D-Day Landings at Normandy

A Section of the over-10,000+ Graves at Omaha Beach Cemetery

Just back from Normandy where I’ve been touring the beaches and cliffs of the Normandy landing area where the invasion of France that led to the end of the 2nd World War took place.   It was an emotional trip even though no one close to me had died in the horror that was unleashed that day, but one cannot fail to be moved when confronted with a cemetery containing 10,500 white crosses each one guarding a fallen combatant.

It was June 6th, 1944, when the assault on the French coast took place.  Every type of transport at the Allies disposal was thrown into the battle and incredible ingenuity allowed Bailey bridges and the Mulberry pontoons to be shipped across the Channel without the Germans knowing. Horsa gliders towed by ‘planes carried the British 6th Airbourne Division across the channel to storm the bridges at Ranville-Bénouville (known today as Pegasus Bridge).  The most intensely fought over sands, the six-mile-wide Omaha beach, largest of all the five beaches on the coast (Gold, Juno, Sword, Omaha and Utah) was to be taken by the US 1st Army led by Omar Bradley. The plan was to land infantry troops alongside armoured amphibious Sherman tanks, but the Shermans never made it.  The tanks were released from their landing craft too far away from the beach as there was a much greater swell further out to sea than the Americans had bargained on and all but two of the tanks sank shortly after leaving their craft. Many units landed in the wrong place due to the strong tides and winds carrying the landing craft away from their positions.

Omaha is most remembered for the casualties the Americans took there as the German machine gun fire tore into the troops as they tried to sprint across the beach to the seawall.  It was a massacre, a terrible loss of life.

Although Hollywoodish, the film The Longest Day, gives a very good impression of what that day in June was like.  I watched it before I departed for France and again on my return a few days ago when I was able to recognise some of the places I’d visited.  The weather didn’t favour the invaders, nor did it favour me as I walked in their footsteps: Normandy is famous for its changeable climate.

There are many wonderful Museums, and I’ve appended photographs of their leaflets below, but if there is time for only one or two, make it (1) The Memorial of Caen in the town of the same name and 2) Pegasus Museum.  The Memorial of Caen, as well as artefacts, has lots of cinematic clips and chairs on which to rest while you watch – a boon for many people.  It also has a great restaurant and a good snack bar/cafe.  I was there for 4 hours but could have done with 6, and I didn’t have time to tour the bunker, nor to visit The Cold War Exhibition which I was told was excellent.  Pegasus Museum has the bridge, a replica of the glider that landed just a few yards from it, and another glider in the grounds into which you can climb for an exploration of the conditions in which the parachutists made that journey across the channel.  In the area also is the original cafe in which Major Howard set up his HQ shortly after he landed, and where the tea and coffee are pretty good.

Major John Howard's Headquarters immediately after landing at Pegasus Bridge.
Major John Howard’s Headquarters immediately after landing at Pegasus Bridge. Today known as The Pegasus Bridge Cafe it i still in the hands of the family who owned it in 1945.

I hope to blog about individual beaches in due course.

A Selection of Mueums along the Normandu Coast
A Selection of Museums along the Normandy Coast

Australia: Destinations Perth and Cairns

Perth offers a gentle welcome to the visitor heading for Australia for the first time.  Its superb location by the Swan River, white sandy beaches on the nearby Indian Ocean, cultural attractions and a cuisine to rival that of Sydney, makes every visit a pleasure.

Apart from beach activities, including great surfing, the city itself  offers many attractions: like King’s Park with it’s superb views over the city, the 42 acres Botanic Garden, and the Aquarium of Western Australia where you walk through a 321-foot tunnel lined with glass, behind which thousands of colourful fish, sharks, and stingrays lurk.  If you want to get up close and personal with the sharks, “no probs.” as they say in Perth, you just trot off to the Discovery Pool where, if you are a qualified diver, you can have a face-to-face shark experience.

The “fun” part of the city is in the district of Northbridge where you will find a range of nightclubs, pubs, cafes and eateries, offering an eclectic mix of cultures and cuisines, but better still is “Freo” (Fremantle), located 20 minutes south of the city but almost an integral part of Perth itself.   European in appearance, Freo is a café-lined port with spectacular beaches and a more sophisticated lifestyle, but still distinctly Australian with verandaed beer-houses and pub barbecues a regular sight.

From Freo, take the 80-minute ferry ride over to RottenestIsland, accompanied (sometimes) by migrating whales, dolphins and sea-lions.   Once an Aboriginal penal colony, Rottenest is now a weekending town thronged with people who gather for karaoke bar singalongs as well as a closer acquaintance with the beer culture.

It would be a shame to spend all your time in the flesh-pots of Freo though, as Perth is an ideal stepping-off point for one and two-day-trips.   My own favourite is the wine producing MargaretRiver region on the Indian Ocean.  Although 155 miles away it is well worth a trip, if only to sample on site the lush, jammy Shirazes for which the area is famous and to revel in the ancient karri forests, beautiful countryside and heavenly beaches famed for their surf.

Second favourite is the journey north from Perth to see the Pinnacles, thousands of eerie limestone pillars up to four metres tall that dot the stark desert of the NamburgNational Park, and Monkey Mia where dolphins come into the shallow waters to feed.  I combined both trips over 3 days which gave me time for sightseeing, swimming and hanging out.

Perth embraces families, adult singles and couples alike and the range of entertainment for children and adults is a fair indication of why so many people come here for a vacation and then find it hard to go back home.

CAIRNS

In sharp contrast to Perth is Cairns, right bang at the point where two world heritage sites meet – the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest – and the closest thing to tropical paradise I’ve found.

Few places can match Cairns’ concentration of activities, indigenous culture and pure natural splendour.  The Esplanade, up and down which the pelicans parade in undisputed ownership, has budget hostels, bars, eateries, boutiques and a great night time atmosphere.  The Pier waterfront complex has five-star hotels, some really super Australian designer shops and an eclectic range of restaurants.

The glitz has been totally absorbed by the town, but no matter how luxurious the suite, how chilled the champagne and how blue the pool, there is always a sense that a salt-water crocodile lurks not far away: Cairns has a primeval feel underneath the luxury, that’s what makes it different.

It’s essentially a stopping-off post for other trips, whether it be a trip to the Great Barrier Reef or any one of many rainforest trips.  The GBR needs no introduction to most people as its coral reefs are one of the most photographed sites in the world.  Snorkelling through the forests of staghorn coral, surrounded by round fish, flat fish, fluted fish, giant sea turtles, crimson squirrelfish, and sea cucumbers is exciting, but sensory overload really sets in when you spot the giant clams, their purple and green mottled lips open to their full 1 metre size.

There is an inner reef suitable for novices and beginners, an outer reef bordering the open sea with canyons and deep water, and the island reefs which are combination of both.  If you are staying on one of the blissful Islands, then your hotel will have a boat to transport you to the reefs, but if you choose a mainland hotel, then there are plenty of snazzy boats with scheduled trips out to the reefs from the waterfront.

For my money though, the rainforest is the most awe-inspiring place outside Cairns.  Having taken the Scenic Railway trip which chugs through 15 tunnels as it climbs 300 metres towards the AthertonHighlands and the village of Kuranda, and a boat ride on the crocodile infested DaintreeRiver, I was keen to spend a few days in a Rainforest Lodge.  Although I wore a rain poncho most of the time, the life of the forest was so absorbing that the constant misty rain was forgotten.  Central to this was the trip on Skyrail (a world first in ecotourism).  Sailing high above the rainforest canopy your gondola passes over eucalypt woodland, waterfalls, and trees in which white cockatoos nest, with panoramic views to Cairns, Trinity Beach and Green and Fitzroy islands.  You can alight at different stations en route to experience the forest floor from the comfort of boardwalks surrounded by trees, lush palms, ferns, animals and birdlife.

Whatever your style, Cairns can offer you an experience you won’t find anywhere else in the world.