Category Archives: Sightseeing

A Morning in Giverny

As a first timer to Paris, there were many places I wanted to visit and some that I would be willing to wait until my next visit.  One visit that was not going to wait was my visit to Claude Monet’s gardens in Giverny.  His impressionist paintings gave a sense of peace and serenity to me, and I wanted to walk in his gardens and see what he saw.

It was easy getting there – remember, for this entire trip we used public transportation.  We were able to take the metro to Gare Saint-Lazare.  We purchased tickets at the kiosk for the Vernon/Rouen/Le Havre train and getting off the train at the Vernon stop.  You do not know before which train track you will be boarding as it is not announced on the departure board till 20 minutes before.  We attempted to find out this information a little earlier by going to the information desk/ticket desk but they merely said to wait the 20 minutes.  There were plenty of pastry shops at the train station so I passed the time by sampling the chocolate croissants at some of the  counters.  One thing I found interesting is that many of the train stations that we were departing or arriving in had pianos where passengers could sit and play.

It had been suggested that we take the 08:20 AM train so that we would be at Monet’s home around the time that they opened for visitors (9:30) and before all the tour buses got there.  The train trip is about 45 minutes in duration and once you get to Vernon you have a few choices to make as to how to get to Monet’s home.  There is a shuttle bus waiting for the train passengers just outside of the train station.  The cost, in 2016, was 8€ for the roundtrip. The downside is that you wait for everyone to board and pay and that does take awhile.  Other passengers that we spoke with took a cab and a few walked the 5 k to get to the home.  In retrospect, we should have taken a cab and found others to share the expensive.  We found that after we were dropped off in the bus lot we had a walk  to get to the home  Those who had taken the cab had said that they were there before too many people had arrived and had wonderful pictures without the hordes of tourist.  It seemed like almost all of my photos have people in them.p1060826

What was interesting about this morning is that is was misty and a little foggy giving that feeling that you are seeing exactly what Monet saw when he painted his pictures.  We were there during the third week of September and the colors were not as bright as they might have been during the summer, but for me bright colors were not reflected in his paintings.

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The grounds looked just like his paintings including the old green rowboat, the bridge, the water lilies.

p1060860I felt like I was walking through his paintings and walked around the loop through his gardens at least twice.  There was a thicket of bamboo and the weeping willow trees that overhung the pond.  It was very mythical and ethereal.  I didn’t want to let go and leave, I was mesmerized.  It was as if I was walking around silently and absorbing all that was Monet.  p1060839

img_1696The crowds and buses had arrived and it was getting crowded so we headed for the tour of his home.  His study with his paintings and his kitchen were the rooms that stood out to me.  The back of his home had many windows that overlooked the gardens but none had the best views like those from his bedroom and his studio.p1060881 p1060879 p1060878 p1060870 p1060877

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What was interesting is that Monet, unlike other artists, did not come upon a scene and paint it.  Rather, through his hard work, he created a landscape that he painted.  It took almost twenty years for him to create his gardens.p1060838img_1686p1060837

If you want to read more Monet, and his water lily paintings that are, in a sense, his swan song, then please read Monet’s Angels.

We were able to get a train around noon to head back to Paris in time for our tour of the second level of the Eiffel Tower which I’ll talk about later.

I do not receive any compensation for the products that I have described in this post. This are strictly my opinions.

 

Getting to Paris via TGV and our Hotel, Le Metropolitan, a Tribute Hotel from SPG

Yes, can you believe that I had never been to Paris before this trip?  I was anxiously looking forward to our four days in the City of Lights.  I had my list of places I would like to go, and things that I wanted to see.  I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to do it all so I gave myself permission to deviate from the schedule I set up.  Of course I had to save some things to see and do for my second trip to Paris.

For our hotel stay I made our reservations at the Radisson Metropolitan in the 16th Arrondissement using my Club Carlson points more than a year before our trip. Previously with Club Carlson if you booked a reward stay, your last night was free.  In other words, they didn’t even charge you points.  Consequently I booked two nights under my name (remember one of those nights was free) and two nights under Blogger Hubby’s account.  We would spend four nights at the hotel in total but only paying points for two nights.

Before we went to Paris I found out that SPG purchased our hotel and it would be in their luxury collections.  I was concerned that they wouldn’t honor our reservation but they assured me they would.

A month before we left the United States I had made train reservations and purchased our TGV (fast train) tickets to go from Lyon to Paris.  I again turned to The Man in Seat 61 to explain the differences between the trains.  He had recommended purchasing our tickets through the Captain train website which I did.  The Captain Train website has since been taken over by Train Line but it is the same format and I had no problems purchasing and printing out my tickets.  If you plan to go to Europe, for many routes it is much less expensive if you purchase your tickets 60 or 90 days in advance.  For other smaller, local trains it didn’t seem to matter and we would purchase them at the train station either at the kiosk or at the ticket counter once we knew definitively what our plans were. Track information is not posted until 20 minutes prior to the train’s arrival so no sense in asking people which track you’ll be departing from.  Also, since we departed Lyon from Part-Dieu station there was assistance for those with mobility problem as as was the case with our traveling companions.  Her husband went into the office, told them where we were waiting and an attendant came out with a wheel chair and took her to the correct track and helped them on.  If you need help and it is available, take full advantage of it.

For those who are unfamiliar with train travel in Europe, once you have your ticket, you need to validate it prior to boarding at the machine on the platform.  Conductors will still come by and check your ticket to see if it has been validated and if it hasn’t, there is a huge fine to pay.  p1070049

On the Train Line website, which is in English,  you can choose which type of seating you wanted and which class.  We traveled first class (wouldn’t do it again), sat in the upper deck for better viewing and chose single seats facing each other.  Across the aisle were two seats together either facing forward or facing each other like we were.  We had a small table between us with a small lamp.

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I emailed the concierge at our hotel asking for ways to get to the hotel from the Gard Lyon, the train station that we would be arriving in. Obviously the options were to hire a driver, taxi, subway or bus.  He gave us the prices for these options.  We chose to take the bus as it would drop us off about 2 blocks from the hotel and would be inexpensive. We bought a book of ten bus/subway passes called a caret.  If you plan on using public transportation, I would recommend buying a caret as it will save you time.  For us taking a bus was easy as we only had carry-on luggage (me) and a slightly larger case for Blogger Hubby as we allowed room for souvenirs in his suitcase.  The ride took a lot longer than I thought, about an hour, but while we were traversing Paris we got a good orientation to the city and I got my first glimpses of the Eiffel Tower.  Blogger Hubby is always a little nervous about making sure we know that we are on the correct bus/train, that we are going in the right direction and that we know where to get off. Fortunately I have no qualms about asking people.  I found if you have a smile, and ask if they speak “English” people are willing to help you as much as they can.  I’ll tell you this now – we did not get lost once nor did we get on the wrong train or bus or miss our stop.

We got off the bus and headed for our hotel, now called Le Metropolitan, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel.  The hotel is shaped like a triangular between two streets.   I knew that European hotels were small but when they took us to our room, I couldn’t believe how small it was. Both of us could not be up and walking around at the same time.  There was a small chair in the corner but immediately behind it was a floor lamp and if you sat down the back of your head hit the floor lamp.  You couldn’t pull the chair out because there was only about a foot’s length between the chair and the corner of the bed.   When we asked if there was another room they told us no and that we should be happy as this was an upgrade.

I did not know how we would be able to spend 4 nights in this room. That night I sent a tweet out to @SPG assist, sent them the pictures and told them how uncomfortable it was.  Next morning there was a knock on our door and they moved us across the hallway.  This room even had a couch in it – certainly not luxurious but a much nicer room.  I would stay away from room 226 and instead ask for room 230.

There is a wall about 12 inches from the other side of the bed. If I sat in the chair, you couldn't get past my legs and feet.
There is a wall about 12 inches from the other side of the bed. If I sat in the chair, you couldn’t get past my legs and feet.
If we pulled the bench out to sit on it, so one could get by as we would be blocking the narrow passage
If we pulled the bench out to sit on it, no one could get by

 

There is a restaurant on the first floor and it looked nice though we didn’t try it.  I believe the breakfasts there are about $30 each. img_1655 Instead we would go to a pastierrie and purchase our freshly made French pastries.  Around the corner and down the street from the hotel was a Casino – which is a French supermarket.  That’s where we purchased our yogurts, sliced meats, cheeses and wine.

For being branded a “luxury hotel” it did not feel very luxurious to us with the awful royal purple rippled carpeting in the hallway, elevators that didn’t work half the time, the lounge area that had tables where we played cards sometimes and looks better in these pictures than it did in real life.  The lobby is very nice and the staff is friendly and helpful and they met all our needs particularly when we asked for numerous directions, which subway stop to use or how to get to train stations.img_1654

We would walk down two flights of stairs to go down and everyday we had to walk around the housekeeping cart right by the stairs and the elevator. A little awkward.
We would walk down two flights of stairs to go down and everyday we had to walk around the housekeeping cart right by the stairs and the elevator. A little awkward.

As you walk out the door and basically walk straight you will see the Eiffel Tower.  I gasped when I saw it all lit up in the evening.  This is the view as we were about 50 meters from the hotel.img_1649

Nevertheless we are very thankful that we had the points to stay here and that we booked it while we were still able to get one night free through the Club Carlson program.

Next post will be our sightseeing adventures and how we saved some money.

What to do in Beantown, err I mean Boston

I don’t hide the fact, and my accent is a dead giveaway particularly since I live in the South (hey, I consider Virginia the South) that I am originally from Boston – about 14 miles north of the city. You’ll hardly ever hear me pronouncing the letter “r”.  It’s just the way it is.

I have had fond childhood memories of being dropped off in Revere at the Wonderland subway station  (blue line) to ride the subway into Boston.  It is super easy to ride the subway and to get around – you really do not need a car.  I have always loved Boston and I really believe it is the best city in our country.  More about that later.

We had an opportunity to go back “home” the weekend before Thanksgiving to visit some family members.  Award flights were non-existent since it was the weekend before Thanksgiving so we decided to drive.

As I was close to requalifying for Hyatt Diamond this year we stayed just outside of the city in Medford.  I received the Diamond status when Hyatt status matched to other hotels last December and they matched my Spire with Holiday Inn.  I was very surprised that they did it but I will say that I have enjoyed the benefits of the Hyatt program.  As they changed the qualifications for the following year, 2017 will be my last year as a Diamond member.  The Medford Hyatt Place is about 5 miles north of Boston and you can see the skyline from your hotel window. Medford is also the home of Tufts University and where we lived as newlyweds.img_1947

We took the shuttle from the hotel to the Wellington subway station (orange line) and got off at Haymarket which put us within walking distance of the waterfront, the North End and Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market – exactly where we wanted to be.

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We walked over to Faneuil Hall and the Quincy Market.  Faneuil Hall has such a long history with the city.  It had been a meeting place since the mid 1700’s and speeches by many of the early Boston patriots were made in this hall.  Three indoor market places are in the location as well; North Market, Quincy Market and South Market.  Most Bostonians call the entire area “Faneuil Hall”.  Inside Quincy market are stalls of food vendors and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a lobster roll – the kind with mayo in a squared off hot dog roll with some lettuce.  That. to me, is the traditional lobster roll though some places now sell it with melted butter in the hot dog roll.  Blogger Hubby had a cup of clam chowder (or chowda as I would say it) and a gyro.  In the center of the market are benches and table so you can find places to sit and eat.  If this isn’t your thing, just before you get to Faneuil Hall there is the Union Oyster House and other great restaurants as well.  Blogger Hubby’s favorite is Durgin Park, a favorite of President Kennedy.  Communal eating is the style and waitresses back talking to you is the norm.  Anyplace you go, you will get a delicious meal.

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After eating lunch we walked toward the waterfront and admired the views.  It’s always so restful watching boats on water.  Along the waterfront there is a Marriott hotel and attached to the outside of the building are restrooms but….if you go inside and up the escalator, you’ll find warm, clean restrooms inside.  This is my favorite hotel in Boston since it is on the waterfront and close to many things that I love.

We walked along the waterfront and turned into the North End  which is the Italian section of Boston.  I went to college and law school about 5 blocks away and would often come down to the North End for great pizza at Reginas where the waitresses are old, heavy, wear all black clothing and are somewhat rude – but it has such character and is an institution in Boston.  We walked by the Old North Church (“listen my children and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of Paul Revere”), and Paul Revere’s home.  img_1963

My absolute favorite part of the North End are the pastry shops on Hanover Street.  There are two pastry shops of note – Mike’s and Modern.  They are similar yet they are also different.  Here is a link comparing the two.  There were so many different fillings for the cannolis but I liked the traditional with the ricotta cream cheese filling with the mini chips on the ends.  After eating my cannoli in the shop, I left wishing I had brought a box back to the hotel with me.  The great news is that the Hyatt that we were staying in is within a couple of blocks of Modern’s shop in Medford.

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Since we had driven that morning from Connecticut and had walked most of the day, we took the subway (locals call it the T) back to the Wellington station.  When we got on the T, we called the hotel to have the shuttle head out to pick us up.  Within 10 seconds of us walking out of the subway station, the shuttle arrived and took us back to the hotel.

There is so much more to Boston than what I have lightly treaded on.  The Freedom Trail is a great start to seeing and learning about the early history of our country.  You will go by Old Ironsides (USS Constitution, a ship that fought in the War of 1812), The Old Granary Burial Ground which is the final resting place for Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, the victims of the Boston Massacre, Mother Goose, the parents of Benjamin Franklin, Peter Faneuil and so many more.  You’ll also go by Bunker Hill which looks like a miniature Washington Monument.  The Old State House and the current State House are also on the tour. Did I tell you the route is about 2.5 miles – very doable and very educational particularly if you are a history buff.  If your child is a scout, I believe there is a badge for walking the Freedom Trail.img_1962

Spring time you should head over to the Boston Public Gardens and take a ride on the Swan Boats.  They operate from mid April till mid September.  The boats are built on two pontoons with six bench seats on them and are propelled by the driver in the back peddling.  It is a favorite tradition in Boston.

A favorite childrens book of Boston children is “Make Way for Ducklings” by Robert McCloskey and part of the story takes place at the lagoon in the Public Gardens where the Swan Boats operate.  If you go there, look for the statues of Mrs. Mallard and her ducklings.screen-shot-2016-12-08-at-9-42-38-pm

Of course, you can hop on the red line and head over to Harvard and walk around the square and university or go south and go to the Kennedy Presidential Library.  We also have the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Science Museum.  You can go to the top level of the Prudential Building and get a panoramic birds eye view of Boston.  Don’t forget the famous Aquarium – the one in Baltimore is modeled after this one.  If you are there in winter, go to the Boston Commons and ooh and aah at the all the Christmas lights.  In the summer, take the T to Revere Beach. There is so much to do in this great city and because it is relatively flat, it is a great walking city.

If you are a sports fan, there is no better place to be in the summer than at Fenway Park particularly the the Red Sox are playing against the Yankees.  Lots of strong support for the BoSox.  Of course, the Patriots, Bruins and Celtics aren’t too bad either.

I truly am skimming the service when it comes to what you can do in Boston and hope that you find time to visit the city.

 

 

Lyon – The Gastronomical Capital of France

Our week long river cruise ended in Lyon and one of the things I had read on some travel forums is that many people wished they had more time in Lyon.  We booked and extra two nights in Lyon before heading to Paris.  Lyon was founded by the Romans and was the capital of the Three Gauls.  Lyon is also famous for its silk and the silk workers.  I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase a silk scarf from a silkmaker while on the AMADagio who came to explain the silk process to us.

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On our AMAWaterways cruise, those who were continuing on the post cruise with AMA were going into Lyon for a cooking experience.  We asked our cruise director Rachel if we could do it as well and we would be willing to pay for the experience.  She graciously allowed us to join the others.  Unfortunately that morning, I was not feeling well and stayed behind on the ship while Blogger Hubby went with the others in the first of several groups going over.  The group was actually making their lunch to take with them on the train to Paris.  Since he had ridden one of the bicycles that AMA has on their ships for us passengers over to Lyon the day before to locate our hotel, he was happy and surprised to find that he were basically around the corner from our hotel.  He came back to the ship when he had finished the cooking lesson to pick me up.  We eagerly got into a cab that our cruise director had called for us.

Initially we had reservations at the Intercontinental in Lyon but in looking at the map that seemed to be further away from the Old City area where we wanted to be.  With that reservation cancelled I needed to begin looking around again.  Rick Steves to the rescue!  I love his travel books and looked at his recommendation where to stay and double checked with Trip Advisor.  Turned out that the Hotel Artistes was a true gem in terms of location, price and the room was fine, a little small but larger than some of the more expensive rooms that we stayed in on this trip.  I would highly recommend this hotel if any of you are going to be in Lyon.  I couldn’t use points for this hotel stay – the only one of the entire trip but I did earn points by using my Chase Sapphire Preferred card and received 2 times points as it was a travel expense.  We were about a block or so from the Rhone River.

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Breakfast room at the Hotel des Artistes. At night it became our card playing area
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Looking out my window at the Hotel des Artistes and seeing the Rhone River

Why this was exciting was because they had large Farmer Markets there and since we were there on a weekend, it was great.  We chose not to buy the breakfast option at the hotel but instead walked the block to the river and perused all the vendor stalls.  Who could resist a freshly made chocolate croissant – certainly not me.  I’m a fan of soft, pungent cheese and they had so many for us to choose from.  Add a baguette, a sausage and I was in heaven.  We enjoyed strolling past the farmers seeing the bright, vibrant colors of the fruits and vegetables in season.  Fresh fish were also very popular as well as chickens on a rotisserie. So many different options and I wished I could just sit there and eat.  An observation that I made was that the prices in the market seemed much less expensive than our farmer markets that are near me.

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An antique flea market with Notre Dame on the top of the hill.  About a block down is where we got the funicular for the ride to the top.

Before we traveled to Lyon we happened to watch an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s visit to Lyon and learned that a specialized restaurant there is called a bouchan.  A bouchan serves traditional Lyonnaise food such as sausages, and duck pate and it is a friendlier restaurant where you can talk and laugh.   Of course, we wanted to follow his advice and going to a bouchon was on our list of things to do.

We were able to walk around Lyon, get our bearings and look for restaurants for that evenings dinner.  We found that THE place to go was Rue Merciere – a street lined with restaurants and bouchans.  So many to choose but having the chalk board outside did help us decide which one to visit.  Many times you have a choice of an 2 courses or three with the third being a dessert.  With more than enough food being served sometimes I would just order the entre and Blogger Hubby would order the two or three course and “share” with me.

Other restaurants that we highly recommended to us by locals was Le Petit Garet on Rue du Garet, Chez Hugon on Rue Pizay, Restaurant Chabert & Fils (in Old Town) and as mentioned before all restaurants on Rue Merciere.  We particularly enjoyed Bouchon Lustre.img_1628

Across the Saone is the funicular to go up to the top to visit Notre Dame Basilica. This basilica is on the World Heritage list and another one that we can check off.   European churches are so grand, at least compared to what I’ve seen in the United States and they are also very similar to each other.  I think this was the last church that Blogger Hubby wanted to visited on our because he said “after a while they all begin to look like each other” and he does have a point.  Nevertheless, we walked behind the church and had a panoramic view of the city of Lyon and the rivers that important to it.p1060529

p1060508We walked down the hill from Notre Dame and  stopped at the Roman amphitheatre.  As it oher European cities that we have been in, there was a professional photographer taking wedding shots of a Korean couple for magazines in Korea.  I am constantly amazed at the archetecture of the ancient civilizations.  What they could accomphlish without the tools that we have now is unbelieveable.

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p1060523For a foodie like me, we enjoyed going to Les Halles, the famed indoor food market.  We were able to sample cheese, wine, sausages, macarons (my favorite).  If you enjoy food, I would recommend that you visit this market.

We didn’t do anything special in Lyon but instead meandered around the streets people watching.  If food is your thing, make sure that if you take a river cruise you spend extra time in Lyon, the gastronomical capital of France!

 

Come With Us to South America – Really!

We are already planning our next big trip.  We decided to take 2017 off from a big trip and are focusing on 2018 – February 14th to be specific.

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After a false start with Holland America, we have booked a cruise on the Emerald Princess, one of the ships with Princess Cruise Line.  We sail from Valparaiso (outside of Santiago) Chile to Buenos Aires, Argentina.  This cruise will sail for 2 weeks exploring the southern half of South America – a land that I have not been to and am anxious to see.  The Chilean fjords are more numerous than in all of Scandinavia, a visit to the bottom of the world when we stop in Ushuaia, another stop in the Falkland Island.  We will also stop in Montevideo, Uruguay, Puerto Montt, Puerto Arenas, Amalia Glacier, Puerto Madryn, and around Cape Horn.  The scenery will be nothing short of spectacular with mountains, glaciers, wildlife include the Emperor penguins.

Glaciers galore
Glaciers galore

What I do when we cruise is find local tour guides to take us around while we are in port.  I do this for several reasons.  First, I like smaller tours and just hate being on a 44 passenger bus always having to wait for someone who thinks that the time to be back at the bus doesn’t apply to them and I like to customize as much as possible our tour.  Finally, the price is general either the same for a smaller, more intimate experience or it is less .  Less is always good.

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The beautiful glaciers

Of course, the price depends on which stateroom category you choose and its location.  Yo would need to talk to our group travel agent, Michelle, to get the price.

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You may be asking yourself why am I bringing this up now.  It’s because Princess is having a special promotion where you get your gratuities free!  That’s right and that is a big savings.  Also depending which stateroom you choose, you may also receive a discount.  This promotion ends on November 16th.  If you are interested in being part of my group, getting special pricing and benefits, I suggest you contact our travel agent at michelle@mccabeworld.com or call her directly at 703-762-5049screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-3-35-44-pm

Touring Arles, Roman Ruins and Van Gogh’s Asylum

Arles, once a metropolis of Roman Gaul, developed into a symbol of Christianity through the colosseum, amphitheater and the Roman baths that were built there. Bull fighting is held twice a year in the same arena (colosseum) that was the scene of Roman games in the first century.  We all know that Van Gogh loved Arles and many of his famous paintings show his love of the area but did you know that Picasso also spent a lot of time in the area?  He spent a good part of his life in a political exile in France.  He was a Spaniard through and through and, loved bullfighting. The last 12 years of his life were spent in the village near Arles. He would travel with his friends to see the bullfights at this arena.  Many of his later paintings and drawings were inspired by what he saw in Arles.  These Romanesque monuments have a UNESCO World Heritage designation.  It is our goal when we travel to seek out these sites. p1060291

After we visited the quarry featuring the works of Marc Chagall we rode the bus again to some of the Roman ruins and Triumphal Arch near the asylum where Van Gogh lived for a year.   I’m still so amazed at these structures and how they were built by hand – no machinery, cranes or other modern day machines that helped build these still standing structures.  Our guide told us that the Romans loved arches and would construct them to commemorate victories.  This was also the case in St. Remy where these ruins were.

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We walked across the street to the asylum where Van Gogh lived for about a year. During the time that he was self committed he painted various scenes all around the grounds of the asylum including the “Irises”, “Starry Nights”, “The Wheat Field”, “Sunflowers in a Vase”, scenes around St. Paul’s Asylum and so many more.  What was interesting to me if that they had reproductions of Van Gogh’s paintings propped on easels at the spot where he painted the landscapes so you can see what he saw when he painted the pictures.  Remember how I spoke of the mistral winds in the Rhone Valley?  If you look at Van Gogh’s paintings you’ll see swirling brush strokes which, I was told, represent the mistral winds.  When I think of Van Gogh, I generally think of these paintings which are representative of the Provence area.  During his one year in at the asylum, he painted 151 paintings.p1040891

p1060267p1040887p1040896Hope you enjoy these pictures of Arles, the ruins and viewing the locations where Van Gogh painted some of his most famous works.

The AMA Dagio

I got a little ahead of myself when I spoke about our tour to the Artist Experience.  I neglected to tell you about our ship, the Ama Dagio.

We had been on the newer AMA Primo the year before and for the cruise up the Rhone, we were to be on their oldest ship.  I had been told that it was in great shape, which it was, but on first glance, it left me a little wanting.  Before on the Prima, our bedroom had a small little round table with chairs by the French balcony.  Our stateroom on the Dagio did not have that or a mini refrigerator.  We had bought cheese anticipating a refrigerator.  Also, on the Sun Deck (the top deck) there was a hot tub,not the small pool that we had on the Prima.  There was also less furniture and groupings than on the Primo where there were many rattan sofas and chairs as well as loungers and chairs with canopies and screens to shade you.  The only seatings under the umbrellas on the Dagio were loungers.  We had to move some chairs so we could sit and have shade while we were playing cards.  A reoccurring problem for us on the Dagio was the very loud dining room.  On our first night we could barely hear our table mates.  The Prima had a divider down the middle with booth seating.  I think that might have absorbed some of the noise.  We found out the next night that if we sat in a rear corner near the doors where the food comes out, that the noise was much more tolerable.  That’s where we sat for most of our meals.img_1366

What made up for some of these minor problems was the crew.  I have never had a better cruise director than Rachel Couto Gomes.  Not only did we learn French in an amusing way, we learned a little French etiquette.  We all left her daily briefings with a huge smile on our faces.  She was really a part of “us” – she participated in the dancing one night, came along to some of the tours, helped with problems that were not cruise related as well as helping with cruise related questions.  I would follow her on any AMA cruise and to be honest, before I booked another cruise, I would email her to see what her schedule would be.  Every single crew member went out of their way to be helpful to all of us.

On one of our first cruise days I learned why our staterooms were as small as they were – the locks!  I could open our French balcony and touch the lock wall.  There were no ships on the Rhone that had regular balconies because of these narrow locks.  Also, for many of the times that we were cruising during the we were not allowed on the top deck due to the low bridges that we would be sailing under.  In fact, while we were on our cruise a Viking cruise line ship’s bridge was not lowered (and no one knows why yet) and it was flatten and torn off the ship with the occupants inside killed.  That made our captain’s decision to close off the Sun Deck even more meaningful to us.

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p1060418Something new on the Dagio from the previous year was when we boarded the ship, our photograph was taken, like an ocean cruiser.  Whenever we left the ship, we had our room key card scanned so they could be sure it was us getting off and us getting on.  They were increasing the security because of events that had been happening in Europe this past year.

We found the food to be delicious and there was always something that we wanted to eat.  What we especially liked was that their food was lighter than our American food.  The Fettucine Alfredo’s sauce was delicious and light – unlike the heavier versions that I have tasted.  The same with their salad dressings.  I asked the Maitre ‘d for the recipes and he complied.  I look forward to making some of these recipes.

We did have dinner one night at the Chef’s Table on 3rd deck aft.  It was a beautiful view as we sailed down the Saone on our way back from a winery to Lyon.  It was a fixed menu and it was received mixed reviews from those on the ship.  It was more like a tapas meal, small offerings and there are a few choices you can make.  The service was outstanding as they only have a few tables and stagger their reservations.  I’m not a seafood fan and felt that there was a lot of seafood.  On the other hand, Blogger Hubby loves seafood and pates and he was in seventh heaven and thoroughly enjoyed it.  I’m not sure that I would do the Chef’s Table again though some people did enjoy it. The experience was worthwhile to me. My only suggestion is to look at the menu before you book

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I did book myself a massage on the ship and although the massage was fine the room and location where it was done was not good.  The hairdresser and the masseuse share a room, a tiny room at the back of the ship.  There was no room to change into or out of clothes and barely with the chair for the hairdresser, the room was tight to open up the folding massage table.  Throughout most of the 60 minute massage I listened to the boat rattling and the sounds of a ship that was moving.  I asked if this was unusual and she replied that it wasn’t.  It did distract from the relaxing environment that I had envisioned for my hour long massage. Before I book again, I’ll take a look at the room where is done.

Our first night on the ship, we had a very special treat.  If you read my previous blogs, you will recall that this weekend was the Festival of the Harvest of the Rice.  This area of France, the Rhone Valley, is known for the mistral winds.  They are a strong, cold, northwesterly wind that blows from southern France into the Gulf of Lion (a gulf of the northern Mediterranean but can reach about 115 mph.  It is most common in the winter and spring, and strongest in the transition between the two seasons.  The Rhone Valley is particularly susceptible to these winds and in fact the winds get faster as they go through the valley on the way to the coast.  Seems like the mistral winds went through this area on Bastille Day in July and they were not able to have the fireworks for their national holiday.p1060196They “saved” the fireworks and chose to combine them with the fireworks for the Harvest of the Rice festival.  As it got dark, we all headed up to the Sun Deck (or maybe Star Deck) to grab a chair and watch the festivities.  We had the BEST seats in the entire area, at least in my opinion.  We were on one side of the river and the fireworks were shot off directly opposite of us.  It was amazing and rank up in my mind with fireworks that I have seen in both Boston and Washington DC on the 4th of July.

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We looked forward to more experiences and memories like these.

Arles, France and Marc Chagall at the Carrieres de Lumieres

We had a choice of two excursions for our morning in Arles.  They were a difficult choice and in fact, I did change my mind.  On the AMA Waterways cruises, our choice was either Les Baux and the Olive Farm or Artist Experience.

I had been advised by William, our tour guide from the day before that we did not want to miss the Artist Experience.  We drove by the site where this excursion was to take place and it was in a limestone quarry. William wouldn’t tell us anything about this, he wanted us to be surprised.p1060257

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SPOILER ALERT – I am going to talk about this excursion and if you do not want to know about it, you need to stop reading NOW.

We really did not know what to expect.  Our bus took us to les Carrières de Lumières – an exhibition of some of the work of Marc Chagall.  We walked into a large cavernous dark area – think of a gigantic , wide open cave.  At first it was a little disconcerting as I wasn’t sure if the floor was level or not.  Once my eyes got adjusted to the dark, I felt more comfortable.  All around us, on all different wall surfaces, ceiling and the floor was works of Marc Chagall in a multimedia show.  Some of it was animated, some not but it all seemed to move seamlessly from one picture to another.  It was an overwhelming sense of color and movement.  We didn’t quite know where to look as many of the “walls” had different scenes than other walls.

We were able to walk around the inside of this quarry viewing different scenes on every surface.  There were, we were told, over 100 video projectors and about 30 audio speakers playing a soundtrack specifically chosen to complement what we were seeing.

interior of the quarry before the images are projected on the surfaces
Interior of the quarry before the images are projected on the surfaces
Can you see Blogger Hubby int he picture? This gives you an idea of how large the images are
Can you see Blogger Hubby int he picture? This gives you an idea of how large the images are
This person seemed to float across the wall
This person seemed to float across the wall
the images projected on the walls and floor. It was like a carpet that we were walking on.
the images projected on the walls and floor. It was like a carpet that we were walking on.

Most of the artist’s best known masterpieces have been digitized and are screened on the quarry’s walls.  This exhibition is called “Midsummer Night’s Dream”  and it is in twelve parts and it includes Vitebsk (Chagall’s home town), Life, Poetry, Collages, The War, Stained Glass, The Opéra Garnier, Daphnis and Chloé, Mosaics, The Circus, Illustrations and The Bible showcasing his creativity and many of his sources of inspiration.  These themes are  displayed here at the Lumieres in all their vibrant colors.  A beautiful backdrop for his paintings.

If you are in this area, about 15 miles north of Arles, please stop in.  You may not see Marc Chagall’s paintings as they choose a different artist or artists each year.  Last year, there were over a half million visitors coming here to see the works of Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael in the Giants of the Renaissance.  I have no idea who the artist or artists will be next year.No matter which artist they choose, it truly is an experience.  If you are on a river cruise, this will be one of your choices for an excursion and I cannot stress enough that you should choose this as your excursion.

Enjoy the rest of our photographs.

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One Day in Provence – One of our Best Tours

As I mentioned before, I turned to Trip Advisor to find a tour guide to take us around Provence rather than renting a car.  We were with another couple and decided that we would hire a guide/driver for just the four of us.

One Day in Provence had great reviews and after several emails I knew that we would be in good hands.  We were going to do this tour on a Friday, the day we were to embark on our AMAWaterways cruise up the Rhone.  I inquired if he could arrange the tour so we would end up in Arles and then drop us off at our ship.  He readily agreed.  To me, that helped offset the price of a private tour since we wouldn’t have to take 2 taxi rides as well as a train ride from Marseille to Arles.  Turned out that this was a great decision since, unknown to us, there was a huge festival that weekend in Arles and we probably wouldn’t have found a taxi.

William, our driver/tour guide, was prompt in picking us up at our hotel in a Mercedes Benz van.  As soon as we got into the van, he pulled out his map to review what we wanted to do and to make sure that we were all on the same page.  He gave us a few options and explained the pros and cons.  We decided to go to some of the smaller villages and around behind the mountains.  We did want to go to a winery since we were in the Rhone Valley with all their wonderful wines.

As we traveled along some of the backroads outside of Marseille on our way to the winery, William began telling us the history of France…how it was first settled by the Celtics, then the Greeks and the the Romans. Marseille is the oldest city in France and was an important port during the Roman Empire. He went on to tell us more about the history of the area which we found fascinating.  There are four islands off the coast of Marseille and on one of the islands, a fortress turned prison, was built. This fortress was the setting for Alexander Dumas’ story The Count of Monte Cristo.

Just before William turned off the road for the winery, he called them up to let them know we were coming.  They were closed since they were in the midst of harvesting the grapes but opened for us.  We were able to sample the same wine twice; once in an oak barrel and again in a stainless steel barrel.  We all enjoyed the oak barrel over the stainless steel.  It was quite and education for us.p1060164 p1060167

William, our tour guide extraordinaire, in front of the winery
William, our tour guide extraordinaire, in front of the winery

On our way to the small village of Lourmarin, we passed by the Pont (bridge) Julien which was built in the 3d century BC.  Until recently cars still used this bridge as a means to go over the Coulon River.  That information just blew my mind seeing something that old and still in relatively great shape way we passed by.  The village is listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France.is surrounded by vineyards, olive trees and almond trees. The day that we were there was an French market that all from around the area go to.  I’m a sucker for the outdoor markets featuring all different types of foods, clothing, crafts and so much more.  One of my favorite foods is cheese, particularly French, pungent cheeses.  We were able to get some to take with us on our cruise and since William had a cooler in the back of the car, we knew we could keep it cool till we arrived on board.  Walking along the alleys and pedestrian ways, I felt so at home even though I could not understand the French language.  I felt like I had come home.p1040857After walking through the narrow passageways and back to our car, we set off for lunch.  William had a suggestion where we should eat and we let him make that decision.  He called ahead to let them know we would be coming.  This meal turned out to be the BEST meal we had in all of France.  Le Carillon, located in the small main square in Goult, turned out to be a Michelin restaurant.  We sat outside and enjoyed the scenery, the entire ambiance of these delicious meal.  We had the fixed price meal which included an appetizer, main course and dessert.  I had the best beef carpaccio that I ever had with shaved parmesan cheese on top with a few capers. We would most likely have never found this restaurant if it hadn’t been for William.  Here we are in a very small French village in the countryside, no traffic at all, sitting outside under an awning eating one of the best meals we have ever had.  This is what travel is all about.

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The rest of the day was traveling through more little, quaint villages.  Another of our favorite was St. Remy which has become quite popular and expensive due to celebrities who live around here.  William asked if we liked chocolate.  What a silly question to ask us, of course we all do.  He took us to a well known chocolatier and even though the shop was quite small, the chocolate had great taste.  They had small squares of chocolate and on each top was a letter of the alphabet.  This letter corresponded with what type of flavoring it had.  One of the flavors was lemon and clove; another was violet.  Many were traditional flavors and others were different combination.  We were able to hand pick the chocolates that we wanted.

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As we were getting closer to Arles, William told us how lucky we were to be here at this time since Arles was celebrating The Festival of the Harvest of the Rice – honest!  The next day there was to be a bull fight in the their colosseum, bulls running through the street like in Pamplona and fireworks in the evening.  We sometimes “luck” into special events like this and were happy to hear that it would be happening again.

William pulled up to the dock, we hopped out, gave him a hug and a huge thank you for all that he did for us, all that he shared and showed us as well as enriching our experience in Provence.  Our vacation continues to get better and better and we are anxious to see what adventures we will have on the river cruise portion of the trip.

More coming up in future posts.

Provence Explorer: Aix-en-Provence and Cassis

NOTE:  I know this is a repeat for many of you but a number of people also told me that they never received it.  Bear with me while I repost this recent article.  New one tomorrow, I promise.  Jane

Before we flew to Marseille, we had decided that we would NOT book a rental car to drive around the area.  Everyone had recommended that to us but we had a bad memory of a previous European trip when we did rent a car.  Driving in cities, finding parking, understanding road signs and getting lost were a few of our problems from before.  With the extra money that we received from United Airlines from our trip last year (7 hour delay because of mechanical problems and EU Rule 261) we had the flexibility to book tour guides to take us around.

On my list to see was Aix-en-Provence and on Blogger Hubby’s was Cassis.  I was able to determine that Thursday was the day that Aix had their market and I, of course, wanted to go to a French outdoor market. I knew that we would not see the famed lavender plants in full bloom as that happens in July but nevertheless, Provence was a place I did want to see, feel, smell and walk through.  Cassis was a seaside city known for its limestone bluffs and best viewed from a boat.  I could not get much information online about Cassis but we had spoken to someone who had been there recently and they recommended it to us.

We found a half day tour through Provence Explorer which would take us to both Aix and Cassis.  I emailed the company and explained that we had a mobility issue with one of our friends that was coming on the tour with us and would that be a problem as she couldn’t walk far and did use a cane.  He had said that it would be no problem.  I reiterated it when I paid online.

We went to the designated meeting spot, outside of the Tourist Information office,  and arrived about 10 minutes early. We waited, and waited and waited.  Finally our driver arrived about 15 minutes late due to traffic. We were also missing 3 others that had booked this tour so we waited again. Our driver had not been told that we had a person with difficult walking. Not her fault but it showed lack of communication with the company and their drivers. Finally we took off without the other three passengers. It was a pleasant drive to Aix. We would ask her questions which she answered.  She did not give us any background on where we were going or any background about France. For a driver that is fine but when someone is a tour guide that is not acceptable. You can tell that she was a summer tour guide and not a professional one by the way she handled the tour as well as telling us she was thinking about going back to school to get a degree is tourism.

She dropped us off at the market and told us where to wait for her while she parked the van. We looked around a little bit but needed to be close meeting spot for her to find us.  Of course, that took longer than usual because there was no quick parking. Not many things were told to us as we walked around other than the famous cookies that Aix is famous for. My friend and I each purchased some lovely scarves for 5€ each.  My friend also purchased some beautiful kitchen linens.  Our guide wanted us to walk to the produce section of the market which was way too far for our friend. The guide really had no idea about how far is “too far” when you are mobility challenged and didn’t explain distances to us.  Instead our friends went back to the meeting spot where we were dropped off.  We quickly went through the produce area, purchased some lavender walked around with her a bit.   The driver went to get the car and we went to the spot to meet our friends and to wait again for her to bring the car around.  And wait we did..and wait…and wait. We knew another person was joining us who was going to do the Cassis/Marseille portion of the day but when she finally showed up the missing three were in the van as well as the other person that was expected. The van was very tight with 8 passengers and one driver; three had to sit in the front.  It was a beautiful day to be outside and Aix is a charming destination spot to be.  I’m hoping this will be a place that we return to in the future.img_1406p1040820

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After we got back on the road we made a “pit” stop and our driver was clear in telling everyone to only take 5 minutes so we could leave. Apparently the 3 that were late for the morning and joined us as we were leaving Aix decided to do some shopping at the convenience store where the bathrooms were. Once again, we were waiting. The driver (who looked like Monica Lewinsky) finally went in to get them. Not her fault but it just added to all of our wait time.

We had a pleasant drive to Cassis, again without much of a commentary about where we were going. When we arrived she dropped us off and told us to get our boat tickets and then have lunch. We immediately went to the ticket booth and was told we could not purchase tickets yet since the boat trip before our desired time hadn’t left. We went to have a quick lunch and then we purchased our tickets. When our friends tried a few minutes later, the ship was sold out. Little did we know, or apparently did our driver,  that there are only 12 tickets on the 45 minute boat tour. We wished she would have advised us better so the four of us could have gone on this boat trip together particularly since our friends sat and waited in Aix.p1060068p1060134p1060113

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I would not recommend this tour company because of the lack of a knowledgable  “summer hire” tour guide, and the lack of communication about our friend’s mobility issue and the fact that they didn’t really do anything, other than park the car, to help us. There wasn’t even a bottle of water for us as most tour guides have.  There was no consideration of our time as we were at the appointed meeting spot and had to wait (I understand giving a 10 minute window but we were closer to 25 minutes) and as we waited to be picked up at Aix. I learned from this to spend the extra money and get a professional tour guide wth a private tour and not shared.  Granted this may have been an off day with this tour company but are you willing to risk it?

I would like to go back to Aix and Cassis.  In Aix,  I would take a better tour and see more than just the market.  In Cassis, rather than the 45 minute boat ride, I would take the longer one along the coast.

In spite of all this, the day was enjoyable, we were outside and were in a lovely part of the country.

Our First Full Day in Marseille

Our long awaited vacation has begun!  We woke up in lovely Marseille. the start of an almost month long trip to France and Belgium done mainly on points and miles.  We did pay for our AMAWaterways cruise but since I got the group together, we did save money with the group rates and a discount for being a past cruiser.

We woke up and glanced out our motel room to see the sun shining over the Mediterranean Sea with parts of the medieval wall in full view.  This structure was probably about 600 or more years old.  As our eyes wandered, we looked to the harbor and how beautiful it was with the sailboats and their masts.  We felt so luckily that we had the Club Carlson points to be able to stay here (Club Carlson brand includes Radisson, Park Inn and Country Inn and Suites).

Breakfast was not included and I did not want to pay 20€ per person for breakfast at the hotel.  Blogger Hubby did what he usually does when we are traveling in cities.  He finds a local bakery for our pastries and small super-ette for our yogurt.  Yummy chocolate croissants were in the bag that he brought back to the hotel.

Blogger Hubby and the husband of the other couple with us chose to do a tour of Marseille on E-bikes.  Have you heard of electric bikes.  They are not like a motor scooter but instead give you a little  kick when you are starting. Here’s his account:

We met in front of the National Theater on the Old Harbor in Marseille; almost next door to our hotel. Our guide, Remy was a young man in his late 20’s who is from Marseille. He spoke very good English, and was very friendly. We walked a short distance to their office and storage area in a parking garage on a back street behind the theater. Each rider was individually outfitted with a bike, helmet and water bottle.

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This was my first experience with an electric bike (e-bike). My bike was a regular size bike and wheels. There were some smaller bikes with small wheels and a high seat. I am an experienced recreational biker, and I bicycled before the cruise to make sure I was in shape for bicycling in Europe. I even bought a bright-colored biking shirt with back pockets and padded liners to wear under my shorts. My travel companion and I were the only ones with ‘biking appeal.

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I have experience bicycling in Europe having done so on our Danube River Cruise. Bicycling in Marseille was more difficult than my prior experiences, and it is not good for beginners. Most roads we traveled did not have bike lanes, and we had to travel on some narrow roads with parked cars on one side and moving traffic next to us. There were also steep uphill and downhill sections. Nevertheless, we stayed together, went slowly, took back streets to the extent possible, and crossed at traffic lights on busy streets. Only one person in our group had difficulty, and that was because she was not familiar with shifting between low and higher gears.

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For me this was one of the best tours I had on our trip. Marseille has a beautiful coastline, many scenic points to overview the harbor and the city, and interesting historical sites and buildings. We got to see them up close and personal. Remy was very personable and low-keyed, knew the city, and shared a lot of stories. At a couple of locations, he stayed with the bikes while we walked around to tour a particular site. During the tour we stopped at a small take-out lunch place in an out of the way neighborhood for lunch that we took and eat on the steps of a museum overlooking the harbor. Bicycling around the harbor on the promenade was a great way to end the tour.

The company was “E-Bike Tours Marseille,” and the tour was the “Grand Tour of City and Seaside.” The tour lasted four hours (10am-2pm), covered 23 km, and cost 52 €. Their website is here.  They provide detailed information about the tour and instructions regarding the meeting place on the harbor.

While they were doing that, my friend and I did the HoHo bus tour of Marseille.  We found that to be a better deal than the petite train that also took tourists around Marseille.  To do all of Marseille like we did on the bus, you would have had to do 2 or 3 different trains.  We felt comfortable just sitting in the open air upper deck.  We were given earphones that we would insert along the inside of the side of the bus.  We were able to have the narrative in almost any language we wanted.

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That evening we walked around the city, feeling very safe.  We saw that the city had an Eye but to see it in the evening, it really lit up the sky.

p1060147 There are many restaurants, puns and bars around the harbor and even a few streets back.  Once we did go behind the main boulevard there were many, many streets with all different kinds of restaurants.  We gravitated toward the pre fixed 3 course dinner. As we were close to many vineyards, we were advised to buy wine that had the AOC designation (Appellation d’Origine Controlee) which means the controlled designation of origin under the auspices of the French government.  Those three letter designations helped guide us throughout our journey in France.

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We have fallen in love with Marseille.  Coming up next our tour in Aix-en-Provence and Cassis.

New Mexico – Land of Enchantment

“This land is your land, this land is my land.  From California to the New York island.”  That song always goes through my mind when I am traveling across our vast country and see the many differences.  This is our land and we need to spend time exploring and getting to know it. Foreign travel is exciting but traveling within our own country allows me to see the grandeur of our country and many spots that are very eyeopening and educational.  I think that sometimes I have preconceived ideas of what areas should look like or what I will find there. Most times I have been proven wrong. Sort of like judging a book by its’ cover and we all know that we shouldn’t do that.

As we sat by the window traveling through New Mexico it somewhat reinforced in both of our minds what we thought the landscape of New Mexico would be – somewhat flat with mesas, buttes, orange/red soil or clay and small little bushes popping up here and there.

When we arrived in Albuquerque, ending our epic Train Trek, we took a cab to pick up our rental car at at the airport, then we got some lunch (at Twisters – a delicious semi-fast food restaurant) and then began our drive toward Santa Fe for our first of five nights in New Mexico.

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We had been told that there are two ways to drive to Santa Fe and we chose the more scenic route which is known as the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway.  This is off the main highway and takes about an hour to travel between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.  This trail was well known as a site for the rich deposits of turquoise, gold and iron ore.  You can find in this area the rare blue green turquoise names after the town of Cerrillos.  There are a few towns on the Turquoise Trail and they tend to be more artist’s havens.  Stop in some of the cafes along the trail for a bite to eat, go in the gift shops and look at the silver and  turquoise jewelry.  One shop that we stopped in at Madrid had turquoise that the elderly owner mined herself.  How many shop owners can say that?

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P1050675IMG_1074IMG_1075Santa Fe has some wonderful restaurants restaurants and a preacher on our train from Albuquerque advised us to eat at Tomasita’s for authentic New Mexican food that is family run.  Of course we had to obey the preacher.  Fairly easy to find and like all good restaurants, there was a line.  Food was delicious though it was a bit hot for this northern girl – even the green salsa.  They waiters wanted to make sure that I enjoyed this experience and with their help, I did.

Santa Fe has the most charming plaza of all of the cities that we visited.  I had looked forward to the Georgia O’Keefe museum which is only a couple of blocks from the center of the plaza.  I was able to get the last ticket to go on a docent led tour of her work and learned about her background – fascinating.  I think we all know her for her famous red poppy painting (which is only about 7 inches) but did you know she was also an abstract painter?  She painted many landscape scenes though they were of two themes familiar to her – the area around Lake George area where she would spend her summers with her husband and those of Texas and New Mexico with the beautiful colors of the mesas and skies that she grew to love.  Her personal story is very compelling as  well and you learn about her personal life at the museum.  I would highly recommend this museum.

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Walking to the Georgia O’Keefe museum we passed by shops that had animal sculptures along the street.  Blogger Hubby and I loved whimsical and fun sculptures.  What do you think of these?

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P1050840P1050838P1050843P1050839The Palace of the Governors  is within the Santa Fe Historic District along the plaza downtown and it served as the seat of government for the state of New Mexico for many centuries. The Palace of the Governors is the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States. Outside the building on the portico you’ll find native Americans selling their pottery, jewelry, metal work, drums, leather items, drawings, paintings and so much more. My word of advice, if you choose to purchase, which I did, pay in cash and do not bargain – it is an insult to the Native American vendors whose prices are very fair and less than what you would pay in one of the shops along the plaza.  They also have exquisite workmanship on all the wares that they sell.

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We also went to the State House, a few blocks from the plaza area.  This is the only state house that is round.  It also has four wing entrances, designed after their state flag.  The four wings represent the four cultures in New Mexico – Angelo, Spanish, Mexican and Native American.

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Across the street from the State House was a sign telling us about the Santa Fe Trail  and how it was a main thoroughfare .

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We stayed outside the downtown/plaza area at a Holiday Inn using our points.  It was fine – nothing special.  In hindsight, I would have preferred to have stayed along the downtown plaza area.  There is a lot of traffic in this area, parking is tight and it is just a vibrant place to walk around and be.  We would have gone there our first night except for all the traffic.  Learn from my mistake and stay by the plaza.

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AMTRAK’s South West Chief

We were finally on the last leg of our three part train trek around parts of America.  We enjoyed almost all aspects of the trip so far, perhaps with the exception of one of us having to climb into the upper, narrow bunk bed and the train whistles at night when going pass a crossing.  The South West Chief was originally  operated by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway until AMTRAK took over passenger rail service in 1971.

southwest chief

Los Angeles, along with Chicago, has a lounge of first class passengers and we took full advantage of it.  When you enter the front of Union Station, walk straight back and near the rear, turn right and then go up the escalator.  There are chairs, a few tables and chips and soft drinks as well as coffee. There is an attendant sitting at the desk to help us with any questions you might have.

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As lounges go, or at least as compared to airline lounges, this wasn’t too much but it was a nice place to hang out and eat the few snacks that they had.  Because of the way that the station and tracks are laid out, when it was time to go to the track to board our train, we were driven there in multi-row golf carts.  If we had chosen to walk, we would have had a long way to go including going under a tunnel to get to the other side of the tracks.

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We weren’t sure if we would get dinner since we weren’t scheduled to leave Los Angeles till 6:15.  As we boarded we found out that we would get dinner and as the attendant came around, we signed up for one of the first sittings at 7:00.  Same menu that we had on both the Empire Builder and Coast Starlight.  Blogger Hubby was quick to let our table mates know how good he thought the seafood cakes were, which he had again!

We went to bed early because one of the stops in Arizona, early in the morning around 5:45 AM was Winslow, Arizona.  It seemed like I was humming the Eagles song” standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” all night while I was trying to sleep.  Unfortunately, I woke up about 5 minutes after we passed it.  At breakfast we met a couple who had just gotten on the train.  The did the option of going to the Grand Canyon through the Grand Canyon Railroad.  Although they had a good time, they were exhausted because they had to leave their hotel at 3:  AM to be at the train station at 4:00 AM – unfortunately, the train was late and they had to wait about an hour for the South West Chief to come by.  Although they loved the canyon, they wouldn’t recommend going by train other than the convenience of being very close to the rim.

For us, we enjoyed seeing the change in scenery across America.  Here are a few scenes that we passed on our last day on our train trek.

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IMG_1042As I mentioned, our train, unbeknownst to us, was running late but what we found out on every line is that they build time into the schedule so they very rarely arrive late at the station at the end of the line.

Our final stop was Albuquerque.  Our train trek was over but now our New Mexico part was beginning.  It was 11:00 in the morning, the sun was shining and we were excited.  We gathered our bags, left the train and walked out front to get a taxi to the airport to get our rental car.  Problem was – there were no cabs.  I tried calling one cab company but no answer.  I tried Uber but it was surge pricing very high.  Finally got a cab company who would send a cab out to the train station in 10-15 minutes but no guarantee that we would get it.  After half an hour, one came but there was a little disagreement on how got to ride.  The other couple and us came to an agreement that we would share it since we were both going to a car rental at the airport.IMG_1047

We closely examined the car, loaded our bags and headed north to Santa Fe.

Would we do this again – yes!  We’d like to do the California Zephyr route which is San Francisco to Chicago traveling through scenic Colorado and the Rockies.

This entire train trip took 65,000 of my Ultimate Reward points that I had transferred over to AMTRAK (no longer available to do it) and remember, traveling first class included all of our meals.  I used points to stay at the Holiday Inn and Suites in Chicago the night before our train trip, also for the Weston Bayshore in Vancouver, points for our night at the Hilton Doubletree Checkers hotel in Los Angeles.  We paid for our night at the Seattle Grand Hyatt and used a Diamond upgrade for our Emerald Suite.

Up next, Land of Enchantment – exploring Santa Fe, Taos, Albuquerque and its environs.

REMINDER: I’m getting together a group for a cruise around the southern tip of South America.Come join us on March 5, 2018 (that’s right – 2018) on Holland America’s Zaandam, a vessel with about 1450 passengers as we board in Valparaiso, Chile as we cruise among the fjords, through the Strait of Magellan, Beagle Channel, visiting the southernmost town in the world, Montevideo, Paraguay and disembarking in Buenos Aires, he home of fine leather and the tango.  With a group, basically in name only, we received the lowest rates and amenities. .  Leave a comment and I’ll respond privately to you about this cruise or contact my travel agent, Michelle, at michelle@mccabeworld.com and tell her you are in Jane’s group!

Who Wants to Cruise With Us to South America?

Yes, I admit it…..I’m a planner.  I like to have a goal, or trip in mind so I can have fun researching, planning and of course saving for it.  Blogger Hubby and I have looked at our bucket list again, re-prioritized it and found what we want to be our next trip.  Since we are taking off next year from big travel (putting money into our house) I had to begin looking at 2018.  I know, I know – that’s a L O N G time off but because it is a long time off, I was able to get a really great deal.  The best deals for trips are really far out or last minute.travel world

 

One cruise that we have wanted to do for about 5 years now is the cruise around South America and Antarctica.  Having Antartica as part of the trip  added on about a week and several thousand dollars more to the. Regretfully, I let go of that dream.

My next decision was when to go. Obviously, their summer was the best time or was it?  Summer is considered the rainy season, not like monsoons but more like here where the heat of the summer will cause afternoon thunderstorms.  I’ve also become sensitive to the heat and that needs to be taken into consideration.  Last year’s trip to Europe, where it was in the high 80’s and low 90’s almost every day was a major drain on my energy as well as how much time we spent out of doors and waiting in long lines.  I read that the early fall is a wonderful time to visit – think of New England in the fall.  From what I read, drier air will move up from Antarctica and will give us those azure blue skies that we see in the spring and fall.

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I have been on Celebrity, Princess, Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Holland America as well as two river cruise lines.  I fee like I have a taste of their personalities and know what to expect from the ships.  I chose Holland America (HAL) because of what it offers me.  I really enjoy their Culinary Arts Kitchen where they will give you small group cooking lessons, large group demonstrations, the rocking and rolling Piano Bar, easy access to loungers and tables around the pool, entertainment that we enjoy.  With all this information in hand, we chose to begin our cruise on March 5, 2018 on Holland America’s Zaandam.

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We begin our cruise outside of Santiago, Chile and sail past beautiful, green and lush forests and lakes, through the Strait of Magellan, Beagle Channel, seeing many glaciers.  Did you know that there are more glaciers in Chile than in all of Scandinavia?  We will go to the southernmost town in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina.  We will enter Glacier Alley and stand at the front of the ship with warm beverages in hand as we gaze at the glaciers that may be gone in our grandchildrens time.  Have you ever seen a glacier calving – that’s when a chunk breaks off and falls into the water and hear the noise they make?  We will see penguins in their natural habitat and so much more.  But it’s not all scenery.  We’ll spent a day in Montevideo, Uruguay and overnight in Buenos Aires.  I’m planning on having a custom made leather jacket made for me in Buenos Aires.  We’ll also stop in the Falkland Islands and be able to have a spot of tea, British style.

The beautiful glaciers
The beautiful glaciers
Glaciers galore
Glaciers galore
Ushuaia, Argentina - the southernmost city in the world
Ushuaia, Argentina – the southernmost city in the world

While in are in South America, this would be an opportunity to visit Machu Picchu, Easter Island, the Galapagos, or Iguazu Falls

My fantastic travel agent, Michelle, of McCabe World Travel outside of Washington DC, will be coordinating the group travel.  She has been able to lock in for our group the lowest prices for us.  In addition to the lowest prices, there will be amenities for our group.  I’ll try to arrange some excursions that are more personalized and smaller than what the ship offers though you are free to do what you want.  Remember, we are a group in name only so we can get the best prices.  Of course, we are all a friendly group and it will be run to see each other and share stories.  Don’t you want to be part of this great group?

Am I tempting you a little bit?

 

 

Coast Starlight Train from Seattle to Los Angeles

Traveling by train is not quick.  You will not get to where you want to go fast.  Train travel can be expensive but for some of these routes, it is much less than airfare for these remote locations.  Train travel is a lazy, relaxing way to sit back, and watch the scenery go by while you are going to your destination and enjoying the ride.  That’s something that most people don’t say about airplane travel.  You have the opportunity to meet people, share travel stories, get recommendations  if you are stopping in their hometown.  Train travel is almost a luxurious way to travel because you are not rushing.  It’s a throwback to other times for most of us.  Rooms are small, even the large bedroom that we got very very small.

In our "large" bedroom" on the train.  It was the same setup on all the trains.
In our “large” bedroom” on the train. It was the same setup on all the trains.
hallway where our bedroom was located
hallway where our bedroom was located

We began the second leg of our Train Trek across America in Seattle when we went to Seattle’s King Street AMTRAK station to board the Coast Starlight. We had heard so much about this leg of our trip that I wondered if it lived up to the hype. After reading this, you be the judge.  If you missed our first leg, you can read about it here.

At the King Street Station, there is no lounge.  Like airports, there is a dedicated line waiting to board for first class passengers. You need to look at your ticket for it to tell you which car you are on and which room. Our ticket said 1130 D which translates into train #11, car 30, room D. You need to remember this information because you will use it in the dining room to charge your meal to your room (remember, your meals are included if you are a first class passenger).

We settled in and went exploring. We had heard that this train was different and we wanted to find out how it was different. One car behind us was the Parlor Car which I don’t believe any other long haul train has. This is exclusively for first class passengers and it has padded, swivel chairs so you can look our the windows. This is similar to an observation car with the windows at chair level and on top as well. There are 12 of these chairs as well as about 8 tables.

comfortable chairs in the parlor
comfortable chairs in the parlor
tables for eating during dining hours in the parlor as well as the wine tasting.  We would play cards here as well
tables for eating during dining hours in the parlor as well as the wine tasting. We would play cards here as well

You can make meal reservations in the parlor car and they have a different menu that what we had on the Empire Builder or what we would have on the SouthWest Chief. Excited that we would have something different, I quickly signed us up for lunch. BIG MISTAKE. Nothing is prepared fresh, or at least as fresh as it could be on the train. I ordered a salad which was mainly arugula and sliced red cabbage with a salad dressing that was not to my liking – and I like most salad dressings. Blogger Hubby had the chicken salad sandwich and he said it was a “nothing kind of sandwich”, pre-made who knows when. There was another choice and it too was a sandwich. Lesson learned – eat meals in the dining room.

The parlor car is also where they have wine tastings for $7.50 for three tastings and an offer to buy a cheese platter for $10. The first day it was 2 wines from Washington and one imported wine from Argentina. The second day it was 2 wines from California and the same imported wine from Argentina. Although it was nice to do this, it could have been presented and run better. After we were served our wine, the parlor stewart disappeared. Sometimes there were long waits before pours. You decide whether you want to do this or not.

tasting a Washington State wine
tasting a Washington State wine

 

We left Seattle about an hour and more late. They had to put sand on the train for us to spray in the tracks where we would potentially have problems climbing elevation and possibly slippery tracks.

Once we started moving we were glad that we were in the comfortable parlor car seats as we admired the beautiful scenery that was unfolding before our eyes. We crossed smaller rivers, traveled along the Columbia River, climbed mountains, saw Mt. Shasta and just took in the sights. We certainly understood why Oregon is called the Evergreen State as we traveled southbound. What surprised both of us was that there was still snow on the ground.

Through the Cascade Mountains
Through the Cascade Mountains

On all of the trains, there are some longer stops where you can get off the train, go in the station or just stretch your legs on firm ground.  Here we are in Eugene, Oregon where the waffle sole was invented and Nike was begun.  The longer stops are called “smoke stops” as there is no smoking on the train.

One of our stops, Eugene, Oregon.
One of our stops, Eugene, Oregon.

As we traveled through California we stopped at Salinas which is nicknames “America’s Salad Bowl” and marveled at all the rows and rows of crops that were growing and being harvested.  We could quickly spot the red strawberries that were growing on the plants and wished we could have reached out the train window to grab some.

Salinas, California - America's Salad Bowl
Salinas, California – America’s Salad Bowl

Further down the coast, south of San Luis Obispo, came the sheer beauty of this coast.  There was nothing between us and the shore.  With colors ranging from deep green to tans and browns, it was breathtaking and made us glad that we were seeing this from the train – we could have never done it by automobile as there were no visible roads to our eye.  Mountains in the background, sand and ocean in front of us as we were zipping along on this stretch of track that this train route is noted for.

Pacific Coast
Pacific Coast
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Pacific Coast south of San Luis Obispo

There is one point in this section that you go around a curve and can see both the front of the train as well as the back of the train at the same time.  Of course, I wasn’t able to photograph it but here is the front of the train.

The front of the Coast Starlight train
The front of the Coast Starlight train

Every train has a different personality with different crew. Also, each of the trains we rode had the same menu yet with different cooks, the same food was different on the trains.  Blogger Hubby loved the seafood cakes which were a combination of shrimp and crab meat.  He thought that was the best on the menu.  I had the signature steak on al three trains and the Coast Starlight had the best steak by far.  Salisbury Steak, the special on all the trains, was hit or miss.  We didn’t try the pasta with the overcooked veggies.  The herb chicken was also good.

We arrived in Los Angeles around 9:00 PM and took a cab to our hotel with an attitude from our cabdriver since our hotel, the Hilton DoubleTree was only a few blocks away.

As a reminder, everything on this trip with the exception one hotel night was booked using points.  Your meals on the train are included in your first class fare/miles.

Leg two of our epic train trek was now in the books.  Next up, what to do near the train station during the day.

Seattle – Our Layover and What We Did

We chose to continue our trip after we got off the Empire Builder and took the AMTRAK bus to Vancouver. We had about 4 hours between our arrival in Seattle and our departure. Not one to miss an opportunity to explore, we were off.

In the terminal in Seattle, if you go to the ticketing counter, they will help you in holding your luggage. They do this because the room where the locker is store is not always manned. The cost is $4 per piece .

King Street Station, Seattle
King Street Station, Seattle

We left the train station and walked down to Pike’s Public Market. We were so hungry because that morning on the train, the breakfast was open from 5:30 AM till 7:00 AM. With all the time changes, it was not a problem getting up for breakfast at that time.

What I love about Pike’s Market are the flowers that they sell and have arranged in bouquets. They are so fragrant, so colorful and so inexpensive. One of my favorite flowers is the peony and you could get a beautiful arrangement with white peonies, dark purple irises, purple delphiniums and other beautiful filler flowers for $10!

Rows and rows of beautiful floral bouquets many featuring peonies and irises
Rows and rows of beautiful floral bouquets many featuring peonies and irises

Pike Market is known for a fish stall that throws the fish to the wrapper once you have selected your piece to bring home. It gets very crowded and when a fish is thrown, loud applause follows in appreciation. It is a sight to behold and if you haven’t seen it, look for a crowd around a fish stall.

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A new meaning to the term “flying fish”

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We found Pike Barbeque inside the market – only 7 stools but worth waiting for a stool – do not attempt to eat this sandwich on your lap. It is juicy with lots of sauce on it. In fact, they dip the top bun in sauce before putting it on the sandwich. Being from Virginia, I am somewhat of a barbeque snob but this was very, very good. We shared the brisket sandwich and I was licking my lips and fingers afterwards.  If barbeque is not your thing, go downstairs and you will find a restaurant that serves local fish as well as Dungeness crab. There are many other choices for lunch so walk around first and find what you want.IMG_0775

What I like about this area is the complete diversity of shops although many are associated with food in some ways. There was a Russian restaurant, Turkish, cheese making, a pear store, hot dogs and so much more. I wish I had a larger stomach and larger clothing so I could have a sample of all of these tempting tasty treats.

For those that may be coming to Seattle for the first time and have a little more time, please allow me to make recommendation – go down along the waterfront and take the cruise to Tillicum Village on Blake Island for the Native American Dinner Show. The ferry ride out to the island is beautiful and the native story and the salmon dinner (you can request chicken at time of booking) is delicious. Walk around the island before or after the show.  This will be one of your highlights of your trip.

at the Wharf
at the Wharf

We walked back to King Street Station in time for our bus to Vancouver. Since we took the bus up to Vancouver and the train back to Seattle, I’ll write a blog post comparing both means of travel.

All Aboard – AMTRAK’s Empire Builder

This trip was booked last December transferring points from my Ultimate Rewards account to AMTRAK.  This is no longer available.  You can read about it here.

We left the Holiday Inn and Suites and walked directly to Union Station going in the entrance that I described in my previous post. Inside the lounge is a checked bag room where we ditched our bags so we could still walk around the city and get some breakfast. You do need to show your ticket once you enter the lounge.

Entrance to the lounge
Entrance to the lounge
early morning at the lounge in Union Station, Chicago. It will get much more crowded the closer to departure.
Early morning at the lounge in Union Station, Chicago. It will get much more crowded  closer to departure.

The lounge that we used will be closed in a few weeks and a new lounge will be opened, probably around the second week of June. The new lounge will have showers, more seating, and will be located in the Great Hall. In the lounge were hot and cold drinks and snacks like potato chips, pre-packaged breakfast rolls and nachos.  Here is a link to the new lounge.

After checking our bags, we left the station and headed to the French Market which we had discovered the day before. I had one of the best breakfasts that I’ve ever had – a freshly made crepe filled with fresh strawberries, crème fraiche, and almonds. Delicious !  Blogger Hubby had the crepe with lox, cream cheese, tomatoes and red onions. There were tables at the back of the market and outside for you to sit and enjoy your food.

The best breakfast ever!
The best breakfast ever!

With no bags and still a few hours before we needed to be back at the station, we walked around the city more. We walked over the to canal where tourists boats took passengers on a city tour.

IMG_0574We found the Chicago Cultural Center and went in – free admittance is always an incentive. They have two beautiful rotundas and one was by Louis Tiffany. This building was the former Chicago Public Library.

IMG_0577Close by was Millenium Park and the Chicago Art Museum – both worth walking to and through.  Throughout the park we saw a number of fountains, sculptures that we found very unique.IMG_0585

 

IMG_0591Did you know that the famed Rt. 66 begins in Chicago?IMG_0593

Throughout the city were beautiful tulips in bloom as well as other sidewalk arrangements in concrete planters – some with pussy willows which I hadn’t seen in a long time.   Another building that we saw was the Board of Trade building – very unique with huge eagles at the top corners of the building almost looking like gargoyles.

When we returned to the lounge, it was crowded and difficult to find seating. There are two screens on the walls – one for arrivals and one for departures. You will see the same name of trains so be sure you know what you are looking at. For example our train, The Empire Builder was arriving at 3:00 yet our train, the Empire Builder was leaving at 2:15.

Traveling in a sleeper, we had priority boarding. They will call you and open the door to the track. Everyone stops at the first car to see if it is theirs. If you are going to Washington State, keep moving. Our train splits in Spokane during the – the cars at the end are going toward Portland and the cars in front of the dining car are going to Seattle. That clue will tell you where your car will be.

Our Room – To get to our room, we entered the train and had to walk up a narrow stairway. If you have a large suitcase that you won’t need in your room, you can leave it on the first floor in the luggage area. We had the larger bedroom and they were denoted with a letter – we were in “D”. The smaller rooms had numbers. That tip might get you in the correct corridor since you can go left or right at the top of the stairs.

The lower level had rooms as well though I think they were smaller rooms, community showers and extra toilets (we were warned that there is no ventilation in the community bathrooms). Yes, train bedrooms are small. We knew that and expected it. The bathroom is a combination toilet/shower. To take a shower, put down the lid on the toilet and turn the water on. Since there is a lip to get into the bathroom, the water stays in the bathroom. You do have the option of using one of the community showers if you want something larger. Tip – put down the lid to the toilet to prevent it from crashing down in the middle of the night when you hit a rough patch of tracks.   We propped open the bathroom with a backpack so we could see the blue nightlight in the bathroom. Again, we didn’t want the door slamming in the middle of the night.  To get more air or less air, look to the ceiling to open or close the vents.

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Tip: If you are charging electronics, you might want to bring an extension card as one outlet is on the wall by the sink mirror and the other is on the wall by your head. You don’t want your electronics dangling as you recharge them.

We didn’t sleep well the first night because the train was always blowing their horns due to all the train crossings that we were passing.  You’ll get to know the whistle – 2 long, 1 shorter and 1 long.  Sometimes it seemed as though when the first set of whistles ended, the next one began.

The top bunk, which I had, was doable.  In the fact that there isn’t much turn around in and the ceiling was about 2 feet (or a little less) from my bed.  Getting up wasn’t a problem but getting down was (for me) as trying to turn around to come down the ladder was difficult since there wasn’t much room to turn around in.  I ended up putting my foot on the corner of the vanity and then the other on Blogger Hubby’s bed.  Not pretty but I did it.

We both brought carry-on luggage and a backpack. I would not bring anymore than that as they only place to store the luggage is under the bench sofa and chair in the room and a very small shelf above he chair. The rooms are small and compact and for just two nights on the train (or longer for us since we are continuing on) you really don’t need much. My concern in packing is whether the train ran hot or cold – I found this particular car on this particular day ran right in the middle. I have on a sleeveless top with a lightweight sweater and long pants though in the evening it did get a little cooler but never, in my mind, cold.  We’ve been told the Super Chief runs very cold.

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OBSERVATION CAR – had both seats and booths with a table. Downstairs was a lounge car where you could buy snacks as well as sit at one of their few tables. On our train were two Park Service Trails and Rails volunteers that gave a small narrative when we were going by a few things. If you brought your National Park Service passport book, they will stamp it for you (I had mine). Tip: there are some seats with 110 volt plugs so you can charge your electronics there as well. TIP – I turned on my Google Maps app while in the observation deck to see where we were and what we were passing.   There is no train wifi so I was careful how much cellular data I was using.

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DINING CAR – When you first board, stay in your room because a dining steward will come by and you can make reservations for dinner. Dining is about on par with airline food. For dinner I had the signature steak which was okay, baked potato and very overcooked medley of veggies. The salad was very fresh and served with packets of Paul Newman salad dressing. Second night I had the herb chicken which was much better and Blogger Hubby had the seafood shrimp/crab cakes and he thought they were very good.  Dessert was a good portion, neither too large or too small. All of this is served on plastic plates rather than the china that AMTRAK used to serve food on. Your first class accommodations include your meals on board and a drink. Beer and wine are a separate charge and they are available in the dining car. One thing to remember, although your meals are included in your accommodation if you are a first class passenger, you need to remember to tip the wait staff in the dining room. It also appears that the menu is the same on all the trains with a dining room. TIP: your first night when you leave Chicago, sit on the right side of the dining car as you are going forward and sit so you are facing forward. We had the 7:15 dinner and you could see the sun setting over the Mississippi – a bright orange ball and it was beautiful. Unfortunately we were not sitting on the correct side or facing the correct direction to get a picture but it was beautiful

Two rules that are strictly enforced on AMTRAK – no smoking and you always must wear shoes when walking around the train.

NOTE:  If you do plan to experience the Empire Builder, I strongly encourage you to download this PDF of the train route.  It gives you information on the train as well as the stops that it makes.  It’s interesting to know a little information about the cities that you are stopping or passing through.

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We have met very interesting people on this journey so far either at meal time (4 to a table) or in the observation car.  We were the only ones doing a train trek.  Many were going to or from vacation, family celebrations or just as a means to travel.  I was very pleasantly surprised at how much room there was in the coach section with leg rests and room between the seat in front of you – so unlike air travel.

More to come tomorrow.  If you have any particular questions, drop me a line and I’ll try to answer as soon as  can.

All Aboard…..

 

Cruise Excursions and How To Find Non-Cruise Line Tours

If you have been reading me for awhile then you may remember that I try to never book an excursion with the cruise line when I am in port.  There have been a few exceptions when I have had no choice – I’ll get to those later.

You may wonder why I would book non-cruise line tours.  Doesn’t the cruise line try to get me paranoid about arriving at the pier late from a private excursion and standing on the dock watching the ship sail into the colorful sunset.  I mean, I have heard many people tell me that if you are on a ship’s excursion and are running late then they will wait for you.  Isn’t this all true? NO, it is not.

The main reason that I book private excursions is that they tend to have fewer people on them and that they are less expensive and more interesting.  Do you enjoy being herded by cattle onto a bus that seats 44 people generally waiting for one or two who don’t feel that they need to be back at the same time as others on their tour?  If you found something interesting, wouldn’t you like the option of staying a little longer?

I have found that when I am on a private excursion in a foreign country (and I am excluding the Caribbean countries here since most of them take the American dollar), then you can pay in local currency which may have a better exchange rate for you than paying the cruise line in US currency.  Case in point: when we were in New Zealand, the excursion that I booked was $135 NZD which equalled about $83 USD.  The ship was charging for a similar excursion $150 USD.

With all the cruises that I have been on as well as the number of private excursions, we have never been late to the ship, not even close.  For me, I always inform my tour guide that we need to be back earlier than what we need to be.  I also look around as we are leaving the port city to see if there is construction or some problem that would take extra time in returning to the ship.  On one excursion a few years ago we were with passengers from another ship and we had a much earlier departure.  Our tour guide called a taxi to meet us and return us to the ship so we wouldn’t be late.  How is that for service!

Finally, the cruise line is not guaranteeing you that they will wait for you if you return late.  They will certainly try to but it is not guaranteed because they pay for their berth at the docks.  If it is too expensive to wait or if there is another ship coming in, they will leave.  However, they will get you to your next port of call.  If it is a large group, you all may not be able to get on the next plane; after all, most of the islands are connected by small island hopper planes.  This hardly ever happens so I would not worry about it but if you are concerned, bring your passport with you and a credit card.  That way if you need to get to another island, you will be able to.

Now that you have made the decision that you would like to try booking a private excursion, I’ll give you my trade secrets though they are not that secret.  I simply google “shore excursions in ____”.  I’ll also go to Cruise Critic and find their Ports of Call thread and look for my port of call.  I’ll read what others are saying about their tours. I will also go to Cruise Critic’s Roll Call where I find my cruise line, my ship and my sailing date.  Often times others in your Roll Call will organize a private excursion and are looking for others to join them.

Finally, I go to Trip Advisor and enter in the city/island that I will be visiting and then I enter “Tour Guide” or “Things To Do” in the search box.  Make sure you read all the reviews.  I tend to ignore the very best and the very worse and focus on what the majority are saying.

I’ll email the tour operator with any questions I may have.  During the busy season, I’ll give them about 3 three days to get back to me.

I mentioned earlier that several times I have had to take the cruise lines excursions. While on Half Moon Cay, the private island that the cruise line owns, rather than just spending time at their beautiful beach, we elected to take a Tram Tour of the island.  It was very interesting and something that I had never done.  I saw where they kept the horses for those who wanted to go horseback riding, Sting Ray City where the passengers feed the sting rays (that was amazing), the airport on the island (actually where seaplanes land in case of emergency), where 40 staff members live, desalination plant converts salt water to drinking water, power generators and so much more.  The other time I had to take a ship’s excursion was last year when we were docked in Gatun Lake in the Panama Canal. The only way we could get to land was to book an excursion.

I have had fantastic experiences, met some wonderful people who happened to be my guides and have no qualms about recommending them or their tour.  Everyone has different expectations of what they want on their tour and emailing your tour operator to express what you are seeking is a great way of ensuring that you have the right tour for you.

Don’t let the cruise lines get you scared or nervous.  Wouldn’t you rather have a tour more geared to you and your needs than a vanilla type tour where you are just a person in a seat.  A few days after I returned from my cruise I received a survey from Holland America.  Some of their questions had to do with excursions and they wanted to know how many I had booked with them and how many I booked independently.  they also wanted to know “why”.  I think they are finally getting the idea that many of us are going the independent route.  Hopefully they will make some changes but until then, I’m booking my own private tours and I hope you will consider them as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nashville Rocks! Halloween at the Grand Ole Opry and Gaylord Opryland Hotel

I have a confession to make. I am not a country music fan.  I blame that on not being exposed to it while growing up.  I mean, back in the days when I grew up in Boston we didn’t have a country music scene.  We had one place in Boston called Hillbilly Ranch (true name) and it was somewhat of a joke.  Even its location was a place that you didn’t want to go into – The Combat Zone.

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Photo:  Getty Images/Boston Globe

While I was in college, we were all listening to the current pop music. Then I moved to Virginia and there was a lot of bluegrass music which was too twangy for me.  Honestly, I didn’t know the difference and thought it was all country music.  So I shied away from that genre of music and stayed away.  I just was never interested in it.

You’re probably wondering why I am telling you all this and it’s easy.  I was going to visit Nashville – home of country music – on our Road Trip. We would be arriving on Halloween and wondered what we should do on that night.  There was only one answer – go to The Grand Ole Opry. Yes, I was going to listen to country music.  We looked at the schedule and believe it or not, I had actually heard of some of the performers like Vince Gill, Charlie Daniels and his band, and the Gatlin Brothers were the main performers with others also on the show.

We first called the Opry box office ten days before we would arrive and realized that the only tickets left were behind the nose bleed sections.  Not what we wanted to hear.  We put our two great minds together and we came up with an idea.  What if we called the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and inquire if they had any packages that included tickets.  Gaylord hotels are part of the Marriott chain and although I did have a few points in my account, they weren’t enough to get us anything.  The operator found what we considered very good tickets, on the floor, off from the center a little bit and on an aisle. Cha-ching.  We booked the package even though it was expensive  but we figured that it was a unique experience.

After we made the booking we heard from several different people what a fantastic property it was – large, gardens, a river runs through it and that it would take us a few days to go all through it.  In my mind, it just didn’t make sense that this large hotel that would be minutes from the Grand Ole Opry because in my mind the Opry is in downtown Nashville.   Confusion reigned as we drove up this long driveway in the outskirts of Nashville.  We pulled in at 5:30 and elected to do valet parking at $32 per day (yikes, don’t tell Blogger Hubby) because we needed to get to our room, do a quick shower and be at the appropriate door to ride the shuttle to the show.   Still thinking that the Opry was in downtown Nashville, we knew we had to hurry or we’d miss the shuttle and we didn’t know how expensive a taxi would be.  The show began at 7:00 and here it was at 5:30 and we had to be at the door at 6:00.  First tip if you are going to the Gaylord Opryland Hotel:  unless you are with a convention, ask to be in the Cascades section of the hotel.  We were initially booked by the desk clerk in Magnolia, next to the Convention Hall on the opposite side of this large hotel even though she knew we were in a rush.  That is one heck of a long walk; same goes for Delta. Our bellman, seeing that we were in MagnoliaCascades was able to change our room to make it easier to reach.  Cascades, where we ended up,  is where the main lobby is, where the concierge is where you are parked, and where you get your car from valet parking.

We met our shuttle and had a 3 minute ride to the Grand Ole Opry – not downtown but very close by.  We knew where to meet the shuttle for the ride home.  We walked in, and since we hadn’t had dinner, we were able to get drinks and popcorn to bring into the theatre with us.  Great seats awaited us.  IMG_2159

There was an Mistress of Ceremony warming up the crowd but shortly the show would begin.  We noticed there was a large screen over the stage of the Opry as well as a few other screens throughout the theatre.  As we were reminded, this is a live radio show and there are commercials about the sponsors of the Opry with the announcer standing near the edge of stage left.

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The show was divided into four acts with each act having their own Master of Ceremony who would introduce the performers in the acts.  Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers opened up the show welcoming us and then proceed to sing.  P1040912

The second act was a led by a substitute MC – Jeanne Seeley.  She was the only one dressed in a costume with a boa of dollars bills over her witch’s dress.  She characterized herself as a Rich Witch.  Singing during this act was Ricky Scaggs.  P1040918

A surprise guest during this time was  Florence Henderson aka “Carol Brady”.  The third act was MC’d by Charlie Daniels and his band and boy, can he fiddle.  We overheard from the row behind us that they had just heard him about a week or so before and he was really putting on a performance this night.  Charlie was given a standing ovation after singing and playing “Devil Went Down to Georgia”.  It went something like this.  P1040955

The evening ended with Vince Gill and a clip of him during his early years playing at the Opry, or as he liked to call it – 50 pounds earlier. Also performing in the final act was Mel Tillus.  It was a country music star studded evening – what a way to spend Halloween night!

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We really enjoyed our Halloween night at the Opry and I hope to enjoy a repeat visit to this house of music.

BTW, the Grand Ole Opry was downtown Nashville in the Ryman Auditorium but moved out to its present location in 1975.  If you are interested in tickets, follow this link.

 

 

 

 

 

My Planned Cross Country Trip on AMTRAK using Miles

As some of you may remember,  I attended the Chicago Seminars last month.  One of the seminars that I sat in on was a talk by Bike Guy who told us about the trip he and his family did on points.  Now, that’s not unusual at all, particularly with this group of travelers,  but how he did his trip was – by using points to book his trip on AMTRAK.  He was able to get  AMTRAK points by transferring points from his Ultimate Rewards account (points you receive by using your Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Ink ) to his AMTRAK account.

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This sounded interesting to me since we had done some train travel this summer while in Italy and we were  anxious to try it here in our country.  I had done a fair amount of long distance train travel when I was twelve years old and younger but not much since there.  I was even more excited about a possible trip when we found out that there would be changes to the AMTRAK reward program as of January 24th  When changes come to reward programs they are usually never for the best and this one is the same.  Additionally, the last day to transfer points into my AMTRAK account is December 7th.  Luckily Blogger Hubby and I work well together in planning a trip with each of us working on different aspects and then coming together with a plan.

To explain what is happening in case you also want to take a trip, let me explain what the reward program is now.   Currently, the United States is divided into three zones and there is a redemption fee for traveling within the zones. Traveling in one zone is 20,000 points for a bedroom for 2 people. The points are for the accommodation and not per person.  The change will be that no longer will  AMTRAK have zone based redemptions but rather based on ticket price.  What we were planning to  to book would require almost double the points after January 24th. We knew we needed to act fast.  Here is a link to the current redemption rates.

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First of all, we needed to determine what kind of accommodation we wanted on the train.  You could travel coach (not for me for this distance); roomette with two seats during the day  (size is 3.6′ x 6.6′ ); bedroom with a couch and a chair in the day  (size is 6.6′ x 7.6′); a bedroom suite which is two bedrooms opened and combined ; or a family bedroom (size 5.2 ‘ x 9.5’).  We knew we wanted the bedroom as it was a little larger than the roomette and had the toilet and shower within the room.  All tickets booked with sleeping accommodations include all your meals while you are on the train.
Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 9.26.02 PMNow that we knew what our accommodation need was, it was time to plan our itinerary.  As you look at the map, you’ll see some cities are on the border of two zones.  You can use those cities to your advantage and they will be in whatever zone helps you the most.  Some of the cities are Detroit, Toledo, Atlanta, Denver, Albuquerque, El Paso, Wolf Point, Port Huron and Cincinnati.  Knowing that, we planned our trip to take advantage of those cities where it was practical for us.

After a few itineraries, we came up with the one that we liked.  Blogger Hubby is going to fly to Chicago from our summer home in Michigan and I will fly there from our home in Virginia.  We’ll get in the night before just to give us some peace of mind.  I don’t want to worry about delays, etc that would prevent us from boarding our train.  From Chicago’s Union station we will take the Empire Builder train through the northern part of our country through Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana including through Glacier National Park, Idaho and Washington.  We’ll travel along major portion of the Lewis and Clark Trail.

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Not content to end this portion of our trip in Washington, we will continue on using AMTRAK bus to Vancouver, British Columbia. Using our Starwood points, we booked  a Westin Hotel along the seawall and opposite of Stanley Park, the 1100 acre park that cruisers see when they are entering the harbor in Vancouver.   Following two nights in Vancouver, we will get ourselves down to Seattle to spend a night there before boarding our next train.  We could have used the AMTRAK bus again but that only gave us 35 minutes between the bus’ arrival and the departure of the train – too close for me.

AMTRAK has a partnership with the National Park Service and on select routes and select day they will have a ranger on board presenting different programs depending on the day of the week.  I wanted to ensure that we would have a ranger on our train but the 2016 schedule had not come out yet.  Even though we are going to travel mid May, that might be too early or we may be just in time.

Once we get back to Seattle we’ll board the Pacific Coast Starlight train to Los Angeles.  AMTRAK states that it is “widely regarded as one of the most spectacular of all train routes, the Coast Starlight links the greatest cities on the West Coast”.  We’ll go along the Pacific Coast during a stretch while in California.  Again, this has the ranger program and we will find out later if we are in time for this program as well.

When we reach Los Angeles we’ll have a overnight before boarding the Southwest Chief train the next morning for Albuquerque.  We chose Albuquerque since it is on the divide between two regions and it only costs us 20,000 points since it is in one region.  I’ve also never been to Albuquerque so it seems like a great place to spend a few days.  Perhaps Blogger Hubby will get me up in a hot air balloon – you never know.

All this, not including our hotels and meals while not on board the train, only cost us a total of 65,000 points. This is a great redemption of our points.  If we had to pay for our fare, this is what we would have paid:

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 10.54.29 PM Is this something you are considering?  Would a cross country train trip entice you?  Obviously it does us and we are very excited about this very relaxing, unplugged time viewing the majesty of our country from the comfort of our room and observation car.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memphis – Ducks, BBQ, Civil Rights Museum and Dr. Ben Carson

I love children books – particularly well written ones that tell a good story.  One author, Patricia Polacco, moves me with the way she tells a story, usually based on her family but not always, as well as with her illustrations.  When I worked in the school system (upper elementary grades) I always seemed to gravitate toward this author’s books and I was always surprised that a few of my special ed students “got it” – the subtle meaning of some of her books.  One of her books, John Philip Duck, told the story (fiction based on fact) about how the ducks came to the Peabody Hotel in Memphis.  Since reading the story I have wanted to go see the ducks walk to the fountain or from the fountain back to the roof where they resided.  The ducks come down at 10:00 and return at 5:00.

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Knowing that, going to the Peabody Hotel in the morning became our first priority.  We were shocked that parking was very easy to find and relatively inexpensive in Memphis as was the hotel.  We entered the lobby at 9:35 and already people were lined up along the velvet roping to view the ducks.  Children were sitting on the floor along the red carpet so they could have an unemcumbered view.  Hotel guest were fortunate that they, and only them, could sit in the lounge around the duck fountain to view the duck walk.  Excitement was building and then the elevator doors open.  Led by the Duckmaster, the 5 mallard ducks (one male and four females) waddle on the red carpet to the fountain, walked up the ramp and plopped into the water where the swam around.  A few minutes later, the Duckmaster approached the fountain with a silver tray and on it was a silver bowl of duck food.  It was all over in about ten minutes.

Waiting for the ducks to come out of the elevator
Waiting for the ducks to come out of the elevator
Ducks swimming in the lobby fountain
Ducks swimming in the lobby fountain
The 5th Duckmaster ever and myself after the Duck Walk
The 5th Duckmaster ever and myself after the Duck Walk

We then walked down to the Cotton Museum.  It was okay and nothing memorable in my mind.  The museum was basically one room in a large building.  My recommendation would be to skip this museum and save your  time for the Civil Rights Museum.

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One of the displays at the Cotton Museum
One of the displays at the Cotton Museum

Before we visited the Civil Rights Museum we decided that it was time to have lunch and nothing would satisfy my craving other than Memphis style barbecue.  Everyone gave us their recommendations.  Some were too far outside the city, one location – The Rendezvous had been highly recommended but a local woman told us that it wasn’t very good anymore because the owner sold the restaurant and took his recipes with him.  With that little bit of local information and the fact that we were starving, we ate at a BBQ restaurant behind the Civil Rights Museum – Central BBQ.

IMG_2125All I can say is WOW – probably the best bbq that I have ever had.  The ribs, which we had half wet and half dry, were very nicely charred and the meat pulled from the bone.  The pulled pork sandwich was just as delicious, nicely smoked and flavored.  On the counter were various different bbq sauces though my favorite was the vinegar sauce.  Cole slaw was on the side as was the crispy onion rings.  I kept repeating during this lunch how delicious the food was.  If you find yourself in Memphis – do yourself a favor and eat at Central BBQ.

Ribs - half wet and half dry.  They were the best I had ever had.
Ribs – half wet and half dry. They were the best I had ever had.

As soon as you finish eating, walk around a very short corner to the Hotel Lorraine.   The Civil Rights Museum is inside the gutted hotel.  IMG_2127

The Lorraine Hotel with a wreath on the spot where Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated
The Lorraine Hotel with a wreath on the spot where Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated

I wasn’t sure what to expect but it was much more than what I did expect.  From the capture of Africans to be brought to the Jamestown Colony in 1619 through the current day, you see the struggle of the black population in our country.  The most memorable part for me was the early sixties as I remember watching events unfold on television – the KKK, the lynchings, the Freedom Riders, bombing of churches, Martin Luther King and his famous “I Have a Dream Speech”.

IMG_2135I remember my grandfather writing a letter to President Kennedy as one Boston Irish Catholic to another about how he needed to bring in the military to stop all the killings.  I probably was ten at the time and it still leaves a very strong memory.  Visiting the museum was a very emotional and at times I felt like I was on information overload since there was so much reading in the exhibits as well as emotions for such a dark period in the history of our country and in some respects probably still exists.  I had wished that they had a small cafeteria where we could take a break. Do not miss this museum – one of the best that I had been to including the Apartheid Museum that I visited in Johannesburg.  On our way out, we went by the room that was occupied by MLK, Jr when he was assassinated.  We could not go in but we could view inside the plexiglass wall to see the room just the way it looked in 1968.  Afterwards we walked across the street for more of the museum staying only about 10 minutes.

IMG_2140As we crossed the street to walk to our car, we noticed a very small crowd as well as two black SUV’s with door open.  As we approached, we saw that it was Dr. Ben Carson.  I approached him and asked if I could have my  picture taken with him.  He quietly agreed and I now have a picture of he and I.  After our picture he got into the car and took off.

Dr. Ben Carson and myself
Dr. Ben Carson and myself

Reflecting on our day, we came to the conclusion that it was a wonderful day.  From seeing the ducks, barbeque, the Civil Rights Museum and someone trying to win their party’s nomination for President.  This is why I love Road Trips – you just never know what you are going to do or see and we were very open to just let things happen.

Memphis – Graceland, a Pyramid and Arkansas

We left our hotel that was just outside of Memphis to head to our number one destination – Graceland.  IMG_2059

Yes, we were going to Elvis’ home.  I loved listening to Elvis when I was younger and even more so now that I have gotten older.  I cheered his comeback in the late 60’s and early 70’s and I was sad when he died while I was on my honeymoon in Ireland in 1977.

Elvis' 1968 television special
Elvis’ 1968 television special

Many people have told us that they thought Graceland was overrated, it was small but others have told us how much they enjoyed it.  Whether we were going to like it or not didn’t matter – we needed to go.

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The night before our trip we went on the Graceland website to review the ticket choices – that’s right you have a choice of 5 different ticket options.  We chose the Platinum tour that comes with an interactive iPad with the narration of the house by John Stamos as well as entry into his automobile museum and a few other locations.  We did not have the airplanes as part of our tour.  After we received our iPads and headsets we boarded a trolley to take us across Elvis Presley Blvd to the mansion.

Waiting in line for our iPad and then to board the trolley for the ride across the street
Waiting in line for our iPad and then to board the trolley for the ride across the street

We toured the first floor and the basement – the upstairs private rooms were not part of the tour.   The decor in some rooms was very nice for the time period; other times it was a little garish.  Walking into the dining room we saw a touching photograph of Priscilla and Lisa Marie on the wall.

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Living room
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Dining room
Kitchen
Kitchen
Jungle room
Jungle room

The kitchen seemed out of a time capsule.  Then there was was the talked about “Jungle Room”    The basement looked like a bumblebee to me with the black and yellow decor.  Also in the basement was a pool room.

What I call the Bumbebee Room
What I call the Bumbebee Room but is really a lounge in the basement

In one of the hallways was a collection of his gold records.

Love Me Tender gold record
Love Me Tender gold record

We then went outside to see the back of the home, the building where his offices were, saw the pasture for his horses.P1040801

His racquet ball building which was turned into an area where some of his  stage costumes were as well as several screens that played some of his concerts and television appearances.

P1040824For some reason that I certainly didn’t expect, I found that it was very moving and there were tears in my eyes.  I loved listening to his voice singing some of the ballads that he was so good at and were so familiar to me.  Maybe it was from sadness of seeing what drugs could do to a person.  I don’t know except that it was very emotional to me.  Exiting the building we walked over to the area where he was buried next to his parents and grandmother.P1040830

After touring the house, we took the trolley back across the street and went into the automobile museum.  The number of cars that he had, how he customized many of the cars was amazing.  Also in this museum were some videos of Elvis in clips from various movies where he is in some of these cars.

P1040842We had lunch at the Chrome Restaurant and I would not recommend it. Bring a snack, eat before or after but just don’t eat there.  It wasn’t that bad but in my mind it wasn’t that good.

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After doing a little shopping at the gift shops (some CD’s to play, postcards, etc) we left to continue our first day in Memphis.  Overall, we were not surprised to find that it was not a huge mansion.  We felt that it was more of a family home where he and his wife (later his daughter) could live with additional room for his parents.  This could have been considered a “mansion” at the time it was built by Memphis standards.  We were happy with our stop at Graceland.

As we drove along the river in Memphis, it was our goal to drive across the “Dolly Parton” bridge, so nicknamed because of the shape of the bridge, into Arkansas, a state I had not been to but I missed the turn.  As I was driving up, I spied in front of us a tall pyramid.

Bass Pro Shop pyramid
Bass Pro Shop pyramid

This was the new Bass Pro Shop that I had heard about.  We quickly found parking and walked inside.  We purchased tickets ($10) to ride the 28 story freestanding elevator to the tip of the pyramid where there was a bar/restaurant and an outdoor observation deck.

view from the ascending elevator
view from the ascending elevator

This blogger is afraid of heights but I did go out,  just not on the glass part.  I did hand my camera over to a braver soul than me to take photographs of Mud Island, the bridge and Arkansas.  P1040876 (1)

After we had our snack we went back down the elevator and was able to really look around.

Restaurant at the top of the pyramid
Restaurant at the top of the pyramid

The interior reminded me of a Louisiana swamp town.  There were alligators, “Bait Shacks”, little shops filled with outdoor gear.  I would recommend to anyone in Memphis in taking a drive over to the pyramid and looking around.  It was fun.

We were going to try again to cross the Mississippi River into Arkansas and we were successful.  We went one exit, turned around and drove back into Tennessee.  Isn’t that what you do on Road Trips?

Tomorrow we are planning on going to The Peabody to see the famed ducks as well as the Civil Rights Museum and to find good barbeque!

Milan, Italy – How to Turn Lemons into Lemonade

Both of us were so excited to travel to Milan not so much to see Milan, though we were excited about that, but more for using it as a jumping off spot to take the train up to Lake Como, Lake Maggiore as well as visiting the World Fair being held in Milan.

We left Verona, our fascinating stop on the way to Milan and hopped on the train to continue our journey from Venice to Milan.  I very much enjoyed looking out the windows to see the landscape of northern Italy pass us by.  Within a few hours, and after a quick nap, we arrived in the Centrale train station in Milan.  Walking into the station we were struck by how beautiful the station is.  I later found out that it is considered one of the most stations in all of Europe and we can certainly believe it.IMG_1867

We had reservations at the Hilton using the points that we had earned for our American Express Hilton Honors credit card that has no annual fee.  Why I like this card is that I get 5 times points when I use this card at grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants.  That is huge.  I make it even better than that because I buy merchant gift cards at my grocery store and get 5 times points.  If I am going shopping at TJ Maxx I will go into my grocery store and buy a TJ Maxx gift card and use it for my purchases.  Let me not digress any more – we had reservations for three nights at the Hilton and then our final night in Milan at the Holiday Inn at Linate Airport to save us travel time in the morning before our too early o’clock flight!  The Hilton is a short 2-3 block walk to the train station.  After our nights at the B&B in Venice, this room looked like a palace to us though in reality it was fine, nothing special.

After walking outside and finding a little outdoor cafe where we had great pizza, we headed back to our room.  It had been a long day that had started too early in Venice.  We looked on the television and on my iPad for the weather in Milan and it was not looking good at all.  They were predicting rain, heavy rain and then more rain for our entire time we would be in Milan.  Our hearts sank as most of our plans needed good weather.  Who wants to be on a boat in the middle of Lake Como when it is raining very hard.  We “Facetimed” with our daughter, who had a baby girl three days earlier, and she gave us great advice and we wondered why we didn’t think of it.  Her advice – leave; go somewhere else.

We hadn’t paid for our room and most likely we would be able to get the points back for one of the nights.  Here we are – the travel planners having to make a sudden,  decision to just go somewhere else.  Were we up to it?  Could we be spontaneous?  Were we willing to try?  With a resounding yes we decided the next morning (after we had slept on it) that we would leave but not check out in case we wanted to come back to our room.  I quickly pulled up the radar and weather.com on my iPad and we kept looking at where we could go.  Turin – nope, was going to rain there as well.  Switzerland – rain there as well.  San Marino – too far since we had to return for our flight and hotels too expensive.  Bologna – hmm, that might be interesting.  After more searching, it was Bologna home of Bolognese Sauce!  We checked on Trip Advisor for a hotel that would be close to the train station and we booked a hotel that I had never heard of – Starhotels Excelsior which was across the street from the train station, had very good reviews and cost less than $100 per night and it included a breakfast.  With a leap of faith we walked to the train station, purchased our tickets and made the 8:30 AM train to Bologna.  Since we were being so adventurous, we decided to make another stop in a small Italian city – Parma, home of Parmesan cheese. Do you see a “food” thread running through some of the towns we are visiting?

It wasn’t long before we were in Parma.  We searched the station for a luggage locker and couldn’t find one.  Apparently Parma doesn’t have a Left Luggage locker.  Blogger Hubby thought we would have to get back on the next train to Bologna because we couldn’t enjoy Parma pulling our luggage.  I asked him to give me a minute and I walked into the hotel next to the train station – the NH Hotel Parma and asked the reception desk if we could leave our luggage with them as we were just visiting for a few hours.  They had no problem with it, gave us a claim check and even gave us a map and their recommendations of where we should walk.  Blogger Hubby couldn’t believe I asked and even more that they agreed.  I really believe that people in the tourism business want to be helpful particularly Europeans.  If you are ever in Parma, I would recommend this hotel by what I saw in the lobby – it was very nice and convenient to the train station as well.

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Off we went with our map in hand.  This being Saturday we weren’t sure what we would find.  Saturday apparently is market day in Parma.  I’m used to farmer markets with stalls or tables of fruits and vegetables.  This was nothing like that.  Streets were crowded and bustling with people looks for deals on clothing, kitchen wares, shoes, purses, etc.  We could barely get through the crowds.  I thought it was great and I was in my element wanting to be like these Italians, searching for great buys.  I guess I forgot that whatever we purchased, we would have to fit in our already full and heavy luggage.  I could still vicariously enjoy what they were doing.  One vendor caught my eye.  He was standing on a corner and had a sheet on the ground with beautiful designer purses.  The cobalt blue Chanel purse caught my eye and before I could approach him and ask how much, he quickly grabbed everything in the sheet and ran down the street.  I looked around the corner to see what spooked him and it was two police officers.  I knew that he was selling counterfeit purses but honestly (and don’t get angry at me) I really, really liked that purse.  I liked the color, the shape and it didn’t matter as much that it was a Chanel.  I missed my chance.  Believe it or not, I would see him a few more times as he was always looking over his shoulder or listening to the signal his spotter would give. Blogger Hubby would not let me purchase that purse.  I know he was right but that purse, it was really great.

 

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All the little stores selling meats, cheeses and pizza slices were open.  We bought what we wanted to eat and went across the street to sit on a park bench and eat our lunch overlooking the river.  Parma is home to one of the world’s oldest universities having been founded in the 12th century.  This would be a good city if you have college age children to spend a semester abroad – lively city without being overly crowded.

As we walked back to the hotel for our luggage and subsequently to the train station to continue our travels to Bologna, we were again in awe of the beautiful architecture that was in Parma particularly the Governor’s Palace that dated back to the 13th century.

We were pleased with our stop, would welcome a return to Parma and would like to have more time so we could take a cooking lesson or a food tour of this area.

 

Verona, Italy, Juliet’s Balcony and Aida

We left Venice on the morning train to travel to Milan for our next four days.  We planned to get off the train in Verona in an attempt to see more of Italy than just Rome, Florence, Naples, Milan and Venice.  Some of the smaller cities interest me because I think that they be more authentic and less touristy.  For these reasons we decided to explore Verona and the fact that it was another UNESCO World Heritage Site added to our desire to explore this city.  The city has been in existence since 1 BC and has flourished for over two thousand years incorporating the old with the new.

We departed our Milan bound train car and walked into the Verona station.  Our first course of action was to find the luggage locker area.  At 5 euros per bag, we shoved as much as we could into our bags, checked the hours of the luggage locker, found out what time the trains to Milan (our destination ) were and then we headed upstairs and out of the train station to find the tourist information counter.

Our train ride from Venice to Verona
Our train ride from Venice to Verona

We really didn’t do any homework about visiting Verona and were traveling somewhat blind.  As we waited for the bus to take us downtown, we were befriended by another American couple that were probably our age.

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We got off when they did and were amazed when we saw a Roman amphitheater similar in appearance to the Roman Coliseum only much smaller.  This was the Arena and it was located by the largest piazza in Verona, Piazza Bra, convenient to the buses and public restrooms.  The Arena is the third largest amphitheater in Italy after Rome’s and Capua’s. The Arena could seat 25,000 spectators in the 44 tiers of seats while they watched gladiator shows.  While we were walking around, we even saw a gladiator ourselves!

A surprise finding this in the Piazza Bra in Verona. We didn't know that they had a Coliseum.
A surprise finding this in the Piazza Bra in Verona. We didn’t know that they had a Coliseum.
Our own gladiator!
Our own gladiator!

What was even more amazing to us were all the huge props outside the Arena. I never expected to see a huge Sphinx or Egyptian soldiers. I couldn’t stop taking photographs as I walked all around the Arena. What I found out is this is where open air operas are performed in the warmer months and they were getting ready to perform Aida about a week later.

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Verona is the scene for three of Shakespeare’s play – Romeo and Juliet, Two Men of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew.  The one thing that I really wanted to see was Juliet’s balcony.  Before you get upset, I know that it is a work of fiction however there is Juliet’s Balcony and a statue of Juliet.  With our map we were able to locate it.  It was very crowded.  I was somewhat upset that many, many people were all over the Juliet statue rubbing their hands on her breasts.  To me they were sexualizing this innocent love story by what they were doing to her and it left me very unhappy.

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You might be able to see the statue of Juliet a little to the right of the center
You might be able to see the statue of Juliet a little to the right of the center
The "famed" Juliet balcony
The “famed” Juliet balcony

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By now it was getting hotter and we were thirsty and hungry.  We headed off to the Piazza Erbe where we refilled our water bottles at the spigots by the fountain.  It was Friday and the market was in full swing.  We were lucky that we found cups of fresh fruit being sold.  Each of us buying a cup of delicious melons, pineapples, and apples quenched our thirst and revitalized us.  I’m sure we weren’t the only tourists at the Piazza but to us it felt more like a neighborhood than a tourist destination.

Piazza Erbe with the white tents of the market area.
Piazza Erbe with the white tents of the market area.

As we walked back to Piazza Bra to catch the bus to go to the train station, we saw the original 3rd century Roman gates in the original city walls.  I am constantly amazed at the age of some of the structures in Europe even though I know logically that Europe is much older, at least in civilizations, that we are.

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If you have an opportunity, explore some of these other Italian cities.

Venice – St. Mark’s Square and Sightseeing

As a child, a young adult and even as an older adult, I always had a mental list of places that I wanted to visit.  They either came about from books that I had read, places mentioned in school by history or literature teachers, even movies and television shows.  Venice was one of those places.  I certainly learned of it from Marco Polo’s travels.  There is a certain mystique about Venice and that may come about from the ornately decorated masks that Venetians wear during carnival time. Whatever the reason I was very anxious to spend some time in Venice. Blogger Hubby – well he would have been happy with half a day thinking that it was very odorous and crowded.  Two nights was our compromise that made both of us happy.

After we left our luggage at Ca’Bella B&B, we headed out to see what we could see.  We set out on foot, trying to follow signs to the Rialto Bridge, the oldest of the four bridges to cross the Grand Canal.  This stone bridge was completed in 1590 and has become somewhat of a tourist photo op.  We initially began walking by ourselves  with very few people in the little alleyways that  wind throughout Venice’s neighborhoods but the closer we walked toward the more touristy areas, the more crowded it became.

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The Rialto Bridge – to me it looks prettier from a distance

As we were making our way to St. Mark’s Square we would see  winged lions all around Venice.  The lion is the symbol of the patron saint of Venice, St. Mark.   St. Mark was among the earliest founders of the Christian church, and the man who wrote one of the four gospels.   Theologians believe it is the oldest of the four gospels.   St. Mark went to Alexandria and founded the Church of Alexandria.  He was killed when the pagans of the city resented his efforts to turn the citizens away from their traditional gods and was buried in Alexandria.  Around the 8th century  two Venetian merchants stole the bones of St. Mark and brought them back to Venice, who at that time, had no patron saint. That’s a brief history of how St. Mark came to Venice.

We stood and viewed the magnificent St. Mark’s Basilica.  The sun was beating down as we just stood there trying to take it all in.  I had wished that there were benches that we could sit down on to rest our weary feet so that we could appreciate our surroundings but it wasn’t to be.  I guessed that I had imagined that there were many steps to sit down on and feed the pigeons, benches all around the square….but it turned out that it was my imagination only.  Nevertheless, the square was spectacular.

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I love symmetry
I love symmetry
Can you see the four horses that were stolen by Napolean but recovered?
Can you see the four horses that were stolen by Napolean but recovered?

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By now it was lunchtime and getting hotter.  We hopped back on the vaporetto to head back in the direction of our B&B.  At our stop there was a little cafe that was on the water and looked to be perfect for lunch.  We eagerly ordered our first real Italian pizza made in Italy with a small antipasto to share.  A glass of chianti complimented our lunch.  What could be better – sitting with a glass of wine, eating authentic pizza on the water in Venice?

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We strolled back to our B&B for our, now typical, afternoon rest to get out of the hot and humid weather.  It was a chance to recharge our internal batteries and be ready for what will come later in the day.

Once it cooled down, we went to that terrible restaurant that I wrote about last with the tomato paste bruschetta.  We had fun after dinner just walking and getting lost, as we had been advised to do.  We viewed the gondoliers in their typical striped shirts and black pants.  We did not take a ride in one of the gondolas as they were very expensive and we did enjoy watching them ply the waters.

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After we people watched and waked around, we decided to head back to our room.  We hopped on a vaporetto that we thought (operative word – thought) would take us back to our neighborhood, however the vaporetto was going in the opposite direction.  Instead of going west, we went east.  It seemed like this vaporetto was taking the working people back toward mainland Venice.  All in all we considered it an adventure, saw a great view of Venice at night and went about 90 minutes out of our way.  It gave us a good laugh that would continue until the next night.

Hope you enjoy some of our photos of Venice.

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The Budapest Zoo, the Local Train and the Overnight Train

Waking up we knew that if we were going to do anything we needed to do it early because of the heat and humidity.  After looking at some of our options we decided to go to the Zoo.  We often do this and enjoy seeing the different zoos around the world.  Our favorite to date is the zoo in Singapore where they do not use any fences. I knew nothing could surpass Singapore so I was anxious to see what the zoo in Budapest would be like.

Again we headed to the subway, was able to get sign language directions as to what line, where to switch and where to get off.  We arrive at the zoo just before a large camp/school group did.  We were able to pay our admission, grab a map and off we went.  There were a number of “special” houses that didn’t open till 10:00 so we needed to wait about 15 minutes before they did.  What a disappointment.  Many times there were no animals in the cages or special exhibits in buildings.  We kept looking for the animals but didn’t see many. We did make it over to the seal show and that wasn’t too bad.  The interesting part for me was the music they played during the show – Cotton Eyed Joe, a traditional American country song. Here we are at a zoo in Hungary and this is what they were playing!  Disappointment with the zoo kept adding up and we decided just to leave.

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We went back to the hotel and just hung out in the lobby reading and staying nice and cool.  Our train to Vienna was at 4:05 and since we were just a couple of blocks from the train station and we had our “real” tickets, we left the hotel at 3:10.  We got to the train station and didn’t see our destination on the boards.  While I watched the luggage, Blogger Hubby went to find out what track we would be departing from.  He came back rather quickly and said we were at the wrong train station.  The option he was given was to take another train to the correct station.  As we started to go down to the lower level, I told him that I thought it would be better if we took a cab to the other station.  That was what we decided to do.  We quickly got a cab, showed him our ticket and motioned to him to take us to the station.  We were leaving the city, or at least it appeared to us we were.  Initially we thought it would be about a ten minute ride but instead it was more like 25 minutes.  We began to get a little panicky – would we make out train?  Rain starts pouring down, lightning is in the sky and now people are beginning to head home, leave work – just more people out than there was a little earlier.  Finally at 3:55 we pull up to the train station.  We needed to find our way, go up elevators, go up some stairs – I motioned Blogger Hubby to go ahead while I went a little slower lugging my heavy suitcase.  I needed to keep my eyes on him so I wouldn’t get lost.  The minutes are ticking away.  I finally find him at the top of a staircase that I have to go down and the escalator is not working.He motions me to go down while he carries my suitcase down the stairs.  We hurriedly get on the train and exhale a sigh of relief.  A minute later the train departs the station and we are on our way to Vienna.  Lesson learned is to always check to make sure you are at the correct station.  We actually though that the train clerk that we went to the day before would have told us but then, we didn’t ask, we just assumed.

The train we are on is an Inter-City which means it is a slower, more local train and not as new as the other train.  With the rain, the windows could not be open as the rain was coming in the train car.  Hot, humid and exhausted from our rush, we just leaned back and thanked our lucky stars that we made it.

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We arrived at our train station in Vienna and we had several hours to wait till our connecting train to Venice.  Lots of food choices at the train station.  The ATM wasn’t working and although we had a few Euros, we wanted more to bring with us into Italy.  I left the station and walked around outside till I found an ATM machine where I used my Charles Schwab debit card that has no foreign transaction fees or ATM fees (they reimburse your account).  I returned to the station and found that our train was already on the track.  We decided to go up and get settled, make sure we were in the right car and correct room – sometimes for us we flounder trying to determine the car number and we wanted to give ourselves a little more breathing room since we had just had a big rush in Budapest.    We had booked a double sleeper and we wanted to get settled and explore a little.  I had traveled by train quite a bit when I was a child and I was looking forward to reliving my memories of traveling in a Pullman car.

Imagine my surprise when we entered our room to find out that it as super tiny. It was bunk beds, which I had expected but I didn’t expect the room to be so narrow.  With both suitcases in the room there was hardly any room for a person.  There was no room to store our suitcases.Panic settling in again.    Blogger Hubby was able to climb up on the his top bunk and put his suitcase on a shelf over the door but what to do with mine?  The stewart came by and lifted up the bottom bunk and showed us a small space for my suitcase and we were able to squeeze in it.  With Blogger Hubby and I both standing in the room, there was no space.  I have never been in such a tight quarters……ever!

P1040182There was no place to sit other than in our respective beds.  The room was very hot and humid and we reported it to the stewart.  What did he do – he opened the window but it was so loud when we were traveling that I knew I would never be able to sleep.  It seemed like heat was coming out of our vent but in reality, nothing was coming out, no circulation of the hot and humid air.  He agreed to put us in the next room and so it began all over again…..bringing down the suitcase, lifting it back up in the new room, putting the lower bed back up, taking the suitcase out and then going into the new room, lifting up the bed, putting suitcase in and then putting bed back down…..and so on and so forth.  We were so hot and exhausted, not what I would call a good start to our train adventure .

We did receive a “goodie” bag in our room with slippers, a bottle of water, a snack and since breakfast came with our room we were given a menu where we could check off six items to be delivered to our room.  The room did not have a toilet so we had to use the one down the hall.  I began thinking that I had made a mistake in booking this sleeper car – it was not what I expected. Hopefully you can see how narrow the room was.   Nevertheless, we were able to get some sleep, breakfast was delivered close to the appointed time and we made it to Venice on time. Would I travel by train again – maybe but I would be a more intelligent train traveler.  I had noticed that one room at the end of the corridor was more in a L shape and it had a chair in the room even with both beds down and a small bathroom.  I found our that theirs was a triple for two people.  Lesson learned.

Next up – our arrival in Venice.

Budapest – the Pearl of the Danube

At the encouragement of our cruise director Monika, we were on the top deck of the AMAPrima as we sailed into Budapest around 8:00 AM listening to her commentary.  Monika is from Budapest and was able to give us first hand accounts and her impressions of her city.  Cameras were ready as we sailed in past Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube.  We were told how the Hungarian ruler in the 13th century made a promise that if he was able to rebuild his country following the invasion of the Mongols, he would send his daughter to live at the Dominican nunnery that he founded on the island.  He was able to do it and fulfilled his vow.  His eleven year old daughter Margaret was sent to the nunnery to live.  Her grave is still there so if you go, and I would highly recommend it, walk by Margaret’s grave.

Views of the city as we sailed into Budapest
Views of the city as we sailed into Budapest

P1030984As you have heard me say throughout most of this trip, it was another hot day projected to be in the low 90’s and this was only June 7th.  I believe this was the start of the heat wave that seems to have invaded Europe during the summer of 2015 and in August caused some river cruises to be canceled and other had to bus their passengers.

At 9:30 AM we met our group on the dock to board our buses.  This time, rather than following a female tour guide as I had recommended in another post, we had male tour guide and he was fantastic!  He actually trains tour guides in Budapest so I believe we got the best of the best.

The best tour guide - get him if you can
The best tour guide – get him if you can.  We are at Buda Castle

We rode the bus through the city to get a general overview and then ended up at Heroes Square.  Heroes Square with its Millennium Monument is one of the most visited sights in Budapest and is the largest square.  What I learned was that the monument was built in 1896 to mark the 1000th (that number is correct) anniversary of the arrival of the Hungarians (Magyars) into the Carpathian Basin which became Hungary.  The monument consists of two semi-circles.   On the top are the symbols of War and Peace, Work and Welfare, Knowledge and Glory. The statue, which is the main focus of Heroes Square, is of the Archangel Gabriel.  He stands on top of the center pillar, holding the holy crown and the double cross of Christianity. The seven chieftains who led the Magyar tribes to Hungary can be seen on the stand below. Statues of kings and other important historical figures stand on top of the colonnades on either side of the center pillar where Gabriel is located.

Heroes Square
Heroes Square
The 7 Magyar Chieftains who led the Hungarian people here
The 7 Magyar Chieftains who led the Hungarian people here from the east
The archangel Gabriel
The archangel Gabriel

After walking around Heroes Square we boarded the bus again to drive to the Buda Castle District which is on the Buda side of the river.  This area is made up of little cafes, crooked and narrow streets, little parks, cute shops and of course the historic section with the Royal Palace, St. Matthias and a few medieval buildings.  To me what was most striking was the roof of St. Matthias Church – absolutely beautiful with the different colored tiles.

St. Matthias Church
St. Matthias Church
The tiled roof
The tiled roof
Turrets on the walkway by the church and palace
Turrets on the walkway by the church and palace
Another scorching hot day
Another scorching hot day
St. Istvan who converted Hungary to Christianity and integrated his kingdom into Europe
St. Istvan who converted Hungary to Christianity and integrated his kingdom into Europe
Close up of the tiles on the church
Close up of the tiles on the church
medieval building by the Buda Castle
medieval building by the Buda Castle
View from the Castle
View from the Castle

When we returned to the ship after our tour, we had a Hungarian Folklore Show featuring gypsies who played music as well as male and female dancers doing some traditional dances for us.

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After dinner, when it got dark outside, our Captain took us on a Illumination Cruise of Budapest at night.  This was my very favorite part of the trip.  With the city bathed in a soft yellow glow from the illumination of all the buildings along the river, soft classical music playing and delicious wine to drink, we all sat back in awe of this beautiful city.  What a way to end our cruise – it couldn’t get any better than what we experienced this evening.  It was a chance to say goodbye to our new friends, get email addresses and Facebook contacts.  Enjoy these few photos of our last evening:

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Our group on the last evening. Please consider being part of my next group cruise on the Rhone in September 2016 and save money with group rates. Leave a comment if you want information about the AMAWaterways cruise
Our group on the last evening. Please consider being part of my next group cruise on the Rhone in September 2016 and save money with group rates. Leave a comment if you want information about the AMAWaterways cruise

 

Vienna, Austria

Vienna was one of the stops that I was looking forward to visiting. This was another hot and humid day on our cruise and thankfully our tour of the city was during the morning when it was a little cooler.  Blogger Hubby and I went on different tours – I did the regular City Tour while he did the Hidden Vienna Walking Tour for the more active walkers.  I could have done it, really, but I wanted to see the regular tour of the city as it was my first time in Vienna.

Vienna is a grand city with its Ringstrasse and the beautiful buildings all around it.  I liken Vienna’s Ringstrasse to a pearl bracelet around  Vienna where each pearl signifies a different monument or building that makes this city special.  It truly is an Imperial City.

The boat did not dock in Vienna but rather in a city ja short distance away.  We all boarded our buses and began our tour of Vienna and it began driving to the Ringstrasse.  The Ringstrasse dates back to 1858 when Emperor Franz Joseph had the city walls torn down in order to unite the suburbs of Vienna with the city center where the imperial power was located.

The result was a beautiful collection of  buildings built in different architectural styles  that was spread out between the parks and public gardens. In addition to having the State Opera and the City Hall along the Ringstrasse, wealthy citizens bought land along it to build magnificent town homes.  The Ringstrasse became the Austrian version of Paris’ Champs d’Elysees.

We were then dropped off and our tour guide walked us around Vienna, which by the way is another UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We went by the Hofburg Imperial Palace winter residence of the Habsburg family.

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Next we walked by the famed Spanish Riding School. when I was a young child, my mother took me to Boston Gardens to watch a performance of the famed Lipizzan horses.  I never forgot that experience and here in Vienna at the Spanish Riding School is where they trained.  We “peeked” through to look in the courtyard to see if we could see some horses but none were to be seen.

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the courtyard at the Spanish Riding School
the courtyard at the Spanish Riding School

We found ourselves walking over to the main square, the Stephansplatz where the main Roman Cathlic church in Vienna is located.  This cathedral, like others we have seen on our trip, was in the process of being cleaned – getting all the black soot off the sides of the building.

St. Stephan's Cathedral, Vienna
St. Stephan’s Cathedral, Vienna

One thing that I love when I travel are sweets – I know I shouldn’t but I do love them and always try to eat at least one a day.  Blogger Daughter had told me about a bakery that she went to while in Vienna and suggested that I might want to “stop in”.  While on our tour we went right past Demel’s  established in 1786.  Unfortunately since we were on the tour I did not stop and when I did go back, the shop was extremely busy.  Here are a few photos of Demel’s.  Perhaps if you go to Vienna, you’ll find time to stop and taste their pastries.

Demel's in Vienna
Demel’s in Vienna

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in the display window of Demel's - all handmade
in the display window of Demel’s – all handmade

Friends that went on the cruise with us wanted to have a treat at Aida’s close to the cathedral.  It had been recommended to them by a neighbor of theirs who lifter our tour was concluded, we headed to Aida’s.  I found myself pointing at the glass cases as to which treats I wanted.

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In Aid's hanging sign explaining the different types of coffee
In Aida’s hanging sign explaining the different types of coffeeand I ended up

After these treats, we parted ways and I ended up window shopping as most things that I looked at were very expensive.  I found the Lanz of Salzburg store and it reminded me of the dresses that I had in the early 1990’s that came from this manufacturer.

We were told when and where we could meet the bus to go back to the ship.  The afternoon we had an optional trip to Schonnbraum Palace which our wonderful travel agent had given our group because we had booked with her – a Virtuoso Travel Agent.  Unfortunately, I decided since it was so hot that I needed a partial “sea day” and elected to stay on the ship, get in the whirlpool, take a needed nap and rest up for the rest of the week.  The heat really played a major part in my decision to not go to the palace and in hindsight, I regret it but at the time, it was for me the right thing to do.  We spoke to one couple on our cruise and what they did was just to stay in Vienna, stroll around, stop for coffee and eventually they had a delightful dinner in Vienna.  That sounded wonderful and I have to remember to give myself permission to not always do what the cruise line sets up for us – I can go off and be “independent”.  I will remember this for future trips.

Next post – Bratislavia

Here are some more pictures of Vienna to enjoy:

it really is a curvy building
it really is a curvy building

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Biking through the Wachau Valley from Melk to Krems while on a River Cruise

Written by Blogger Hubby

While Jane was cruising through the Wachau Valley, I was doing something different and what I did became one of the memorable highlights of our cruise for me.  For me it was the bicycle ‘tour’ on the bike path alongside the river between Melk and Krems.  This was an excursion you could not sign up for prior to the cruise.  The staff wanted to see everyone to make sure that all who went on a guided excursion were able to do the tour.  This was one of three organized shore excursion for bicyclist enthusiast aboard the cruise ship.

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At the beginning of the cruise, I was not planning to do the Wachau Valley bicycling trip because I felt I was unprepared for the distance involved. However, I did sign up to bicycle on a shorter tour earlier in the cruise, and I bicycled on my own at a couple of other stops. There was a core bicycling group that formed during the week who encouraged each other. It included a very senior, rather petite woman from England. So when the time came for the Wachau Valley tour, I decided to take the leap. And I’m glad it did because bicycling 36 km along the river was a special trip. I should warn you that the length of the trip and the hilly terrain made it suitable only for experienced riders.   There was one reasonable steep hill to climb where I needed to walk my bike up a portion.

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The ride was memorable because it provided a different perspective of the countryside than seen from the ship. We passed through riverside parks where people were gathered for picnics and fishing, through small hamlets of homes and a few small stores, and through orchards of apricots. There were public toilets at one location and a source for drinking water.

Can you see me biking on the path by the road?
Can you see me biking on the path by the road?

The trip was well organized by the ship. Two crew members who were experienced bicyclists led the trip — one up front and the other at the rear. They carried drinking water and snacks, as well as first aid items and equipment to communicate with the ship. The pace was steady but not fast, and we had a target time to meet the ship. We made three rest stops that I remember. In the end I was tired but happy I had accomplished the feat. One thing that helped me was a desire to keep up with the little old lady from England.

Having bicyclists on our AMAWaterways ship certainly added to our overall experience.  Knowing that some ships had the bicycles was a factor in choosing this cruise line and because of it, it really added to our overall experience.

 

Cruising Through the Wachau Valley, Austria with AMAWaterways

This afternoon on our AMAWaterways Danube River cruise we had the option of staying on the boat as we cruised on the Danube through the scenic Wachau Valley in Austria.  The Wachau Valley is the name given to the 40 km stretch of the Danube between Melk and Krems.  The Wachau River Valley is another UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the Cultural Landscape – another check mark on my list of UNESCO sites visited.  The river cuts through the  picturesque narrow, rocky valley between the foothills of the Bohemian Forest and the Dunkelsteiner Waldone and is one of the most beautiful and well known regions in all of Austria.  It reminded me of when we cruised through the Rhine River Gorge years ago on the Rhone River.  So much beauty around the rivers of Europe.

The other option for the afternoon, and Blogger Hubby chose this option, was to bicycle from Melk to Krems on a bicycle path along the banks of the Danube River.  He’ll be writing of his adventures in a separate blog post.

I didn’t feel that I was up for the 36 k bike ride to Krems so I chose to stay on the ship and listen to the narrative of what we were seeing by our Cruise Director Monika.  Another reason was that we were going to have an ice cream social while cruising and I had heard they were having lemon gelato – my favorite.

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Ice Cream social while cruising through the Wachau Valley

As we plied the waters of the Danube we went passed Schonbuhel Castle .  This castle was built in the 12th century on the site of a former Roman fort.  Like other castles and churches, it has undergone repairs and remodeling.  What we were seeing was the remodel from the early 19th century.

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We also cruised passed the ruins of Aggenstein Castle.  Picturesque village dotted some of the landscape and none prettier than Weissenkirchen which means “white church” with over 1200 acres of grape vines growing in the area.  This is a major winemaking area.  They produce some world class Rieslings (my favorite wine) and apricot brandy  (Marilleschnaps).

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The Weissenkirchen in the Wachau Valley

Finally, we passed by the ruins of the Duernstein castle.  This castle, which is linked to the Crusades, was the the castle said to have been the prison of Richard the Lionheart in 1193. The story goes that when Richard was trying to get back home his boat washed up on the rocks of the Adriatic and he tried to sneak through Austria disguised as a peasant.  He was turned him in, arrested and imprisoned by Leopold V, the Babenberg duke ruling the country at that time.  Leopold was seeking revenge since he felt that he had been insulted by Richard in Palestine during the Crusades.     History comes alive for me when I see historical sites such as this castle.  I use my imagination to see the event as it happened in my mind.

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The castle where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned
beautiful white and blue church in Durnstein
beautiful white and blue church in Durnstein

Finally we docked at Krems.  We boarded our buses to go to Durnstein where, the optional tour I took, was “Apricots and Sweets” which I would not recommend.  We went up a small flight of stairs to a room over a little shop where we sampled numerous apricot product.  It was an unventilated, small room where we sat on a bench against the wall.  It was so hot with no air circulating that  I asked them to turn the fan on that was in the corner of the room.

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“Apricots and Sweets” excursion – not recommended by me. Here we are in a hot, windowless room with no ventilation.

This part of Durnstein is not one that I would recommend for anyone with mobility problems as it is uphill and cobblestoned.  Many older people had difficulty and even if they were in the Gentle Walkers group and traveled there by train, they still had to walk on the cobblestones and go uphill a little.  We were there on the Corpus Christi holiday and spread all over the cobblestone were grasses which made it even more slippery.

the train from the pier that the Gentle Walkers or those who needed assistance took to Durnstein
the train from the pier that the Gentle Walkers or those who needed assistance took to Durnstein
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Corpus Christi Day – you can still see some of the grass that was on the cobblestone. Made for slippery walking.
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Narrow streets with cute shops featuring a number of apricot products as this area has many apricot orchards.

As we walked back to get to the bus, we passed a little boat that was docked waiting for passengers to ferry across the river to Rossatz.  I could not believe that this was an actual ferry.  Look at this picture and tell me what you think.

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Finally a few more pictures that I took while we cruised.  Tomorrow Blogger Hubby’s post about bicycling along the Danube from Melk to Krems.

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sign in Durnstein locating all the castles along this stretch of the Danube River
Richard the Lionheart
Richard the Lionheart
the beautiful white and blue church in Durnstein
the beautiful white and blue church in Durnstein

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Melk, Austria and the Melk Abbey

When we woke up on our recent AMA Waterways River cruise we were in Melk, Austria.  We  had another delicious breakfast sitting at our usual table served by Marius.  This was going to be another busy day for us (you’ll find out why later on) and we needed to start our day off right with a good breakfast and we were not disappointed.

We boarded our buses to visit another UNESCO World Heritage Site – the Melk Abbey.  I was given a color chip to find my guide  but I decided to follow my new rule of having a female guide since they had all, till this point, received great reviews from my fellow passengers.  I hopped over to the Yellow Bus and I was ……right!  She was great.

The Melk Abbey is a Benedictine Abbey on a high bluff overlooking the Danube River in the city of Melk.  The Abbey had been named Best Historical Destination by National Geographic Traveler Magazine in 2008.

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The golden color of the Abbey felt like a warm welcome to us – not an austere gray color that you might imagine.   It really was beautiful outside and we couldn’t wait to go inside and see what that was like.

To begin with, like most things in Europe, the Abbey had been built and destroyed several times.  The Abbey, as we saw it, dated from the 18th century although since 1978 there have been extensive repairs of the Baroque buildings.  The restoration was paid in part by the sale of the Abbey’s Gutenberg Bible to Harvard University.   The Benedictine monks have lived here for over 900 years during all types of political turmoil for Austria.  Additionally, they run a school for about 900 students.

As we walked into the courtyard of the Abbey, our guide told us that she would not escort us in but rather an official Abbey guide would. Ours was great but a little (hmm, perhaps a lot) overly enthusiastic and energetic.  I would rather have that than an indifferent guide.

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Our tour took us through the church, the museum, the library (which is the second most important part of the abbey just behind the church) and the marble hallway.  The library holds over 16,000 very old books, some being about 500 years old.  The ceiling in the library was painted in vibrant frescos, and the bookshelves were what you would expect in a very lavish yet old and distinguished library – all this for the monks who studied and did research there.  Just pass the main library is the smaller library with its spiral staircase.  We were not allowed to take photographs otherwise you would be seeing how beautiful it was.

Here are some more photos from the Abbey:

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view from the Abbey of the city of Melk
view from the Abbey of the city of Melk
some of the gardens of the Abbey
some of the gardens of the Abbey

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I love walking into the churches and cathedrals and marveling at all they were able to do without all the modern machinery and equipment that we have nowadays.  To me it is just awe-inspiring.  Here are a few pictures from inside the Abbey church:

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After we toured the Abbey rather than taking the bus back to our ship, Blogger Hubby and I decided to walk back partly because today was a holiday.  It was the Corpus Christi holiday in Austria.  As we peered over the side of the Abbey and looked down to the town, we saw a small marching band playing and people outside.  We wanted to partake of this holiday however by the time we finished our tour, the band was gone.  However, we did walk through the small town and got to see some of Melk itself.

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Later this day, we would cruise through the Wachau Valley while some more industrious people, Blogger Hubby included, biked the 36 k to Krems.

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Wrapping Up Prague – Weird Stories, a Great Restaurant and Activities on the Main Square

We spent 4 nights and three full days during our recent Prague visit. When Blogger Hubby and I travel we really pack a lot into our time.  Our philosophy is that we may not return and we want to see the usual sights as well as something a little different and Prague was no exception.

You’ve read about the free Walking Tour we took with the green umbrella man but did we tell you about St. James Church and the story of the mummified arm that hangs inside the church entrance?  Really.  First off our guide calls this the Bling Church because of all the jewels and gold in the church.  But back to the story.  As soon as you walk in to the church turn to your right and look UP.  You’ll see a withered, black, shriveled arm hanging from a meat hook.  The story goes that after dark one night over 400 years ago, a thief went into the church to steal the jeweled necklace off the statue of the Virgin Mary.  As he reached up to slip it off her neck, she came to life and grabbed his arm and he remained like that till the next morning when the parishioners arrived.  They could not release the grip of the Virgin Mary.  Supposedly the thief suggested that they cut the arm and the parishioners thought it was a good idea.  Since many of them belonged to a butchers’ guild, they went to their shop and got a large saw to cut the arm.  When they put the saw against the thief’s arm he became hysterical – he meant for them to cut off the arm of the Virgin Mary but they were not going to do it.  Without any anesthesia, they cut his arm and as soon as it was cut, she released her grip and returned to her normal pose.  The arm was hung up in the narthex as a deterent to future thieves.

entrance to the church
entrance to the church
the beautiful church of St. James
the beautiful church of St. James
the ceiling is impressive to view
the ceiling is impressive to view
The Virgin Mary statue who grabbed the thief's arm
The Virgin Mary statue who grabbed the thief’s arm
Walking into the church, turn to the right and look up
Walking into the church, turn to the right and look up and see the meat hook with the dangling arm
a close up of the withered arm
a close up of the withered arm

Changing to a more pleasant subject, I want to let you know of a wonderful restaurant to eat at in Old Town Prague.  Around the corner from the Old Town Hilton is the Cafe Imperial.  We had read about it on Trip Advisor and it had been mentioned on the River Cruise thread on Cruise Critic.  I quickly pulled up the website and the restaurant was beautiful, with carved walls and an art deco interior.  The ceiling was a large mosaic and it was difficult to not look up.  The columns, the walls, the ceiling – it was the most ornate yet beautiful restaurant that I have been to in a very long time.  With a restaurant looking this beautiful I imagined that it would be out of our price range……but it wasn’t.  I needed to continually remind myself of the conversion rate.  I tried to make a reservation as it was suggested but to no avail.  Disappointment set in and then I remembered that we were staying at the Intercontinental and wrote to the concierge and asked them to make a reservation for us.  Success!  Old world service, delicious food and prices for us which made it a steal.  I had ordered the Chicken roulade stuffed with salsiccia  and it was priced at 277 CZK which equaled about 11USD.  If you have a chance, treat yourself to a meal at the Cafe Imperial.

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If you want to do something very touristy, I would recommend going to the Czech Folklore Dining and Dancing.  Yes, it is for tourists and may not have the highest ratings on Trip Advisor but for our group, it was great.  You need to make reservations online (you pay when you get there) and fill in where you are staying.  They send minivans to pick you up at your hotel and that is included in the ticket price.  We went about 30 minutes outside of Prague to the countryside.  We walked into a large, but not too large, room where picnic style tables and benches are set up.  In the front of the room is a small stage for the singers, dancers and musicians.  As we walked in we were given a choice of drinks – a honey wine or juice.  The wine was delicious. Beer and wine, both red and wine, was included though to be honest I think the wine was watered down.  The drinks flowed freely even when you didn’t want anymore!  The meal was served family style and although not the best food I’ve had, it was certainly fine.   As we ate, we were entertained and even a few members of the audience were brought up to the stage. The singers and dancers were in their native clothing and it was colorful to see.  We all enjoyed the evening particularly when it included transportation, wine, beer, dinner and entertainment.  They take cash and credit cards.  I would recommend taking in this show as it was a fun evening.

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Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora aka The Bone Church, Czech Republic

I’ll be up front and honest, when I told friends where I was going they were terribly aghast.  I was going to a church (really, it’s a chapel) filled with bones.  Sometimes, I tell myself, there is beauty in something macabre and I wonder if I would find it so in this church.

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Let me give you a little history of how all this came to be.  As we learned yesterday in the post of Kutna Hora, this area became wealthy during the 1300’s because of the silver mines that was used to make the coinage in Europe.  This area was a favorite of several kings of Bohemia and because it was the city competed with Prague as a cultural and economic center till about the 16th century when the Hapsburgs took over the region and the city became to fall apart.  Due to flooding the mines were abandoned, the Hussite Wars raged through the area and the Black Plague took many lives.  With all these events there were many dead bodies they needed to be buried.

In 1278 Henry, the abbot of the Cistercian monastery in Sedlec was sent to the Holy Land by King Otaker II of Bohemia on a diplomatic mission. On his return Henry took with him a handful of earth from Golgotha which he sprinkled over the cemetery of the Sedlec monastery. Word spread about what he did and the cemetery became famous throughout Central Europe. Many wealthy people desired to be buried here because of the connection to Jesus.  The church was built on a cemetery many bodies were dug up in order to build

In 1278, Henry, the abbot of the Cistercian monastery in Sedlec, was sent to the Holy Land by King Otaker II of Bohemia. Henry took with him a handful of earth from Golgotha which he sprinkled over the cemetery of the Sedlec monastery.  Word spread about what he did and the cemetery became famous throughout Central Europe.  Many wealthy people desired to be buried here because of the connection to Jesus.

Around 1400 one of the abbots had the All -Saints church built in the Gothic style in the middle of the cemetery. Underneath it a chapel was built and it was for the bones from the graves that were dug up to build the church.  Legend has it that in 1511 a half-blind priest was tasked with stacking all those bones, allegedly of 40,000 people, in the basement Ossuary.

In the late 18th century,  the Schwarzenberg family hired Frantisek Rint, a woodcarver,  to put the bone heaps into some type of order.  In each of the four corners of the Ossuary there are large numbers of bones are stacked in pyramid shaped towers.

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The left side of the nave is the coat of arms of the Schwarzenberg family made up entirely of human bones.  It is interesting to note that in the lower right hand corner of the coat of arms is a crow eating the eyeball of the skull.

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The large chandelier is supposedly made of every bone in the human body.

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If you visit here, look for the signature of Frantisek Rint written entirely of bones.

There is a small charge to go down into the basement of the Ossuary where the bones are.  When you have seen all that you can see, walk around the cemetery. After we were finished our driver picked us up and back to Prague we traveled, a little less talkative than we were heading out to Kutna Hora.

If you decide to go there by train you’ll need to go to the main train station in Prague and catch one of the trains leaving every two hours in the morning and afternoon for Kutna Hora mestro as that ticket will include the local train ticket.  At 3:00 PM they leave every hour.  You’ll arrive at the main train station in Kutna Hora but it is not within walking distance from the city center so you’ll need to transfer to a local train which leaves about 5 minutes after the train from Prague arrives.  If you should miss the connecting train, there is also a local bus (no 1 and no. 7) that will take you into town where you can walk to St. Barbara’s Church.  Another option is to take the private 8-passenger minivan (Tourist Bus) which runs between the Kutná Hora train station, Sedlec Ossuary and Church of St. Barbara in town.  You can always see if one is waiting at the station when you arrive. It leaves as soon as at least three people get on.  Check what the price is and you may find that it meets your needs.  If you are going to the Ossuary first both the local train and bus (and the minivan) pass through the Sedlec suburb, so you can get off there (1st stop by train, 2nd stop by bus) and visit the Ossuary.  There is also a direct bus leaves the Praha-Háje bus stop (metro line C, station Háje) every hour throughout the day and the trip takes 1 hour 40 minutes.

Here is a video that you might be interested in showing the Ossuary and bone church.

A few more pictures from the bone church

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one of the grave stones from the cemetery.  Milan told us it was a pilot
one of the grave stones from the cemetery. Milan told us it was a pilot

Kutna Hora and St. Barbara’s Church outside of Prague, Czech Republic

After a few days of walking the streets of Prague, we felt like we needed to get out into the countryside and away from the hustle and bustle of city life.  Knowing that we would feel this way, I had arranged to have a private guide and driver take Blogger Hubby and myself as well as four other people in our group out to Kutna Hora and the Sedlec Ossuary.

We booked with Personal Prague Guide and after a number of emails, I firmed up our itinerary.  I also received a picture of our tour guide, Milan,  which was handy in meeting him in our hotel lobby as well as his biography.  I’m grateful that his biography accompanied his photo because it eased my mind that he was indeed a licensed tour guide and his interests were varied and very interesting.  Being a “senior” like us, he fit in just fine.  Here is his bio and tell me what you think of him:

Milan is a licensed tour guide of the Czech Republic and Prague. He has worked as a tour guide for 15 years for several local companies, so he can speak English very well (and also German, French, Italian). He is very informative guide with a human approach and a great sense of humor. He can bring the history alive and let you understand the fears and the dreams of local people.   He was an active member of the anti-communist Velvet Revolution 1989, so his stories definitely cross the borders of the guidebooks!  Milan is the co-founder of our company, and by the way my – Sarka`s – father (and a big tutor!). We have a very similar guide style. In a joke we always used to say “he’s as smart as a radio” 🙂 As he is getting older, he sometimes talks longer – mentioning all the details and context. But he also gives a lot of tour time for free to his clients … so you do not pay for his “talkative moments” 🙂   He is very entertaining – a local character! Do not be surprised if he plays the songs of the Velvet Revolution on his flute during the tour.  His hobbies are numerous: sightseeing, history, traveling, diving – Ceylon, catamaran boat in Croatia, languages, bio-farming …

Our tour guide Milan
Our tour guide Milan

The cost, for May 2015, was 6100 CZK which worked out to be $45 per person for our group of 6 plus entrance fees of places that required them. This was much less expensive than the tour guide that our local travel agent suggested which was 100 Euros per person.  Our tour was to last 6-7 hours and if it went beyond that, then there would be an additional charge.  We didn’t think that would be necessary and that 6-7 hours would be more than sufficient.  We had only planned to go to St. Barbara’s Church and the Sedlec Ossuary (known as the bone church). Both St. Barbara’s Church and the Ossuary, in Kutna Hora, are on the UNESCO World Heritage site.  As we are traveling more, we are drawn to sites that are listed as UNESCO sites.  Trivia question – what is the abbreviation UNESCO stand for?  Answer at the bottom of the blog.

It took about an hour to drive from Prague to Kutna Hora.  Milan was able to talk to us while the driver was negotiating the traffic and roads and tell us about the history and importance of Kutna Hora.  Kutna Hora was a silver mining town and a very prosperous one.  In fact, most of Europe’s silver coins came from the silver that was mined here. and the wealth it brought to the mine owners.

Because of the mines,  Kutna Hora became one of  most important cities in Bohemia and  was also one of the richest cities in Bohemia.  The Church of St. Barbara  was founded by Kutná Hora’s rich mine owners in 1388.  It became the second most important city in Bohemia during medieval times. You can go down into the silver mines if you make an appointment in advance but be forewarned, I’m told it is very narrow using the original narrow corridors and is 50 meters underground.

The Cathedral of St. Barbara is one of the most famous buildings in all of central Europe.   It was built in the Gothic style and later, as the building process continued for over 500 years, Baroque began to take over.  St. Barbara, as we learned from Milan, was the patron saint of miners which is important to note as this area received most of its wealth from the silver mines.  St. Barbara’s is the most spectacular gothic cathedral in the Czech Republic. It’s difficult to appreciate the cathedral from close up as there is so much to see, and almost impossible to capture it in a photograph though I did try. The intricacy of the flying buttresses, the unique tent-like sailing spires, and the marvelous cliff-top setting just made this church absolutely beautiful inside and out.

St. Barbara's Church
St. Barbara’s Church, front entrance
Blogger Hubby and me outside of St. Barbara's Church
Blogger Hubby and me outside of St. Barbara’s Church
St. Barbara's Church on the highest hill in the area overlooking vineyards
St. Barbara’s Church on the highest hill in the area overlooking vineyards

Milan also showed us some of the markings on the pillars in the church. Each straight line represented work that the stone carver did on the pillar and this is how they were paid.  Sort of a medieval bookkeeping system.  If you go to this church see if you can find some of these markings on the pillars.  They look like this:

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The church itself is very beautiful.  We walked in and immediately our eyes were drawn upward to the “ribs” on the ceiling.  To think about how they constructed this building without all the modern machinery that we have now is mind bogging.  The stain glass windows, the mosaics and when you looked up, you saw coats of arms from many of the miners.  I wished I had thought to bring binoculars to view the details in the ceiling.

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The church also had a statue of a miner who represented all miners in the town.  Miners would come and pray to St. Barbara at her church and they would also pray to her while underground particularly during the cave-ins.

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After viewing the church we left and walked down a wide cobblestone pathway that was lined with statues that lead us to the center of town.  To the left of the pathway was a Jesuit college and to the right was a beautiful vista of vineyards and gardens.

cobblestone pathway to town lined with statues overlooking vineyards
cobblestone pathway to town lined with statues overlooking vineyards

As we were walking to town, about a ten minute walk, Milan explained and showed us what a real cornerstone was.  Apparently homes had place outside of their homes so that horse drawn carriages would not run into the homes and destroy them.

cornerstone in Kutna Hora
cornerstone in Kutna Hora

Once in the town, Milan took us to one of his favorite restaurants where we ate in the back gardens – a very relaxing luncheon.  We tried to pay for his lunch but he would not hear of it.  Apparently he tells his guides not to accept anything other than the fee for the tour and tips.   He did buy a glass of the special liquor that the Czechs drink in order for us to have a taste.

Trivia Answer: UNESCO stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Our next stop – the Bone Church otherwise known as the Sedlec Ossuary.  Wait till you see the pictures I have of that!  Meanwhile, here are a few more pictures of St. Barbara’s and Kutna Hora

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Our Arrival in Prague and What We Did – Part 1

We arrived in Prague by bus from Nuremberg around 7 PM and was driven to our hotel, the Intercontinental right on the waterfront, by the driver that I had arranged prior to our visit through the hotel.

The hotel has the appearance of a Soviet era building, very unattractive and sterile on the outside but was very modern on the inside.  As we were being checked in we were told that we had been upgraded to a Junior Executive Suite since I was Platinum Elite.  No, I don’t stay in hotels very often but having the IHG credit card gives me automatic platinum status.  Our room was very nice and large, especially by European standards.

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We dropped off our luggage and headed out to follow our driver’s recommendation of where we should have our dinner.  We went to VKolkovne which seemed to be a gathering place for after work drinks and dinner for residents of Prague.  Our hotel was unable to make reservations for us but we decided to walk over and see if we could get seated which we did with no wait!  Food was delicious and the beer was even better.  I became a beer drinker on this trip when I quickly realized that beer was less expensive than wine and even water!

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After dinner we went exploring.  We walked over to Old Town Square. The historic center of Prague is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of many that I was sure that we would visit during this trip.  Many people  where many people were waiting in the dark for the Prague Astronomical Clock to strike on the hour.  This clock was installed on a wall on the Old Town City Hall in 1410.  When the clock strikes on the hour there is a Walk of the Apostles showing the figures of the Apostles and other figures including Death.  Once all the figures came out, the crowd around it seemed to disburse though the square remained lively.

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Food vendors were around the square with an array of food included a version of fried dough slathered with garlic butter and topped with a generous amount of shredded cheese.  My other favorite street food was chimney stacks which is like having dough wrapped in strips around a metal cylinder and then cooked over coals.  It is topped with cinnamon sugar and you can peel off the strips one layer at a time.

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For our first full morning we headed over to Old Town Hall Square to take a Free Walking Tour.  They seem to all advertise themselves by holding up an umbrella – different colors for different tour companies.  There are several companies that do this and you need to find the one that you are comfortable with.  My recommendation is to talk to the person who is actually going to be doing your tour.  Blogger Hubby found that some guides had a heavier accent than others did and he wanted a guide that he could have an easier time hearing and understanding.  We found a tour guide holding a Green Umbrella and he was from Seattle, Washington.  We determined that he was the “perfect” guide for us.  We were very happy with our decision, the amount of information he passed on to us and our entire tour.  It was shorter than some of the other umbrella companies but that is only because we took a shorter break than others did. If you look at his umbrella it shows the countries where English is the primary language.

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We needed to get back to our hotel by 1:30 since we had booked a Czech cooking lesson for the afternoon and evening in our hostess’ home.  My next blog will tell you all about our experience.

Fun Fact:  Many South Korean bridal catalogs shoot their photographs for the catalogs in Prague.  We saw many “fake” weddings in the square and in front of the astronomical clock.  Who knew!

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A few more pictures from Prague featuring some of their more beautiful buildings:

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Beginnings – KLM and Amsterdam

We usually do one big trip a year and this was our trip as we were heading to Europe for our cruise down the Danube as well as time on our own doing some exploring.

I’m a points hoarder so for this 7 hour flight, I chose for us to fly economy class on KLM.  The flight was just a little over 7 hours and I kept thinking of all the other trips I could go on by saving the difference between economy and business class.  I had transferred 25,000 American Express Membership Reward points for each f us (total 50,000 points) over to KLM in order to make the one way booking.  I was very impressed with economy on KLM, the food and with our service from the flight attendants.

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I’m not going to bore you with minutia details but everything on the flight worked out fine though I would have liked to have a larger entertainment screen but what we had was fine.   After all,  we did want to sleep.

We arrived around 7:30 AM in Amsterdam and the plan was to walk around the city, the flower market and the Rijk (it was closed the last time we were there).  When we arrived we went to the ticket office at the airport to purchase a  24 hour transportation ticket to go into Amsterdam.  Yes, we could have used the unmanned kiosk but since we were using a chip and signature card we wanted to use it first at a manned kiosk.  Downstairs we went to catch the train into the Central Station.

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I found the train system very user friendly.  Above the track it shows the next 3 trains, where they are going and what time they should be at the station.  We got off the train just before we got to the Central Station and went looking for something that I again hadn’t been able to do during our last visit – eat Dutch pancakes!  You know, those little dollar sizes  saucer shaped pancakes that are sprinkled with powdered sugar and boy, were they good.  A serving is a platter of 12 of them.  I really didn’t think I would eat them all but you know what – I did and I did it quite easily.

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Next stop on the bus – The Rijk Museum.  The more I travel the more I realize how much I appreciate and enjoy looking at some of the works of the famous Old Masters and this museum certainly didn’t disappoint. The museum, to our somewhat sleep deprived mind, seemed a little confusing and we kept asking directions to find certain exhibits. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our time taking in the paintings of Vermeer, Rembrandt, Raphael. Botticelli and many more.

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After walking around the city and going to one of my favorite places, the flower market,  we found that we were tired.  Really tired.  We still had about three hours before our flight to Nuremberg.

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Rather than wandering around more, we decided to catch  the train back to Schiphol Airport.  Clearing security was no problem and we found where the gate was for our next flight.  But then an amazing thing happened – we found an area that had loungers for us to get comfortable in and actually (speaking for myself) catch up on a little sleep.  Actually I lied…I think I slept about two hours in those loungers.

Our little hopper flight took us from Amsterdam to a city I had not been to before – Nuremberg.  Another train ride from the airport to the central station area where our hotel, the Holiday Inn – City Center was located.  Once we were settled in , we began to explore this city that I am so glad we happened to be in.

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More to come!

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC

Living outside of the Washington DC area, we were fortunate that we were close enough to take advantage of all that Washington has to offer.  When we first moved to the DC area from Boston, I didn’t think we would be there for twenty six years so we made an effort to do it all.  We went white water rafting in the Shenandoah River in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (the town made famous by John Brown capturing the federal armory).  We took our children to roll Easter Eggs on the front lawn of the White House.  There isn’t a museum that we haven’t been too in DC and for many years we were FONZs – Friends of the National Zoo.   Being a Bostonian, to me there was nothing  as spectacular as being on the Esplanade for the 4th of July listening to Arthur Fielder or John Williams leading the Boston Pops in the 1812 Overture with the Howitzer cannons firing across the river that is until……we stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial watching the fireworks that were illuminating behind the Washington Monument.  The booms of the fireworks reverberating against the buildings, flags flying and all many of our country’s landmarks all around us.

I could go on and on about Washington but that is not the purpose of this post.  Rather, there is another event which doesn’t garner as much attention but is a favorite of our family.  It is the National Folklife Festival sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute.  This cultural and educational event  is held outdoors on the National Mall the last week of June and the first week of July.  The festival is ever-changing since they choose a country, a state or even one year The Silk Road to highlight.  The day is full of demonstrations of cooking, traditional crafts (woodcarving for example), living traditions  and usually some type of entertainment.  There will also be events and exhibitions at other Smithsonian museums and it is recommend that you will allow time to visit those.

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This year Peru will have the honor and distinction of being the main focus of this festival.  Due to some construction on the Washington Mall, the event will be held in front of the National Museum of the American Indian, one of the Smithsonian museum’s.  According to their website “visitors to the Peru Festival program will experience these unique connections through cooking and craft demonstrations, music and dance performances, moderated discussions, ritual and celebratory processions, and other participatory activities. In addition, there will be robust involvement with Peruvian American and diaspora communities.

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The public will have the opportunity to learn, to eat, to dance, to shop, to witness these vibrantly connected cultures and create their own connections with Peruvian artists and specialists on the National Mall and beyond.

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Don’t forget to stop at the Marketplace to view and possibly purchase unique gifts and at the same time support artists and artisans from around the world.  Some of the items you’ll find for sale are

  • Jewelry
  •  Music CDs
  • Textiles
  • Books
  • Baskets
  • Toys
  • Pottery
  • Sculpture
  • Clothing
  • Paper arts

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This is a great opportunity to combine two events at the same time in the Washington DC area – the 4th of July and the Folklife Festival.

It WILL be hot and humid in DC at the time so be sure to bring water with you and take it easy.  There are many things to do inside as well as outside.

A Personal View of OAT – Overseas Adventure Travel – small group travel

I pleased to introduce my guest blogger Roberta – a world traveler who just happens to be related to me by marriage.  Blogger Hubby and I always enjoy seeing her and receiving her Christmas cards to read about where she has been during the year.  It might have been all the cards that began my lust for traveling after hearing about all her adventures.  Hope you enjoy reading what she has to say about OAT.

My name is Roberta and I am Blogger Jane’s cousin-in-law as her Blogger husband is my first cousin. She asked me to share some of my impressions about Overseas Adventure Travel Company better known to all as OAT. I have traveled with them 44 times and my fiancé Joe 45 times.

We both lost our spouses many years ago and luckily found each other, two people with a lust for life and love of travel. Not long after we met Joe informed me that for his vacation next year (1998) he had found a company that specialized in “adventure travel” and he was going to go on an African Safari with them. I was not invited as “we did not know each other well enough to share a tent” and I was also still teaching plus the trip had been booked months before we met. His month in Tanzania and Zanzibar was a life changing event and he couldn’t wait to take me there and every other place on his bucket list.

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We started traveling, slowly at first until we retired and then with a vengeance, having now visited over a hundred countries many more than once.
OAT became our travel company of choice because their trips are an excellent value, their Tour Leaders are top notch, they want to show you a country up close and personal warts and all and the places you stay, foods you eat and things you do are all cultural experiences and adventures.

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The people you meet in this small group travel company (land tours have a maximum of 16 guests) are just an added bonus. You do not simply get on and off the bus, you take rides in rickshaws, in canoes, on camels and horses, you hike in the jungle, you climb sand dunes, your Zodiacs take you to see the penguins in Antarctica and have leopards and lions walk so close to the vehicle you could touch them. Obviously our list of OAT trips is too long to complete but some of our favorites have been SAFARI SERENGETI (6 times for me 7 for Joe and every adventure was different even though we were in the same country), Morocco, China, Thailand, Italy, Bhutan, Vietnam, Namibia, South Africa, Japan, Turkey and Myanmar are just a few.

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Overseas Adventure Travel has changed since we have traveled with them both in good ways and some we haven’t liked. One excellent change this year is to include the tips required for everyone except your Tour Leader in the cost of the trip. This has been one area that the post trip evaluation forms kept emphasizing as something that needed to be done by the company. Another change that we found “troublesome” is the price for the airport transfer if you book your own air. We feel that they are extraordinarily high since the “bus is heading there” anyway and today if you are interested in accumulating air miles the airlines will not give them for third party ticketing or consolidation fares. In order to keep prices down we have seen a decline in the quality of properties OAT uses for their accommodations. They are always clean, often hotels reflecting the culture and/or unusual in some way but they are definitely not what they used to be when we started traveling with OAT.

The company does an excellent job of getting travelers up close and personal with people in the country where you are by school and orphanage visits, home-hosted meals and sometimes an overnight stay and trips thru local markets and villages. These are wonderful ways to really get a feeling for what it would be like to live in this country. The Tour Leader is a citizen of the country he is representing and shares his or her knowledge and love of country with you and/or the problems there as they see it. No topic is off limits to questioning.

We have traveled with many other companies but I would say OAT has a very good product if you prefer small group travel and you are physically able to take a little more adventurous trip. You will not be required to lug your gear or climb Mount Everest but you will have fun!

Thank you Roberta for your perspective of traveling in a small group with a tour guide.  I think what I took away from this is the difference between OAT and other tour companies in that you are welcomed into the lives and culture of the people of the land that you are visiting.  A more intimate visit than just wandering the streets.

Taking a Ferry Boat through the Panama Canal – an Optional Excursion

This post was written by Blogger Friend Deb who was on the Panama Canal cruise with me.  She and I both did different tours while in the Canal.  Here is her account of the ferry ride through the canal and the locks that they went through.

If you are only doing the partial transit of the canal on the cruise ship, I would recommend doing the rest of the canal on the ferry boat excursion (Canal Experience to Colon on Holland America ). Make sure you take binoculars, a hat, sunscreen, and wear cool and comfortable clothes. Water and other cold drinks are provided on the ferry boat, as well as a lunch of finger foods, small sandwiches, pasta salad, fruit, and a muffin. There was ample food and not difficult to carry to any place on the boat to eat.

We went ashore by tender in Lake Gatun after exiting the Gatun Locks. After a bus ride of about an hour or so to Gamboa, mostly on an expressway, we boarded the ferry, which was fully loaded. We were some of the last people on, and had to take seats on the top deck at the back and in the sun. I first thought we’d be stuck there all day, but once people stopped saving seats and staking out their territory, they began milling around, talking and meeting new people, it was not a problem. We got to see everything up close and personal and more down at eye level and on a different perspective than on the cruise ship. From Gamboa, we left Lake Gatun and went through the Culebra Cut past Gold Hill and under the Centennial Bridge to the Pablo Miguel Locks. Passing through the Pablo Miguel and Miraflores Locks, we were right up against the sides where we took pictures of each other touching the slimy green walls of the locks. Great fun! Exiting the Miraflores Locks, the trip continues past Balboa and under the Bridge of the Americas where we disembarked near Panama City.

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We were able to move around the ferry and even ended up at the very front of the boat with good seats. There were adequate toilet facilities on the ferry. It only got crowded again when we were close to getting off the boat at the Pacific end, and everyone crowded the stairs. We were bused through the out skirts of Panama City and then about an hour by expressway back to the Caribbean side where we re-boarded the cruise ship at Colon.

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The cost of the excursion was not cheap at about $170 each, but when you consider that we had a bus ride each way, a meal on the boat, and the boat had to pay a substantial fee to the Canal to transport through, it was probably not unreasonable. We thought it was well worth it to go through the whole canal, something we would do only once in a lifetime.

Excursions on Cruises – Do Private or Do the Cruise Line Excursion?

You sail into port and see the beautiful turquoise waters.  You’re excited to explore this new port or to visit areas that you didn’t see your last time there.  The cruise line has many excursions for you to choose from and yet you have heard that friends of yours do private excursions because they are less expensive and fewer people on the buses.  You are under the strong impression that if you take the ship sponsored excursion and it runs late, the ship will not leave without you.  What do you do?

This is a very personal decision and it depends on how comfortable you are in being a little independent.  For me, we almost always use a private tour company and do not book any of the ship’s excursions and I have always felt very comfortable in doing so.

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HOW TO FIND A TOUR OPERATOR – I feel that the key to doing this is doing your homework – at least some of the time.   I begin finding tour operators by googling “shore excursions in XXXXX”.    Many tour operator’s web sites will come up and I read them and their reviews written by those who have taken their tours.  I then go to Trip Advisor to see how they are rated and what is written about them.  Finally, I go to the cruise critic website and go to their Ports of Call thread and read what is written about the port and what tour companies people have used.  Blogger Hubby will sometimes write to the Chamber of Commerce to get names of reputable tour operators.  At that point, once I find a tour operator I email them for more information.

In my email I let them know what ship I will be on, the date and time that it arrives in port and when I needed to be back.  You can find the latter information on your itinerary where it will list when you leave port.  I always tell them that I need to be back about 30 minutes before I need to be – it gives me a cushion.

If I am not back, most likely the ship will leave unless there are a lot of passengers who have not returned either.  There are times when, even if you are on a ship sponsored excursion and they are back late, they will leave without you.  Ships pay to dock and if another ship is scheduled to come into port or if the extra expense of waiting for you is not worth it, then the ship will leave you behind.  If on a ship sponsored excursion, the cruise line  will make sure you get to the next port of call.  You are on your own when you book a private tour.  I will say, having taken private excursions for many, many years never have I been late for a ship nor have I heard of anyone arriving late on a private tour. It is a risk that I am willing to assume and don’t give it a moments thought.

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BENEFITS – what I love about private tours, especially when prebooked, is that you can suggest to the tour operator what you would like to see.  On the ones that I have organized we have been in clean mini-buses with about 10 people.  We are never in a commercial bus seating 44 people always waiting for that person who thinks that the time to come back applies to them.  I have felt very herded at times on the larger buses.  These experiences have led me to find private excursions.

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PRE-BOOKING A PRIVATE EXCURSION AND GETTING OTHER PASSENGERS – I enjoy planning what I want to see when there is so much to choose from.  Some operators will solicit passengers for an excursion and just fill up the seats with people you may not know.  I have been very happy with that but there is a better way, in my opinion.  When I am going somewhere like Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Asia  or anywhere that I do not know much about then I will see about booking the entire van.  I have not put any money down but told the operator that I would try to fill it myself.  I then go back to Cruise Critic (love that site) to my Roll Call.  The Roll Call is where you find your cruise line, find your ship and then find your sailing.  You’ll get to meet and converse with others on your sailing.  I will announce that I have booked an excursion, what we are seeing and how long we will be out, what the cost is and how much it costs.  Others will join is – trust me they will.  Some people are planners and some are not.  Before you know it, you have the van filled.  When in Dunedin, New Zealand I worked with Chris of Back to Nature Tours, custom designed our excursion including a box lunch that we would eat while out.  The tour cost about $135 NZD, not unusual for this part of the world and a great conversion rate.  This tour was so popular that I filled two vans and Chris showed his appreciation to me by not charging me for my tour.  This was filled by people that I got to know over the weeks and months we  that we communicated on the Roll Call.  Another great benefit to doing it this way is that you are paying in local currency which could give you a great conversion rate.

In setting up this excursion rules are set that if they cancelled and did not find a replacement within a few weeks before sailing, then they still needed to pay.  Many times you book the van for a set dollar and not a per person charge and if they cancelled then our per person charge would change as well.  I had one experience where someone did not come due to illness and her spouse paid for her to keep our per person rate the same.  In setting it ip I assign people to a van (van #1 or van #2) in the order that they signed up and brought that list to me as well as sending it to our tour operator.  It was as smooth as could be, we had a great tour and it was much more comfortable and less expensive and we saw more than what the cruise line was offering.

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TOUR OPERATOR ON THE DOCK – since we had booked this cruise about a week before sailing, I didn’t have time to prebook or correspond with any tour operator.  I decided that I would take my chances with some of the tour operators who are on the docks looking for passengers.  We did this twice on our cruise.  Our first time was in Curacao and we were promised a two hour tour for $20 – not bad.  We did have to wait for them to fill up the mini bus of about 16 people.  The tour was just what we wanted and we saw what we could in two hours.  We did ask that we be dropped off downtown so that we could walk around and then walk back to the ship.

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Our second experience of getting on a tour from the docks was in Cartagena, Columbia.  We were offered 3 1/2 hours for $20.  I believe that we were little impacted by he fact that it was a Sunday morning; our ship docked at 7AM and we were leaving at 1 PM.  Not much time in this port.  After we walked through the cruise terminal and past the small little free zoo we went by all the independent tour operators offering this tour.  There was 17 of us  in a minibus when we left the dock.  We saw many sights, did some shopping, went to an emerald museum (Blogger Hubby – I didn’t buy any), walked along the wall surrounding the old part of the city,bought coffee at an outdoor market, viewed colonial architecture, went souvenir shopping and for some, visiting a bar on the beach.  Personally I think we spent too much time “shopping” but for $20 for 3 1/2 hours, I think that I got what I paid for and  I was happy with it.

Overall, I had and would have no problem with booking an inexpensive tour from the docks

Final Thoughts – These independent tour operators know that we rate them and write about them.  this is their livelihood and they are not going to risk you being late for your cruise.  I think they are just as good, and sometimes better than a cruise sponsored excursion.  I would never hesitate to either pre-book or book while at the docks.

Side note – on this cruise I spoke with a woman who was so upset with her cruise sponsored excursion that she complained about it to the Shore Excursion desk while on board and she, and everyone else on her bus, received a complete refund.

What have you done for excursions on a cruise ship?

 

 

Boulders Beach, outside of Cape Town, South Africa

There are so many beautiful beaches in the Cape Town – some are known for their surfing and surfing lessons, others for their ambiance.  Boulders Beach is known for its thriving colony of African Penguins.  They are also called jack ass penguins because they have a donkey like braying call.  Perhaps I’m on a penguin quest but after seeing penguins in New Zealand last year, I felt that I needed to see the African penguin.

The drive to Boulders Beach is spectacular.  You’ll find this beach is nestled in a sheltered cove between Simon’s Town and Cape Point.  You have to stop in both of these areas.

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This colony of penguins began in 1982 and began nesting at Boulders Beach.  From that pair in 1982, there are now about 2,000 penguins.  There are two area in which you can see the penguins outside of Simons Town.  Boulders Beach and Foxy Beach are the places that visitors and locals go to see the penguins.  We were told to go to Boulders Beach where the penguin interaction is really quite incredible. There is a specific secluded area of the beach that we were told to go to.  Essentially you can be the only person with like a dozen penguins just like huddled around you looking at you from 4 feet away. It’s no zoo it’s just a beach with penguins. It’s really pretty amazing. The secluded areas are a lot more accessible for low tide which is something to consider if you do this.  What you do is to go past the signs for Penguins and take the next left turn where there is a sign for Boulders Beach.  You park your car and then walk to the admission booth.  After you pay your money you have a choice – either follow the sign for the beach or follow the sign for the boardwalk to the penguin viewing area.  If you follow the sign to the boardwalk, bring your receipt showing that you paid.  Blogger Hubby and our son, his wife and baby went toward the beach. Now these are huge granite boulders that you can crawl through, squeeze through and just continue walking back to the direction of Simons Town (to the left of the beach).

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You will end up on a beach where you may find (or not) penguins walking around.  Remember these are wild animals and I would not get closer than 4 feet.  You may have an opportunity to be on the beach alone with the penguins.  I will say when our family went, they only saw a handful on penguins.

I, on the other hand, decided not to crawl through the boulders and to stay on the boardwalk.  If you look closely as you are walking to the viewing area you’ll see penguins as well as large plastic jugs laying on their sides which are  nesting boxes.  I came to an area where I had to show my receipt that I paid at the other admission booth and was allowed in.  I went to the viewing are and there, on this sandy beach, were many penguins.  They were walking on the sand, walking toward the water, jumping in and swimming.  I couldn’t believe how many penguins were there.

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If you don’t want to have the option of the beach or the boardwalk and know that you want just the boardwalk, then turn off the road where you see the signs for the penguins, which is Foxy Beach.

Hope you enjoy some of our pictures from Boulders Beach and the African penguins.

Photo Essay of Kruger National Park

I hope you enjoy these photos that I took during our recent safari in Kruger National Park:

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Warthog greeted us at the Paul Kruger Gate

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Lions on the road made us wonder if we would get to Satara Rest Camp before the gate closed (we did).

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We learned the difference between white rhinos and black rhinos – these are white rhinos

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Magnificent elephants in their natural surroundings.

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This male kudu has such unique markings on his face – almost like war paint.  Love the length of his horns as well.

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An endangered Saddle Billed Stork – it stood about 5 feet tall!

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What a cute little monkey

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A pride of lions took down this Cape Buffalo and was able to finish him off in about 5 hours.  Hyenas ate the bones.

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If you can notice, the white stripes held a brown stripe in this species of zebras.

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Profile of three lions

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This is how close we were to so many animals – loved seeing the many giraffes.

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We saw many beautiful birds – particularly this one – the lilac breasted roller

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Caught this elephant mid stream.  Looks like he is balancing a ball.

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Such a stately and beautiful animal.

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We saw several bones around the Kruger as well.

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Very, very early in the morning at Camp Shawu

What a Trip we Had – Guided Kruger Safari at Camp Shawu, Part 7

Now that we had done our self drive through Kruger, we were going to try another type of safari – a guided safari.  This is the type that you see in the  magazines and movies.  For those who might go on one, your total cost generally involves picking you up and returning you to the airport. Since we were already in the Kruger, we asked that they pick us up at the Lower Sabie Camp.  Because of that change we were able to save a little money.  Also factored into the cost is the conservation fee which I spoke about in an earlier blog – all guests into Kruger must pay the conservation fee.

Blogger Hubby is the one who did the research and made the decision on which safari we were going to go on.  Some of them were really expensive – about $1000 per person per day.  We did not want to pay that kind of money so the budget did come into play in deciding which safari we would choose.

After much research he chose Camp Shawu which is part of the Shishangeni Lodge.  Apparently there are several camps that are associated with this lodge.  This camp has a lease on land within the Kruger – they call it their concession.  They are limited to doing safaris on their land and no others can go on their land.  Their concession is located in the southeast corner of the park near the Crocodile Bridge Gate.

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After we were picked up in  a car at he Lower Sabie Camp we were taken to the Shishangeni Lodge where we checked in and waited for our 30 minute ride to Camp Shawu.  The reception area in the lodge looked really nice so I was very excited about what our camp would look like.

As we drove to our camp, I couldn’t help but notice all the burnt land within their concession.  We had seen this during our self drive but, in our opinion, not to the extent that we saw in this concession.  It was interesting to see the paths that the animals had made.

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When we arrived at our camp and I was surprised at how small it was.  There were 5 cottages for guests – I didn’t expect something this small but others came here for that exact reason.  The reception area was nice but small – again if you have max only ten guests you so not need to have have too much.  On the verandah, there was a small splash pool – about 6 x 8.

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We were walked to our cottage and though it was very nice.  It had the typical bed with the mosquito netting around it; a stand alone claw foot tub in the corner of the large room.  The dark wood floor offset by the white tub and fluffy towels made a nice statement.  In one corner of the large room was a toilet separated by a reed screen from the rest of the room.  The sink was on the other side.  There were also two leather chairs in the middle of the room.  The shower was outdoors and not in sight of anyone else. The front of the room overlooked a large watering hole which is the draw for this camp.  A screen was across the front opening as their are no windows.  The screen is held to the inside of the room with velcro. At night they roll down a heavy vinyl shade and that zips to open but also is velcroed to the inside of the opening to get outside to your verandah.

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We quickly changed and went to the reception room for afternoon tea.  I was a little disappointed in what they consider afternoon tea.  We had tea and coffee with pizza as the snack.  In my mind, afternoon tea was with scones, little sandwiches and little treats – not pizza.  After we finished we went outside and got into our safari jeep – a vehicle that held the ten guests and our ranger.  We had a soft roof to it and there were rolled up sides if it was raining or foul weather.  Luckily the sides never came down.  The was a seat outside the front of the jeep for what I would imagine be a ranger with a gun but it was never occupied.  The ranger/driver we had said he knew the behavior of the animals and had no need of a rifle.

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We didn’t see much on this first safari except near the end there was a report on the radio of a cheetah.  We went racing across the land to meet about 6 other jeeps to look at the cheetah.  When he got up to move, all the trucks followed.  This went on for about 15 -20 minutes and it got to a point where I didn’t care for it.  I really felt like we were stalking the cheetah.  I had seen him, I had taken photos of him – I didn’t need to feel like I was bothering him.  Another thing that our driver/ranger did was to get us between a mama rhino and her baby with the papa rhino.  We also got a little too close for my comfort.  Once again, when they moved, we followed.  I just felt like we were harassing the animals.  Just my personal opinion.

Toward the end of our safari we stopped and got out of the vehicle for “sundowners”.  The driver/ranger brought out wine and beer and a few little treats – dried mangos, nuts and biscuits (Cookies).  The last 20 minutes back to the camp was in the dark.  The driver/ranger had a spot light that he held as he drove looking for some of the nocturnal animals like badger.  We never saw any animals.

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A very hearty dinner was a 7:00 in the reception area.  There were 5 table for two people.  Two choices were given to you and you selected one.  Our first night it was lamb chops or pork chops.  They were fine but what was outstanding was their butternut soup.  I felt a little nickled and dimed at dinner because if I wanted water, I had to pay for bottled water.  Their water is “safe” they say although it is brackish and they do not serve it.  For what we were paying, and it was about $450 per person, per day – they  should have filled our water glasses with bottled water if we requested it.  Beer and wine was extra as well.

This camp is on a generator and that can present some problem.  They turn the generator off at 11:00, which is fine but we were charging our cameras and since we only had one outlet that did present a problem.  The generator was also turned off at different times of the day.

Although our room looked really nice, it was not very functional for us.  We like to read a little before bed.  Although both sides of the bed had lamps, only one had enough light to read by.  The other one was useless.  No light in the corner where the toilet or the tub were.  A small light over the mirror by the sink but no outlet for Blogger Hubby to shave by.  There was a dual outlet between the two leather chairs and one of the outlets had a lamp plugged in; the other outlet didn’t work.  We had to unplug the lamp and have them get an extension cord to plug in our camera, kindle, iPhone, etc to use when we had electricity.  There was no drawers or bureau to unpack your clothes.  In the closet should have been drawers but they were broken and on top of the bureau.  There was also only luggage stand yet we had two pieces of luggage, mine and my husband.  There was no light whatsoever where the luggage was and that made it difficult getting things out of your suitcase or finding what you needed.

No drawers
                 No drawers

 

 

Here is one of the drawers
               Here is one of the drawers

In the closet we had one bathrobe to share 😦    Maybe I am being spoiled but two would have been so much nicer.

More about our safari and the Camp tomorrow and yes, there were some very good parts of this aspect of our trip.

 

 

 

What a Trip We Had – Kruger Self Drive and Satara Rest Camp – Day 1, Part 6

What a Trip We Had – London, Part 1

What a Trip We Had – Uxolo Guest House, Johannesburg, Part 2

What a Trip We Had – Touring in Johannesburg, Part 3

What a Trip We Had – What I Packed, Part 4

What a Trip We Had – Kruger National Park, Part 5

We needed to be at our rest camp, Satara, before 6:00 PM when the gates close. We drove along the paved road leading to Satara seeing elephants, giraffes, wildebeest, Cape Buffalo, herds of impala, kudu, zebra and so much more.  I couldn’t believe how well these animals were hidden; they just blended in including the elephants and giraffes.  Hard to believe but true.

Finally, we were about 5 km from our rest camp gate when we rounded the bend in the road and found a male lion walking along the road.  He looked a little ragged, like he had been in a fight.  A little further up were 8 lions just lying in the road.  Obviously we sat and waited…….and waited…….and waited.  One by one the lions would get up and walk a little but they were not leaving the road.  We enjoyed this but we knew that the gates would close at 6:00 and it was 5:30 at this time.  There is a penalty you have to pay if you arrive after the gates close.  We were getting a little anxious but the lions weren’t.  Traffic was stopped in both directions and everyone around us was getting worried about getting to the rest camp in time.  Finally one car decided to be brave and drive around the lions; we quickly but cautiously followed and made it to the camp on time with about 10 minutes to spare.

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We immediately went to the Reception Building where we checked in and were given the keys to our family cottage.  I’m not sure what my expectations were of the rest camp but they were exceeded.  In Satara, there are different camp sites.  You can be in the area of the rest camp where it is for tent camping, another section is for those with a trailer, or rent a one bedroom bungalow, two bedroom bungalow or a family lodge that sleeps about 16-18.  We were in a 2 bedroom family bungalow that had a kitchen livingroom/diningroom along with an outdoor dining area with braai (South African barbeque).  Each bedroom had their own bathroom which made it very convenient.  Maids would come in and tidy up your rooms, make your beds, and replenish your towels.

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I was very impressed with the rest camp.  We had the mini-market/gift shop, coffee shop, reception area, amphitheater that had movies or presentations in the evening, swimming pool, playground and so much more.  We were in Circle D and in the center was an open space where kids could play as many kids did while we were there.

We got settled into our bungalow putting things away, feeding the baby while our husbands began working on the braai – South African barbeque.  This was to happen every night.  South Africans love their meat and it is such great meat too.  We would have South African sausage (not sure what it was stuffed with), chicken kabobs, lamb chops, steaks and so much more on our patio – we never ate inside.  We certainly ate well.

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After dinner we  walked to the perimeter gate that encircled the rest area to see what was on the other side of the fence.  We had our flashlights with us and we were able see eyes glowing at night.  When we shined our flashlight, we found spotted hyenas staring at us.  I had to keep reminding myself that there was a fence between us and them.   We also took the opportunity to look up in the southern skies to see the constellations that we don’t see here in the northern hemisphere.  The Southern Cross was pointed out to us.  While we we looking up at the skied we heard the sound of owls.  Turned out they were Scops Owls – my first ever sighing of owls.   As we sat on our patio and talked about all that we had seen and done who comes strolling up but an African Wildcat.  It looks just like a domesticated cat but it isn’t.  They are somewhat rare so it was a great surprise to see one coming up toward our patio.

At 9:00, yes 9:00, we went off to bed to get ready for our first full day of going of safari.

What a Trip We Had – Kruger National Park, Part 5

What A Trip We Had – London, Part 1

What a Trip We Had – Uxolo Guest House, Johannesburg, Part 2

What a Trip we Had – Touring Johannesburg, Part 3

What a Trip we Had – What I Packed, Part 4

This was the part of the trip that I was anxiously waiting for – going to Kruger National Park!  The night before we flew to Kruger we went to our hotel near the Johannesburg Airport to meet our son Chris, his South African born wife Haley and their 7 month old son.  They were flying in from Washington DC and after a long, overnight flight we thought they would like us to take the baby for a little while so they have a little quiet time.  It was a joyous reunion at the Protea OR Tambo Hotel.  We had a  quick dinner at the hotel, we went back to our rooms to go to bed since we would be leaving the hotel at 6:15 AM.

We arrived at the airport in Nelspruitt, one of several airports that service the Kruger. We picked up our rental car, a combi (a three row van with large glass windows around) and headed off to Kruger via Hazy View and the Paul Kruger Gate entrance.  It’s a little less than 2 hours from the airport to the gate we used.

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At Hazy View, there was a small shopping center with a grocery store where we picked up last minute snacks for our time in Kruger.  Haley’s parents were going to be with us in Kruger and they had pre-ordered our meats from a butcher near another entry into the park.  It was all packaged and frozen for us – made our shopping that much easier.

Blogger Hubby and I were going to be having two different types of safaris.  With our family and extended family, we were going to do it the local way – we were going to be staying in a rest camp and then driving around the park by ourselves.  The other experience we would be having would be with a guided safari with Camp Shawu.  They have a private concession within Kruger National Park and that is the land that you travel on to view wildlife.

We entered Kruger National Gate through the Paul Kruger Gate.  There are numerous gates all around Kruger like there are with our national parks.  As we went into the building at the gate to get information, we saw our first animal – a warthog.  There are conservation fees accessed at this park.  If you are a day visitor you’ll pay the fee at the gate otherwise it is accessed with your reservation and you will pay when you check-in.  Make sure you get the paper showing that you paid it – you’ll need it when you leave the park.

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P1000966One thing that we picked up at the gate was a guide to the animals and birds in the Kruger.  We found that it was invaluable for identification as well as checking off the animals that we saw.  It also had maps of the Kruger and showed where all the rest camps were.