France Launches New Low Cost, High-Speed Train Service



Low cost
isn’t just for the skies anymore. This week, French rail service SNCF launched its new low cost service Ouigo, a no-frills option for the traveler that wants a more moderately priced ticket but wants to take advantage of the high-speed service that France is known for. The new train service will link Paris and Lyon to Marseille and Montpellier on the southern coast of France.

Service will commence April 2, 2013, but in an attempt to woo travelers, SNCF is offering up tickets for as low as 10 euros. Eventually tickets prices will go up to 85 euros. Regular TGV tickets can often be booked for much less if you happen to score a good promotion, but French travelers will tell you that often that means booking far in advance. Have a low cost option for last minute travel is always a good thing.

As is common with low cost airlines, room for baggage aboard the new Ouigo trains is limited, so if you’re planning on taking advantage, pack light, because after your first bag, your luggage will cost you.

Sound too good to be true? As with any low cost carrier, there are some catches:

  • You will have to catch the train in Marne-la-Vallée, where Euro Disney is located, just east of Paris.
  • You can only book on the Internet.
  • There is no bar. But don’t worry; you’re in France. You’re sure to find a bottle of red wine and a corkscrew at a local market.

[Photo Credit: Train Chartering and Private Rail Cars]

Magical Moments Of 2012: A Personal Review

As the end of each year approaches, I try to take stock of the preceding 12 months, to absorb and assess the adventures, inner and outer. Reviewing this year, I’ve been filled with gratitude and wonder to realize that this has been one of the most enriching, exhilarating years I’ve had in a long time, especially the past six months, when I managed to squeeze six special trips into an overcrowded schedule. I hope you’ll indulge me in sharing some of my most magical travel moments, and meanings, from 2012.

Festive in France

The Cote d’Azur has been one of my favorite places in the world since I first landed there in the mid-1970s. This year I was lucky to be able to savor the region for two weeks in June, visiting four places I’d never been before – Marseille, Montpelier, Sainte-Maxime, and Cagnes sur Mer – and revisiting two I’d fallen deeply in love with decades ago: Nice and St Paul de Vence.

I’ve already written about Nice and St Paul for Gadling. Among other riches of the trip, I had the best bouillabaisse of my life at the harbor-front Miramar restaurant in Marseille and was enchanted by the ambiance of student-spangled Montpelier, where a perfect cobbled square with a perfect café under a perfect canopying tree seemed to magically appear around every corner (and where the streets flowed with wine and song on the marvelous night of the Fete de la Musique). One of the most memorable highlights was spending one precious night at the Hotel Negresco two weeks before that legendary institution celebrated its 100th birthday. What an extraordinary hotel! Part priceless art collection, part history museum, part culinary temple, the Negresco – still owned by the feisty and fabulous 89-year-old Madame Augier – is emblematic of the intelligence, elegance, and artfulness that define the Cote d’Azur for me.My favorite moment of the entire trip was another birthday celebration. A very dear friend who lives part of each year in France treated me to a heavenly lunch at a renowned but well off the beaten path terrace restaurant called La Verdoyante, in the village of Gassin, about two and a half miles from the sea. I will never forget this feast. On a blue-sky day, the sun-mottled, out-of-time terrace exuded something of the atmosphere of Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette: festive people savoring a relaxing repast, with a view of rolling green vineyards and hills and a soupcon of the Mediterranean glinting in the distance. We had an amazingly flavorful succession of dishes, all artfully presented, including locally made foie gras, a delectably flaky poisson du jour served with fennel, figs and pancetta, and chevre cheese from a farm over the hill. The culinary fireworks ended with a special surprise – a scrumptious, sparkler-topped raspberry macaroon cake.

Birthday gifts don’t get any better than this: a sun-bowed, vineyard-wrapped celebration of food and friendship, a reminder of the life-riches that surround us, deepening and expanding every year.

Hawaiian Hideaway

A few days after returning from France, barely enough time to do some laundry, I repacked and rambled with my wife to Maui and Molokai on a trip I had won – won! — in a random drawing at a travel fair. On Maui we stayed at the Hotel Wailea and the Napili Kai Beach Resort and on Molokai at the Hotel Molokai. We loved aimlessly exploring both islands, stopping at beaches we found at the end of meandering paths, eating at food trucks, picnicking in parks — but especially savored the quiet of Molokai, where time truly seemed to slow down.

We wandered around the main town of Kaunakakai, poking our heads into shops, asking questions of the shopkeepers, who seemed much more interested in talking story than moving inventory. Our most memorable meal on Molokai was the mahimahi plate lunch at Mana’e Goods and Grindz, a combination country store and counter restaurant on the highway toward Halawa Valley (where you could also pick up spark plugs, videos, and sweet onion salad dressing, if needed). We loved it so much we drove back the next day for seconds.

The synthesizing moment of the trip for me was one afternoon on Maui when I sat on our patio at the Napili Kai simply absorbing the breeze that rippled the sea and rustled the palm fronds: Time slowed and slowed, the trade winds blew, the moist air swaddled my skin; suddenly a rainbow appeared, arcing from the sea into the clouds, and for a suspended moment it seemed to me that nature was offering its own snapshot of my soul. Hawaii re-taught me the value of recalibrating pace, the riches that reveal themselves when you open your head- and heart-space.

California Dreaming

In August I ventured across San Francisco Bay – a good 40 minutes by car from my home – for the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference. My journey took flight the day before the official conference began, when I led a worldly, wide-eyed group of writers on a day-long walking workshop in North Beach, my favorite city neighborhood, where old-San-Francisco Italy meets new-San-Francisco China and Vietnam. We rendered homage at City Lights bookstore, Molinari’s aromatic delicatessen, and sweet Stella’s Pastry, then talked about writing and life over paninis and lattes at Caffe Greco.

The conversations and connections that took seed that day blossomed over the ensuing four-day conference. What mysteries make sparks fly, turn piazza dialogues into life-changing detours and dreams? Whatever was in the air at this year’s conference, it begat five days of exploration and exhilaration – of the word and the world — with soul-mates old and new. The defining Book Passage moment for me came at the end of the conference, and I have already described it here, but there were many other moments of magic as well, perhaps none so potent as midnight on Saturday, when a hardy band of writers and revelers gathered around five ukulele yogis, whose plangent plucks transported me to Hawaii, France and beyond – and then back to that midnight moment in a bookstore in northern California, which suddenly seemed to contain all the world.

This five-day close-to-home odyssey reminded me once again that both travel and travel writing are vital arts, stewards of the global heart, that even in your own backyard, you can wander far-flung paths of the imagination and the soul, and that the best travels and travel writings realize a redemptive goal: to piece the inner and the outer journey, the interlocking whole.

Beached in Bali

My ten-day sojourn on Bali presented a batik of bountiful moments. I have written about two of them here, questing for indolence and discovering unexpected gamelan gifts in Ubud, but I have not yet written about the two delightful dinners on two beautiful beaches that bookended my stay.

On my first night on the island, when everything still seemed a bit surreal, I met a wandering writer friend who serendipitously happened to be on Bali at the same time. We sat at a table literally on the beach at Jimbaran Bay, our toes squiggling into the sand, swigged Bintang beers, and feasted on marvelously messy platters of grilled shrimp. We talked about books and blogs and world-weaving paths under the stars, by the susurrous sea, as music lilted down the beach on a smoke-scented breeze. Ten days later, we met again for a final dinner on a beach in Seminyak. This time the music was a pop playlist (highlighted by Adele serenading us with “Someone Like You”), the food was delicious grilled fish and beef rendang, the beach spread invitingly to the rose-tinted waves, and the oceanic sky gradually turned from bluish-red to cobalt-purple to depthless, star-splashed black.

As the hours passed, I felt like a character in a story, simultaneously in time and out of it, willing the world to slow down and in the same breath abandoning myself to the ineluctable flow. All the Balinese bounties of the week seemed to converge, and the spirit of the island – the joy and compassion and reverence for the everyday that emanated from virtually everyone I’d met – merged with a shared awe at serendipity’s mystery and wonder. Maybe it was the spell of the Bintang, but my sense of the preciousness of life – and of the opportunity that travel bestows to lose oneself to special places and people, and to grow ever bigger therein — seemed to expand and expand and expand, until it filled the phosphorescent night.

Continuities in Connecticut

For Thanksgiving, as I have every year since my dad passed away in 2008, I went to Connecticut to spend the holiday with my mom. You have to be a New Englander to appreciate the bleak beauty of Connecticut in November. The tree branches are bony and bare, the air thin, brittle, laced with winter. Yet these annual journeys are a special kind of pilgrimage for me. My parents finished building the house where I grew up, in Middlebury, just before I was born. I lived there for the first 21 years of my life, before setting off for Paris and Athens and points beyond, and they lived there for more than 50 years. My mom thrives in an assisted living facility in a neighboring town now, but as we do every year, we drove to Middlebury to see “our house” and reveled again in its spare, simple, classic Connecticut-clapboard style and in the expansive woods and fields and memories around.

For Thanksgiving dinner, my childhood best friend invited us to his home, coincidentally five minutes from my mom’s new home. It was glorious to re-immerse ourselves for a night in the footloose past – somehow symbolized for me by the image of the two of us driving in his convertible on a sultry summer night for soft ice cream, me staring at the stars as the wind whipped by and wishing that the ride could last forever. The woods were limitless then and so were the summer nights; it’s only later that we realize there were houses on the other side of the trees, and jobs and mortgages on the other side of the ride.

But still, these Thanksgiving journeys are a gift to cherish, an opportunity to honor, connect, and reflect. Like Brigadoon, Middlebury springs to life for me once a year: the rolling hills and uncut forests, white Colonial houses with black shutters, lush lawns and gardens and sheltering trees, the high-steepled Congregational Church and round town green – and the landscape of love that nurtured, and nurtures still, me and my youthful dreams.

Easter Island, Among the Moai

I returned two weeks ago from my final trip of the year – the realization of one of my oldest travel dreams: to visit Easter Island. For years this almost inconceivably remote place – the most isolated inhabited island in the world — seemed inaccessible, but I was finally fortuitously able to make the pilgrimage this year.

I spent a week wandering the island on foot, tracing old trails, talking with the guardians of sacred sites, watching traditional dances, exploring caves and coves and cliffs. I observed as a local elder instructed a half dozen Rapa Nui (the indigenous people’s name for the island and for themselves) teenagers in the stories of the island, the traditions and the taboos, the legends and the landscapes that had special mana. I learned the different theories about the moai and wondered at the great toppled figures that seemed to be everywhere. Many people have developed definitive explanations for what happened on Easter Island – which means, of course, that no one has the definitive answer. On the flight back from the island to Santiago, Chile, I serendipitously sat next to a Dutch scientist who has been studying the island for two decades and who told me that he and a colleague are going to publish a book next year that will refute the currently advanced theories. And so it goes.

What I have taken away most deeply from Rapa Nui is this: On the second full day of my stay on the island, I decided to get up before dawn to commune with the moai at Ahu Tongariki, a spectacular seaside platform where 15 statues have been restored to standing position. I was dropped at the site well before dawn, when the night was still so inky that I couldn’t see the ground in front of me, much less the moai in the distance. I stumbled slowly towards the platform, looking vainly into the dark, and then in an instant I sensed the presence of the moai so palpably that the hairs on my arms stood on end. I stumbled forward some more and suddenly the head of the tallest statue leaped into looming silhouette before the stars. The power of that statue was almost magnetic: It pulled me towards it, but not in a frightening way, more like a benevolent force.

As I got closer, the heads of the statues appeared more clearly, silhouetted presences hulking into the sky. I could feel the sheer immensity of the figures, and the power that they must have emanated over the villagers who lived under their gaze day and night. I tried to imagine waking up every dawn to their stony presence, and retiring to sleep as they loomed into the sky. Their role as a force in everyday life became clear to my core. Their mana was undeniable.

As time passed and dawn’s rays illumined them in a buttery light, their hold on me softened. Dozens of photographers arrived, setting up their tripods, seeking the perfect perspective. The site was no longer mine alone. But it didn’t matter. I’d already found the perfect perspective – and it looms within me still, a hulking silhouette of pure Rapa Nui mana in my mind.

At the end of these reflections, the theme that resonates with me is this: Anything is possible. Each one of these magical moments forms a piece of a picture-puzzle that shows the potential of life, wherever we are literally and metaphorically, to be transformed, re-inspired, completed – for the mind to stretch, and the soul to soar, and the heart to expand.

I relearned this year just how full of marvel our mundane world is. And I learned again that life follows a mysterious and serendipitous map, that confluences and convergences abound all around, and that we can choose to open ourselves to them – to leap through the door, set foot on the road — or not. I learned again that passion is the best signpost, honor the best staff, and kindness the compass that illumines the path. And that however we wander this human race, the love we give returns to us, boundless with each embrace.

[Photo Credits – Book Passage: Spud Hilton; All others: Don George]

Six Of The Most Scenic Train Trips In Europe

Forget flying around Europe. At 30,000 feet it’s impossible to truly experience the continent’s remarkable landscapes. Rather than being shuttled around in a plane that only allows a birds-eye view, train trips immerse travelers in the terrain. There’s a reason why trains are often thought of as the most romantic mode of transportation: riding the rails makes you feel more connected and in tune than air travel ever could. Instead of feeling like a chore, as flying often does, train travel can be an experience in itself. In fact, there are plenty of scenic train rides in Europe that are worth the trip just for the view. The following are top rated train trips, and from the rolling hills of England to the craggy Alps of Switzerland, each one offers travelers something different.

6. United Kingdom
London to Edinburgh
The rolling, green hills and moors that are often associated with Yorkshire make this one of the most scenic train trips in Europe. When entering the northern parts of England, travelers will catch glimpses of the rugged coastline along the North Sea. During the 4 1/2-hour train ride, English speakers will notice a distinct difference in passenger accents as the train gets closer to Scotland. Although the common language is English, it can be hard to decipher as the Scottish brogue gets thicker and thicker.

[Flickr photo via boutmuet]

5. Holland
Amsterdam to Groningen (best in April)
In Holland, the most scenic train trip isn’t necessarily about being on the right track; it’s actually all about timing. Travelers will want to hop onboard in spring – particularly in April – to see the blanket of colors that results when the famous Dutch tulips are in full bloom. On the two-hour route between Amsterdam and Groningen, travelers will also be able to spot plenty of windmills, another quintessential part of the Dutch landscape.


[Flickr photo by Amy Bonner]

4. Italy
Rome to Verona to Venice
Train trips don’t get much more romantic than the ride from Rome to Venice, especially if you make a stopover in Verona. The train ride starts in Rome, the enchanting “Eternal City,” and then makes its way through the Tuscan farmlands to Verona, a pleasant city famous as the setting for Shakespeare’sRomeo and Juliet.” Make a day of wandering around the city’s lovely corridors (pictured above) and passing some time in a local cafe or bar. Then head to Venice, Italy’s famed “Floating City,” that is by far one of the most romantic destinations in the world. The train approaches through Venice’s lagoon in the Adriatic Sea, and upon arrival you can hop on a gondola ride for two – what could be more romantic than that? Another scenic train trip in Italy is the route from Venice to Trieste. On this trip, the train hugs the coast of the Adriatic Sea until reaching Trieste, a charming destination with beautiful sea views and several cafes and pubs for you to spend your days and nights in.

Balconies in Verona, Italy [Photo by Libby Zay]

3. France
Montpellier to Nice
The train ride through southern France from Montpellier to Nice is another visually stunning trip. From Montpellier to Marseille, travelers will see the typical Provençal landscape of red-colored soil, tall cypress trees and expansive fields of lavender and olives. As the train gets closer to Nice, the coastal scenery along the Mediterranean Sea comes in to view. Note that if you have a France Rail Pass, it’s possible to break the ride up to spend some time exploring small Provençal towns, such as Aix-en-Provence, the famous home of Paul Cézanne, or Nimes, with its stunning Roman amphitheater that is second only to Rome’s Colosseum.

[Flickr photo by paularps]


2. Germany

Black Forest Railway
The Roman’s gave this thickly wooded and mountainous region in Germany the name Silva Nigra (i.e. “Black Forest“) because the dense growth of trees blocked out most of the light inside the forest. Experience the spectacular scenery on the Black Forest Railway, part of the German National Railway that connects Offenburg and Singen. The 93-mile-long route ascends (or descends, depending on which way you travel) more than 2,000 feet as it passes through 39 tunnels and over two viaducts. The section between Hornberg, Triberg, and St. Georgen is particularly pretty. The stretch is also popular with locals, who use it as part of their regular commute between the towns they live in and larger cities. Tourists, however, will probably think it looks straight out of a storybook – so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Black Forest is the setting for the Brothers Grimm tale “Hansel and Gretel.” But don’t worry, you won’t need to follow a trail of breadcrumbs to get back home.

Look closely for one of the viaducts trains along the Black Forest Railway pass over in Hornberg [Wikimedia photo by Prolineserver]



1. Switzerland
Wilhelm Tell Express (May to October only)
Switzerland is known for some of the most stunning scenery in all of Europe. This trip from Lucerne to Locarno connects two of the prettiest parts of the country, central Switzerland and the Italian-speaking Ticino region. While in Lucerne, travelers can opt to take a boat ride on a vintage paddle steamer where they can enjoy lunch or dinner. When the boat reaches Flüelen, step onto a panoramic train that will whisk you past lone cottages on pine-covered hills, glistening streams, cerulean lakes, vast valleys covered in green, and craggy, snow-covered peaks, as it makes its way to Ticino. If you get a chance, make a stop in the tiny town of Bellinzona, an easily walk-able place that is well worth a day trip in order to explore one of their three medieval castles. Switzerland has some of the most fantastic scenic train trips in Europe with the Golden Pass and Glacier-Express also offering awe-inspiring views through panoramic train windows.

[Photo by Libby Zay]