Norway’s Natural Splendor

By Sandra J. Marsian

REACH NEW HEIGHTS with a northern European cruise highlighted by Viking legends, majestic fjords and a history of royalty. Holland America Line has multiple itineraries exploring the Netherlands and Norway, with scenic cruising among fjords rising up to 5,000 feet.

Norway, voted the happiest place on Earth in 2016 and arguably one of the world’s most beautiful countries, offers seaside villages, cascading waterfalls, magnificent fjords, historic and contemporary architecture and unique culinary options.

The brand new ms Nieuw Statendam will take on Norway in 2019. The Pinnacle-class ship’s design was inspired by the fluid curves of musical instruments. Fitting, as this new class of ship brings new musical entertainment to the Holland America fleet. Lincoln Center Stage will feature chamber music ranging from the classics to contemporary bands like Coldplay. B.B. King’s Blues Club’s eight-piece band will deliver soulful sounds, while the Rolling Stone Rock Room promises performances from four decades of classic rock.

The new ship will feature the same attentive service and classic style for which Holland America Line is known, while embracing the modern elegance of sister ship ms Koningsdam.

Holland America’s seven-day Viking Sagas itinerary departs from Amsterdam, with stops in Oslo, Kristiansand, Stavanger and Flam, and scenic cruising of Oslofjord and Sognefjord, the longest and deepest fjord in the world.

Oslo, Norway’s capital city, is a vibrant mix of modern architecture, world-class museums and 10th-century Viking history. Although I saw Oslo on foot, Holland America offers a wide array of excursions. So save your feet for dancing and take the Best of Oslo tour instead. My personal highlights were dining on local delicacies such as smoked whale and standing in awe of the world’s largest sculpture collection executed by a single artist, Gustav Vigeland, at Vigeland Sculpture Park.

In Kristiansand, it’s easy to get around and explore historic sites such as former military fortresses and Posebyen (the old town), which dates to 1631. The city has several recreation areas, a fish market with harbor views and a sandy beach.

Oslo...is a vibrant mix of modern architecture, world- class museums and 10th-century Viking history.

Taking an excursion to Lillesand, the jewel of Sorlandet, is a pleasant way to see the community. We cruised along the islands, spotting traditional mariner houses that have been converted into vacation homes. Once bustling with maritime activity, the town is comprised of white 18th and 19th century timber houses and is considered the most beautiful town in the region.

The shipbuilding and fish-canning town of Stavanger has maintained its heritage despite becoming the epicenter of North Sea oil extraction. The cobblestoned Old Town area is full of white wooden cottages and has the oldest Anglo-Norman cathedral in Norway. Visit archaeological museums and learn of the Viking past via reconstructed settlements.

As many do, I chose to conquer Preikestolen (“The Pulpit Rock”) in nearby Lysefjord. The 2-mile hike takes two hours each way, with a 1,100-foot climb in elevation. This makes for a challenging passage through various terrains, but offers beautiful views along the way. Once you ascend, you will walk a narrow path with steep cliffs on one side and Lysefjord far below on the other, providing amazing photo opportunities – and bragging rights.

The village of Flam offers beautiful landscapes, pastoral scenes and magnificent waterfalls, which can all be experienced on the Flam Railway. Or you could take a more active experience and kayak or cycle to the waterfalls. Regardless of how you spend the day, even if it’s just visiting the portside shops, you’ll be surrounded by natural beauty, regional culture and local flavors.

The idyllic seaside villages of Norway alone make this cruise truly worthwhile, but the star of your voyage will undoubtably be the scenic cruising through the Oslofjord and Sognefjord, with their soaring snow-capped peaks, rugged cliffs and waterfalls. And the only way to truly take in the expansiveness of these dramatic mountains is via cruise ship. 

Exceptional Training

By Deborah R. Huso

Return to the golden age of rail travel with an excursion aboard some of the world’s most famous and, in some cases, most luxurious trains. Pick your window seat, your favorite book, and order a cup of tea or a cocktail and let the journey become the destination. Here are 10 great picks.

1. All aboard the Rocky Mountaineer for a journey that consistently ranks as one of the best train trips in the world. It crosses the Canadian Rockies, climbing over Rogers Pass in Alberta and winding through the Spiral Tunnels, and includes an overnight stay at the fairy-tale Fairmont Chateau on Lake Louise.

2. The Grand Canyon Railway out of Williams, Ariz., offers daytrips and overnight packages, plying the prairie to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Package options aboard this nearly 120-year-old line include motor coach tours of the national park as well as overnight accommodations at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel.

3. See America from the comfort of an Amtrak railcar aboard the California Zephyr as it journeys 2,300 miles from Chicago to San Francisco across the Great Plains, the Colorado Rockies and the Sierra Nevada. Trip highlights include passage through the 6-mile Moffat Tunnel and crossing the Continental Divide at 9,000 feet.

4. Book a daytrip you’ll never forget through Rail Europe with an excursion aboard the Glacier Express. Winding through the Swiss Alps from Zermatt to St. Moritz, this eight-hour journey is known as the slowest express train in the world. Its cars with panoramic windows glide among the peaks and valleys of the Alps, through 91 tunnels and across 291 bridges.

5. Journey aboard a palace on wheels on one of the world’s most luxurious trains, the Belmond Royal Scotsman. Select one of several itineraries through the Scottish countryside with four-course meals, railcar accommodations and off-train excursions ranging from tours of Ballindalloch Castle to visits to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society headquarters.

6. Return to the Gilded Age on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, and spend your days and nights enjoying the comfort and decadence of Belmond British Pullman cars on an array of European journeys. We recommend an overnight trip from London to Venice across the English Channel and through the Italian Alps.

7. Cross South Africa from Pretoria to Cape Town on a 27-hour journey aboard the storied Blue Train, and experience 994 miles of some of the African sub-continent’s most stunning scenery. The trip includes an excursion to the Open Mine Museum at Kimberley, a nod to the region’s rich diamond and gold mining history.

8. For a cross-continent adventure in Russia, take the Trans-Siberian Railway from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg. You’ll traverse 6,000 miles from the Sea of Japan to the Baltic, crossing eight time zones in two weeks. Along the way you’ll see the world’s largest freshwater lake, experience Mongolian and Buddhist culture and the opulent architecture of the nation’s imperial capital city.

9. Experience Asia in the lap of luxury on the Eastern and Oriental Express as it travels over 1,200 miles from Bangkok to Singapore. See the limestone peaks of Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, and cross the Thai-Burma Railway built by Allied POWs in World War II. The four-day itinerary provides time to partake of the train’s three dining cars, two bars, a library and an attentive staff that includes a pianist and a reflexologist.

10. Experience the longest stretch of straight railway track in the world, as the Indian Pacific skirts across the bottom of Australia from Sydney to Perth. Four days and 2,700 miles will take you through the Blue Mountains, across the barren Nullarbor Plain to Perth, the world’s most isolated city. 

Sydney Offers up Family Fun

By Elias Christeas

The Sydney Opera House, the Harbor Bridge – and dare I say an expectation to hear cliched cries for shrimp on the barbie – is what I expected to find in Sydney, Australia, after a seemingly impossible 25-hour flight from New England.

But as my wife and I made our way out of the airport with two strollers, two car seats, two suitcases, two backpacks and (thankfully) two toddlers, the first thing that struck me was the sounds of the birds. They were exotic and tropical. The caws of cockatoos, songs of rainbow lorikeets and shrieks of the kookaburras (which sound more like chimpanzees) made me feel like we were somewhere primal. Darwin’s world was opening before us!

All in the Family

The sheer mystery of what life might be like in Australia was enough for me and my wife to pack up our toddlers, ages 2 and 4, and head to the land Down Under for four months.

We arrived at our granny at in one of the city’s Northern Beaches communities. At our first visit to a park, we made fast friends with local families who invited us to dinner within only an hour or two of knowing each other. The desire for genuine connection would continue every- where we went.

Young families were thriving in the Sydney area. Shopping centers, parks, museums and restaurants all had fantastic amenities to keep children engaged and entertained while parents relaxed. Child safety is a national focus in Australia, and you can feel it in the air. You can see it on the happy faces of kids, all ages, that roam without parents well into the evening.

Wheels and Meals

Life on the go was exciting for us but we soon needed a car. I purchased a four-wheel-drive vehicle that became the fifth member of our family. It allowed us to go to the fabulous Taronga Zoo in the morning, play with the kids at the Flying Fox playground in Mona Vale later that day and surf in the evening at Whale Beach.

As we ate on the move, we discovered a foodie’s paradise. We sampled fantastic hand-crafted sandwiches, five-star baked goods, world-class Pan-Asian cuisine and – to my delight – locally roasted coffee drinks that were the pride of every barista I encountered.

A Final Farewell

Our time in Sydney was soon over. We passed on our beloved 4x4 to dear new friends beginning their journey, and walked the coastal stretch of our final beach home, Maroubra, with a sense of nostalgia. We saw whales migrating offshore as the now-familiar songs of tropical birds played in the background. We had found a true home away from home.

During takeoff on the plane ride home, our youngest looked out the window, saying, “Buh-bye, Awww-tay-yah.” As if in direct response, a family of whales breached in the ocean waters below. 

Find the Right Ride for You

The typical driver buys about nine vehicles during his or her lifetime, and spends approximately 290 hours per year behind the wheel. That’s equal to seven 40-hour workweeks.

In addition, there are 275 vehicle models available for purchase in the U.S.

With all of these options, how do you pick the right ride when it comes time to buy a new vehicle? Here are some important questions to consider.

What’s Your Budget?

Nothing has more of an impact on your choice than what you can afford. You’ll want to weigh the overall cost and what your monthly payments will be. Don’t ignore other expenses like fuel, maintenance and insurance. A 2017 AAA Your Driving Costs study found that owning and operating a new vehicle cost about $8,500 a year. Some types of vehicles – including minivans, medium-size SUVs and pickup trucks – cost even more.

How Will You Use It?

Will you use your car to commute to work, for leisure cruising or a mix of both? If you’re buying something for fun, sharp handling might be more important than fuel economy for a 9-to-5 commute.

How Many Passengers?

A two-seat sports car for a married couple without children might be ne, but it won’t do the trick for a family of five who travels regularly for weekend hockey tournaments. Think carefully about everything that goes in and out of your car.

What’s the Weather Like?

If you’re planning to venture out onto snow-covered streets, you might want to consider an all-wheel-drive sedan or SUV. If you’re considering an electric vehicle, will you drive it in the winter? Extreme temperatures can impact the range of electric vehicles.

What Features Interest You?

From infotainment systems that pair with smartphones to automatic braking and lane-correction systems, vehicles come with a wealth of technology. Do you want all the latest and greatest, or something simple with a smaller learning curve? Remember that many features are optional.

How Was the Test Drive?

A test drive is incredibly important. All the research in the world cannot tell you what it feels like to get behind the wheel of a car. You’ll want to make the most of the 20 or 30 minutes you have during a test drive.

Go to AAA.com/AutoBuying to browse new and used vehicles at discounted prices just for AAA members.