Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Port of Call -- Ponta Delgada/Sete Cidades

It turns out a lot can happen when you have two days at sea.  1) I locked myself out of our cabin safe which required a staff member to open.  Funnily enough, alcohol wasn't involved, just the distraction of me talking to Glen. 2) I had to wait in line at Passenger Services twice to get a new cabin key until we discovered that the clasp to my clutch was magnetized and I kept laying my card on top of it.  3) the Princess accounting system is not for the faint at heart.

That latter comment resulted from the fact Princess refunded what we paid for our excursions in Norway, N. Ireland, and Newfoundland.  How they did it was confusing.  A few passengers had problems so while we haunted the service desk for solutions to our safe and key card problems, we witnessed several angry people.  For those who may experience this the future, rest assured you won't be cheated.

So what did Princess do?  They refunded the entire amount of all our tours then charged us again for Rotterdam and Hamburg.  Seems simple enough but since I had paid for all our tours, I expected the refund to appear on my account but it was divided between Glen's and mine.  Once I got that figured out, the rest was easy.  As compensation for the change in itinerary due to the storms, Princess also credited our accounts with $200 each.  Some felt they had to spend it on board.  But no, if it wasn't spent, it would be appear as a credit on your credit card statement.  We spent ours on beer so there wasn't any credit going 'home'.  Princess also gave us a credit on a future cruise.  It was no fault of theirs the weather foul so we were impressed by these gestures.

After two days at sea, we arrived in the Azores at dawn.  The weather was perfect so we did our morning walk through the tiny town of Ponta Delgada.  What a charming place!  You could eat off the streets, they were so clean and the people were very friendly.  Of course, we were 3000 people wandering the streets that normally 70,000 inhabit so we made an impact.  Ponta Delgada is the capital of the Autonomous Region of the Azores in Portugal and is located on São Miguel Island, the largest island in the archipelago (nicknamed the Green Island for good reason).  Delgada means thin or delicate in Portuguese.  It became a village (vila) in 1507 but wasn't the capital until an earthquake destroyed Vila Franca, the former seat of government, in 1522.  Spain tried to take the Azores from Portugal in 1582 but an Anglo-French expedition fought to keep it Portuguese.  The main industry of the islands is agriculture, mostly dairy, tea, tobacco, wine and pineapples.  Fishing and tourism also contribute to the local economy.

We spent an hour wandering the distinct black (basalt, a volcanic rock) and white cobblestone streets of the town, heading along the waterfront to the São Bras Fort then heading inland to Rua Gil M Sequeira.  We passed São Jose Church and another dedicated to sailors and fishermen (Church of Our Lady of Hope Santo Cristo).  With each block the name of the street changed becoming Rua Marqués Praia E Monforte then Rua Machado Santos.  We took a side street and walked past the Sahar Hassamain (Gates of Heaven) Synagogue, founded in 1836 but is now only opened on Saturdays for guided tours.  We ended up at the Gates of the City (photo) before returning to the ship.

After lunch, on the pool deck of the Princess, we boarded our bus for a tour of the island with a stop in Sete Cidades (Seven Cities).  This small town (800 people) is nestled in an almost circular volcanic crater (3 mi/ 4.8 km across) of the same name.  We drove through a few small villages on very narrow roads to get there.  Kudos to the bus driver who navigated these often passing other buses or large trucks.  Hedges along the roads were hydrangeas, the flower of the Azores, and were often laced with deep purple morning glories.  The crater was painted a verdant green although some hills were yellowed by the Kahili Ginger flower that is a weed in the area.

Our first stop was the Neo-Gothic St. Nicholas Church.  A self-made man called Nicholas (I can't remember his last name) built the church so he'd have a place to worship and decided to dedicate it to his name-saint.  The village still worships there.  Like all churches on São Miguel, doors are unlocked and everyone is welcome to step inside.

The crater is famous for Lagoa das Sete Cidades.  The Blue Lake and Green Lake are separated by a tongue of lava (and a bridge).  Legend has it a princess with green eyes whose father was overprotective, escaped the castle one day and fell in love with a shepherd (blue eyes).  The boy told her father they wished to marry and the king became furious.  Not wanting to upset her father, the princess met the boy for a final time and they both cried enough tears to fill two lakes -- one blue and one green. Depending on the light, you can see the difference in colour although agricultural practises (and sewage) have made the blue lake greener due to algal growth.

After several stops to view the lakes as we zigzagged up the crater, we returned to Ponta Delgada and the Grand Hotel Azores Atlantico.  Here, in a restaurant that offered incredible views of the harbour, we tasted local wine (white from São Miguel, red from Pico Island) and a variety of excellent cheeses.  They served a soft, young cheese with a hot sauce that really perked it up.  São Jorge cheese had a buttery texture and wonderful taste.

Even though the Royal Princess sat within walking distance of the hotel, we had to board the buses to return to the ship.  It was getting late and the ship wouldn't sail without us if we were on the bus.

The next five days were spent at sea.  This was the part Glen really had been looking forward to.  He'd sit on our balcony and just gaze at the horizon.  At one point, the captain did announce we were over the mid-Atlantic ridge and that the valley was 3,500 m/11,482 ft below us.  Pretty exciting stuff!

We arrived in New York City before dawn.  I figured we wouldn't see the Statue of Liberty until I realized the boat was going astern and being on the starboard side, we'd get a great view.  It was a bit foggy but we did see the grand old lady.

Leaving the boat was tedious.  We had to vacate our cabin by 8am but our group didn't leave the ship until 9:30.  We couldn't find a seat in our designated area so sat near the gangway.  We ended up going off first in our group as we heard the coordinator make the call.  The terminal was filled with different piles of luggage but we easily found Yellow 6 and made our way through customs to the waiting buses.  Unfortunately our driver dropped us off at the wrong terminal.  We walked most of the terminal before discovering we had to retrace our steps and catch a shuttle to our terminal.  We arrive to find our flight has been cancelled due to the aftermath of the hurricane.  Once we got our new flights organized, we went through security and entered the first restaurant we found.  It was 1pm.  Our plane to Toronto didn't leave until 6:30.  No meal was served as there was a lot of turbulence.  By the time we landed and walked to the gate, there was no time to stop and eat.  It was 11:00 when I finally had a sandwich but since I was nursing a cold, I really hadn't been that hungry.  We landed in Calgary and finally tumbled into bed at 3:30am our body's time.  Slowly crossing the Atlantic (it was fall back every day) made jet lag easier but it still took a week to get back to feeling normal.

If you want to see some photos of the Azores, click here.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Port of Call -- Vigo/Bayona La Real

The Royal Princess is not the fastest ship to ply the seas, averaging 20 knots (37 kph/23 mph), so we entered the English Channel the day after our Hamburg sailing.  It was after breakfast when I asked Glen if what I was seeing from our balcony were the famous White Cliffs of Dover (350 ft/110 m high) on the coast of Kent.  Sure enough they were!  I'd never seen them before so was very excited.  Glen had his binoculars out in minutes.  Being a clear day, we could see Dover Castle, founded in the 11th century and England's largest castle.  Its proximity to the coast of France meant it has always been a strategic fortification.  In the 1800s, a complex of barrack tunnels were constructed and these were used as an air-raid shelter/hospital in WWII.  It was also the headquarters for the military telephone exchange.  Looming nearby are the Swingate Transmitting Masts (364 ft/111 m) used as radar stations during the war to detect incoming aircraft.  Now they transmit microwaves.

On our next day at sea, we crossed the Bay of Biscay but we might as well have been in the middle of the ocean as there was no land in sight. Shipping traffic kept Glen close to his binoculars (from Canadian Tire and the best $200 we've ever spent) and spotted a Gannet flying near the ship.

The Royal Princess aside from being slow is a huge ship, 1083 ft/ 330 m long and can carry 3560 people. She was christened by Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cambridge, hence the 'royal' name.  Not every port can handle her so it took some time to find ones that could on our new itinerary.  Vigo, Spain stepped to the plate and the Princess tour staff scrambled to organize 8 tours of the area.  We attended a lecture on the area as we had no idea what to expect.  One tour was to Santiago de Compostela, the church with relics of the apostle, James and is one of the stops on the Pilgrims' route.  Our friend, Monica, had walked the Spanish portion of this pilgrimage (100 kms) so we felt taking a bus to the site was cheating.

Vigo is the largest city in the Galicia (northwest) area of Spain, close to the northern Portuguese border.  Its name means village (Vicus) in Latin but it was only recorded as a real village in the 15th century.  The Englishman, Francis Drake occupied it (1589) after he helped defeat the Spanish Armada (1588) and there is said to be ships in the harbour still bearing gold from the New World that Drake sank.  Another claim to fame is Jules Verne who used the harbour in his book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

We enjoyed the morning watching the comings and goings of the port, even spotting some dolphins cavorting in the harbour.  While having lunch, the Party Band played some great songs and kept us entertained.  It was a warm day in Spain and I began to regret not packing shorts (hey, I thought I'd be in the north Atlantic).

Our tour involved walking and wine (it was our theme after all).   First though our bus stopped at a church (Capela Da Guia).  Perched on La Guia Hill, it offered great views of Vigo and its port.   Then it was off to Bayona La Real (sometimes written Baiona).  This tourist town was founded in 140 BC and throughout its history was either Spanish or Portuguese.  The Old Town is dominated by Monterreal Castle built in the 16th century.  Nowadays, it's a tourist attraction and our destination.    the Hotel Parador Conde De Gondomar is part of the castle complex which offers incredible view of the bay and its islands.  Paradores are luxury accommodations created in castles, monasteries, and fortresses throughout Spain.

It was a warm, sunny day so our local wine and tapas were served on a terrace of the hotel.  Each region of Spain has its own version of tapas and Bayona is no different.  The word 'tapas' actually means 'to cover' and a theory is it began as a piece of bread one put on top of a glass of sweet wine to keep the fruit flies away.  Bartenders then used salty meat to cover the wine which encouraged patrons to drink more.  However, there seems to be many stories on how tapas began but suffice to say they usually have salty meat, olives, seafood or cheese.  There were also sweet versions in Bayona which attracted Glen's attention.

Not everyone on our bus was up for a walking tour so those who were followed our guide down into the town.  We walked passed Chapel to our Lady of the Garden and saw Belladonna flowers.  These are sometimes called Naked-Lady Lilies as they don't have leaves.  Our tour wound through the grounds of Monterreal Castle and down to the beach.  A same-sized replica of La Pinta (see photo), Christopher Columbus' ship sat in the harbour and we learned the real one arrived March 1st, 1493 with the news he had found the New World.   There is a commemorative plaque and the actual anchor from La Pinta on display nearby.

Modern houses and flats surround the old town because Bayona attracts many summer visitors --  the population increases from about 10, 000 to 50,000.  The main street is modern with shops and restaurants but walk a block away from the beach and you're next to buildings that are centuries old.  The Convent of the Dominicans (built in 1547) still has nuns who have taken a vow of silence.  On the next street is the Misericordia Chapel which has a crucifix the Spanish used to smuggle gold from the New World.  They reasoned pirates would never desecrate it and I guess, pirates do have a code of honour as it was left intact.

Our tour ended at the Town Hall and our guide said we were on our own.  Glen and I wandered along the beach wall and returned to the bus.  Glen wanted to watch us leave port so we ate supper on the pool deck after sampling what the buffet had to offer.  The sunset was spectacular.  A
fter attempting to take photos through the glass, I ran downstairs to our cabin and got better shots from our balcony.  Must say the tropical sun makes for very dramatic photos.

To see these, you can view my Vigo album here.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Port of Call -- Hamburg/Lubeck

When we awoke on September 13th, we were docked in Hamburg, Germany.  Our tour didn't leave until after lunch but we decided to stay on board rather than venture out into the busy port.  It would have been Glen's mom's 101th birthday so we thought of her and how she loved to travel.  In later years, she and Jim (and Aunty Pearl) cruised on Princess ships and I think she was with us on this trip.

Hamburg is Europe's second largest port and lies on the Elbe River and its two tributaries, the Alster and Bille Rivers.  Officially, it's called Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg and was a free imperial city-state of the Holy Roman Empire in the middle ages. It continued to be a sovereign state until unification in 1871.  During World War II, it was heavily bombed so most of the buildings within sight of the ship were modern.  The most impressive was the new concert hall called the Elbphilharmonie.

After the war, it became a state in the Federal Republic of Germany and in the early sixties launched a group called The Beatles.

Germany and beer go hand-in-hand so we chose to take a tour of a brewery.  It also involved a walking tour of the town of Lübeck.  Again we were warned it would not be an easy walk.  Despite this, a woman complained she didn't know it would be so hard.  Glen used his cane for stability on the cobblestones but other than that, he was fine.

Like Hamburg, Lübeck was part of the Hanseatic League (confederation of merchant guilds) and an important port on the Trave River (flows into the Baltic Sea).  The town is now famous for its Brick Gothic architecture (UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the first taste of this unique building style was the Holstentor or city gate (see photo).  Lübeck is in the state of Schleswig-Holstein which gives the gate its name and to the famous dairy cattle, Holsteins.  Built in1464, the gate protected the river from invasion, apparently mostly Danes.

Our guide, Stephanie, used a walkie-talkie system to tell us about the town.  If you wandered too far from her, the receiver around your neck cut out.  I learned this first hand when photographing the Holstentor.  I got involved in my efforts to capture its grandeur and began following the wrong people into a shopping complex.  Fortunately, I lost contact with Stephanie so retracted my steps.  The group, including Glen, had crossed the street whereas I had not.  Glen said he panicked a bit until he saw me returning.

In the middle ages, the town was known for its salted fish.  On one bank of the Trave River were the brick salt warehouses.  The workers, mostly women, would gut the fish and toss the entrails into the river.  This meant the place stank and the water undrinkable.  No one worried about that since everyone drank beer!  My kind of town!  There were different types of beer and children drank one that was 0.5% alcohol.

Talk of beer made us thirsty so Stephanie took us to the only surviving brewery (Brau Berger) of the middle ages (about 140 breweries dotted the town at that time).  Brau Berger was opened in 1989 by Harald Berger who wanted to brew a middle ages style beer, Zwickelbier which is unpasteurized and brewed in barrels.  The cellar vault in which we consumed the drink was built in 1225 and is the oldest in Lübeck.  Thomas Rosenhahn is now the brewmaster and with the help of another brewery, produced a flight of beers for us.  We tasted them all and also enjoyed a delicious pretzel.

To walk off the effects of the beer, we meandered through the streets of the town learning about its unique architecture.  Most buildings were made of brick as fire was a constant threat in the middle ages.  As families grew more prosperous, they would cover the brick with stucco or plaster in lovely pastel shades.  Houses were also built in backyards and tiny alleys ran between these small homes.

The prime example of Brick Gothic construction in Lübeck is St. Mary's church built between 1250 and 1350.  It is said the devil thought the townsfolk were building a wine bar and they didn't dissuade him of that idea.  He helped as best he could as he found wine bars good for harvesting souls.  When he discovered they were really building a church, he was not pleased until the townsfolk promised to build a wine bar across the street in the town hall.  Which they did.

Inside the church, vaults are the tallest brick ones in the world, the central nave being 38.5 m (126 ft) high.  The brick is painted white with wonderful floral motifs.  During WWII, it was almost completely destroyed by fire and several great works were lost including the Totentanzorgel (organ) probably played by J. S. Bach and the Dance Macabre paintings.  Due to its destruction during the war, St Mary's is one of the Cross of Nails centres.  A Cross of Nails is made from three nails of the roof truss of Coventry, England's St. Michael's Cathedral destroyed by the Nazis in WWII.   It is a symbol of peace and reconciliation given to churches damaged during the war.   Next to the cross in St. Mary's lies the church bell which fell from the tower during the fire and was left in situ.

After a quick march through the Market Square two sides of which are the town hall, we arrived at what makes Lübeck famous today--Marzipan, a confection made of sugar and ground almonds usually molded into different shapes.  Lübeck claims to have invented marzipan when the town was under siege and the only food left was sugar and almonds.  The most famous store, Niederegger, was founded in 1806 and their logo features the Holstentor.  Lübeck marzipan is supposed to have less sugar than other varieties.

We had a half hour to ourselves so Glen and I went to the Market Square.  We sat enjoying the passing scene until it was time to catch the bus.  At this point, it was obvious we would miss our dinner reservation time at Sabatini's restaurant onboard the ship.  Back at our cabin, we did a quick change before heading down to supper.   It was at this time, the captain announced our travel plans had changed and due to a hurricane along the east coast of the US and a storm over Belfast, we would take the mid-Atlantic route across to New York City, our final destination.  He also mentioned we wouldn't be leaving on time as the train from Berlin bearing over 100 Princess passengers had broken down.  Good to know Princess waits for those on tour who have problems.

They are also forgiving of those who miss their dinner reservations.  AMA had paid for the reservations ($30/person) so we had no choice of which time or day.  We arrived at Sabatini's one hour late.  Alexandro was very understanding when we said our tour was late and found us a lovely table by the window.  Unfortunately, instead of watching Germany slip by while we ate, we watched the buses from Berlin arrive at the terminal.  The food was excellent, though and our server Yuriy from the Ukraine, amazing.

After our meal we sat on the balcony and watched the ship sail down the Elbe River and out into the North Sea, heading west back into the English Channel instead of north to Norway.

To view photos of this excursion, go here.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Port of Call -- Rotterdam/Gouda

We departed Southampton docks at 5 and headed out into the English Channel (biggest shipping area in the world).  After zigzagging across the Channel during the night, we arrived in Rotterdam, Netherlands just as we ate breakfast.  The harbour is long so we spent a couple of hours on our balcony watching the passing scene.

Rotterdam, the largest port in Europe, began in 1270 when the Rotte river was dammed (hence the name).  The city now spans the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt river delta and is the second largest city in the Netherlands.  It was heavy bombed by the Nazis during World War II so much of the architecture is new and exciting.  Most of the city is built behind dikes and is below sea level.  We passed the lowest point of 6.76 m (22 ft) on our bus tour.  It was neat seeing the North Sea flowing above our heads.

The Royal Princess pulled alongside the old Holland America Quay, now known as the Cruise Terminal Rotterdam.  Many immigrants left Europe via this pier on their journey to make new lives for themselves.  The terminal now welcomes about 20 cruise ships a year.

I booked all our tours before we left Canada so when we got to our cabin, we had an envelop containing our tour tickets.  It also told us where to meet our groups.  Princess has organizing shore excursions down to fine art and we were given a coloured sticker and number (Yellow 3) in one of the dining rooms.  We boarded the Yellow 3 bus and were on our way.  We had two criteria for our tours.  One, walking must be involved and two, there had to be drinking and or eating.  Along the way we hoped to glean some neat facts and take lots of photos.  The tour in the Netherlands we chose was to Gouda (pronounced How-da with a guttural H) and of course, involved cheese tasting.  It was billed as a strenuous walk and limited to 40 people. Turns out Princess tours' idea of strenuous and ours are two different things.

We began by viewing the ship from a local park so we could take a photo then the driver wound his way through Rotterdam while our guide, Stephanie, pointed out the sites.  Then we traveled along a dike road through the countryside.  Our guide was amazed our driver took this route and at times, it was scary looking out the window down into farmers' fields.  The fields were laid out with canals running between them which reminded me of photos I'd seen of Canadian soldiers in WWII slogging through soggy fields driving the Nazis out of Holland.

Gouda is a delightful town known mainly for its cheese.  It also makes those long clay pipes you see in old paintings and lovely candles.  Our guide insisted we try some stroopwafel, a local sweet made of two waffles with a caramel syrup in between.  Very tasty.   Another claim to fame is the longest church (123 m or 404 ft) in the Netherlands, Sint Janskerk, known for its stained glass windows.

Our guide led us along the town's cobbled streets, past the church, and into the town square.  It is dominated by a Gothic city hall (built between 1448 and 1450).  Around 1100, the town was a marshland next to the Gouwe River and the townsfolk harvested peat.  A canal connecting it to the Old Rhine river transformed Gouda into a trading town.  Several great fires and devastating plagues affected the town's economy and the term Goudaner became synonymous with beggar.

Behind the city hall is the market where cheese was and still is, traded (every Thursday).  Ironically, Gouda cheese is not made in the town but the cheese is traded there and must pass strict quality controls.  Across from the market is the Waag or weigh house.  Built in 1667, it was used to weigh goods (mostly cheese) so the local lord could levy taxes.  Inside is a cheese museum and Stephanie led us upstairs for a cheese tasting.  We were given samples (big chunks) of four different ages of Gouda cheese and wine.  From what I have told you, you should know that Gouda is not famous for its wine.  For good reason, it was pretty rough.  The fact there were glasses of wine leftover tells the tale.  After a local volunteer told us all about the cheese industry in the area, we were given free time.

Both Glen and I wanted to see Sint Janskerk's famous stained glass windows as they are on the UNESCO list of Dutch monuments.  The church is dedicated to John the Baptist, the patron saint of Gouda.  During Reformation, it was plundered but the windows were left intact.  In 1573, the Gouda city council prohibited the practice of Roman Catholicism so it became a Protestant Dutch Reformed church as it is today.  In 1939, the windows were removed which saved them from destruction during WWII.

The church entrance is a glass room which we thought sold souvenirs and the famous Gouda candles.  As we tried to enter the church, a man yelled something that sounded like "cash".  How embarrassing--we didn't know we had to pay to enter (about 7 euros each).  The man then provided us with headsets and a recorded description of what we were seeing.  I soon dispensed with mine as I wanted to take photos and we didn't have time to linger.

Our driver took the ring road back to the ship which was much faster.  We boarded minutes before everyone was supposed to be back.  I had been worried we might miss the sailing but Princess does wait for her own tour buses to return.

To see photos of our Gouda tour, go here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Retirement Cruise-Crossing the Atlantic

After doing our 45th anniversary cruise last year (see North to Alaska!) on the Island Princess, we decided to celebrate Glen's retirement with another cruise.  The Princess cruise line had treated us so well, we used them again.  I let Glen choose the cruise although we both decided we wanted to spend more than 7 days on the ship, the shower had to be bigger to accommodate Glen's height, and there would be more days at sea.  When Glen was younger his family made 3 crossings of the North Atlantic to visit family in England.  He wanted to even that number and do the crossing from England to North America.

So last October, we returned to our AMA travel agent, Sylvia and told her to book the Norway & Atlantic Passage cruise, aboard the Royal Princess.  It was to depart September 10th and Glen was to retire September 1st so perfect timing.  It seemed a long way off but as everyone knows, time flies when you're having fun.

Our journey began with a flight to London's Gatwick airport via WestJet.  It was a 9 hour flight with us landing at 10:30 Sunday morning.  We had to make our way from the North Terminal to the South but a train made the journey an easy one.  We stayed at the Hilton hotel and they let us check in right away.  After a nap, we explored the terminal to find where we'd meet the Princess bus the next day.  Who knew there are two WH Smith stores (one outside, one inside) in the terminal?

I had organized a rendezvous with Glen's cousins to take place Sunday afternoon in the hotel lobby.  We were enjoying a beer ( Old Speckled Hen, first brewed on the 50th anniversary of the MG car factory [1979] and named for the car that workers used to get around in [covered with specks of paint]) in the hotel lobby when Denise and Betty arrived.  It was so good to see them!  I hadn't spoken to them in 40 years although Glen had often touched base during his work-related travels to Europe.  We had a lovely dinner together in the hotel restaurant then said our goodbyes.  We were feeling the affects of jet lag and went to bed early.

We met the Princess people (the WH Smith inside the terminal) the next morning for the transfer to Southampton, the port from which the cruise ship departed.  It was a long bus ride but we met a guy from Ottawa called Don so passed the time talking with him.  Turns out he has a YouTube business featuring cruising tips called Don's Family Vacations.  He has done oodles of cruises so had some interesting stories.

AMA gave us a voucher so we could do the express check-in at dockside.  They processed us quickly and we received our cruise cards which function as a room key and a credit card.  They also gave us a number, 34, and told us to sit in the terminal and wait to be called.  Elite cruisers boarded first then they began calling numbers beginning with 20.  Boarding halted at 22 when the gangway connection broke.  Turns out the tide was extremely high and the gangway wasn't designed for that.  I figured we'd have a later lunch on board so bought some eccles cakes at the snack shop to tide us over.  The gangway was fixed and more numbers called, then it broke again.  Finally, 34 was called but by the time we reached the end of the gangway, they gave up fixing it.  Everyone then boarded through the service gangway.  It took 3 hours for us to get to our stateroom.  Jet lag didn't help our mood but our spirits lifted when we entered our cabin.  The mini-suite was lovely with a normal sized bathroom so Glen was happy.  While I unpacked, he watched, form our balcony, the ship leave Southhampton for Rotterdam.  We then had a much deserved beer in the Wheelhouse bar and met our to-be favourite server, Pranit from Nepal.

We didn't stay up too late as we would be doing a tour the next day and jet lag got the better of us--such party animals!!

The cruise we had signed up for involved stopping in Rotterdam, Netherlands, Hamburg, Germany, Bergen, Norway, Belfast, N. Ireland, St John's, Newfoundland, and New York.  As you can guess, there were to be many days at sea.  However, we didn't get beyond Hamburg when plans changed.  The meeting of hurricane Florence and a storm over Belfast meant dangerous seas for crossing the Atlantic so the captain decided to go south instead.  Who said cruising was boring?

I'll describe our ports of call in subsequent posts but thought I'd give you an overview of our days at sea.  Because Glen could walk this time, we decided to climb the stairs most days.  The Royal Princess has 16 decks (#13 doesn't exist) and busy elevators so being willing to do the stairs saved time.  It also burned off the extra calories!  My Fitbit had problems with the ship's roll and one day recorded that I had climbed 75 flights of stairs.  There was no way I did that!  And yet, even though we ate and drank every day, I didn't gain any weight.

Every morning after a buffet breakfast, we did a 30 minute walk.  Sometimes this was on the jogging track; sometimes on the pool deck.  Unlike the Island Princess, the promenade deck was only open when the boat was docked.  Usually there was an enrichment talk at 10 which we attended.  Topics ranged from ocean facts to the evolution of navigational instruments.  Then we'd head to the pool deck for pre-lunch beer.  Lunch was often from the buffet or the fast food places nearby (pizza and burgers).  After lunch, Glen would have a nap or we would listen to an audiobook in our cabin.  The couch made the room a great place to relax.  Then it was off to the Wheelhouse bar for pre-dinner drinks.  There were two dining rooms open for anytime dining as well as two specialty restaurants where you made reservations (Crown Grill and Sabatini's).   After supper, we either went to a show (the comedian and magician we saw were both Canadian) or watched a movie.

Partway through our crossing of the mid-Atlantic, Glen came down with a cold so it was nice we had a comfy cabin where he could rest.  He wasn't the only one coughing.  Unfortunately, a couple of people had their holiday cut short because of a medical issue.  We witnessed a woman being taken out on a stretcher in Vigo, Spain and then a day out of New York, the US Coast Guard did a medical evacuation of another woman.  Apparently she required treatment only a hospital could provide.  Obviously Princess handled these situations professionally.

I couldn't bring enough clothes in one small and one large suitcase so I often did a laundry in our bathroom sink.  I had brought liquid detergent and clothes pegs and used these to great advantage.  Unlike the dry prairies, air-drying on a ship takes time.  I did discover a small laundry room on our deck but had no wish to spend my day watching a machine wash my clothes.  Another option was to have the ship's crew clean our clothes but I saved at least $150 by doing it by hand.

The ship had a huge casino with machines and gaming tables.  We played VideoPoker a few times and lost so there was no real incentive to return.  The thing I did appreciate was most of the machines were non-smoking.  For those who like games, there were several trivia games every day and the library was well-stocked with board games and playing cards.  The Zumba teacher also gave dance lessons and every night there were folks dancing in the Piazza.  Not Glen or I as his hip is still not up to that.  There were two rock bands (mostly oldies), a string trio, pianist, and an Irish folk singer so every evening was filled with music.

There were three formal nights and roaming photographers snapped shots of people all gussied up.  Some were in tuxes and evening gowns but Glen was not out of place wearing his sports jacket.  Those nights we always ate in the dining room as they often had special dishes and Glen knows the final formal night means baked Alaska for dessert (Princess tradition).  I ate lobster tail three times but only in the specialty restaurants.  One night we signed up for a Tuscan food/wine tasting which was excellent.  They knew Glen was celebrating his retirement so brought out a nice chocolate cake at the end.  On our final sea day, we did a tour of the galley and the chef had created a display of 140 potato dishes.

To see my photos of our time at sea, click here

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Road Trip, Part Three

After a week in Colorado, we were off on our next adventure--driving to Victoria.  We did this trip eight years ago (see Day Ten - Back to Wyoming and Day Eleven - Along the Oregon Trail) and some things have changed and some things have remained the same.

It is still a gorgeous drive through incredible county.  This time we cut across the tip of Colorado taking a secondary road to reach Laramie, Wyoming.  We stopped for lunch in Rawlins.  Most rest stops in Wyoming warn of rattlesnakes so we were wary as we walked through the grass to a lonely picnic table under a cottonwood tree.

You leave the rangelands of Wyoming and enter Utah through a canyon of red rocks (see photo).  Spectacular scenery.  Our destination was Best Wester Canyon Pines where we had stayed before.  We couldn't remember the restaurant where we'd had supper so googled Polygamy Ale, the beer we'd enjoyed last time.  For some reason, we didn't forget that name.  Up popped Roosters Brew Pub and off we went.  It was hot (35ºC/95ºF) but we didn't want to sit in AC so opted for the shaded patio.  We asked for Polygamy Ale but they didn't have it anymore.  Turns out it is only served at their second location in Layton, Utah.  So we opted for Patio Pilsner and it was excellent--very refreshing.

We shared an order of calamari served with Cajun remoulade and Louisiana hot sauce.  Glen had developed a love for hot sauce on this trip after he discovering Tabasco sauce on scrambled eggs were a great way to start the day.  Then, I had the Ahi Rice Bowl, billed as a Light Plate, while Glen went with Roosters Ravioli.  Both were tasty.

It was off to Oregon the next day.  We forgot about the change to Pacific time so arrived early at our hotel in Pendleton.  But first we passed through Idaho.  The first rest stop in this state tells you about the Ferrugingous Hawk.  I didn't see one on our first time in the state but did this time so I could check it off on my life-list of birds.   It wasn't the only bird I added on this trip.  I had seen Whooping Cranes as we entered Colorado although it took awhile to convince myself I had.  But, they couldn't have been anything else!  I also saw a Say's Phoebe in Mesa Verde.  The story behind this bird's name is interesting.  The nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte named it after Thomas Say who was the first scientist to see the bird near Cañon City, Colorado in 1819.  Say (who discovered 10 new bird species) is actually known as the father of American entomology (not ornithology).  Go figure.

The meridian of Idaho's Interstate 85 was awash with wild sunflowers which gave us a colourful drive and of course, we saw lots of fields of potatoes.  I thought I'd give you a bit of trivia about the Interstates we traveled.  The I-15 which leaves Sweetgrass, goes south through Montana and snakes its way to San Diego (2306 km/1433 mi), the I-90 which we took across Montana and picked up again in Washington state on the return trip, runs from Seattle to Boston (4860 km/3020 mi).  The I-25 which goes through Colorado begins in Las Cruces, New Mexico and ends in Buffalo, Wyoming.  Most interstates mark their exits by numbering them, starting at their southerly or westerly beginnings.  So an exit 5 miles from the west border of Wyoming would be #5.  Makes it easy to follow on a road map--and yes, I used paper maps!

Instead of staying in downtown Pendleton, we opted for a Best Western hotel (Pendleton Inn) on the highway.  It was a quick drive down into the valley for supper at Prodigal Son Brew Pub, Pendleton's first craft brewery.  It was a busy place enjoyed by families -- they even had a playroom with toys and books for kids while they waited for their dinner.   We drank A Beer Named Sue--anyone who is a Johnny Cash fan, has to order this.  It was called a Golden Ale made with barley and hops from the Pacific Northwest.  The food was also from local ingredients and we enjoyed sharing Red Hot chicken wings although, Pendleton Sunshine sauce made with orange habaneros sounded tempting.  The menu had lots of vegetarian options, unusual for a ranching community.  I had the largest grilled portobello mushroom (appetizer) I've ever seen.  I added Swiss cheese and sweet potato fries to make it a meal.  Glen loved his Pit Boss burger with bacon, cheddar, and roasted Jalapeños.

In 2010, we spent a day in Seattle but this time we made the push for Victoria.  Unfortunately, we made the mistake of not having lunch before hitting Seattle traffic.  Our nerves were frayed when we finally stopped at the outlet mall north of the city.  After lunch, we headed for the border.  There was a 30 minute wait but our Nexus cards came in handy as we were through in 5 minutes.  We had hoped to make the 3:00pm ferry but missed it by 10 minutes.  As is our custom, we dined at Christie's Pub once we got settled in the condo.

Victoria was a whirlwind of socializing.  Robb (Dutch friend) golfed with us at Mt Doug three times and Janny, his wife, joined us on the fourth time out but always met us for coffee after our 9 hole round. Monica (Slovenian friend) had a surprise operation so we visited her in the hospital and were thrilled everything went well.  Diane and Tony (Manchester friends) had us over for coffee and we joined them for lunch at Smugglers Cove pub one day after golf.  Tim and Ed (California friends) arrived on the cruise ship, Norwegian Pearl and joined us for supper at the The Beagle Pub.  We met Iain and Janet (Scottish friends) at the Irish Times pub and were thrilled Glen could walk downtown with no hip pain.  We drove 'up island' to the Crow and Gate pub south of Nanaimo to meet Murray (Canadian) and Yvon (Georgia, USA).  We also did a day of crabbing at Sidney.  Glen got out his bike and drove, with a picnic lunch, to Willows Beach and I walked down to meet him.  We also went to our favourite breakfast place, Shine Café.

Normally on the way back to Calgary, we stay in Salmon Arm but everything was booked so we made reservations at the Best Western in Sicamous.  We love the patio at Joe Schmuck's Roadhouse but we got there too late so had to eat inside.  We snagged a table by the open patio door so the summer heat warmed us.  Our room at the hotel was actually two rooms (3 queen size beds) sharing a bathroom so good to know if we ever travel there with family.

As we drove toward Golden the next day, the morning sun created tree shadows on the road.  Its light flashed against the side of my head and I wondered if that's what caused the ocular migraine I experienced last year.  It was like a strobe light hitting the corner of my eye.  By wearing a hat, I avoided the problem this year so we made it home without incident.  Yay!

After unpacking, we headed to our local pub (no, there are never enough pub experiences) for supper.  We'd just ordered veggie pizza to share when who walks in but Meg and Mike.  Our server didn't know we were related so she was about to tell Meg that her favourite table was taken.  Getting caught up on all their news was a great way to end our holiday!

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Road Trip, Part Two

Most people have a mental list of experiences they'd like to have before they die--the so called 'Bucket List' (things to do before you 'kick the bucket').  I didn't really have such a list but I've always wanted to see the cliff dwellings of the Anasazi.  I learned about these fascinating places while in university (many moon ago).

Back in the spring, when we discussed our visit, Geoff said he wanted to do a road trip with their new Subaru to test it out.  I suggested the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde.  Melissa discovered they were the ones on my bucket list.  Sweet!  The park is close to Four Corners where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet so Glen bought into the trip as the region is famous for hantavirus and plague outbreaks.

It's about a seven hour drive to Durango, a town close to the park where we planned spending two nights.  It was great travelling through a different part of Colorado.  The highway snaked through canyons following the Arkansas River, passing the Royal Gorge where Glen visited as a child. The river, 6th longest in the US, is a tributary of the Mississippi River and flows from mountains in Colorado to Napoleon, Arkansas.  Some pronounce its name Ar-KAN-ses, while others call it Ar-ken-SAW.  Both are correct.

Near Cañon City, the river was full of hundreds of rafters.  The rapids we saw weren't scary--not like what we experienced in Costa Rica (see Whitewater Rafting)--so it might be worth trying sometime.  The scenery was spectacular.  However, we didn't stop as our destination was the town of Salida (se-LY-de and means 'exit' in Spanish) for lunch.  Due to a confusion as we exited the I-25, we arrived well after Geoff in this pretty town.  Melissa had spotted a sign for the riverwalk where she thought we could have our picnic.  She texted it was off C Street.  Who knew there were two parts to C Street and one that was nowhere near the river?  By the time we had sorted out where we had to go, they had finished their lunch and the kids were playing in the playground.  It was a wonderful place as the tall cottonwoods shaded most of the park.

We crossed the Rio Grande on our way to Durango.  This river also begins in Colorado (San Juan Mountains) and flows into the Gulf of Mexico forming most of the border between the US and Mexico.  Apparently it is great for fishing as we saw many outfitters along the highway.

Then we began to climb into the mountains and through Wolf Creek Pass.  It has a very steep grade but the Santa Fe had no problems.  Neither did Geoff's Outback except something popped at the summit which scared the heck out of them.  Turned out, the bottom blew out of a bag of chips.  We stopped at the town of Pagosa Springs (famous for its hot springs) for gas at a less than savoury station.  The bathrooms were wobbly porta-potties and the gas pumps were so old Glen had to ask how to work them.

Durango is a tourist town now but was originally the depot for the Denver and Rio Grande railway which serviced the San Juan mining district.  It was named after the town in Mexico.  We stayed at the Best Western Plus Rio Grande.  Our rooms were adjacent and near the pool so very convenient.  It was also right at the edge of downtown so we could easily walk to restaurants.

After checking in, we headed out to a restaurant one of Melissa's friends recommended.  Her mom is a local policewoman so we figured she must know.  There was a 20 minute wait at Steamworks Brewing Co.  but we felt it would be worth it.  About 5 minutes later, it became a 40 minute wait so we arrived at the right time.  The place was huge with a large elevated patio.  It was about 35ºC (95ºF) so we were glad to be seated in the AC.  They had a blackboard list of their beers and all the numbers you needed to get what you wanted (ABV, IBU, SRM).  Since I had no clue what these numbers meant, I ordered the Steam Engine Lager and it was perfect.  Glen had Colorado Kolsch and Geoff ordered Backside Stout and each was happy with their choice.  Melissa had to ask for a wine menu but they had a great selection.  The kids had lemonade and a special menu which Miles modified by adding his favourite toppings to the plain cheese pizza (and we didn't have to pay extra!).  Our food was excellent although I had to have my veggie pizza boxed as it was huge.  Our room had a fridge and we had also brought a cooler so it became lunch on Sunday.

After the kids learned that a buffet breakfast doesn't mean you must sample everything, we did the hour drive to Mesa Verde Park (created in 1906) (the video on the website gives you an idea of what we saw). We stopped first at the visitor centre to sign up for one of the cliff dwelling tours.  We had wanted to do the Palace dwelling (see photo) as it is the most famous but the only tour for all of us was at 4:00pm which was too late.  The ranger suggested the Balcony House as it was her favourite.  She warned us there was a 35 foot ladder and a narrow tunnel but she didn't think we would have issues.  I suffer from vertigo as does Melissa and she is claustrophobic but we decided to put on our 'big girl panties' and signed up.  It was $5/person so very reasonable (we didn't know but you could purchase tickets in Durango--next time).  So was the entrance fee to the park of $20/vehicle.

Balcony House is on the Chapin Loop scenic drive and the ranger suggested leaving Spruce Tree Terrace café no later than 1:00 to make our tour.  The café is about an hour's drive from the visitor centre as there are many stops along the way.  The boys signed up for the junior ranger program and had activities that gave info on the past and how different it is from today.  We all learned something.

The first stop was the Park Point Overlook (2613 m/8572 ft).  There was a short hike up to the fire lookout which gave us an overview of the park.  Due to smoke from local forest fires, we couldn't see the mountains of New Mexico.  I got a bit winded not realizing we were so high up.

Next stop, the Far View area was a self-guided walk through a mesa-top farming community (10th century or Pueblo II period).  Two rangers answered our questions and pointed out features we may have missed.  We learned about the dwelling's circular rooms called kivas.  These were usually underground and entry was by ladder through a hole in the roof.  They served as rooms for religious and social gatherings.  In the winter, they were heated.

One question on everyone's mind was where was the water?  There were no springs or rivers on the Mesa and the valleys were a long way down the cliffs.  The mesa-top people did have reservoirs but most of their water was brought up from crevices in the sandstone cliffs where rain and winter snow-water collected.  Women climbed the cliffs hauling, in clay pots, this precious commodity.

After having lunch at Spruce Tree Terrace (limited menu) and refilling our empty water bottles (yes, I actually drank plain water), we left the area that was also the trail head for several hikes, Spruce Tree House, and the Chapin Archeological Museum.  We headed into the Mesa Top loop to find the Sun Temple outlook because of its view of the Palace cliff dwellings.  When I saw the dwellings, I got a bit teary-eyed as they were all I had wanted to see and more.  We also explored the Sun Temple.

The next loop in the road, the Cliff Palace loop, took us over these cliff dwellings but we didn't stop as we had to reach the Balcony House in time for our tour.  This drive runs along the Colorado/Arizona border through a modern Pueblo Native American reservation.

Balcony House was built in the Pueblo III era (12th century) and Ranger Pete, a retired English teacher, was our guide.  He again warned about the ladders and the tunnels and I began to wonder if I had made the right decision.  He ended his talk saying if the ladders were too scary, we could retrace our steps but miss seeing the house.  That clinched it.  I was not going to miss seeing what I had always wanted to see.

You must go down to go up and we descend two long metal staircases.  It was very hot by now, 38ºC/98ºF but I had on a big hat and a long-sleeved shirt which gave me some protection from the sun.  Yes, the ladder into the house was tall but very sturdy.  I followed Melissa up and was surprised when I clambered into the cliff dwelling no worse for the wear.  The dwelling was amazing.  Out of the sun, it was cool and we saw the water that brought life to the mesa.  We crawled through a tunnel to the kiva and Ranger Pete told us about the people who lived there.  Apparently they believe a 70 year drought forced them to leave the dwellings in the 1300s.

Another ladder and set of stairs took us back to the parking lot.  Glen and I were pretty winded from our climb but proud we did it.  He was especially thrilled he could scramble through the tunnels.  That's what a new titanium hip gives you.

Miles wanted to do the tour again but we had to head back to the hotel.  First though, we stopped at the visitor centre so he and Elijah could get their junior ranger badges.  Miles had studied the Ancestral Pueblo in school and declared seeing it in person was much more meaningful.  Yay!!

On the way to Durango, Melissa confessed to feeling ill so she let the boys swim while she took a nap.  We decided to try a different place for supper and ended up at the Irish Embassy pub.  When they didn't have potato-leek soup, Melissa returned to their room to convalesce.  She didn't miss much.  Glen and I had the toughest corned beef ever.  Pretty bad when the best thing about the dish is the cabbage.

We headed back to Denver the next day stopping again in Salida for lunch.  Geoff and Melissa discovered Sweeties Sandwich Shop near the park and bought us some great eats.   I had the Parthenon which was a Greek vegetarian sandwich and Glen had Rob's Roast Beef.  I think Geoff had the Rio Grande and Melissa a Caesar salad but I can't remember what the kids ate.  After they had a quick romp in the park, we booted it for Aurora.