreux. Read more about that in my next post (coming soon!).