travel

Alaska: The Last Frontier by Michael Durr

This has been a very special year. The places I have been and the things I have seen has made this one of the best years of my life. A trip to the state of Alaska was the cherry on top.

Max

My best friend, Jim, and I flew into Fairbanks on September 8, 2015. We were beyond fortunate to have Hajnalka, our close friend, who not only helped us plan our route, but also accompanied us on the first half of our trip. Hajnalka was key in turning this crazy idea into a reality. Her hospitality and sense of adventure not only made our trip exciting, but also pushed us out of our comfort zones. We were also lucky have to have John, Manoach and Max (the dog) with us on our two day float down the Tanana River. Luckily, we all managed to survive the trip. 

In addition to floating the Tanana, I can also say that I have seen the Aurora Borealis, taken a selfie with Santa in the North Pole, camped on a gravel bar, climbed a random river-side rock face, ate moose and, of course, rented a movie from one of the eleven remaining Blockbusters in the country.

Prepped for Denali

Cliff

Another crucial piece to this puzzle was Hajnalka let us use her brand new truck to travel from Fairbanks all the way south to Seward and back. We called the truck Clifford, The Big Red Dog. The photo above should explain where we got the name.

This road trip was unlike any I have been on. We were immersed in nature for the entire trip. The only place that even resembled home was Anchorage - a place that we were told was a half hour from Alaska in every direction. We mainly camped and only paid to sleep two of the nine nights we were there.

We drove for hours surrounded by fall colors, varying weather conditions and beautiful snow capped mountains. Once we reached our southern most point, the town of Seward, we took a five hour boat trip with Major Marine Tours. The tour, despite the cold and misty conditions, proved to give us quite a marine-life showcase. We saw seals, humpback whales, otters, and the amazing orca whales. We even witnessed an extremely rare double breach. The cold, wind and mist made for an ominous and erie environment, especially when we arrived at the Holgate Glacier, a huge glacier that is slowly receding into the mountains above Resurrection Bay.

We documented ever nook and cranny of our adventure and the photos truly do not recreate the feeling of being in the moment. The climax of our trip was the Kenai Fjords National Park. Against our better judgement we decided to get up at 6am so we could hike to the Exit Glacier. The hike was 8 miles round trip. We gained 1000 feet of elevation for the first four miles of the hike. At mile two, we were engulfed in a dense fog and we were faced with a decision to either press on or head back down. Needless to say, we pressed on and over the course of the next two miles we saw views that few have ever seen. The clouds opened up and revealed the massive Exit Glacier in all it's glory. We felt like we were at the end of the Earth. It was truly one of the most breathtaking sites I have ever seen.

Overall, this trip was an experience of a lifetime. It was a journey not only shared with a friend, but a brother.

Onward and Upward



Favorite Meals


The route starting from Fairbanks, heading through North Pole, stopping in Denali National Park, heading to Glennallen, over to Anchorage, around to Hope, south to Seward, back up to Talkeetna and ending back in Fairbanks.

 

The Beginning

The End

A very special thanks to all our new friends we met along the way.

If you would like to see more photos or are interested in purchasing prints please visit the link below or feel free to contact me directly.

2015_09_AlaskaTheLastFrontier

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2014 Garmisch Partenkirchen by Michael Durr

Garmisch-Partenkirchenand the Castle Region

The next day was primarily traveling. We were up early and had time for a Sunday morning bike ride along the river in Salzburg, the town was very peaceful and even the air seemed to have a calming effect. Afterward, we made our way to the train. The journey was about five hours in total with a quick layover in Innsbruck. We had first class seats and access to the OBB Club. (Thank you, wifey! More gummy bears and nuts for us.) The trip itself was beautiful, winding through the valleys and along the steep cliffs. We arrived in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the early evening and we walked around a bit and had dinner. It was a pretty low key evening as most of the stuff in town was closed and we had to be up early for our Bavarian castle tour the next morning.

The morning began with a picturesque breakfast at our place. We went down stairs and the sun was peeking through the door and there was a spread of meats, cheeses, rolls, fruit, and sweets. We ate outside on the little patio and our amazing hostess, Monika, brought us tea and a crepe. It was a great way to start a perfect day.

We walked to pick up the car and Lindsay opted for the stick shift (because it was cheaper!). It was a challenge getting up the parking ramp, but once she did, she was a pro. We began an incredibly scenic drive through Bavaria and arrived at the castles. They were majestic looking from the lake view. It was like looking up at a painting.

The weather was perfect. Big white clouds in the sky, warmth from the sun and fresh air made the experience that much more enjoyable. We had an amazing lunch at King Ludwig's and made our way to Hohenschwangau, the first castle of the day. After the tour, we were able to wander the grounds and eventually walked back down and ventured (meaning we hiked about a half hour straight uphill) to the next castle Neuschwanstein. It was even more extravagant then the first castle and the history of the castle was quite amazing. It turned out King Ludwig only lived in the castle for 172 days before he was declared “mentally unfit” and mysteriously drowned three days later in a lake with his psychiatrist. To this day, no one knows if it was suicide or murder.

After his death, construction was halted and almost immediately the castle became a museum. There are two whole floors of the castle that weren’t even finished. There were some amazing artifacts in the castle and the one I found the most fascinating was the king's bed. It took fourteen craftsman seven years to carve a Gothic style church into the top of the four post bed. Insane! All the rooms that were completed were beautiful. King Ludwig was obsessed with Richard Wagner, so many of the rooms have intricate painting depicting different opera’s that he had written. Lindsay's favorite was the grand hall where they held musical performances. The chandelier and unique ceiling made it fit for a king. I also found the throne room to be amazing. A four ton brass chandelier and marble staircase leading to the throne were incredible feats for the time. The interesting thing was that there wasn't an actual throne because it had not been completed before King Ludwig died.

After the tour, we did a "short" hike to get the classic view of the castle. We arrived at a bridge jammed packed with tourists and Lindsay almost tossed an Asian guy off the side. Don’t ask. She also noticed people past the bridge looking down on the castle from a steep, rocky vantage point. So, we began a rather difficult hike upward. Eventually, we were alone with a spectacular view of the castle and the amazing landscape and a bit of breathing room from the other tourists. Carefully, we made our way down and opted for the bus ride back to the parking lot. We were tired and the bus ride was a nice recharge.

At this point, the weather was even more perfect as the sun got lower and showered an orange glow over the landscape. We drove the Romantic Road back to town with a few stops for photo ops and a place where Lindsay could dip her feet in the lake. It was the most scenic drive I have ever been on.

Exhausted and hungry we dropped off the car and had an amazing dinner. Mmmmm…pork loin with apples & cabbage and dumplings. After dinner, we sucked it up and wanted one more beer. We went into another place and sat at a bar where we met Brian and Sarah. They were Americans currently living in Slovenia, but on business in Garmisch. Brian was in the military and is in training to be an American Military Attaché. They were incredibly nice and it was fascinating to hear about his job. We even joined them at a large table while they had their dinner.

The next morning, we had another delightful breakfast. We decided to ditch the rental car and get bikes for the day. The rental guy was a classic biker guy who resembled a young Dolf Lundgren. He gave us good directions, but failed to warn us how difficult the ride would end up being. We road through the valley for awhile and it began to rain. Eventually, it was so hard we had to take shelter in a wood chip hut. It was actually pretty cool.

When the rain let up, we continued our journey to Zugspitze (the highest peak in Germany). After some trying times on the trail, we (finally) arrived at Eibesee where we bought our extremely expensive (and overpriced) tickets up to the Zugspitze.

The cable car ride up was gorgeous until we got near the top and all we could see is a light shade of grey due to being stuck in a cloud. We had lunch atop the mountain and I was let down (grouchy) that we made it all the way up (and paid good money for it, too) and weren't going to see anything.

In any event, I took a scary hike to the actual summit. Lindsay stayed back to take a photo of me. I could have been four feet off the ground, but in reality it was 2950 meters high. Once I returned, we decided to go back down. We had already scanned our ticket to the cable car when I noticed some mountains through the window. I thought it was a reflection of one of the many panoramic images inside, but then realized it was clearing. We were technically stuck because we already scanned our ticket and walked through the turnstile. After some convincing, we jumped back over and went back outside and it was like heaven's gate had opened. Rolling white clouds, sun light, and an incredible landscape on all sides. We even could see the lake at the bottom of the mountain. I was giddy with excitement. Eventually, we took the train through the mountain to get back to our bikes.

From there, it was a much easier coast back to town – all downhill. It rained a bit, but not enough to slow us down. We even saw a light rainbow in the valley. The ride was gorgeous and we made it back to town in time to return our bikes then walked to dinner. We went Italian this time and had an amazing pizza and a calzone. Grabbed one more for the ditch at Pub 33 and walked back home.

Relaxation and sleepy time.

2014 Salzburg by Michael Durr

Our arrival into Salzburg was pretty flawless. It was fun for me to learn how the train system works and see the amazing landscapes along the way. When we arrived, we hopped in a cab because a two mile urban hike with all our gear would have been rough. Our cab driver dropped us off near our street and we walked down to the apartment where we would be staying. We were greeted by a great guy, also named Michael, and an enormous iron door. He spoke of the history of the place as we walked up the four flights of cement stairs.

Out first day, we walked the streets to get our bearings. Salzburg is such a beautiful city. We forgot to eat lunch so we were pretty hungry and ate at little place down the street where we met a couple from Canada, basically taking our same journey in reverse. Afterward, we took in some of the sights and had a Mozart Ball or two and then went looking to grab a drink.

It was difficult to settle on the perfect place for our drink. We even walked in and out of a couple of places (Lindsay loved that). We did, finally, land at one of our favorite bars of the trip - Chez Roland. The building was 900 years old and the bar was in the basement – similar to a cave. We sat at the bar and the waitress was very kind and resembled Gwyneth Paltrow. Another fellow came in a sat with us and even gave us both a Mozart Ball. We sat there listening to the locals chatter on and a great new artist play on the speakers. We were pretty burnt after that and called it a night, but it was a fun to see the city at night on the walk back to our place.

The next day we were up early for The Sound of Music Tour. We both enjoyed ourselves and had a great tour guide who was very knowledgeable on the history of the city and the Von Trapp family. We stopped at several of the filming locations and took photos. One of the best stops was outside the city in the lake district where we had amazing pastries and chatted with our older tour companions. We also took a ride on the summer toboggan.

The tour took a big chunk of the day but we kept going strong and went on the self-guided Fortress tour. The Fortress is really a smaller city on a very large cliff. The history and layout of the building was fascinating along with an incredible view and free wifi to FaceTime Jim & Shannon. We had a beer and chatted with a great couple from California. He was a firefighter and she was a cop and they told us of their travels and fun adventures they’ve been on in years past.

Beaten down by touristic activities, we rallied and refreshed at home and walked out to Augustinerbräu, an amazing brewery. We took a little hike as the sun was setting and played in a fitness park, so we earned those liter beers in the garden of the brewery.

The stumble home was fun and we even ran into our older Sound of Music companions who suddenly didn't seem so old. One for the ditch next door to our apartment and off to bed.

The next day was boiling with tension from the start. We walked about an hour to a car rental place and had some trying times in getting them to give us the car. We managed, but I had to drive and Lindsay navigated (which she’s very good at.) I was starving and sitting in traffic made me highly unpleasant.

When traffic opened up, we were in the country and I began to feel better. We arrived in Berchtesgaden and I was on a mission to attain nourishment. We stopped at a great cafe and I ordered soup and an omelet. An omelet that took 30 minutes to make, but was worth every second. It was more of a crepe, filled with delicious garlicky mushrooms. Lindsay was jealous.

Finally, we hopped back in the car and headed to the Eagles Nest – one of Hitler’s hideaways. Technically, it was a gift to him from the Nazi party on his 50th birthday. I’d like a mountaintop getaway for my 50th as well, please! The bus ride up the mountain was nerve racking, but beautiful. When we got to the top the views were unlike anything I had ever seen. We walked into the mountain through a long tunnel to a gold plated elevator that took us up to the Eagles Nest. After getting away from all the tourists, we found ourselves on a rather difficult hike immersed in nature. The swirling clouds would come in and out and the air was fresh and clean. A difficult moment occurred when I wanted to continue the hike and Lindsay did not, but we compromised and no one was pushed to their death.

We were beat on the way back down, but we continued in the car to the Konigsee - a picturesque little town that offered us yet another trial. It was difficult deciding on taking the boat ride and parking the car. Don't ask. We ate, took a little hike to a lake outlook and grabbed an ice cream cone. Lindsay manned the vehicle on the way back and it was a long walk to the apartment. We were exhausted and sore and couldn't get ourselves back up to venture out for the evening.

Perhaps the most spontaneous day thus far began with me taking a little walk through town as Lindsay got ready for the day. It was the warmest day so far with not a cloud in the sky. I walked through the local market full of bread, cheese, and tons of other delicious foods. After the walk, I went back to the apartment and Lindsay and I headed out for a day of biking. We rode around the fortress, back to the rear facade of the Sound of Music house, and through Hellbrunn Palace, where we had a delicious lunch and walked the grounds. After a fun tour, we made our way to Stiegl Brewery.

Stiegl is the best brewery I had ever been through. We met a bar owner, Georg, who poured us some free beers and then we took an interactive tour with another couple. The grounds were amazing and the history of the brewery was astounding. Stiegl was founded in 1492. Sound familiar? (The year Columbus discovered America?)

We had our free samples of beer and in that time our good friend Georg came back by and continued to give us more free beer. We sat with a great family – Michael, Selma and their kids Elias & Amelia - and shared stories of our fabulous cities. Needless to say we stayed a long time, drank many beers, and eventually biked back to the city.

We bought a lock and put it on the bridge – you know…to make sure we stay married forever. Finally, we were hungry for dessert and ended up at some trendy Red Bull bar with no desert, so we both had a terrible mixed drink and then found some delicious apple strudel.

The next morning, we were heading to Garmisch, but we were sad to leave Salzburg.

Salzburg

Use this link for more photos from Salzburg

Garmisch-Partenkirchen is next!

2014 Hallstatt by Michael Durr

As I sat on the train from Hallstatt, I could not help but wonder if I would ever be back. The place is straight out of a storybook. The amazing landscape and historic buildings are like nothing I have ever seen. When we arrived it was raining, but it created a majestic environment and an epic introduction to the town. From the train, we boarded a small ferry that took us across the lake.

We stayed at the Braugasthof, which, at one point in time, was a brewery and now serves as a restaurant and guest house. We made our way up the winding, creaking stairwell and found our room. The room was as quaint as the town with a breathtaking view of the lake and mountains.

The food in Hallstatt was amazing. We dined on soups, stews and red wine - which complimented the cold and rainy conditions. We weren't complaining. The rain was not like Chicago rain. It was more of a mist and made the restaurants and warm shops even more inviting.

The town shops closed around 6pm, so after a delicious dinner we made our way back to our room and watched The Neighbors on the laptop. I know, not all that romantic, but we enjoyed it and needed the laugh.

The next morning, I was excited for some non-rainy photos. I woke up at 6am and went on a walk while Lindsay slept. I walked for an hour or so and stumbled upon a beautiful little park along the lake. It wasn't raining, but looked like it could start at any minute. When I returned, I found myself back in bed and ended up sleeping for another hour or so. The sound of rain drops, light chatter, and the brisk temperature made sleeping in the perfect thing to do.

After a traditional breakfast of meat, cheese & bread, we suited up and headed up to the salt mine. They had a very cool lift – a funicular - that took us up the mountain to an amazing outlook point that jetted out over the vast landscape. It was raining more heavily up in the mountain, but the views were still stunning and we didn't think much more about it.

With cold feet and damp clothes, we journeyed into the salt mine. The tour was fascinating. It was fun to learn about the rich history of the mine and the fact that it is still used today. We walked 300 meters deep into the mine. It was chilly, but fun to see the exhibits and use the wooden slides. At the end of the tour, we all got on a rail car that took us all the way out of the mine. I am happy not to have to work in a mine, but I was inspired by the many people who spent their lives working in those conditions.

On our way back to the Brauhaus, we had one my favorite meals of the trip: goulash and bacon filled dumplings. It was the perfect way to warm our boes after the chilly mine tour and damp, brisk walk back to town. After a short break, we walked the rest of the town and visited the historic churches, the cemetery, and the town square. It was still raining on us, but at that point it was like hanging out with an old friend.

Dinner that night was followed by some red wine and a King Ludwig. Then we cozied up and watched NonStop. Again, it was a fun way to relax after the town closed down. (Don't judge us.)

Our final morning in Hallstatt was a memorable one. We walked back to the park I found the previous morning, only this time we were blessed with some sunlight and blue sky. It didn't last long, but it was enough and perfectly timed. Lindsay dipped her feet into the frigid lake and we contemplated jumping in. Ultimately, we decided it was not the best idea since we had so much of our journey left to tackle.

We continued to walk the town, visit the shops, and stopped at a café for some pastries, coffee and tea. Then it was back to the ferry and onto the train.

NOTE: I found it super interesting that the Austrian town of Hallstatt was unknowingly replicated in China. Read More...

Use this link for more photos from Hallstatt

Look out Salzburg. Here we come.

2014 Vienna by Michael Durr

Vienna Our European trip began in Vienna, Austria. The plane ride was comfortable and fairly quick. We ate dinner, slept, and I edited wedding photos on my laptop. I also watched the second and third Matrix movies (which were not as bad as I remembered.)

After arriving in Vienna, we jammed our days with walking, biking, and training around the city. It was an amazing place! The history, detail of the buildings and sculptures were incredible. Seeing a building that has been standing long before Chicago existed didn’t even make sense to me. Lindsay did an amazing job planning our lodging and transportation. She also did an amazing job making sure we didn't get lost. I did an amazing job documenting and annoying her.

The bike share program in Vienna is very similar to Chicago's DIVVY, only better. The bikes are free for a longer period of time and bike lanes are plentiful throughout the entire city. During one of our treks we noticed a bunch of movie trailers surrounding the State Opera House. It turned out Tom Cruise was in town shooting MI5. Unfortunately, we did not see them filming, but it will be fun to see that scene in the film.

It rained quite a bit while we were there, but we worked around it pretty well and in some cases it has actually made it better. For example, walking the streets late at night while the cobblestone roads glistened in the street light was unlike anything I have experienced in our country. We even both got splashed by a passing car. I thought that only happened in the movies.

Lindsay made reservations for us to tour Schönbrunn – the summer “residence” of the imperial family. This place boggles the mind. It's the most extravagant “house” I have ever seen – it’s really a massive castle. I said hopefully in like 200 years we will be touring Kanye West's house. It rained, but I thought it made it better. Lindsay may disagree. We put in an offer and if we get it we will have space for all of you in the servants quarters.

While in Vienna, we met some of Lindsay's family (Robert and Susi). They drove into the city to meet us and took us to an authentic Viennese restaurant for dinner. They were super nice and insisted on treating us. After dinner, they took us to "The Signature Room" of Vienna overlooking the square and St. Stephan's Cathedral. Don't get me started on St. Stephan's – it’s the most beautiful building we have ever been in. I told Robert and Susie we'd be happy to treat them to a polish sausage and a beer if they came to Chicago.

Overall, Vienna is amazing! Most people understand English so the language barrier was not an issue. Our only gripes are that everyone smokes and the service is slow as hell. However the history, ease of public transit, and scenery far surpass those little faults.