Climbing The Col d’Eze, Hiking Down Ancient Footpaths

Located just outside of Nice, the Col d’Eze is a misnomer; there is very little easy about this climb.

Even some professional riders have trouble with the climb, the showcase peak of the famous early season Paris-Nice race and a favorite training ground for professional riders living in the area. The 500-meter mountain averages about a 7 percent grade at its beginning, levels out a bit for couple of kilometers, then shifts upward to an 8 or 9 percent grade at the 5.5 kilometer mark. The next two kilometers alternate between grades of 4 and 7 percent, before evening out at the end. It’s 10 kilometers of torture.

When I tackled the Col d/Eze, it was the first ride with my new Sports Tours International teammates for the week, and it immediately reminded me of a fact that I was reluctant to acknowledge: I’m not remotely fit enough for this trip a the moment.

Serious cyclists tend to watch their figures closer than the most OCD supermodel. After dropping more than 40 pounds two years ago to begin my amateur racing campaign, I’ve been pretty good about monitoring my calories … until this year. I’ve found myself racing less and drinking more beer, an equation that spells disaster for any rider. Every pound I’ve gained means yet another pound I’m carrying up with me on the bike. I’m carrying the equivalent of twins – or twin kegs, at least – around my waist.

I’m from Indiana. We have hills there. Steep, occasionally. Long, rarely. I’ve climbed mountains on either American coast before, but nothing like this one. I’ve never been afraid when the road turns upward, but as I stared at the nine-percent grade stretching out into the unknown and tried clicking to a gear I didn’t have left, I felt my stomach knot up slightly.As the road continued upward, I felt as if I were propelled backwards as several riders scampered past. Back home, I’m known as a pretty decent hill climber; I’m not used to getting dropped. The only thing I could do is mentally shove the pain in my legs aside and keep churning my way to the top.

As we regrouped at the top, we began making a bit of small talk, getting to know the other riders we’d be spending much of the next week riding next to. A big Brit named Keith reminisced about an early trip he had taken in the area, warning us of even more difficult roads ahead.

“This is nothing compared to Ventoux,” he said, causing many of the assembled sphincters to instantly pucker. “Imagine the steepest part of the climb and multiply it by four, and that’s Ventoux. You’re in for two hours or more of pain on that one.”

Rather than dwell on Keith’s warning, we pedaled on. The trip up the mountain was pure work, so we were all looking forward to a fun, quick descent as our reward. But a navigation error led us down a steep, narrow pathway that corkscrewed down several meters before coming to an abrupt end well short of road. (The European cycling maps on Garmin’s Edge GPS units are rumored to be somewhat unreliable, we would learn afterward.)

Luckily we came across a village resident out for a stroll, who directed us to a crumpled old Roman footpath that would lead us down to where we needed to go. So the group, now swelled to more than a dozen, began to nimbly hike down, the smooth cleats of our cycling shoes making the descent nearly as treacherous as anything we’ve faced on the bike.

As I traverse the path, I don’t think of the history behind it — the ancient residents who built it, the long-dead family members who used it — instead my only concern is not slipping and cracking my head open.

Luckily, I managed to escape the path with my life. Within moments of hitting the road, we’re at the Monaco border, looking down upon the buildings and yachts glistening in their Mediterranean splendor. The rich and famous can have their casinos and mansions; I’ll take the wind and open road any time.

A quick coffee in Monaco, and we’re on the road yet again. A fast, mostly descending route through some tunnels and along the Mediterranean Sea, and we’re back in Nice. Despite my struggles up the Col d’Eze and our hike-a-bike misadventure, I was already looking forward to the next day’s ride.

The Tour De France Takes Over Nice

Nice, the resort oasis in the south of France, may be best known for the intense, steel-blue of the Mediterranean Sea, but for a few days this July, yellow was the color of note.

We arrived in Nice less than 24 hours before nearly 200 of the world’s best bike riders took over 25 kilometers of the city’s streets. The Tour de France is more than a sporting event for the French people; it’s a nearly month-long national holiday and point of immense national pride in France.

Just how popular is the race? Last year, nearly 20 percent of the French people lined the roads to catch a glimpse of the peleton screaming past. Although it’s been nearly 30 years since the last French champion, five-time winner Bernard Hinault — a fact that gnaws at the collective French psyche like bad red wine — it doesn’t diminish their love of the event.

Leading up to the race, Nice was awash in yellow — the jersey color signifying the Tour’s leader — as seemingly every other person wore a hat, T-shirt, or other article of clothing dug from the back of their closet matching the distinctive hue. Tour talk dominated conversation, both among the French and the thousands of cyclotourists who swarmed into the city to catch the action.Sitting in an outdoor café near the Promenade du Paillon the night before the race, fans good-naturedly joked about the team time trial happening the next day. A couple of Britons near us predicted a victory for Team Sky and its leader, Chris Froome, while a table of Aussies rooted for their countryman Cadel Evans and his BMC squad. (They were both wrong. Australia’s Orica-Green Edge would eventually win the stage.) I can only imagine our French waiter was waiting for the next stage more suited to the strengths of Team Europcar’s co-leaders, Thomas Voekler and Pierre Rolland.

Blocks away from our hotel, the Mercure Promenade, thousands of fans crowded an expo sponsored by Tour organizers. The giveaways from the various sponsors were a massive hit with the fans; every other person wore a hat adorned with the logo of LCL Bank, sponsor of the yellow jersey. Nearby, a DJ spun tracks atop a specially modified Skoda hatchback, attracting numerous bikini-clad ladies from the rocky beach below. The cycling kit of AG2R la Mondiale is often ridiculed for its garish baby-blue and brown hues, but fans still lined up six deep to grab a scarf with that same color scheme. We managed to grab several of each as cheap souvenirs for our jealous friends back home.

In the days before the event, the streets were nearly overrun by amateur cyclists of all shapes, sizes and abilities, who took to the streets test themselves on the same roads the pros would later conquer. Bike riders are commonplace in Nice – the city boasts an impressive bike share program called VeloBleu. After a quick phone call, my wife was able to rent one of the heavy, steel-framed behemoths for an hour for a mere Euro. We tooled around the city streets, amazed at how courteous and patient the drivers were. (It shouldn’t be too surprising, given how seemingly important bicycles are in day-to-day French life.)

I’m hoping the rest of the country is equally as bicycle friendly as Nice. For the next week, I’ll be riding some of the Tour de France courses with more than a dozen riders with Sports Tours International, a British outfitter specializing in adventure travel. Included on the route are two of the giants of Tour lore, Mount Ventoux and the Tourmalet, both of which top out around 2,000 meters. For a cyclist who spends most of his time training in the relatively flat state of Indiana, it should be a heck of a ride.

Cruise Lines Flee Europe, Blame High Airfare, Again

North American cruise lines really want to be friends with travelers from Europe. A number of times, various cruise lines have scheduled their largest deployment ever to Europe, only to pull back later when demand for their services was less than anticipated. Looking ahead to 2014, that trend looks to be continuing as major North American cruise brands cut back on European deployment. But there is more to this story than simply cutting back the number of ships in Europe, because the price of airfare for North Americans to fly across the pond is prohibitive.

Europe Out, Asia In?
Carnival Cruise Lines announced that it will leave the entire Europe cruise market behind in 2014, blaming the high cost of airfare to the region for its addition to an industry-wide exodus. Carnival will move Carnival Legend to Australia and leave the rest of its fleet in North America. Frankly, Carnival’s European deployment was mostly Mediterranean sailing and mostly in the summer as the line rolled out new ships Carnival Magic, Carnival Breeze and Carnival Sunshine. Those ships were going to be over there anyway because that’s where the shipyard is that built them. I always viewed Carnival’s European deployment as more of a deployment of convenience.

As a bit of a hint as to where Carnival may be headed, Carnival the corporation (which owns Carnival Cruise Lines, Princess Cruises, Holland America Line and others) has officially launched its regional office in Singapore. That move signals a rock solid step towards developing these markets.

Tweaking A Good Thing
Princess Cruises is not entirely abandoning Europe. They will move Pacific and Crown Princess to Alaska in 2014, leaving five ships in Europe. This is where Princess’ long history of being destination focused is paying off for the line of the Love Boat. Princess has garnered a reputation for sailing around the world, to some of the most exotic destinations on the planet.Princess mixes it up every year to keep things interesting; they have drawn on experience from their many long-serving employees at various stops along the way. This year, Princess is featuring reduced-pricing airfare to offset objections by cruise travelers over the perceived high-cost of flying.

Royal Caribbean plans on sending eight ships to Europe next year, including sailing giant Oasis of the Seas to sail three times out of Barcelona while the ship is over there for some routine maintenance. That’s down from nine ships sailing European waters this year and 12 ships in 2013.

This year, families with children 12 and under who book a 2013 Royal Caribbean Europe cruise aboard Navigator of the Seas, Brilliance of the Seas or Serenade of the Seas can enjoy free shore excursion tours for children when two adults in their stateroom purchase the same tour during May 2013.

Unlike Carnival Cruise Lines, a North American brand that has their trademark FunShip experience producing a fabulous cruise vacation like clockwork, Royal Caribbean is a truly international brand. Sending nine ships to Europe says one of two things, maybe more:

  1. They have been at it long enough that they figured out which ships are the right size to make money in Europe.
  2. Royal Caribbean just really has their act together and has the ability to sail around the world, all the time, year after year.

Oh, should I have sailed in Europe last year then?
This is not the first time North American cruise lines have pulled back on plans to offer what they do for European cruise travelers. Cruise lines were looking for more profitable waters to sail in when the economic depression occurred several years ago. Boasting their “biggest European deployment ever,” cruise lines were quick to turn back when Europe sailings did not fill up as they had anticipated.

The good part of all this is that cruise lines have the ability to move their mobile assets (floating hotels) to different parts of the world when economic issues, safety concerns or other reasons say repositioning is a good idea. Hotels that do not float cannot really do that.

Thinking about a European/Mediterranean cruise vacation? Now would be a good time to either go or begin planning. North American cruise lines want to sail there, but they need passengers to do that.

Summer Travel Bargains, Available Now During Brief Buying ‘Sweet Spot’

Summer travel season is right around the corner but exciting travel opportunities are often limited by price. There are plenty of places to go, but they are often priced out of reach. Still, with some research and timing, summer travel bargains are out there right now. Why? Sellers of travel want occupancy and booking levels to be at a certain target number right about now. If the numbers are not where they want them to be, they bring on the discounts to shore up summer season bookings. Here are some we found as standout bargains.

Disney World, Discounted
Summer is usually a popular time to visit Florida’s Walt Disney World and this year is no exception. Many families have to do vacations during the summer, when kids are out of school, most often driving prices up. Still, with hotel capacity running a bit ahead of reservations, deals are out there. Savings of 30 percent on select Disney hotels on Disney property, free dining with a hotel and ticket package, and more can be found at Disney’s Special Offers webpage.

Hike the Blue Mountains in Jamaica
Strawberry Hill is offering guests 25 percent off rates for stays through October 31 with its “Discover the Blue Mountains” package. The three-night stay includes two hikes on Gordon Town Trail and Settlement Trail, daily breakfast, a fruit and cheese welcome amenity, dinner with a bottle of wine, daily Blackwell Rum cocktail and a spa treatment. Don’t come home without a pound or two of that Blue Mountain coffee.Summer for Less at Nantucket Island Resorts– Nantucket, Massachusetts
Nantucket Island Resorts is offering 30 percent off room rates at White Elephant Village, The Wauwinet and the White Elephant Hotel to guests who book five consecutive nights July 7-19. Rates start at $2,500 for five nights. Visit for more.

Pick A Cruise, Any Cruise
Practically every cruise line sailing has felt the sting of recent widely publicized events so prices have gone down. Some lines are advertising like never before, others have quietly just not raised pricing as they might have normally done at this time of the year, choosing instead to go for maximized occupancy. Best deals can be found in the Mediterranean where prices can be as low as $75 per person, per day. Short Caribbean and Bahamas sailings are also showing fall-like pricing for summer sailings. That never happens.

Cheap Not Good Enough? How About Free?
Ultra-luxe cruise line Crystal Cruises is allowing kids ages 17 and under to sail free when sharing a third berth stateroom with two adults. Families can choose from seven- to 15-day voyages in the Mediterranean, Western Europe, North Cape, Baltic, British Isles, Canary Islands and across the Atlantic from May-December aboard Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony. Book by June 28, 2013.

Take A Road Trip, You Will Not Be Alone
Compared to many summer travel options, a road trip is still a standout winner for budget-minded vacationers. A timely YP survey published in TravelPulse compared driving versus flying and found that Americans believe they have a greater flexibility in schedule (35 percent) and sight-seeing (33 percent) when driving vs. flying. They also liked having the ability to easily take more stuff with them (11 percent), avoiding crowds and security lines (9 percent), and the ability to more easily take pets (7 percent).

Perhaps something a bit more exotic? How about one of these James Bond-inspired destinations?

Beyond The Floating Hotel, Travelers Find Value Ashore

If I say “cruise,” odds are good that the first thought that comes to mind is that of a big floating hotel that ambles from island to island in the Caribbean. That’s not totally wrong either; a lot of cruise ships do just that. But looking at a cruise ship as a mode of transportation, like a commercial airliner that flies from airport A to airport B, should bring different thoughts. Thinking of cruise ports as a gateway to new worlds we may never have experienced before, it’s a whole different ballgame.

So often cruise itineraries focus on what lies at the port itself, and for good reason. Many cruise ships do not stay in port long enough for travelers to go very far and get back before the ship leaves. But some cruise lines are staying longer, often well into the night – if not overnight – allowing more time to explore. That gives the notion of a cruise ship being a “floating hotel” an entirely different, much more positive meaning.

A good example of a port of call that is far more than what one might see just walking off the ship for a few hours is the UK’s Port of Tyne.

Located in Northeast England, the Port of Tyne is home to miles of coastline dotted with castles, cathedrals, stately homes and gardens, plus one of Europe’s most culturally exciting cities. Interspersed along the way are historic regions that spawned the English language, are home to dual UNESCO world heritage sites and that make the Port of Tyne a world-class destination. But it is not the port itself that draws travelers but Newcastle, the city that came back to life in the 1990s after a rebirth of the downtown Quayside area.

An interesting contrast of historic landmark buildings alongside new, modern structures, Newcastle sits on the north bank of the river Tyne. Known today as home of Newcastle Brown Ale (which is actually no longer brewed there) and the Great North Run, the world’s most popular half marathon, Newcastle offers a wide variety of attractions.

Structures dating back to 124 A.D. sit not far from modern engineering marvels like the world’s only tilting bridge.

%Gallery-184993%So which cruise lines sail this sort of an itinerary – one that allows travelers to linger longer in port? Azamara Club Cruises, Seabourn, Crystal Cruises and others with smaller ocean-going ships do. River cruise lines like Viking River Cruises, AMA Waterways and others have a shore-side focus as well.

But larger ships also offer overnights from time to time, although it is not their main focus.

Carnival Cruise Lines, for example, will overnight in Venice, Italy, on a Mediterranean sailing, as will Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean International. Still, big ships full of features need people onboard using them – playing in their casinos and shopping in their stores – to make a profit.

Expect to pay more on small ship lines that have a destination focus to make up for you not being on the ship, spending. Still, that premium price might well be worth it if compared to a land travel option that requires airfare, hotel accommodations and meals, any or all of which might be discounted or included with a small ship cruise.

Planning on traveling the world in a cost and time-efficient way? Including travel by ship in your travel toolbox can help.

[Photo credit – Port of Tyne]