Categories
Active Travel Budget Travel Business Travel Food & Drink Health & Wellness Travel Trends

SmarterTravel Spotlight: EVEN Hotel Eugene, Oregon

If you’re a wellness guru, or simply someone who likes to keep up with their exercise and eat healthy food when traveling, EVEN Hotels might be for you. The new “lifestyle” hotel brand comes from IHG, the hotel group that also includes Holiday Inn, InterContinental, Kimpton, and more than a dozen other brands. And it’s fast-growing: EVEN Hotels so far has 11 locations throughout the U.S., with 24 more in the pipeline.

And it’s a comfortable mid-range choice even if you aren’t into fitness. I tried the brand at the EVEN Hotel Eugene, Oregon, location—which fully exemplifies the new IHG line’s concept. Travelers on TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company) have so far rated this EVEN Hotel as the fourth-best hotel in Eugene. Here’s why.

[st_related]The 25 Best Bargain Hotels in the World[/st_related]

The Location

EVEN hotel eugene, oregon daytime

The Eugene EVEN Hotel is located near the center of the city, in a quiet neighborhood surrounded mainly by office buildings. It’s one of only three hotels within a 15-minute walk to Autzen Stadium and PK Park, where the University of Oregon Ducks play football and baseball. It’s also about a 10-minute walk from the Cuthbert Amphitheater, Eugene’s center for outdoor summer concerts and other events. And it’s quite close to other Eugene visitor highlights, including the university, Amtrak Station, and the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. Getting here is easy, with quick access from the highway.

The Rooms

EVEN hotel eugene, oregon room.

This EVEN Hotel has large rooms, at about 400 square feet, with a mix of full-size, king, and two-bed sleeping options. The rooms are modern and provide all that you’d expect, with free and fast Wi-Fi. Bathrooms offer a choice of tub-shower and walk-in shower designs.

What makes EVEN Hotels unique is that each room includes some free, basic fitness equipment, including a roll-out mat, an exercise ball, and resistance bands. EVEN Hotel Eugene is part of a small pilot program that ups the ante on exercise even further: Some rooms have an in-room Mirror fitness system, a full-body mirror with a holographic image display in the center that presents one of several selectable workout regimens taught by trainers. It’s impossible to see it accurately in a photograph of the display, but the in-person image is high-quality.

Dining

EVEN hotel eugene, oregon food.

The Cork & Kale bar and dining area that’s standard at EVEN Hotels features a menu listing mainly healthy food options—heavy on salads and other vegetables-centric dishes as well as burgers and flatbreads. Breakfast is buffet-style, again with lots of healthy options. Cold infused drinking waters at the lobby are also ideal for filling a travel water bottle at any time. The bar serves the usual gamut of choices, including healthy drinks, plus a full bar with the local draft IPAs that are virtually mandatory now in the Pacific Northwest. In addition, the hotel lobby provides healthy packaged grab-and-go snacks for purchase.

EVEN hotel eugene dining area and snacks.

The dinner menu—which seems to be the same at all locations—isn’t going to attract many foodies. Fitness enthusiasts who travel often seem to be the hotel’s main focus; if you’re hoping to stay at a property with a unique dining option, you’re probably better off staying elsewhere or planning on eating dinners around  Eugene (more on that below).

Amenities and Things to Do

EVEN hotel eugene fitness center.

The fitness center is the main amenity for EVEN Hotels. It’s large with far more devices and facilities than most exercise options in comparable hotels. The Eugene property’s fitness center also includes a Mirror work-out system, in case your room doesn’t. A pool and hot tub cater to just about every traveler, and there’s also an all-purpose lounge with a ping pong table. Parking is free—some is covered, some is open, with no reservations required. The Eugene EVEN Hotel also offers a free airport shuttle service. And while the hotel even emphasizes using the stairs for fitness, there is an elevator for those who prefer or need it. The property also has an outdoor patio with a fire pit.

EVEN hotel eugene patio with fire pit.

The hotel concierge  can arrange just about any local activity for you: During my visit, I took a tour of the burgeoning local wine industry, courtesy of Eugene Wine Tours, featuring tasting rooms that could rival Napa or Sonoma’s. Included on the tour is The King Estate, a huge complex that includes an excellent full-service restaurant. Oregon is an esteemed wine destination with special focus on varietals like pinot gris and pinot noir. Other outstanding local wineries include Sweet Cheeks and Iris.

Price and How to Book

Regular flexible rates start at around $124 per night, and IHG member rates start as low as $106 but are nonrefundable. Package options including breakfast are available. On football weekends, expect to pay more than the starting rate—but only next year, as the hotel is already sold out for this football season.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:12831440″ /]

More from SmarterTravel:

SmarterTravel’s Ed Perkins stayed at the EVEN Hotel Eugene as a guest of the property.

A consumer advocate, Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

Categories
Beach Island Romantic Travel

Why Now Is the Best Time to Go to Hawaii

The bright and tropical Hawaiian Islands you see on vintage travel posters represent an island chain on the brink of mass tourism during the Golden Age of travel in the 1920s and 30s. Those pictures depict a warm, welcoming, and wanderlust-inducing world in a faraway land.

[st_content_ad]

The true Hawaiian Renaissance occurred in the ‘60s and ‘70s, however, and it’s culturally similar to other movements of the era: pioneered by music. And while many visitors experience hula dancing and traditional music at a luau on vacation, it was the renewed interest in Hawaiian language, farming techniques, and other traditions that led to an overall increase in Hawaiian pride. The resurgence also encompassed Polynesian culture and voyaging, which remain ever-present in the Hawaiian identity.

[st_related]10 Best Things to Do in Hawaii[/st_related]

Nowadays on the Hawaii Islands, you’ll find shopping malls, chain restaurants, and expensive and romantic resorts shaped by the tourist habits of the masses—which to some is a far cry from the culture they’re actually looking for. Development and urbanization aren’t necessarily bad things, but it has meant that the Hawaiian Islands haven’t been as accessible to solo travelers, budget-conscious travelers, East Coast residents, or those looking for an authentic Hawaiian experience.

Is another cultural Hawaiian Renaissance on its way, though? Thanks to a generation of inspired locals and travelers, as well as the introduction of a new airline and routes, it just might be. This year is shaping up to be one of the best times to plan a vacation to Hawaii, no matter which island is on your bucket list or the type of traveler you are. Here are five reasons why a visit to Hawaii should be on your 2019 travel radar.

Honolulu Is More Accessible Than Ever

hawaiian airlines flying over diamond head crater and ocean.

Honolulu, Oahu, is now serving nonstop routes from many major U.S. cities beyond the west coast, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York, Toronto, and Washington, D.C.

Air Canada, Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, Southwest, Sun Country, United, and WestJet all fly from the mainland now, which increases price competition, especially on some of the long-haul routes. JetBlue members can also earn points with Hawaiian Airlines, so if you’re coming from the east coast, that’s a decent number of earned miles.

Another win for travelers is Hawaiian’s introduction of basic economy fares, which will be about $30 to $50 less than regular economy fares. Unlike Sun Country’s and United’s basic economy fares, you can bring a carry-on for no additional cost. Alaska, American, and Delta also offer basic economy fares to Honolulu.

Hawaii Interisland Flights Have Never Been Easier

aerial view of a pool with graffiti art at the bottom.

The beauty of the Hawaiian Islands go well beyond Waikiki’s glitzy beaches. Each island has its own culture, unique activities, and geography, and they’re all worth exploring in their own right. Now with more nonstops to Honolulu, it’s easier to access them.

[st_related]The 8 Best Things to Do in Oahu Beyond Honolulu[/st_related]

Hawaii interisland flights are also more frequent and less expensive thanks to increased price competition from Southwest’s entrance into the market. Because of this you can now you can fly more easily from Oahu to Kauai, Maui, and the Big Island (Kona and Hilo), especially from the east coast. Stay up to date with Southwest’s Hawaii interisland flights here.

Hawaii Isn’t Just for Honeymooners Anymore

person kayaking on river in jungle.

On a recent visit to Hawaii, I traveled to both Oahu and Kauai as a solo traveler. Previously I had been to Maui with my family and Oahu with my boyfriend, so this was a totally different type of trip for me. Sure, the Hawaiian Islands make for a great romantic destination or family vacation, but thanks to my somewhat off-the-beaten-path itinerary, I was able to enjoy Hawaii in a unique way.

[st_related]12 Things You Should Never Do in Hawaii[/st_related]

In Honolulu, I toured street art with local artists and ate poke from a fish market; I sampled fried mochi at a farmer’s market; swam with sharks on a dive led by a marine biologist; and visited a working produce farm. In fact, I barely went to the beach or hotel pool.

In Kauai, I rented a car and drove to the Waimea Canyon for hiking, toured a coffee farm, kayaked to a waterfall, and hung out at a juice bar in the laidback town of Kapaa.

I also noticed the hotel landscape in Oahu changing. Recently developed hotels like The Laylow, the Waikiki Beachcomber by Outrigger, the Shoreline Hotel Waikiki, and the Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club are catering to younger crowds looking to go beyond the beachfront resort experience—think trendy designs, in-house coffee shops, boutiques, onsite breweries, and pool parties. Many of these newer hotels are located a block or two from the beach, which also means they have lower nightly rates.

Hawaii Can Be Budget-Friendly

food trucks in hawaii.

I also found on-the-ground costs to be more affordable on Hawaii than I was expecting. Fish markets, farmer’s markets, juice bars, and food trucks give travelers plenty of authentic food options beyond those provided at big resorts or tourist centers.

In Kauai, my four-star hotel, Aston Islander on the Beach, had a kitchenette and dining table where I could prepare my own food; the nightly rate was under $200.

[st_related]The 9 Best Cheap Hotels in Hawaii[/st_related]

On both islands, I found plenty of free activities like hiking in Kokee State Park in Kauai, lounging on the North Shore in Oahu, and participating in a beach cleanup in Honolulu.

Overtourism Isn’t a Huge Problem … Yet

farm land on hawaii.

Overtourism is cause for concern in any popular tourist destination, but I didn’t feel the negative effects of it on my recent trip. In Hawaii, locals and the government seem to be working to protect the land and culture.

That’s not to say that tourism doesn’t place any strain on the islands. Oahu sees the most tourists with close to 6 million annual visitors; second to that is Maui with just about half of that, followed by the Big Island at 1.7 million, and Kauai at 1.3 million.

Oahu, where more than 92 percent of food is imported to support demand, has seen a rise in small farms to help meet the demand in a sustainable way. One example of this MA’O Organic Farms, which has a youth program for teaching agricultural sustainability and practices (you can take a tour of the farm with Hawaii Forest and Trail). Other companies, like Ko Hana Distillers, converted a sugar cane plantation into a rum distillery. And ranches, like Gunstock Ranch, offer a tree planting tour in addition to horseback riding tours, which helps restore native tree species on plots of farmland.

The tourism industry is doing its part, too, by promoting agritourism activities, participating in carbon offset programs, and distributing reef-safe sunscreen. Additionally, island habitats are given time to heal after natural disasters, as seen with the recovery efforts after the volcanic eruption on the Big Island, or with road closures on the North Shore of Kauai after damaging floods and landslides.

With this mindset of sustainability and protection, Hawaii looks to be committed to curbing the effects of overtourism for future generations.

[viator_tour destination=”278″ type=”3-mod” tours=”2804P24,21999P1,5132EXP”]

More from SmarterTravel:

Ashley Rossi visited Oahu and Kauai courtesy of the Oahu Visitors Bureau and the Kauai Visitors Bureau. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram for travel tips, destination ideas, and off the beaten path spots.

Categories
Arts & Culture

Write a Good Travel Essay. Please.

Editor’s Note: We know that many of you are looking for help writing travel experience essays for school or simply writing about a trip for your friends or family. To inspire you and help you write your next trip essay—whether it’s an essay about a trip with family or simply a way to remember your best trip ever (so far)—we enlisted the help of Professor Kathleen Boardman, whose decades of teaching have helped many college students learn the fine art of autobiography and life writing. Here’s advice on how to turn a simple “my best trip” essay into a story that will inspire others to explore the world.

Welcome home! Now that you’re back from your trip, you’d like to share it with others in a travel essay. You’re a good writer and a good editor of your work, but you’ve never tried travel writing before. As your potential reader, I have some advice and some requests for you as you write your travel experience essay.

Trip Essays: What to Avoid

Please don’t tell me everything about your trip. I don’t want to know your travel schedule or the names of all the castles or restaurants you visited. I don’t care about the plane trip that got you there (unless, of course, that trip is the story).

I have a friend who, when I return from a trip, never asks me, “How was your trip?” She knows that I would give her a long, rambling answer: “… and then … and then … and then.” So instead, she says, “Tell me about one thing that really stood out for you.” That’s what I’d like you to do in this travel essay you’re writing.

[st_related]11 Funny Books to Read on Your Next Trip[/st_related]

The Power of Compelling Scenes

One or two “snapshots” are enough—but make them great. Many good writers jump right into the middle of their account with a vivid written “snapshot” of an important scene. Then, having aroused their readers’ interest or curiosity, they fill in the story or background. I think this technique works great for travel writing; at least, I would rather enjoy a vivid snapshot than read through a day-to-day summary of somebody’s travel journal.

Write About a Trip Using Vivid Descriptions

Take your time. Tell a story. So what if you saw things that were “incredible,” did things that were “amazing,” observed actions that you thought “weird”? These words don’t mean anything to me unless you show me, in a story or a vivid description, the experience that made you want to use those adjectives.

I’d like to see the place, the people, or the journey through your eyes, not someone else’s. Please don’t rewrite someone else’s account of visiting the place. Please don’t try to imitate a travel guide or travelogue or someone’s blog or Facebook entry. You are not writing a real travel essay unless you are describing, as clearly and honestly as possible, yourself in the place you visited. What did you see, hear, taste, say? Don’t worry if your “take” on your experience doesn’t match what everyone else says about it. (I’ve already read what THEY have to say.)

[st_related]8 Best Travel Books and Their Real-Life Destinations[/st_related]

The Importance of Self-Editing Your Trip Essay

Don’t give me your first draft to read. Instead, set it aside and then reread it. Reread it again. Where might I need more explanation? What parts of your account are likely to confuse me? (After all, I wasn’t there.) Where might you be wasting my time by repeating or rambling on about something you’ve already told me?

Make me feel, make me laugh, help me learn something. But don’t overdo it: Please don’t preach to me about broadening my horizons or understanding other cultures. Instead, let me in on your feelings, your change of heart and mind, even your fear and uncertainty, as you confronted something you’d never experienced before. If you can, surprise me with something I didn’t know or couldn’t have suspected.

You Can Do It: Turning Your Trip into a Great Travel Experience Essay

I hope you will take yourself seriously as a traveler and as a writer. Through what—and how—you write about just a small portion of your travel experience, show me that you are an interesting, thoughtful, observant person. I will come back to you, begging for more of your travel essays.

Take Notes in a Cute Journal

Refillable Planner Journal

Keep track of all the crucial details- and even the ones you might forget, in a durable and refillable journal.

[st_deals_search search_type=air]

More from SmarterTravel:

[amazon_native_ad search=”journal”]

Categories
Beach Island Romantic Travel

St. Lucia Travel Advice: 6 Things to Know Before Visiting St. Lucia

Ready to dive headfirst into the tropical paradise that is St. Lucia? Before you step off the plane, here are a few pieces of St. Lucia travel advice that you should know to help make your trip even better. I’ll even let you in on a secret about access to that ultra-private-looking beach you think is off limits.

St. Lucia Travel Advice: Bring Cash

When I first arrived in St. Lucia, I tried three different ATMs (attempting with multiple debit cards each time) and was unable to get cash. When I called my bank, they told me that there was no block on my card and that there wasn’t even a record of me trying to take out cash. I was finally able to get cash from a machine, but I heard from many people (including locals) that this was a common problem with ATMs. Fortunately, I had brought some American dollars that I was able to exchange at my hotel, but if you don’t want to be stuck without cash, make sure you bring U.S. dollars or exchange some local currency in advance.

The local currency in St. Lucia is the Eastern Caribbean dollar (XCD), but U.S. dollars are accepted pretty much everywhere. (The E.C. dollar is linked to the U.S. dollar, at an exchange rate of $1 USD to $2.70 XCD). If you do pay with U.S. dollars, you should be aware of these caveats:

  • If you pay in U.S. dollars, you may not get as good a price.
  • You may receive change in Eastern Caribbean dollars.
  • Vendors may not accept wrinkled, older, or torn U.S. dollars.

[st_related]15 Beach Bag Essentials You Need for Summer[/st_related] 

St. Lucia Travel Advice: All Beaches Are Public

By law, all beaches and waterways in St. Lucia are public. So if you see a gorgeous beach, even at one of the more exclusive all-inclusive resorts in St. Lucia where you are not a guest, stroll right up and lounge on the sand or go for a swim in the water. Note that some resorts won’t allow non-guests to use any of their beach facilities (chairs, restrooms, etc.) although some offer limited access for a charge. You can bring your own chair or towel to enjoy the beach for free.

St. Lucia Travel Advice: Watch for Service Charges 

Most establishments on St. Lucia will automatically add a 10 percent service charge to your bill (which will be clearly noted on restaurant receipts). If the service was especially great, you can add an extra tip on top of the 10 percent, but it’s certainly not required.

[st_related]A Guide to Tipping Across the Globe, in One Map[/st_related]

[st_content_ad]

St. Lucia Travel Advice: Think Twice Before Renting a Car

In St. Lucia, drivers stay to the left and the roads are very narrow and winding (with steep drop-offs in some areas). I highly recommend using a taxi or hiring a driver for your stay, which is a much more relaxing way than renting a car to get around the island. If you do choose to drive yourself, go slowly and remember to honk around blind curves. Also be aware that many rental car agencies in St. Lucia have both a minimum age of 25 (or 21 with a hefty surcharge) and a maximum age of 65 for drivers.

St. Lucia Travel Advice: Don’t Forget to Pack Pants

St. Lucia is a laid-back and fun island, but many of the upscale restaurants do have a dress code for dinner, and many require men to wear long pants and closed-toed shoes (women can get away with a dress and fancy sandals). I did see this dress code enforced, so if you’re considering a special dinner out (or are staying at a nicer resort), be sure to pack a few outfits you can dress up.

[st_related]5 Travel Wear Pieces That Help You Go from Day to Night[/st_related]

St. Lucia Travel Advice: Daylight Savings Time

St. Lucia does not participate in daylight savings time change and remains at UTC -4 throughout the year. This means there’s no time difference between the eastern U.S. and St. Lucia during the daylight savings’ months in the United States (March to November), but that there’s an hour time difference during Eastern Standard Time months.

[viator_tour destination=”38″ type=”3-mod”]

More from SmarterTravel:

Caroline Morse Teel was hosted by St. Lucia Tourism on her visit. Follow Caroline on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for photos from St. Lucia and around the world.

Categories
Active Travel Arts & Culture Outdoors

Remembering the Way to Tokyo

I’m awakened by the sound of slippers shuffling just beyond the sliding door of my room. With my ear close to the ground on my floor futon mattress, each soft step sounds like a distant thunderclap. It’s the innkeeper preparing morning tea and miso soup. I open my eyes to yellow daylight—the soft, filtered light has waltzed right through the paper walls into my room. I should wake up, but my futon is so warm, and I can afford to stay a minute longer. When I stretch my limbs, I feel my muscles burn and joints crackle like a log on the fire, and I remember: I am taking the long walk to Tokyo.

This is how mornings go when you walk the Nakasendo Way: A warm awakening, a protest from your sore muscles, a traditional Japanese breakfast (with non-traditional instant coffee), shoes on, a quick goodbye to the innkeepers, and then you’re out the door. You’re back on the trail, on your way to Tokyo.Nakasendo way inn

Walking from Kyoto to Tokyo, especially when there’s a perfectly good bullet train, seems like a ridiculous journey for the modern traveler. But on this trip, I’m on vacation from modern travel. I may have flown around the world to get here, but I have chosen to see Japan the old-fashioned way, along one of the country’s oldest highways.

During the Edo period between 1603 and 1868, pedestrian highway systems like the Nakasendo Way were used by feudal lords, samurai, and even princesses to travel the country. The old and stony trail of the Nakasendo passes through mountains and valleys, even carving a path through the Japanese Alps. The full journey took weeks, so to accommodate travelers, small towns—known as post towns—were established along the way. Each post town opened inns offering travelers hot tea, fresh food, and soft futons. For 10 spring days, I followed this course of history, sleeping in the same inns that once served the old travelers. But while the samurai rode on horseback and princesses were carried by their subjects, I walked.

If you’re looking for bragging rights, the Nakasendo isn’t for you. The trail is mostly flat, and comforts like ryokans and vending machines are never far. Along the road, you’ll never have to sleep outside or go more than a few hours without bottled water—or a chilled can of coffee, my preferred vending machine product. Some days you’ll emerge from what feels like an isolated forest to find yourself in a small town alongside locals strolling with their grandchildren and tending their backyard gardens. Other days, you’ll endure stretches of walking alongside major highways and filling up your backpack with Japanese snacks from the gas station. (My backpack never lacked a box of Pocky or green tea Kit Kats.) On the best days, you’ll climb through mossy forests high in the mountains, leaving offerings at small shrines whose stone countenances have been worn down by centuries of rain, and realize you’re in a part of Japan few foreigners have ever seen.

Nakasendo way statue

Every day on the trail is simultaneously new and familiar, like circling back to an old memory only to realize how much has changed. I went in April when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom in the lowlands. My favorite trees were the ones I couldn’t get to but could spot a mile away, those standing alone in a sea of evergreens, shouting out loud in pink.

In every season, the trail is embellished with historical gems. Treading the centuries-old ishidatami, the original stones that paved the Nakasendo, I lingered among the ruins of tea houses, walked through fields where samurai once battled and bowed at the statues of Jizo, the Buddhist protector of travelers. Small, bald, and smiling, Jizos decorated with traditional red bibs line the Nakasendo all the way from Kyoto. At the feet of each are stacks of coins—the universal offering—and we left our own tokens along with a small prayer for safe passage on our journey.

On paper, the Nakasendo looks like a one-way journey, but really, it is a circular wandering. Each day I’d wake up in a ryokan, walk through quiet forests, sit down for a delicious meal, and fall asleep at a new inn, having made it just a little bit farther down the road. The days blurred together not because they were unmemorable, but because they were tranquil, gently indistinct like an impressionist painting. Along the way, I found connection and companionship among my fellow walkers—people who, like me, had found this obscure trail in an old travel book or by word of mouth.

Fewer visitors may find their way here these days, but this trail is well worn. It has carried pilgrims and royalty, tourists and locals; and more, it has carried again and again the people who remember it often. Those of us who have walked the trail frequently return to it through memory, our feet remembering the uneven stones and our fingertips recalling the weight of a coin holding on to a prayer. We walk it over and over again, always in circles, always as one long beautiful day.

More from SmarterTravel:

Jamie Ditaranto traveled to Japan and experienced the Nakasendo Way tour as a guest of Walk Japan. Follow her on Twitter @jamieditaranto and Instagram @jamieditaranto.

Categories
Adventure Travel

Trans Africa Overland

Author: Andrea P.
Date of Trip: December 2005

‘Did you hear that Andi?’ ‘What?’ ‘Shhh… that.’ ‘What?’ ‘The rustling.’ ‘Can you see anything?’ ‘Yeah… it’s big.’ ‘What?’ ‘Yeah, I see the tusks… they’re HUGE!’

ZZZZZZZIP (unzipping of tent, and someone running to the truck)

‘Dave… there’s an elephant in the camp!’ ‘No kidding, it’s been there all night, it’s just walked away.’

You’re a bit scared for the others and yourself, but you also feel great excitement. Then you realise people actually pay us to do this job. You say to yourself, life is great… and then you go back to sleep.

How do you end up in these circumstances? Well… it starts in the UK and finishes in Cape Town seven months later. It’s called a Trans Africa. I cannot really describe everything that one would feel and go through on a trip like this without having to produce an extremely long diary or a novel, which I can do if you wish, but I thought if I summed up my journey it may be a little easier to read.

Individual travellers book themselves on a 23 to 40 week adventure, travelling in an overland truck with 20 or so others, and venture across the continent of Africa.

We started our journey by flying everyone booked on the adventure to Gibraltar to meet the Overland truck that was soon to become our home for the next 40 weeks, and making our way across the waters into Africa. Our journey took us from the busy medinas and ancient fortress cities of Morocco up into the High Atlas Mountains, through the intense midday heat of the Sahara, Mauritania’s expansive freedom and night sky ablaze with shooting stars, the oldest cultures and sites of Mali and on to the palm-fringed beaches of West Africa. Next we headed south through Gabon, Congo and war torn Angola, where we get warm greetings from everyone me meet, and also asked why would tourists want to pass through here. Wildlife and national parks await, as we head through Namibia, South Africa and then make our journey North to Nairobi and our final destination Cairo with plenty to see along the way. The reason we choose to visit Africa is quite simple – Because you will discover an Africa that most travellers only dream of, and meet people you would never otherwise encounter, as well as having one of the most affordable adventure holidays around.

In Africa you will see, hear or feel something every day that will make you laugh, smile or cry. Here are a few examples… • The curiosity of an African child touching you because your skin is a different colour. • Travelling in the remote, expansive freedom of Mauritania and finding a car stuck in the sand, and the driver then setting up an amplifier and electric guitar strumming out tunes as we help him sand mat his car out… Wondering where he came from and what he intended to do…

• Visiting the markets and all the vibrant colours of the beautiful women with children on their backs and full loads on their heads. • Buying locally-produced products and finding out that Shito is a sauce, Toss and Bimbo are washing powders and the moisturiser you bought is actually hair conditioner. • Camping out under the stars on the roof of the truck, trying to count how many shooting stars you see. • Driving along a main road in Burkina Faso to find an obstacle in front, a herd of elephants. We were going to pull over and camp soon, but we’d better drive a bit farther. • Participating in football matches with the locals is always a laugh, and let me tell you, Africans will show us a thing or two. Seeing an 11-year-old boy running rings around us and scoring a goal… • Travelling through the desert with all its sparse nature, and trying to find an appropriate bush to go to the loo behind. • Reaching the coastlines of West Africa, and checking out their surf boards, literally a plank of wood. • Pulling over for the evening and finding a nice safe clearing tucked away in the bushes to camp the night, sitting down with everyone, talking about whatever, and having a nice cold drink while watching the sunset.

The Trans Africa trip is about memories and making friends for life. That is the real adventure, and Africa is the ideal destination.

Categories
Solo Travel

A Home Exchange in Finland

Author: LSKahn
Date of Trip: July 2009

If you don’t like unstructured travel, you would not like a trip with me. I do a lot of research in advance and have an idea of what I would like to see, but what I actually do once I arrive is largely dependent on how the spirit moves me. It helps that I generally travel solo, as there is no one to negotiate with about what I do and when.

This trip began in the fall of 2008 when I received an email through a home exchange site to which I belong inquiring whether I would be interested in Finland FOR CHRISTMAS! I emailed back that I did not want to go to the North Pole for Christmas. While the cold would not bother me (you could dress for that), the limited hours of daylight would. Also, in winter many of the tourist sites in Finland would be on limited hours and/or be closed. I counter offered saying I would be delighted to swap during the summer and the Finnish family accepted.

I left the United States on July 18th and arrived in Finland the following morning. My home exchangers met me at the airport and drove me to the house. They then left — as prearranged for their other house (the husband and wife had jobs in different cities and there was a house — which I used — as well as an apartment (I was left a key to that apartment as well, but never used it). One of my home exchangers has a job with Finnair and the family had to wait several days to get seats on an airplane before flying out (They just pay taxes).

The first couple of days were largely spent sleeping and just getting adjusted to my surroundings in Lahti, Finland. Lahti is a town of about 100,000 located about an hour north of Helsinki. It is not a major tourist site, but is located on a lake. In fact, much of Finland is located on a lake, on the Baltic or on the Gulf of Finland. Boating is a great entertainment there. The family kindly left me a GPS for Scandanavia. It made life a lot easier. In Europe there are always signs to tourist sites, but there is never one that says “You live here.” The first few days of a home exchange you can get lost just finding where it is you “live”.

Home exchange is not for everyone. I have been doing it since 1990. I belong to both the Homelink and Intervac services. I suggest that anyone interested in this method of travel check out a number of sites on the internet before deciding which one to join. I rarely solicit home exchanges. Since I live just outside Washington, DC, I constantly get inquiries about exchanges. My policy is generally to take the first one that arrives that is serious. To be a successful exchanger, you must be open to going places you never thought you’d be interested in.

Basically, my home exchange home was used as a base for traveling and not as the destination itself. I would go out for a few nights and then do a lot of day trips where I could come “home” at night. It is always great to have a washer and a dryer and my Finnish home was the closest thing to an American home I have ever had in Europe — complete with a large size refrigerator and washer and dryer. Of course, I had a sauna (I never used it as I had no idea how it worked). There are 2 million saunas in Finland and 5.2 million people. The Finns love their saunas and jumping into the lake at their summer homes stark naked afterwards.

My first trip out was to Savonlinna — east of where I was staying. Every summer Savonlinna has an opera festival. I arranged for a ticket to “Madame Butterfly” in advance as well as housing some distance outside Savonlinna where the hotels were somewhat cheaper. I soon found out that outside the large cities in Finland, accommodations were usually rustic cabins and/or campgrounds. More on the campgrounds later. The “hotel” was rustic and not someplace I would return to but it served its purpose.

The opera was done inside the castle of Savonlinna (“linna” means “castle” in Finnish). That, for me, was the chief attraction of attending the opera there. Where else could you get the chance to do opera in a castle? My ticket — one of the cheapest in the house — cost 85 euros (1 euro is currently $1.40 so this was a big splurge). For that I got a really unsatisfactory seat. The good seats are well over the equivalent of $200 American. I probably wouldn’t do this again, but I am glad that I went. Since I was all the way over to the side, I could stand to see better when I wanted to without disturbing anyone. There were subtitles in English and Finnish. However, the subtitles were located in such a fashion that it was difficult to look at them and still keep your eye on what was going on on the stage. Having said all of that, it was an experience. As you walk over to the castle, there are lots of restaurants where you can eat before the opera — and I did.

The following day was spent driving to position myself for whitewater rafting. The main town near the rafting is Lieksa. It is in eastern Finland very close to the Russian border. When I arrived, I discovered the town was in the midst of something called “Brass Week”. The only accommodation was something described to me in English as a “hovel”. I blanched when the guy at tourist information said that and explained what that word meant in English. In fact, there really is no translation for it. Basically it was a little hut in a campground that had 4 beds (2 sets of bunks) in it and almost nothing else. I paid extra to rent sheets. Most of these places are located near lakes and Finnish people love to vacation this way. Some stay in the cabins and some in tents. It is the sort of vacation I would never call a “vacation”. Nevertheless, that was the only option and it turned out OK. Not all experiences on a holiday are 100% what you would like. The campground was, however, located in the best position for the rafting the next day. The rafting was the next day at Ruuannakoski (“koski” in Finnish means “rapids”). It was a lot of fun, but, compared to some trips I have been on in the US and elsewhere, very tame. They fed us a lovely lunch of local food. I had these Karelian pastries that are filled with rice and eaten with butter mixed with hardboiled eggs. We also roasted sausages over an open fire — something Finns do everywhere during the summer. It was great!

It was a long drive home and I ended up stopping at a bed and breakfast called Niemilomat that was signposted along the road. This place is located on Route 23 on the right side as you drive from Joensu to Varkaus. It is down a dirt road after you make the turn at the sign. This is a terrific place! I have to tell you that there are not a lot of bed and breakfast accommodations in Finland — unlike the Continent where they are all over. It is just not a Finnish thing (and not much an American thing either). Gorgeous place and about $65 American for the night. Bathrooms are shared between two rooms. The place is an old farm. The family cannot make money farming anymore, so they have turned to really classy accommodations. More information can be found at anneli.hamalainen@niemilomat.com. I was offered a sauna there — and I wish I had done it because it was the real thing next to the lake, but I was exhausted after the night in the campground and simply crashed. I thought I was sure to have another sauna opportunity later but I never did. Who knew?

Driving the rest of the way back the next day, I stopped in Varkaus to see the Musical Instrument Museum. This was basically a player piano museum — with a few other similar instruments. The sound of the player violin hurt my ears! The guy who owns it gave a tour simultaneously in Finnish, Swedish and English. He was hilarious! The last room included a lot of Obama merchandise. I had an Obama t-shirt with me and gave it to him (telling him he would have to wash it because I had worn it). He was thrilled and gave me a CD of all his “instruments” in return. I am not certain I will play that CD very often but it was a nice souvenir.

From Varkaus, I went to Mikkeli and saw a military museum and then the World War II communications headquarters for Finland. It was located in a cave! I then went “home” to Lahti to do laundry and spend a few days on day trips.

From Lahti I did a lake cruise to Heinola. You go through 2 locks. I liked the area around the Vaaksy lock so much I returned there to hang out later in my stay. I met an American woman of Finnish extraction on the boat (she was visiting family) and we commiserated about our credit cards not working at the discount gas credit card machines. We were both glad to know we were not alone in having that problem.

Also, from Lahti, I went into Helsinki and stashed the car in an expensive parking garage. I then took the ferry over to Savonlinna where I visited the fortress. The college student who gave the English language tour there was absolutely terrific! The tour takes about 11/2 hours and I would have had no idea what I was seeing without it. There is good commentary about how Finland has spent a large part of its history being fought over by Sweden and Russia. Finland, by the way, has only been independent since 1917. It gained its independence during the Russian Revolution (who knew?). Before that the Russian Tsar was the Grand Duke of Finland.

Speaking of Grand Dukes, I took a day trip to Kotka and saw Tsar Alexander III’s fishing lodge called Langinkoski. It is adjacent to some rapids (remember: koski=rapids) and the Tsar used to enjoy fishing for salmon there. Nicholas and Alexandra visited the lodge once as well. It actually is quite a simple place. Also in Kotka there is a terrific museum shaped like a giant wave. I saw an old ice breaker (very important to keep the shipping lanes open in winter!). Another part of the museum dealt with everyday life in Finland in the past. This was the best museum I saw anywhere in Finland. In the evening I went sailing in the Gulf of Finland. The sailing cruise was arranged through the aquarium (I did not visit the aquarium except to sign up for the sailing).

One other castle I saw was that of Hamenlinna — the closest one to Lahti and also the site of an excellent military museum. You can spend the day there.

After several days of day trips I began to agonize over whether to go to Lapland. Ultimately, I did not go there because I felt it would be a lot of driving to just get to where Lapland begins in Roviemmi. Going beyond that into the real Lapland would mean the dreaded campgrounds. Since I was traveling solo, I did have concerns about there being no one to commiserate with if I had a car breakdown, etc. So, no reindeer.

I went instead to Turku, where I stayed 2 nights at the Sokos Hotel. I stayed in the least expensive of the two buildings (across the street from each other). The low end building means the sauna is in the other building. The room was teeny but sufficient. I saw the linna in Turku the first day and ate at a Viking themed restaurant called Harald’s. The food was OK, but the restaurant was a hoot. On the next day, which was a Monday, my priority was seeing the handicraft museum — highly touted by The Lonely Planet (The Bible for travelers to Finland). What I saw was a bunch of disappointed tourists holding The Lonely Planet saying the museum was open on Mondays. Common with many museums in Finland, it was closed on Monday, so I never saw it. I went instead to a Maritime Museum (Forum Marinum). It was not as interesting as the one in Kotka, but it did have some old sailing ships that you could go on and examine. I always enjoy those. After visiting there, I went to a museum called Abo Vetus devoted to an archeological dig in Turku. Everything was well explained and even made interesting for children. I also visited the cathedral.

In a vacation of many highlights, what occurred the next day has to rank as the absolute best. For 33 euros, I took the Silja Line boat to Mariehamn in the Aland Islands and return for the day. The cruise takes all day. You switch boats in Mariehamn and return to Turku. The boats go back and forth between Turku and Stockholm stopping in Mariehamn. The whole idea was just to see all the islands. There must be at least hundreds — many uninhabited. I had spectacular weather for the cruise. I spent most of the time on top although the boat had many things to do on it (activities for kids, duty free shopping, restaurants, etc.). My 33 euro fare included a fantastic buffet lunch. I was really glad I did this and somewhat consoled for my decision not to go to Lapland.

Returning to Lahti, I did several more days of day excursions. I visited the National Museum of Finland (Kansallismuseo) in Helsinki on one of my few bad weather days. The museum has exhibits from prehistoric to modern times and is quite interesting if you are a history nut as I am. It was a good place to spend time on a day when the weather was “iffy” outside. The day ended in a colossal thunderstorm and I had a long slow slog back “home” in the torrential downpour.

I also visited Sibelius’ home Ainola and a couple of other interesting museums near it including one devoted to women in the military (Finland currently has a woman president, by the way).

My exchangers had arranged for me to meet a friend of theirs who lives near Jyvaskyla at the opposite end of Lake Paijanne from Lahti. I drove up there to meet her to do a hike and got majorly lost. We eventually hooked up and had a very nice day. I treated her to dinner afterwards in Jyvaskyla. Then she took me over to the town of Muurame where she lives and we went to the Sauna Museum — only in Finland. Basically they have collected a huge number of old sauna buildings from all over Finland and turned it into a museum. The museum was closed so we thought we’d have a look around. Our “look” was cut short when we realized a group of naked men were sitting outside one of the saunas. I took a photo of their rear ends (rather quickly and it is out of focus — drat). We left. I then drove back to Lahti.

On my last full day in Lahti, I went to Tampere, Finland’s second largest city. I went there to the Vaprikki Museum in old factory buildings that once housed a cotton mill. Believe it or not, I saw a huge exhibition on the Indian Sitting Bull. Yes, I went all the way to Tampere, Finland, to see an exhibit about American Indians. I didn’t go there for that exhibit (I went for an exhibit about Finland during the Russian Revolution when Finland had its own civil war between Reds and Whites), but I ended up spending a lot of time on the Indian exhibit. The exhibits were from European collections, so, even if I live outside Washington, DC, and have visited the Museum of the American Indian many times, I would not see those items there. I bought the poster from the exhibit as a conversation piece. Of course, the poster cost all of 2 euros. It will not cost 2 euros to frame. Isn’t that always the way it is?

I went in Lahti to a restaurant along the lake harbor called Casselli’s where I had the best meal of the trip. I ate reindeer in a blue cheese sauce. I am not a fan of blue cheese but I have to say that the reindeer was delicious.

Also in Lahti I had the worst pizza of my entire life. I was in a restaurant in the harbor area and everyone was ordering pizza. Wrong decision! I had eaten at that restaurant earlier in my stay and had these tiny herring that one eats whole with mounds of mashed potatoes (I did not finish the mashed potatoes). The herring were delicious. By the way on the menu they were called “vendace” — which was supposed to be the English name. Every here of “vendace”? I have heard of herring, but not “vendace”? I also ate excellent salmon several times on my trip. I never ordered pizza again in Finland!

I also spent a day tooling around the monthly market and just basically doing nothing. The market is held on the first Wednesday of every month and basically sells the usual European assortment of junky merchandise and food. The market on other days was mostly people drinking coffee and eating ice cream. The Finns love their coffee and I drank plenty of it. Ice cream is also plentiful and I developed a taste for the pear ice cream. While I was in Lahti, Lahti hosted the Master’s Championship in Athletics. Tons of elderly athletes from all over the world! They were all very fit and thin. When someone asked me if I was competing, I laughed and said my event was watching TV. Adjacent to the events where the competitions were held are 3 ski jumps (You can’t miss them because they dominate the Lahti skyline). I watched the ski jumpers on my first day in Lahti, but, alas, I got no photos. What I discovered was that my American camera had died. I had to buy a new one in Lahti!

Serious shopping in Lahti was done at the Sokos Department Store. I got two pieces of Kalevala jewelry. Basically it is jewelry inspired by Finland’s national epic, “The Kalevala”. On market day, they had free coffee and people playing traditional Finnish instruments dressed in folk costumes. Fun!

Finally, my home exchangers returned and I was dropped off at the train station for my train to Helsinki. I would spend five days in Helsinki at the end of my stay. That trip report — will be posted separately.

My home exchange in Finland was sadly at an end, but it had been terrific!

Categories
Holiday Travel

How I Spent Thanksgiving Week on NCL’s Jewel

Author: Louise Strong
Date of Trip: November 2006
PROLOGUE:

NCL treated me like a goddess and a family member all throughout the week on the Norwegian Jewel. They must have known I needed some R and R, some TLC, excellent dining, great activities, good dance music, fabulous ports-of-call, the opportunity to make new friends, and most of all, to laugh. This cruise will go down in the books as the best yet.

GETTING TO THE NORWEGIAN JEWEL:

I originally booked the lowest level category balcony and was upgraded to the highest level balcony for the same price. About one month prior to 11/19/06 I received the phone call for an upsell to a penthouse suite. Once I saw the suite was in front of the ship I immediately said yes. I flew into FLL on 11/18/06 and knew the week was going to be great when my luggage was the third and fourth suitcases to come through the belt! For 18 dollars I shared a van with seven others going to various places. One lady was my superhero. She goes on cruises for free while giving lectures on board all cruise lines. I want to be just like her some day.

My travelmate, The NewYorker, is a friend who I met on the NCL Sun two years ago Thanksgiving week. We called this our anniversary cruise. My hubby did not mind that I was leaving because he knew if I stayed home, then my large family was probably coming over for the holiday!

We enjoyed the Beacon Hotel in South Beach, Miami for our precruise stay. We walked to Lincoln Mall for dinner and shopped our way back to the Beacon. We bought expensive dresses for formal night that we did not really need for freestyle cruising. You can wear whatever you want on NCL freestyle cruises. We decided to dress every night of the cruise and most of my outfits had a black and white theme. I found a great black and white BCBG dress. We finished the evening drinking and dancing at the Clevelander Bar. The next morning we walked South Beach, dipped our pedicured toes in the ocean and chatted it up a bit with the homeless men who spent the night on the shoreline.

The cab ride from South Beach to the ship was about 20 dollars. I had so many thoughts and questions going through my head as we approached the Jewel. First, I liked her hull artwork. I wondered if there would be a tango-guy to teach me to ballroom dance. Would I never leave my penthouse? Can the bridge officers see down onto my forward balcony? What ports are we going to again and when? Who will show up to our planned Cruise Critic (a website for cruisers) party? Will I finally win the bottle of champagne at the latitudes repeat passenger party? Lastly, since I left my big family behind, would there be a family to take me under their wings during this holiday week…A family to adopt us?

Embarkation was a breeze and once on board we went to the buffet lunch. A lot of yummy food was present! Stations were set up all over with different categories of food. For example, there was a pasta station, a soup station, a sandwich station, a hot selection station, a meat carving station, a dessert station and so on! For breakfast and dinner, the buffet area was also filled with great selections. This ship also had dining rooms and specialty restaurants for extra extra fine dining.

The NYer suggested we check out our suite #10000 and see if our luggage arrived. We loved the couch and chairs, the huge closet with doors on both sides (one from the entry hallway, the other from the vanity hallway), the huge bathroom, the fabulous balcony, the living area, the dining area and the bedding. We concluded if we were thieves, we would have stolen the linens, the duvet, the pillows, and the bathrobes.

Our steward stopped in to say hello and he asked us to close our curtains at night. He said closing them would avoid glare on the bridge directly above us. Once he left we exclaimed, “Yeah, right! If we were young and beautiful, maybe the request from the bridge would be to keep the curtains OPEN at night!”

The craziness began after we noticed fresh flowers on the table, a bottle of champagne in a bucket and fresh fruit in a basket. A note attached said it was compliments of NCL. The doorbell rang and in comes another bottle of champagne with a note attached, “hope you have a wonderful cruise” from Colin Veitch, the President of NCL. Papers started arriving too with special things written on it. Our repeat passenger benefits included 20 dollars off body and facial treatment, 30 free minutes in the internet cafe, a party invitation and a free meal in a specialty restaurant. There was also a 75 dollar credit on our account (37.50 each) which probably had to do with our booking.

The doorbell rang again and in comes someone else delivering a basket of fruit and a nice bottle of cabernet sauvignon…the little note attached is from NCL again. I wrote to NCL regarding their new commercials and the message thanked me for my suggestions. Their new campaign is about being able to eat WHENEVER you want and to wear WHATEVER you want.

Our phone rang next. Our Concierge called to tell us he had already scheduled a free meal (another one) in a specialty restaurant for us. He asked if the date and time were okay. I reminded him we were on vacation and we could eat at WHATEVER time and where ever place!

The doorbell rang again and we thought it was our luggage arriving. We open the door and in comes another delivery…a bottle of wine and fruit basket! No note was attached and we did not press the issue in case it was a mistake delivery. We were darned happy as we re-organized the fruit, champagne bottles and wine bottles. We were going to crack open a bottle but had to go to the muster drill, a required and necessary safety drill before the ship’s sailing.

After the safety drill we returned our life vests to our suite. We decided to check out the sailaway party as the ship starting moving. Always remember to close the balcony door before you open your stateroom door…if not, then papers fly all over the place. But that can be a good thing too. I looked at what I picked off the floor and I found a letter from the Jewel’s Hotel Director stating we had a free meal in any alternative restaurant!

As we left for our Thanksgiving Week Sailaway we concluded it was more like Christmas week!

THE CRUISE BEGINS:

Everyone seemed to be at the pool deck for the sailaway party. This was a great opportunity to see the overall mood of the passengers and of the cruise staff who entertain all week long. Overall, it was going to be a fun and happy week. We returned to our suite and found our luggage was arriving. We scored a dinner reservation for Teppanyaki, a specialty restaurant.

Teppanyaki is “a style of Japanese cuisine that uses an iron griddle to cook food.” The chef cooks in front of you while “displaying slicing/dicing/juggling” techniques. Their tools make a beat as they perform. Our chef was a lot of fun! We laughed, we cheered, we hollered “yeah” when he caught pieces of food in his hat and we hollered “ohhhhh” when he did not. An anniversary cake was brought out in the end and we all sang happy anniversary to a couple celebrating their 45th.

One of the anniversary couple’s daughters was one of the very first winners of the happy birthday NCL free cruise on the new Norwegian Pearl. I thought this could be the family I was looking for because we shared our parts of our meals with each other. Most of us selected the Land and Sea and a few selected the Seafood Diablo. I had the Land and Sea and it was absolutely fantastic! The family later invited us to sit with them that evening at the 70’s dance party.

The other table had a well dressed family and I could not help but watch the two children stare up in awe at their chef. The kids were so cute. The son had his chopsticks tied together by the waitress in a particular manner so he could eat his food easier. I wanted mine tied the same way but they brought me a fork instead. Something new I noticed was that a black napkin was brought out for me but everyone else got a white one. I asked why and they responded so the white napkin would not leave stuff on my black satin pants or black satin shirt. I responded “oh” and thought to myself that I really should go out to eat more…!

During dinner we missed over 40 singles mingle (for the New Yorker), the ballroom dancing and the family karaoke. The Jewel also had a traveling alone social and dinner where one could meet other solo travelers and go to dinner with them. We thought how nice! Two years ago the NYer and I had to find each other on our own…now NCL helps set up solo travelers. Smart move.

After dinner we went down one deck to check out three bars with unique themes and designs as advertised on NCL. Since I was wearing black, I looked great in all three color schemes. I ordered a cosmopolitan at Magnum’s martini and champagne bar and then we headed up to the Spinnaker Lounge on Deck 13 forward for the 70’s Night dancing. The place was mobbed and they did their signature John Travolta/Gloria Gaynor/YMCA contest. The Cruise Director did a great job with this.

At the end of the night we talked about what we liked so far about the ship. Our suite and balcony was a given. We also loved the open railings with horizontal rungs all over the ship. They were great for viewing through our balcony, the decks, and the pool area. Some ships have that awful Plexiglass that gets fogged up from sea salt. The Jewel is wonderful for viewing the ocean. The furnishings in the lounges were also plush. Our feet even sunk into the ship’s carpets.

MONDAY…A PERFECT RAINY DAY AT SEA:

I got up at 6:30am and headed up to the buffet breakfast in my high-water black yoga pants, white flip-flops, an old skanky white t-shirt and black head-band. I made sure to put some mascara to not scare anyone in case others were awake at that time. It was cloudy and I noticed some of the pool chairs already claimed. Tempted to throw the towels/books/single shoes into one of the four hot-tubs I just chuckled knowing my option was the awesome forward balcony attached to my suite if the weather got nicer. Besides, I had A Cruise Critic party planned at 11am and a latitudes repeat customer party at 1pm.

At the Garden Cafe I had a beautiful selection of freshly prepared food. How wonderful to be an early bird. I asked an older gentleman (the only other passenger up at that time too) at the table nearby what his tag was for around his neck. He replied that over 300 Norwegian dancers were on board. A large group from Norway booked the cruise and they were all learning to dance. He invited me to watch as they were going to practice in Spinnaker’s Lounge at 8am and on the basketball court at 10am. So this is what goes on early morning! Who knew?

After breakfast I could have gone to early morning exercises, the casino, trivia, handwriting analysis seminar, golf seminar or arts and crafts all before 11am if I wanted to. I opted to head back to bed and watch the waves break the bow of ship. As I exited the cafe, I turned a corner and ran into five guys in white. Startled, I bid them all a good morning. I was asked what I was doing up so early on vacation. I replied I wanted to be the first in line for the omelette man and the first in line for the waffle man. I was next asked if I was enjoying the cruise so far. “Yes, it is great” I answered. I then added, “Who are you?”

The rest of the conversation was a blur. Not only were these guys in white, but they were the guys in white with stripes. I remember hearing Something-Director, Something-Director, Head-So-and-So, Big-Wig from Miami office and Assistant to the Something-Director. I could have run away. Here I was in my skanky clothes that I slept in with no make-up on. I thanked God to myself that I had put a bra on and applied mascara prior to leaving the suite. I held my ground and commented on NCL’s new menus. I thanked one of the Directors for dinner the prior evening. I then had to explain what I meant by that and they laughed. I then told them I had to go do a Norwegian dance group. When they laughed I realized I had to explain what I meant by that too. I ended their entertainment by wishing them a good day. I did not need my cabin key to get into the suite. I just crawled under the door…

I later checked out the Jewel’s spa. I began first with with the free area that women can use. You can use a hot-tub, a steam room, a sauna room, or sit on a few chairs overlooking the bow of ship. The spa is directly above the bridge and it has a fabulous view. I assume the guys on the other side had the same thing. They had regular bathrooms and regular showers along with two special showers that give an ice blast (which you are supposed to cold rinse after getting out of hottub or sauna/steam room to close your pores). I ventured down a hallway past the acupuncture room, the teeth whitening room, the massage rooms and the body tanning room into the therapy room which was unisex.

A juice/coffee/tea bar/water was set up as mellow music played lightly in the background. If I had my bathing suit on I would have checked out the therapy pool that seemed built for two with little rollers that one floats on. Instead, I sat on one of ten stone beds ergonomically designed for the body. The stones were heated. I sat there alone for about 20 minutes and de-stressed from my guy-in-white rendezvous. I almost fell back to sleep while looking out at the vast ocean ahead. I concluded that had I not had a penthouse suite to relax in, or if I was traveling with family members and wanted to get away, then this room is definitely where I would hang out!

I was so relaxed after my therapy room experience I returned to cabin to wake up the NYer and get ready for parties. I donned a black skirt, black sketcher sandals and a black/white/pink dress tank top (resort casual?) outfit. I was not sure of the decor in the Star Bar and I did not want to clash.

I brought our champagne to the Cruise Critic party and NCL set up glasses and orange juice to mix mimosas for those Cruise Critics in attendance. I also brought maple sugar treats from my home state of Vermont. NCL provided coffee and cookie treats. The best treat of all was getting to meet the Captain, the Food and Beverage Director, the Hotel Director, the Cruise Director and the group services coordinator. When some introduced themselves to me I reminded them I met him earlier that morning! I then shared the wonders of make-up.

Altogether, the officers were very nice and very personable. I noticed they took time with each of the Cruise Critics in a casual atmosphere. Their conversations were not boring and they were not stuffy at all. As a matter of fact, I began to think they were real people just like us! Overall, this was a great opportunity to ask questions of them if you wanted to. Lastly, it was great to put faces to people I communicated with online. After the gathering ended, we finished off the remaining mimosas.

Our next party was the repeat customer latitudes party at one o’clock. It was fun to go through the entry line and to not be afraid to talk to the guys in white with stripes. NCL served free champagne, wine, mimosas, rum drinks along with nice hors d’oeuvres. We stayed with mimosas. I dislike champagne but I had a nice mimosa buzz and my ultimate goal is to win the champagne bottle in the raffle. The party was well attended…it filled up the Spinnaker’s Lounge and the Captain talked to everyone and introduced the officers.

Prizes drawn included items from the gift shop, a pedicure and facial from the sap, NCL t-shirts and NCL hats. Prizes vary on each ship depending on who sets up the party. Once again, I did not win the bottle of champagne. I know if I ever win I am going to pull a Price Is Right move and run down and make a fool of myself. After all my suite treats, I was not too disappointed…

After the latitudes we were more buzzed and decided we better eat because more champagne was coming at the VIP party early evening. We selected the Blue Lagoon that serves chicken wings, potato skins, hamburgers, hotdogs, noodle soup, shepard’s pie, and some other stuff. This is one of the restaurants open all the time.

Afterwards, The NYer went up to the pool deck and it was time for my nap and solitude on the suite balcony. Upon my arrival, another surprise bottle was in the cabin and I have no idea where it came from. As my head hit the pillow on the lounger in bewilderment, I thought ‘Whatever!’ As I slept, I had no idea what the evening would bring…VIP party, another alternative restaurant, a dress malfunction, suite treats, and New Years Eve Bash…

During my nap I missed the afternoon activities that included champagne art auction, sexy legs competition by the pool, casino blackjack tournament, mega jackpot bingo, Texas Hold ‘Em tournament, spinning, martini clinic and margarita clinic. I wished I stayed up for the beauty seminars because I really could have used the seminar titled “Drop a Dress Size” or the one titled “Fab Abs” with the fitness instructors.

Monday evening and the V.I.P. party was billed optional formal night and we opted to dress up. While in South Beach I purchased a great strapless silk (ish) black and white cocktail dress. Each vertical black stripe and each vertical white stripe overlapped the other from top to bottom. I decided the dress was more important than going on shore excursions and getting my hair cut in the ship’s salon. Since black and white was my fashion theme for the week and it fit perfectly, I bought it.

When the time came to put the dress on, I wondered what happened. How could the dress have shrunk? How come I could not zip up the back? I forgot Caribbean humidity makes me swell. I forgot champagne makes me bloat. I forgot something else that I should have remembered. Since trying on the dress originally, I think I was ten pounds heavier. How was I going to chow down on lobster in a few hours?

We were almost late for the VIP party as the NYer (who is the size of a peanut soaking wet), had to help shove me into the dress. We laughed and laughed at the little flaps flipping up in certain spots whenever I walked or stood up after sitting down. Strange how it did not do that when I was dancing in the South Beach dressing room! I told the NYer I was going to wear the dress and just not move all night long. We could walk slowly; she would let me know if anything was showing, she could sit at the bar and I could stand up against it. When I had to sit down, I would remove my black sheer shawl (a burka head covering from Saudi Arabia I use as a shawl) and wrap it around my waist in a giant bow. Perfect. We were ready to go.

Before leaving, our suite treats arrived. We had treats arrive every night. This night had TWO platters of chocolate covered strawberries. We stuck them in the refrigerator in order to save room in our bellies for lobster. Lobster was being served in every restaurant that evening. We headed off very carefully to the Fyzz Lounge…

The Captain’s VIP party was very well attended. The Fyzz Lounge was very colorful and I did not clash with it in my dress. The Fyzz Lounge is used for karaoke and for other venues such as country line dance lessons. At the party, I did not move from the bar. We met a very nice woman who offered to show us her Garden Villa, an amazing 5500 square foot cabin with private courtyard. One of the officers introduced himself and I had to remind him I met twice already that very same day. This time I got to laugh and what him squirm. I explained to him the wonders of hairstyling and a little extra eye shadow. I thought to myself he probably did not recognize me because I gained weight since I saw him last.

Another officer asked which dining room we were eating in that evening and we had not really thought about it. He picked up his phone and made a reservation in a specialty restaurant. I wondered if we would ever see the freestyle dining rooms, the dining rooms that you go into anytime from 5pm-10pm.

Lastly, I noticed all the officers made sure they spoke to everyone who attended. I concluded this was a great group of officers. I secretly hoped they had fun at these events because they have to do it every week. The best part was that they were all very personable, cordial and funny.

During our fabulous lobster dinner in Mama’s Italian Restaurant, another bottle of wine was sent to our table. The lobster and wine helped stretch my dress appropriately. We had missed the opening main event show by Jean Ann Ryan Company which other people reported as being fabulous. So after dinner, we checked out the ship store instead of arriving late to it. I found the store pleasant. Cigarettes and liquor were definitely a bargain compared to where I come from. You could buy a carton of cigs for 23 dollars or 2 cartons for 40 dollars. If you purchase liquor from the store, you pick it up the night before the cruise ends. Just remind yourself you can not “carry on” the plane. You will have to pack it in your luggage. The regulations might change by the time you cruise, but keep this in mind.

We returned to our suite and found towel animals and chocolate on our pillows. I had been awake a long time and NCL contributed to an appropriate “good feeling.” I do not think I had a bar bill yet but was feeling great. We next headed up to the New Year’s Eve bash in Spinnaker’s Lounge. We arrived to a packed house and everyone was having a good time! The crowd ranged from 18 to 80 years old. I immediately got my glow sticks, my streamers and began to work out on the dance floor. I noticed the older Norwegian dancer from early morning standing by himself. I grabbed him and took him out on the floor. This guy could boogie! I found out later that he was in the same profession as me.

This was the only night I kept track of how long I stayed out at night. The NYer and I returned to suite at 3:30am. I had been awake partying for almost 24 hours. It was a perfect rainy day at sea.

TUESDAY…SAN JUAN:

I awoke early and headed up to the breakfast buffet instead of one of two main dining rooms. It was a new experience for me to see just who was out and about early morning! I sat with a lovely Hawaiian couple from San Francisco. Their plan for the day was to find a long lost friend from year’s ago. I told them I would say a prayer to St. Anthony that they would find her. I never saw them again that week but I hope they made someone’s day!

We did not arrive in San Juan until noon so I caught some early morning sun on the penthouse balcony. The ship was moving slowly and I think I had the best view…even better than the Garden Villa passengers. We had special early debarkation tickets but we were not in any hurry to go anywhere. We were on vacation. We had no plans. We let everyone else get off the ship first. We walked around town and bought souvenirs. I concluded that you must wear comfy shoes in Old San Juan’s cobblestone streets. We walked along the pier boardwalk and throughout the streets. I was so tired that I asked in one store if I would get back American dollars. The shopkeeper announced that I was in the United States and I would get back American dollars because that is all he had. I replied that a certain percentage of Puerto Ricans did not want to belong to the United States…he happily responded, “What do I care? I am Mexican!” We ended our shopping day drinking giant margaritas in a Senor Frogs bar.

My general rule is to be back on ship at least one hour before the recommended time. If you do not go with a ship tour, then there are no guarantees on the ship waiting if a traffic accident ties up the main road back, or if a privately scheduled tour is running late. On the ship I ate yummy pizza, chicken, pork ribs and potato salad. The NYer and I returned to our suite for a nap but it was interrupted by a suite shrimp platter delivery. We concluded no sleeping today and that we must begin to crack open all the wine we had sitting on our counter-top.

We sat out on our balcony eating shrimp and drinking Colin’s Cabernet Sauvignon while watching everyone return to ship. We watched the sun set. We opened the second bottle of Cabernet and heard a report from our suite neighbors out on their balcony about the San Juan tour. We finally met the honeymooning couple out on the balcony of the Diamond Suite (saw their suite at debarkation and it was beautiful…great decor…will book that one next time) and they were having a great cruise. Good thing because I would have felt bad if they were not having any fun!

As darkness fell and the ship started sailing we realized that we had not had dinner since nobody told us where we were going to eat that evening! Would we ever make it to the regular restaurants? The Nyer then remembered the double platters of chocolate-covered strawberries in our refrigerator and brought them out on balcony. We commented on the fabulous lights of El Morro shining in front of us and how great a tour that was the last time in San Juan, we laughed also at the shiny lights of the brand new parking garage directly below it.

As we left port, the gentle wind and night-lights were mesmerizing. I was bundled up in an extra blanket and the NYer could not believe that I was chilly. I said I was just comfortable. She pointed out the constellations as she had once lived on a sailboat traveling the Caribbean for two years.

Once we were full speed ahead towards Antigua, we went back inside and got ready for ’80’s night in Spinnaker’s Lounge. We missed dinner, the main show the Action Comedy Showtime Edge, the Big Band Tribute to Glen Miller, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire Audience Participation gathering and the adult karaoke. Even so, I would not have traded the NYer, the wine, the shrimp, the chocolate covered strawberries, the balcony view leaving San Juan at night for a million dollars…

WEDNESDAY…HOW I FOUND JESUS IN ANTIGUA:

The NYer and I awoke to the ship docked in Antigua. We found the room service request sheets in the cabin booklet’s back pocket the night before. Our butler was on time and he set a beautiful table setting on the balcony. While dining, we basked in the glorious sunshine and wondered whether or not we would ever make it to one of the big shows offered almost each night. We missed the comedy show but had asked a family the night before if it was funny. A middle-aged dad with his family said it was a riot and that we missed a good performance. The NYer and I concluded that it possibly could not have been funnier than the two of us hanging out together all week.

The NYer left after breakfast to get a salon appointment and I continued to work on my tan and to catch up on sleep on the balcony. The Antigua welcome band down below played. As I tried to rest, my eyes kept opening to view this awesome cathedral in hills of downtown St. John. I wondered how far a walk it was…I rested…I opened my eyes again and was drawn to the immaculate structure. It stood out among all the other buildings…I rested again…opened my eyes and felt the beckoning…”Louise…Louise…Come To Me…!”

I asked the NYer if she wanted to walk up and check out the Cathedral. She replied not only no, but “heck no!” I finally fell asleep but awoke once again. “Louise my child, you must come to me!” the church bellowed once again. We had talked about hitting the beaches in Antigua but we were content with just doing our own thing…a perfect agreement when cruising with friends or family. Falling asleep again, I was jolted with a bolt…”Louise you better get up here right now and pay homage!” I got dressed and told the NYer I was going for a walk to the church. She decided to join me.

Before heading out we checked the ship’s magazine, The Freestyle Daily, to make sure of the required return time. We noticed on each port-of-call the advisory notice: “While ashore drink only bottled water, be cautious while dining in port, wash your hands often, and discourage hand shaking.” This is one of the great things about NCL…the multitude stations of hand sanitizers everywhere you go throughout their ships. I truly believe this is the reason one hardly hears about norovirus on NCL ships.

St. John’s Cathedral was not as far a walk as I thought. Closer than it appeared from the suite, I was glad I had comfy shoes on as the sidewalks were in need of repair. The view was beautiful from the outside. The cemetery around the church was interesting. The structure inside was extremely interesting. We read through the brochure that noted the history, the organ, the wood, the stained glass, and the altar. Suddenly a local hands us a bible and a hymn book. Mass began.

We went to leave and turned around. The church was semi-filled with locals. The NYer said, “Let’s GO!” I replied, “NO!, think of the grace we can get by staying!…I will meet you back at the ship if you want!” She stayed as we moved to the back. The mass was very interesting. I remembered the words to most of the responses but followed a local when it came time to stand and to sit and stand again. I even sang…and I never sing! This was great, I thought! I could have been at the beach, on a tour, drinking at the bars while on vacation, but here I was praying in St. John’s Cathedral.

I prayed for my family, for my community, for my friends, for my colleagues, for NCL and for the locals. I thanked God, Jesus and Mary for having the life that I have. The priest’s main message was no matter how great you are (a great teacher, a great doctor, a great lawyer), what truly matters is how GOOD you are at the end of the day. Knowledge is wonderful, but how you use it to help others is what counts.

Then came the sign of peace. Back home we just say peace be with you to whoever you are standing next to. In Antigua, the ENTIRE group leave the pews, walks around and SHAKES HANDS with everyone! The NYer is freaking out and I am whispering, “Just don’t put your hands to your mouth after!” We shook hands with all the catholic Antiguans including the priest who also walked around. There were five other cruisers and we just nervously shook each others hands and gave each other a look of “Oh Jesus!”…

Thirty minutes and four songs later I forgot about the hand-shaking. It was time for the body of Christ. I wanted to go up to the altar and kneel just like I did as a little kid when the catholic masses were done in Latin. The locals were also up at the altar on the left and I was the first cruiser on the right of them. Back home, the body of Christ is now given out in your hand for sanitary reasons. In Antigua, the priest delivers the host directly to your mouth. “Oh Jesus,” I thought…”Please do not let the priest’s finger touch my tongue! Oh Jesus, please forgive me for thinking this!”

I watched as the body of Christ came my way. My turn arrives. I stiffen, shut my eyes and stick out my tongue as far as possible. Then it was over. “Thank you Jesus…no wet finger!” Of course the priest was probably thinking, “Oh Jesus, please do not let my finger touch this heathen cruiser’s tongue!” as he delivered the wafer to me. I watched in glee and in anticipation to see if his finger touched the other cruiser’s tongues. I then bowed my head and thanked God.

Nobody left the altar. I prayed some more yet wondered why we were all still kneeling up there. The priest shuffles, says some prayer and starts going down the line AGAIN. Another host? A blessing on the forehead? What was going on? I strain to see down the row and I spot the holy grail…the chalice of Christ’s blood…placed on the lips of each local in the same spot as they sipped.

“OH JESUS!” I prayed. “Oh Jesus, can’t that priest wipe off the chalice using a little more force with that napkin?” The priest was getting closer. I strained some more to see and thought, “Oh Jesus, how come he is not turning that freaking cup?!” The priest was now ten locals away from me. “Oh Jesus, will I offend these people if I get up and leave?” The priest was five locals away. I turn to the right and look at at the other tourists. They looked as if the devil himself was on his way to steal their souls.

I wish I had a camera to capture one tourist’s look at me. It was sheer horror. I returned the look, shook my head no to her, bowed my head and prayed, “Father, forgive me!” as I stood and left just as the priest arrived. I returned to my pew and prayed more for forgiveness if I offended anyone in Antigua. The NYer wanted to ask me what the heck happened…because all she saw was me get up and then five others disappear in a NY second…but I was too busy praying.

Church closed with everybody leaving the pews once again and standing in a circle holding hands singing a hymn. I think I prayed to Jesus more times in 75 minutes than I did my entire life. I felt like a good person upon leaving. I left a hefty donation to help preserve St. John’s Cathedral. Jesus is going to be with me for a solid two years after that “tour!”

After church, the NYer needed a drink. She informed me that she was not Catholic. Who knew? I then spotted a school across the street and she then had to endure my conversations with the students, the teachers and the security guards. Amazing how things are different yet still the same throughout the world.

We ended up at the “BeeHive” a bar near the ship which serves local beer for 2 dollars a pop. Good thing I was buying. We were so full of Jesus that we found something good during every beer we drank. The beer was good…The tourists were good…The rain shower felt good…The ancient Antiguan street dancer who balanced a pineapple on his head was good…Life was good!

I was so full of Jesus, goodness and Antiguan beer that I decided to buy presents for all the people who had to support my job while I was away. One stop at “Lipstick” perfume factory and I had all my thank you presents. The only perfume shop “packed” with customers, I assumed the deals were good. One Obsession, Dolce and Gabbana, Red Door, Pure White Rain, Wish, Angel, J-LO Glow, and Versace-something later, I was done. I told the lady at check-out that it took 8 people to do my job while away. The male customer behind me replied, “What are you? A Housewife?”

Stumbling back onto the ship, the security guard just did not understand why after I placed each hand under the sanitizer that I also wanted to try to drink out of it. We returned to our suite and realized we do not have a cabin in the back of ship. Always remember on the Jewel that the carpet fish swim towards the bow. I somehow managed to lose my key along the way. I think I sanitized my purse and my key under the machine and it somehow slipped out. The information desk people were very kind in replacing one. If you lose your key, go there immediately and they will void out the lost one and give you a new one. Others in the cabin will also have to have their key replaced too. So do not go to church, get drunk after, carry around 350 dollars worth of perfume, take a sanitizer shower and expect to have everything you started with.

The NYer headed off to her hot stone massage which she loved and highly recommended. I headed off to sleep in my suite lounger on the balcony. Jesus was happy with me and he finally let me get some good shut-eye since boarding on 11/19.

For dinner that evening, we ate at NCL signature French restaurant, Le Bistro. I donned a black halter top and white sailor pants. The NYer was late meeting me there. As I waited at the entrance a couple came up to me and stated their reservation. I told them they would have to wait 45 minutes to be seated but if they slipped me a 20, then I would get them in sooner. They looked at me as if I had three heads until I informed that I was a passenger and not an NCL employee. Immediately afterwards, the Maitre D arrived and seated them.

I loved my array of lobster/scallop appetizer, escargot, and seafood. The NYer loved her warm goat cheese tart, the salmon and the creme brulee. We both enjoyed the complimentary bottle of wine that came with our meal since I am a platinum member with NCL. I chuckled at how I was turning into a wino. I also concluded by the end of the meal that platinum is now my new favorite precious metal.

Unable to finish the wine at dinner, we brought it to the Fyzz Lounge to see what “Edge Unplugged” was all about. Families were enjoying themselves and a crowd of young and old were learning to juggle on the dancefloor. We met a lovely group from England and we laughed a lot with them. Could this be my cruise family? They were fun and we shared jokes. I gave them my best British, Irish and Scottish ones. Afterwards, we went searching for our photos taken by the ship’s staff. We had fun looking for and finding them but we never purchased any. For some reason we looked old in all of them.

The International Crew Show won over our interest in nightly venues. Instead of karaoke or the Latin Fiesta Dance Party, I knew the crew show would be more entertaining. It is a treat to see your servers, your stewards, your cooks sing, dance and entertain. I believe shows like this add to morale and the passengers appreciate them. The Cruise Director and his staff did a funny finale. We finished the evening dancing in the Spinnaker’s Lounge.

THURSDAY…ST. THOMAS:

I awoke early to the immigration call. Any ship that stops in St. Thomas must go through immigration because of re-entry to the United States. All passengers must show their passports or photo identification to the immigration officials who come on board. I left my cabin at 8pm and was back by 8:04pm. St. Thomas had enough officials show up and the entire process was painless.

The foreigners had to go to Spinnakers Lounge and the Americans had to go through Azura restaurant. I realized later that NCL organized approximate times for passengers depending on various things: 7:45 was for citizens booked on shore excursions, and the remaining 15 minute intervals were for citizens on deck 11 and 14, then deck 10, and downward. I was still asleep while going through the Azura main dining room and noticed it seemed a favorable place to eat.

While eating breakfast on our suite we discussed St. Thomas. Wasn’t he the one who doubted Jesus? Or, was St. Thomas named after St. Thomas Aquinas, the philosopher/theologian/teacher/traveler? We never reached an answer but agreed we had seen and done just about everything on the island in the past. This included Coki Beach, Megan’s Bay, jewelry/watch/linen shopping, island tours and turtle cove. Other possible shore excursions we discussed included snorkel tours, scuba tours, parasailing, St. John beach escape, Kon Tiki Party Raft, coral world and champagne catamaran sail/snorkel.

I have almost everything on previous cruises and by this Thursday morning, I was not interested, especially since I bought that darned dress! The only thing both of us had never done was the screamin eagle jet boat or the skyline ride directly off the ship. Somewhat disappointed in ourselves that we were having to think about making a decision, the crew drill offered some relief.

I commend NCL for their passenger safety. I already mentioned hand sanitizers but need to mention cameras all over the ship. A newer ship, I felt safe and secure knowing they were everywhere. Should a crime occur on board, I am sure that at least one if not four would show one spot. If you are bored on board…try to find the cameras…they are hidden everywhere. Phones are also all over the ship. Portable phones in each stateroom can be used to stay in contact with family members while on board.

In addition to the life-raft crew drill, the crew onboard this week had to participate in missing children simulations. The first simulation was Jill. The announcer described her and the crew had to find her. She was found within two minutes (the crew really has to search until found). The NYer said that was an easy one…she was probably in Jack’s cabin! The second simulation was missing Willey. The NYer had a field day with that one and I laughed for over an hour.

Laying in the sun on the balcony won us over until the shade arrived and we sunbathed at the pool for the very first time. We were soooooo relaxed. While many passengers were on St. Thomas, some of us had the pool to ourselves. Two Sapphire pools are located on deck 12. One for kids with a giant water slide, the other for adults with a waterfall. Swimming under the waterfall gives a wonderful back massage. Be sure to stay under the water unless you want a head pounding. The kids waterslide was uneventful for me. I had a hard time sliding down it. Maybe because it was for kids? The peanut NYer had no problem but I was slighted by getting stuck on the slide. No fast downhill motion-plunge-at-the end for this heavyweight!

I probably ticked off the little kids waiting their turn behind me, assuming their complaints to peers how the big adults were not staying in their own pool. Even so, I took my time as I gently had to push my tush one arm movement at a time all the way down. A little guy at the bottom said I was supposed to lay down to go faster. I said to him “Ohhhh!” while wanting to say “Whatever!”

We had great bar service all day and the pina coladas were great. We knew already to order them in a regular glass so we did not pay the extra cost of the fancy-smancy glasses. The pool band was very good as they played easy-listening music. Showers are located nearby the pool but we found a large shower area on deck 13. It had gigantic fake shower handles with a large overhanging shower head. You press a button and the water flows to cool you off. Do not worry if the water keeps going and going…it shuts off automatically. I am sure if the camera guys were watching, they got a good laugh at the look of panic on my face when the water would not stop for me.

The pool areas on deck 12 and deck 13 began to fill up as passengers returned from the island. I watched one use their cell phone and I remembered The Family! Oh my gosh, it is Thanksgiving! Here I was on the beautiful Norwegian Jewel, it was 3pm in gorgeous St. Thomas, and I was enjoying the warm sun combined with a cool pina colada while they were all eating warm turkey in the cold green mountains. I missed them. I called them (My verizon cell phone worked in San Juan and in St. Thomas). My immediate family is so large that I had to call five houses to wish them all a happy turkey day. My family is so large that some were surprised when told why I could not come over for pumpkin pie that afternoon…I discussed the toss-up over who spoiled me more…my older brothers and sisters or NCL! I told them NCL won out this week!

We left the pool area by sailaway time and decided to work off the pina coladas. The Fitness Center on deck 12 was large and many cardiovascular machines faced an ocean view. The NYer pointed out the corner water fountain with a very long spout. She whispered in my ear. No more Evian purchases the rest of the week. We finished the workout powerwalking the promenade deck as St. Thomas’ view drifted further away. I think 2.3 times around the promenade is one mile. A jogging track is on the upper deck but it is too short for me and it is in full sun which I do not like. You can not run on the promenade as some passengers go out there for relaxation, for shuffleboard, to watch the sunset, to read quietly, to kiss their lover, to think alone, to gather thoughts, to Whatever. Promenade decks are the best-kept secrets of any cruise ship.

I worked up a hefty appetite. An invitation to dine with officers was extended at the V.I.P. party earlier that week. We were suggested to pick a day and time. I responded that they were the ones who had the busy schedules and I thanked them. I commented to let us know what was convenient for them. After 27 cruises, 17 with NCL, I had Red Buttons fever (the comedian on the old Dean Martin roasts who never got a dinner) and always wondered how passengers get the invite. Figuring the invitation was just a nice gesture I assumed it would be forgotten. Besides, think of the stress of it all.

We were told on Le Bistro night to meet in Star Bar Thursday at 8pm with dinner at Cagney’s to follow. Oh My Gosh. How do you decline that? I still wonder as of this writing how we got the invite. I am guessing the following: 1. They know I am a Cruise Critic?, 2. I am an NCL platinum member?, 3. They liked my commercial?, 4. I was in a penthouse suite?, 5. My SouthBeach formal dress flipping up?, 6. Jesus was with me?

Thursday was Caribbean night at sea. While getting ready the NYer and I discussed what we were supposed to wear. Was it formal? Was it resort casual? Was it Caribbean? Should I wear my black and white polka-dot dress? No, Caribbean night is usually the night the passengers and officers/staff/crew wear those horrible looking multi-colored caribbean shirts and goofy pants. We concluded the Star Bar and Cagney’s Steakhouse had the least amount of color of all lounges on the ship so we would wear our brightest outfits too.

I called for help anyways to make sure. The response was this was freestyle cruising and that we could wear “whatever.” At that moment I felt like making a bed-sheet toga to show just what I thought about “whatever!” None the smarter, the NYer ended up in a casual caribbean dress and I ended up in a multi-colored floral halter top with white capris. We concluded they were definitely our worst outfits the entire week. At the very least, we would match the officer/staff/crew’s worst outfits of the week too.

The Concierge, a.k.a our limousine driver, escorted us to the Star Bar and waited with us while the others showed up. We were all going to dine in Cagney’s Steakhouse. I just about died when the officers entered. Seems NCL took my previous advice and got rid of their goofy caribbean outfits. These guys showed up in black dress pants, black dress shoes and Gorgeous silkish solid color Cuban-style shirts. Here we were in our stupid outfits and there they were looking like they just returned from a Gentleman’s Quarterly Magazine shoot. Oh my god, this was going to be the longest dinner of my life, perhaps my last supper. I immediately ordered a mount gay rum and tonic with lime.

After nervous introductions once again of everyone, we were asked how our day was. The NYer responded in an exasperated voice, “I am EXHAUSTED!…I have been looking for Willey ALL day!…Have you guys found him yet?!” Mount gay rum and tonic actually came out of my nose. I almost fell out of my chair laughing as did everyone else. The rest of the meal was fabulous. The only way to describe the dining experience was that I was dining at home with my family, especially my brothers and sisters. How surprised was I? We laughed, we told stories, we laughed, we ate a lot, we laughed more, we talked a lot and laughed some more. The NYer pointed out the ones (including me) from big families talked the most. She described it perfectly how we all grew up…we had to compete for the attention!

Overall, what a special treat for me to have been missing my family earlier that day and to have NCL find a way for me to feel right at home. My perception of officer stuffiness has changed as I realize they are people just like you and me. I come from a family of officers and I should have known better all along. Even so, I thank NCL for one of the best Thanksgiving dinners to remember.

If anything, I hope that they in return enjoyed themselves. Since this is done on a weekly basis, I somehow wonder how they view the dinners. There were a few times they almost had water coming out their noses, so I suspect it was something different for them too!

While dining, I did not have a problem missing The Second City comedy improv earlier that evening. There was enough laughter and joy at our table. After thanking the Jewel officers for Thanksgiving dinner and wishing them and NCL a happy birthday, the NYer and I went to the Caribbean deck party. After the Caribbean deck party, I went to the Spinnaker’s Lounge to dance off my jumbo shrimp, prime rib dinner with au jus and horseradish, Idaho baked potato and steamed asparagus. Since the next day was at sea, the disco is usually crowded because nobody has to get up early. Like having to get up early makes a difference to my late night dancing!

FRIDAY…DAY AT SEA:

Friday morning arrived and it was a full day at sea. All the documents and information for debarkation were delivered the night before. I suggest reading through them all to avoid confusion on debarkation day. On NCL, one debarks the ship in a variety of ways: Express walk-off (you get off first)…you must carry off all your own luggage, then passengers with flights to MIA or FLL before 3pm, then guests with shore excursions (you meet in a separate area), then guests with independent travel arrangement (arranged by deck locations), following with guests who have FLL or MIA transfers with flights after 3pm. If you do not want to read through the directions, just watch it on your stateroom television.

I suggest you fill out your customs cards, comment cards, luggage tags and check your onboard account within the last two days of cruise. This avoids the potential long line at the purser’s/information desk debarkation morning. Who wants to end their holiday stressed out?

I wrote out my thank-you letters for the Thanksgiving dinner invite and then packed a bit while watching “Pirates of the Caribbean (part 2)” on the movie channel. Oh my gosh, who knew of the selection of free movies along with the selection of other dvd games available? I never get the chance to go to the movies at home so it was a treat to see this one for free.

I decided to spend the day at sea checking out all other area’s of the ship. After the breakfast buffet I went up to sports deck and to the sun deck. A full size basketball court (also used for tennis and volleyball) with stadium seating was impressive. I found a golf swing area, a giant size chess board game, more shuffleboards, and the private area to garden villas. The sun deck was forward and I concluded this was a nice private area away from the pool. A few passengers were vegging out on the loungers and I did not want to disturb them. The ship’s chapel was small and not very decorative.

My attention was captured in the card/lifestyles room and in the library. The card/lifestyle room had a view of the ocean. Tables were set up where one could play games (bridge/cards/checkers/chess). I looked in all the cabinets and found plenty of board games including monopoly, rummikub, cribbage, sorry, just to name a few. I even found decks of cards!

The library room was the best library at sea I ever noted. A view of the ocean, comfy cubby chairs, and tables by the windows, the book selection was fantastic. I noted fiction, non-fiction, best-sellers, children’s, health, travel and other subjects. Passengers have the opportunity to check out books throughout the cruise and to return them by week’s end. I found three great travel books on Paris and spent the next two hours perusing them. My first visit to Paris was soon thereafter this cruise and I learned a lot. I guess while on the streets in Paris I am not supposed to look French men in the eyes nor respond to their greetings…unless I want to get picked up. I also learned how say, “Bonjour Monsieur! Je suis bien! Et tu?”

The Jewel Club Casino is a brightly decorated one with plenty of slots, tables and tournaments. I bought the perfume in Antigua with my gambling money so I never made a donation. I spoke with a nineteen-year old who had beginner’s luck at the crap’s table and according to him, he spoke to people who had won big at various times. I asked him on the last night if he was in the black or in the red. He had broke even yet commented he enjoyed every minute of it. At least he learned the correct way to gamble.

The internet cafe, located on deck 7 had about six computers. A staff member is nearby to assist passengers. An art gallery was nearby and art auctions took place all week. There were some pieces I liked. The Galleria shop staff was excellent in all areas. The employees were cordial and helpful. I bought t-shirts for hubby, boxes of caribbean rum balls and a great carry-on duffle-bag for 26 dollars. I could not bring the perfume liquids on the plane ride home so I had to re-arrange my packing. The store also had perfume, jewelry, gift ornaments, clothing, and toiletries. So, if you ever forget something, the Galleria store will probably have it.

I finished my self-guided tour with a buffet lunch of cold soup, pork ribs and iced tea. Yummy. Back at the cabin I told the NYer I was going to finish packing so I did not have to rush that night. She politely informed me that we still had another port of call the next day (Great Stirrup Cay) and what the heck was I thinking? Having no concept of time or date all week, I thought we were debarking the following morning. Could this cruise get any better?

I still packed a little bit and The NYer attended a towel making demonstration. Once I was done, I attended the ice cream machines. My first dessert of the week, I found two stations at both ends of the Garden Cafe. You can get chocolate, vanilla or mixed. They have sauces and sprinkles available. Cones (the good kind) are present but I don’t eat them. Instead, I gave the ice cream server my best smile when I handed him my giant soup bowl. He grinned as I whispered, “whatever, right?”

I thought of my father, now deceased, as I sat by myself amongst the crowded Sapphire pool area. Having a family of 13, our special treat was taking us for rides in the car and going to the Dairy Queen. If it was just him and I, he would always get me the super-giant size creemee as long as I could eat it all before I got home so my mother and siblings would not find out. I could never do it and he always helped me out as we pulled into the driveway. I remembered toward the end of his life taking him for rides and for creemees. He still finished what I could not. As 1/2 the ship’s passengers gathered at the Sapphire pool area, it only felt like it was just him and me as I ate the entire serving of icecream. I even licked the bowl.

Feeling like a little kid again, I watched a great show at the pool. A grand illusionist performed an underwater escape challenge. In true Houdini fashion, he had the entire crowd in awe. Passengers chained him up and threw him in the water. Amazing how long this guy could hold his breath. The real little kids were jumping and pointing in anticipation as the minutes passed. I found myself jumping and pointing and holding on to stranger’s arms as I watched. This was a great addition to NCL’s program. Totally cool.

I discovered the NYer at the Sky High Bar and we decided to pass on the bingo, casino tournaments, name that tune, exercise classes, seminars at sea, and singles socials all taking place on this sea day. Instead, we perched ourselves on the bar stools overlooking the pool below and met a lot passengers…some new and some familiar. We began with mojitos which were full of mint and yummy. I can only drink one of those though. We continued with her double-scotch and me double-mount gay cocktails. Much to our surprise, the activities came to us.

We took part in a Kid-Bingo-Coverall taking place by the pool. The prize was 400 dollars and it was one game only. NCL set it up in the cutest way. Each little kid received a beach ball. At the top of the slide, the staff had the machine balls and wrote out the number on each beach ball. The little kids slid down with their beach ball bingo number and held it up for the cruise director to announce. It was coverall and some of the little tykes were pooped towards the end. Some dropped out. I admire the ones who endured the entire game. If you want to make sure your child goes to bed early, then have them participate! They got to keep the balls too!

The sun was setting and the NYer and I were still perched at the SkyHigh bar and we met two wonderful gals having just a great time as we were. The four of us laughed a lot and we wished we met earlier in the week. Come to find out, one gal was from Cruise Critic. She did not make it to our gathering earlier that week so I told her what she missed. The four of us remained there until they had 20 minutes to get to dinner and left. The NYer and I met more passengers along their way. Who says you can’t meet interesting people at a bar? It had been dark for a while and it was getting foggy out. We noticed everyone dressed up while we were still in our shorts and bathing suits. After sitting and drinking all sea day long, we left the Sky High Bar with a Sky High bill. Returning to cabin, we realized we were indeed Sky High.

We went to dinner in Tango’s restaurant with a Tex-Mex flair. We had fun practicing on the Tango carpet during the day. The carpet has foot pictures and directions on how to do the tango. Who knew my tango guy would be a rug? We loved the ambiance of Tango’s at night with the lights dim and hearing the live music playing one deck below. Our waiter was excellent. I had the chicken soup and fajitas…the NYer had the spring rolls and quesadillas. Tex-Mex Burger: beef, shredded chipotle, avocado, Monterey jack cheese, lettuce, spicy fries

After Tangos we went to the Fyzz Lounge and watched the cruise staff teach line dancing. A few started out and others joined as they realized just how fun it is! The cruise staffmember was excellent and a very good teacher. I remember she taught me a few moves on the Norwegian Sun a few years ago.

The big main event show that evening was Cirque De Bijou. Held in the beautiful Stardust Theater forward, every seat was a great seat. There is nothing to block a view in this theater. The design was very well thought out. With exception to the peacock curtain, the colors and decor worked well.

The show was fabulous. I sat in the very back at the top and I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. Billed as “an artistic and awe inspiring aerial ballet featuring world recognized aerialists, rhythmic gymnasts, acrobats and bungee jumpers hurling from 40 feet in the air…” I totally agree this is a show NOT to miss and that it is definitely the “the best show on the seven seas.” If you sit in the first 8 rows, you have to stay the entire performance due to safety reasons. You have performers flying about above you coming within feet of your head!

Also not to miss is the after-show farewell by officers/staff/crew. NCL does the best send-off compared to my Princess, Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruises. As the farewell progressed, I realized the answer to my question all week long. As I heard the words sung “This is your home…away from home…you are part of our family…” and saw everyone up there, I reviewed the week in my head. How true those words were for me on this cruise. I opened this review with stating that NCL treated me like a goddess and like a family member at the same time. These are the words I use when anyone at home or work ask how my vacation was.

After the show we had good intentions of attending the well announced chocoholic buffet set up in the Garden Cafe and the Late Night Comedy Liars Club. Instead, The NYer went to sleep. I watched The Da Vinci Code, another movie I was pleased to see for free. I found myself having a hard time following along even though I read book two years ago. I did enjoy seeing the sites of Paris knowing I would see it for real very soon.

Not wanting to think too much about the Holy Grail once again, I ventured up to the Spinnaker’s Lounge and danced with myself. I had a good time with me! I found out that my favorite music is played late late late night. Not hearing it on other nights (although I still liked the DJ’s selections and I was only out late late the other nights), I was very pleased. My favorite music is trance/techno/club music and had I known, I would have taken longer naps during the day in order to stay up later. Even so, I am very proud of myself that I never once on this trip closed down the disco. I think I am growing up!

SATURDAY…GREAT STIRRUP CAY:

We awoke to a beautiful sunny day off Great Stirrup Cay, NCL’s private island in the Bahamas. The wind and the waves moved the stationary ship. I was thankful we could tender to shore because sometimes the island is missed due to weather/strong winds. The NYer was going to stay on board and I was going on island to seek out the lighthouse and secret beaches.

The Nyer ended up coming ashore and we left the ship at about 12:30pm. Most of the passengers were already on island. We took our time getting off although we could have have used our priority tender tickets to leave earlier. Upon arrival, I saw many people sunbathing and not too many in the water. On less windy days, the beautiful calm waters beckon swimmers, snorkelers, and water loungers. We saw the quieter beach to the right but it was closed off probably due to safety reasons. We watched the Caribbean band play as passengers danced. Many of them were the diehards in Spinnaker’s late nights. Passengers rested in hammocks, played volleyball or ping-pong located near the very clean bathrooms. Kids built sand sculptures while others buried each other.

We did not eat the buffet lunch provided on the island by the ships crew, but saw many eating at the picnic tables set up. We did not go to the straw market because I already bought my straw hat there when I was on my April 2006 NCL Spirit cruise.

We did find the lighthouse marked two miles away from the main area. Along the way we found a private rock beach (no sand…just rocks) and had a great laugh at the Great Stirrup Cay Airport. The NYer should have a wonderful photo of her there at the entrance. Where I live back home, we can go into our lighthouses. Since this lighthouse was a working one, it was closed up. I found out later from some that there is another private beach in front of lighthouse. We kept walking past the lighthouse and found a private area with beautiful calm waters. We sat in the sun on a rickety old dock and watched a few crew members and a few passengers enjoy the peaceful water. Some snorkelers arrived from around the bend and reported they saw pretty fish, lobster, a stingray, a shark and starfish. We stayed there for a few hours and ended up watching a couple of passengers catch fish. This getaway was ideal and I shall not forget the serenity I felt upon leaving.

Before boarding the last tender back to ship, we watched the operation of breaking down the island. The crew certainly works hard to bring everything ashore and then to bring it all back to ship again. All the umbrellas and loungers are stored on the island while all the food, drink, and passenger trash returns to the ship on a separate tender. Fortunately for the crew, the red-shirt bar staff versus the blue-shirt kitchen staff could play some volleyball prior to boarding the ship.

Categories
Miscellany

Zermatt, Switzerland: Heaven on Earth

Author: europhile149
Date of Trip: July 2006

You don’t have to die to go to heaven. The only wings you need would be on a jet… a jet to the Swiss Alps.

In 1987, my sister DiAne and I took a whirlwind tour of eight European countries just to get a “feel” for the ones where we would like to spend alot of time. We thought they were all great! Moreover, I don’t think we could select which one we liked best like one would select an ice cream flavor, hamburger joint, or tennis shoes. However, we discovered our idea of “heaven” and we are so sure that heaven is like Zermatt…so sure, that we have been behaving better…you know, trying to achieve some prerequisites for heavenly entrance when our time to depart comes. This heavenly archetype is called Zermatt. Since 1986, I have returned six times to Zermatt. There’s a quote from Samuel Johnson, “If one grows tired of London, one grows tired of life itself,” and I totally agree with that. You can turn this into a fill-in test, like the ones you took in high school, and substitute the word “London” for “Zermatt”.

The village touches the sky! Although it’s auto free, it’s not exactly as vehicle free as it was 20 years ago and that’s because it has grown and there are many hotels far from the train station. This summer, 2006, Nancy and I took the train from Visp to the village of Zermatt. The scenery is comprised of tall trees, waterfalls, rocks, cliffs, and streams. You felt like you were millions of miles from any man-made dwellings and cool, clean air laced with the smell of natures’ flowers and trees blew through our open windows on this quaint train that made several stops until we reached our destination.

The Hotel Butterfly was a very short walk from the train station and for less than $200 a night, (mind you the dollar has been extremely weak), we had a beautiful, large room with a balcony, a full breakfast, and nightly five-course dinners prepared by Italian chefs, some lift tickets, Alpine Museum tickets and 3-day packed lunches for hiking. Oh, I forgot Gornerschluct, an incredible gorge, tickets and hiking maps.

The entire staff was absolutely amazing, although I remember 3 names in particular. Simone greeted us and escorted us to our spacious room with a wonderful balcony that could hold a party for 10 people comfortably. She spent a great deal of time talking to us and assuring our welcome. Her husband, Frank, was the charming, handsome bartender. As a matter of fact, although there were many bars in the village, Frank’s charismatic personality attracted many party-goers and the bar was pleasantly full every evening. Our real treasure, Vreni, provided us with novels about Zermatt and it’s mountain climbers. I skimmed these novels. Nancy absorbed and savored them to the extent that she could probably lecture on Zermatt. Vreni took the time. She knew we were in love with her home. We scheduled 5 days at this 3***, but it felt more like a 4 star, Best Western. We enjoyed our stay so much that we extended it to eight days. Believe me, if we didn’t have a scheduled airport departure, I don’t know how much longer we would have stayed. Every time I have been to Zermatt, I have been reluctant to depart. I have never stayed at the same hotel. That will not be true anymore because I have found a home and a family at the Best Western Hotel Butterfly.

Our hotel was at the source of the village, being near the train station. After we unpacked we walked down the main street which hosted a variety of stores and eating places. Colorful flowers were in boxes throughout Zermatt. At the center of town was the Catholic Church. The Protestant Church, which was smaller, was closer to the hotel. I am not “into” institutional religion any more, but as a former Roman Catholic, I only attend services in one church in this entire world and that’s in Zermatt. My heart is moved in Zermatt, not the wealth-filled Vatican. In back of the Church is the cemetery. In the cemetery are many who have tried to scale the Matterhorn, which is a whitish pyramid in the skies. Architect & builder: God.

When you reach the end of the main street, you catch your first glimpse of the majestic Matterhorn. I don’t care what picture you find on the internet of the Matterhorn. . .trust me, no camera can do this stately, regal work of nature, justice. It is definitely one of the natural wonders of the world. Nancy shed tears when she beheld it’s splendor. I remembered that DiAne & I did, as well. There are just some sights to behold that stimulate the tear ducts like the lion sculpted in Lucerne, the view of Paris from Sacre Coeur, London’s Regent Park in late Spring … I am digressing!!! John & Kevin, who later went with DiAne and me, also loved Zermatt. Ellen loved Zermatt. My parents loved Zermatt. Any time I have recommended the noble Z to anyone, they have returned to thank me incessantly.

So we walked back along the river route and after taking a few steps, turned our heads to watch the Matterhorn which was like a giant guardian angel looking over our shoulders. Walked a few more steps, turned our heads, almost compelled like Lot’s wife … it was still there … a couple of clouds passing by it, altering it’s appearance each time. The river sings with many notes at the same time. If you get close to it, the chill greets you. This water meanders it’s way down from the Matterhorn and other Alpine areas. We climb a hill to return to our hotel and see a statue of Mary & Jesus that blows our mind because Jesus looks exactly like Rosie O’Donnell. After an incredible five-course dinner at the Hotel Butterfly, one that may have cost $40 each in our south Florida neighborhoods, we went to a pub where we watched the sun go down, noticing how the Matterhorn changed in color with the sun’s departure and sipped on extremely tall glasses of weissbiere … delicious!

The next days were filled with hiking, smelling the grass and flowers, taking the lift to the top! You see it was June and the snow was gone. Zermatt is a terrific place to ski in the winter … and in the summer. YES! SUMMER SKIING IS AVAILABLE IN ZERMATT!!!! All the way on the top of the world, at our last stop, we encountered a tunnel. Now mind you, as you are going up the lift, which requires three changes to get to Klein Matterhorn where this tunnel was, you had to add clothing because it got progressively colder. We disembarked at the tunnel and had a “Twilight Zone” moment. It was cold and there were patches of snow. However, at the end of the tunnel,viola! 100 percent snow, everywhere. and skiers! And an ice cave which featured ice sculpture and a wine bar. Did I not say this was heaven?!?

I will visit heaven again and again. Don’t take my word for it. Google-up some Zermatt. If you want to see other cities, I suggest a train pass. Land in Zurich, take a train to Lucerne, stay two nights, then take the Golden Pass to Montreux, stay 2 nights and then on to Zermatt! Spend 4-7 days,return for two overnights in Zurich and fly home. Look out the window on your plane and know that the other people, who are looking out the window are enjoying the endless sky and it’s heavenly attributes. Sit back in your seat and smile because, you know that you have just come from heaven.

Categories
Adventure Travel

The Running of the Bulls

Author: vagabondginger
Date of Trip: July 2016

THE RUNNING OF THE BULLS July 11, 2016 by vagabondginger

The Festival of San Fermin or “the Running of the Bulls” in Pamplona, Spain opens at noon on July 6th followed by 8 days of bulls runs until it closes on July 14th of each year. The bulls that run each morning at 8am will be in the bullfights later at 6pm. This event is hundreds of years old and altho there are many such bull festivals all over Spain, Pamplona is the most famous due to Ernest Hemingway’s book “The Sun Also Rises” published in 1926. Since then this festival has attracted thousands of people from all over the world.

My daughter and I took the train from Madrid on July 10th and stayed at Hotel Burlada, which was booked many months in advance. I chose this hotel because the manager spoke English and buses nearby ran often to the city center, but it was also walkable. The room was nothing special but rates on all hotels are hiked up during the festival time.

We immediately changed and headed off to the city street party going on all day and all night for the whole festival. Everyone is wearing white with red bandanas around their necks. (We got ours beforehand on-line, but they can be bought there). It’s such a cool thing to be joining in the festivities. We also reserved spots on an apartment balcony many months ahead of time, so with beers in hand we scoped out where our balcony was located for watching the next morning’s run. Then we walked the streets from the corral where the bulls would be released to the bull ring where the run ends, a distance of just 1/2 mile with a couple of curves. Along the way we met many people, some who were staking out their plans for the run. The runners are not just a bunch of crazy young drunks, they take it seriously as they know the risks.

But meanwhile there is much merriment, music, dancing & drinking. There are huge amounts of trash, some get into spraying each other with sangria but probably even worse things happening cause the stickiness under our shoes. Occasionally have to step around someone sleeping it off right where they fell. At one point we joined a parade with a band and banner carriers heading to the bull ring. We stopped at a beer stand and met people who had 2 tickets to the bullfight that they weren’t going to use so they gave them to us free. All tickets were sold out & scalpers were selling them outside at inflated prices. We had not planned on going to the bullfight as we had gone to one in Madrid a few years ago. We got right in for the 6pm start and altho we were pleased with the seats being on the shade side, we were among the more serious spectators. Across the arena in the “sun” seats were all the bands & their instruments, partiers with buckets of beer and sangria on ice that they brought in and most weren’t even facing the ring.

The best bulls from various ranches thru-out Spain are brought to Pamplona to make for an exciting event. Certain ranches breed bulls with characteristics to make them brave and aggressive. The bulls are raised 4-6 years in rural pastures with no human contact. These Spanish Fighting Bulls get to a weight of at least 1,300 lbs. and have longer horns than other breeds.

Bullfights have a lot of pomp and pageantry, but also passion and drama with protesters. We do not condone or condemn but feel much like Hemingway did in his book “Death in the Afternoon” that it’s part of Spain’s tradition. Someday it may be outlawed.

We found the great asador restaurant Zaldiko for dinner but it was 9pm before it opened, so we enjoyed mojitos while waiting We had excellent meat cooked over a wood fire. During the whole festival there is a nightly international fireworks competition so to cap off our first day was a spectacular fireworks show at 11pm lasting 45 minutes.

July 11th – my birthday- and we are up very early and dashing out the hotel door to catch a bus down to the plaza as we have the reserved spots on an apartment balcony. This is the best way to see the running of the bulls. The owners of these apartments make money and can be elsewhere during the festival as the agents take care of the bookings and have the keys. Streets are being cleared 6:30-7am so we are escorted up to our first floor balcony on Estafela Street, the longest stretch of the run following Dead Man’s Curve. We watch the preparations below as streets are swept and washed, police set up barriers and order people off. Runners must be 18 and sober so they are not a risk to themselves or others. Lots of Red Cross medics are in place between the double fences, shop and bar doors are closed. Everywhere on the balconies up to 4 stories high on each side of the street are people wearing the white clothes and red bandanas as are the runners behind the barrier, quite the colorful sight.

Excitement is building as police now allow the runners to spread out along the route. At 8am the sound of the first rocket signals the corral gate is open, a second rocket sound means all the bulls are out. Six bulls are released along with six steers wearing cowbells.

Bulls are most savage when they get separated so having the slower steers behind them is suppose to keep them together. But it doesn’t always work. A couple of days before we arrived a bull stopped, turned around and tried to run back, then became very angry and gored and trampled some runners who were seriously injured. Pastores (bull shepherds) are along the route with long sticks to try to get the bulls moving when this happens.

When a runner falls, they know to just curl up as it’s better to be trampled than gored. There is much pushing and tripping as “macho” runners want to be in front and then jump out of the way. Many carry rolled newspapers to wave at the bulls. If they are not quick enough they may be the headline on the next day’s paper. Runners probably only experience 20 seconds near the bull and try to touch them. But even Usain Bolt would not be able to outrun these bulls. So watching them on the street below us went very quickly and it was a pretty clean run. There was a problem with a bull falling on top of some runners in the tunnel leading into the bull ring and we saw that on TV in the apartment. The whole run is televised live with cameras running on wires above the streets and then replays follow. Each time you watch you see something different happening as it’s all so fast. Some runners do wear distinctive colored shirts so they can pick themselves out when watching the replays later. The photographs in the newspapers are almost chilling. A third rocket firing signals all the bulls are in the ring, then the fourth rocket means they are in the pens and the run is over. The average run is only about 3 minutes unless there are problems along the way. We did hear many ambulances as there are always injuries.

Since 1924 there have been only 15 deaths so most of the runners do make it, the bulls of course do not.

It was an experience and a spectacle unlike any other and the adventure of being there made me feel very alive on that July morning of my birthday and that may not have been true if I had actually tried to run with the bulls.

To learn more or reserve a balcony for next years run go to runningofthebulls.com Ole’

Categories
Solo Travel

Solo in Crete, Greece

Author: Lynn Lotkowictz.
Date of Trip: October 2015

I just returned from my second solo trip with Global Volunteers. The team consisted of nine others (some couples some solo). The assignment was working with children and adults on conversational English (no teaching experience required)

We stay at the Hotel Handakas, very basic family run with three excellent meals per day. The others on your team are like minded individuals who enjoy travel, the authentic experience of total immersion in the community and the reward of giving back.

There is free time every day and weekends to visit nearby museums, srcheological sites, quaint scenic Mediterranean villages and the beach with mountains in the backdrop. The hotel is conveniently located to bus and is within walking distance to two small towns, Amadoura and Gazi. The port town of Heraklion is a $1.80 twenty minute bus ride.

Crete is safe. People are very welcoming, helpful and friendly . I count this as one of my best life experiences and am certain to return

Lynn

Categories
Business Travel

Time on the Thames

Author: Megan B.
Date of Trip: June 2006

I arrived in Henley-on-Thames in a 14-passenger minibus crammed with 23 people’s luggage.

On a trip to England with the women’s crew team for two regattas, we were split between two homes to stay for the ten days we were there. Called “landladies,” women in the community volunteer their family homes to take in foreign crews for the Henley Women’s and Henley Royal regattas. It’s a fairly common occurrence during late June and early July when the town’s limited amount of hotels and B&Bs fill to capacity with regatta spectators.

Our first weekend in England the team rowed in the Reading Amateur Regatta. The town of Reading sits at the point where the rivers Thames and Kennet meet. Reading flourished as a cloth-making town but declined from the early 17th century to the beginning of the 19th century. The town is now a working class area, heavy on industry.

Although a local warned us about the safety of the neighborhood, a walk down the Thames path showed nothing but well-kept homes, restaurants, and hotels. People sailed mini-yachts and barges alike up and down the river, which is itself a greenish-blue and home to scores of swans and ducks.

If you took either Boston’s Beacon Hill or Philadelphia’s Main Line and put them on the river and filled them with Georgian architecture, you’d have Henley-on-Thames. Stately, sprawling homes dot the banks of the Thames, and Georgian row homes stand in neat lines along the streets.

I passed a wonderful birthday watching our girls win a race at the Reading Amateur Regatta before eating dinner at the Flowerpot, a recently remodeled hotel and restaurant in Henley. It offers both traditional and modern cuisine and a divine chocolate puddle dessert involving brownies, chocolate ganache and vanilla ice cream.

There are plenty of food options in Henley, from pubs to tearooms to restaurants, but for dining with a view, choose Angel on the Bridge pub. The back deck, offering pub fare, sits right on the bank of the Thames and provides idyllic scenes full of swans and passing motorboats, canoes, and sculls.

Also situated along the riverbank are several private rowing clubs, including the exclusive Leander Club which counts British rowing heroes Sirs Matthew Pinsent and Steven Redgrave as members. Pinsent frequently can be found in the club, relaxing with other rowers and guests.

If you’re up for shopping, be prepared to spend your money. Not only do currency rates favor the pound, prices reflect the wealth of the town. While the clothing styles tend to skew to older generations, the town does offer younger styles in shops like Monsoon and Deep. I packed for a typical English June and instead got a typical Florida June, so in one hour in one store (Deep) on three items, I spent 77 quid (approximately $150 at the time). But it was no small comfort I then had stylish clothes to combat the weather. There are also plenty of bookshops, cooking stores, gourmet food shops and even a well-stocked toy store, Bagatelle’s.

The Henley Women’s Regatta, our second regatta of the trip, sponsored a reception for participating crews at the River & Rowing Museum. Opened in 1997 by Queen Elizabeth II, the Schwarzenbach International Rowing Gallery, which was recently reopened after a major redisplay, tells the history of international rowing in an eye-catching and extremely informative way.

One of the highlights of the new gallery is the “In the Cox’s Seat” interactive exhibit, giving visitors a unique, 360 degree experience of what it is like to take part in a race at the world famous Henley Royal Regatta. Other parts of the exhibit include models of 1700s Artic whaleboats, elaborate Venetian gondolas, coastal lifeboats that pulled people from the North Sea and the gold medal boat from the ’96 Atlanta Olympic Games.

Visitors from all over the world come to Henley for the regattas. The women’s regatta features crews from all over the world that race on the third weekend in June. The preliminaries for the senior events (collegiate and club crews) and the junior events happen on the Friday followed by senior semis and finals races on the Saturday and Sunday.

The Royal regatta occurs over five days in late June and early July and dates from the reign of Victoria. It’s one of the country’s premier racing events. There are several enclosures in addition to plenty of space along the riverbank to watch the races. The fanciest and most exclusive is the Steward’s Enclosure. Spectators gain entrance by means of an invitation from a member of the Leander Club. The women wear hats and skirts or dresses to the knee while suits and rowing blazers are the norm for the men. There are no dress codes for general spectators in other enclosures or on the bank. Consumption of Pimm’s, an alcoholic lemonade garnished with fruits is also equal opportunity. Up to 100 races a day go off, often at intervals of every five minutes.

Beyond the regattas, Henley can be canvassed in a day or two, but it is fairly centrally located to other attractions. You can take the train virtually everywhere, but a change at Twyford is necessary for any trip. Stonehenge and the town of Bath can be seen in one day if driving. London is an hour away by train and Oxford is one and a half hours. I managed day trips to Bath, Windsor, Oxford and London all by train. The train schedules are easy to figure out and the rail lines are extensive. One thing to bear in mind is the cost. Fares are cheaper when you buy together in groups of three or more, called a GroupSave.

Categories
Active Travel

4 Days in Paradise (Jamaica)

Author: Adrienne L.
Date of Trip: September 2010

Lots has been said about Jamaica and all that it has to offer: beautiful landscapes, rushing waterfalls, fresh seafood, spectacular beaches, breathtaking sunsets, delicious cuisine, warm hospitable people, Blue Mountain coffee, and of course Appleton Rum.

On our recent visit to the island we found all of these things and more. We stayed at the Riu, an all-inclusive resort in Montego Bay. Upon arrival in the lobby we were greeted by hotel staff offering an assortment of rum punches and other refreshments. Along with the refreshments we enjoyed a colorful performance by the resort entertainers. After check-in we proceeded to our suite, which blew us away. It was expansive and beautifully decorated with a huge Jacuzzi tub and an awesome beach view. We were so impressed that we immediately made a video to capture its beauty. Then it was time for lunch.

The resort has 4 restaurants, each with a different theme, all exquisite. Our first meal was at the Steakhouse, an open-air buffet, right on the beach. The food choices were plentiful and delicious. The team of master chefs put together a plethora of foods including Jamaican dishes.

Later the view from our balcony, facing the ocean was a perfect place to experience one of the most beautiful sunsets imaginable. After watching the sun melt into Montego Bay, we decided to attend the evening beach party. Approximately 200 people were in attendance at this food and beverage extravaganza. The atmosphere was festive and everyone was in a party mood. Even the sand fleas and mosquitoes came to dine — little did we know that we were their cuisine of choice. The entertainment was outstanding. The dancers arrived by boat carrying flaming torches and proceeded to perform a dance that paid tribute to Jamaica’s Taino and African history. Our video of the dance can be viewed at http://bit.ly/aXGXhP.

The Riu is a perfect family vacation destination that offers activities for all ages including snorkeling, water sports, and great excursions to other parts of the island. One of the excursions we really enjoyed was the Chukka Cove Zipline Adventure where we saw some of the most beautiful vegetation on the island. The adventure began with a rugged 30-minute bus ride up into the mountains. At the top of the mountain a team of expert guides outfitted us with helmets, pulleys and harnesses. After a safety briefing we were led down a trail through the rainforest that consisted of 376 steps.

We knew then that this adventure was not for the faint of heart, but it was too late to “tap out”. Eventually we arrived at the first of 10 launch platforms — and the adventure began. One by one we descended from launch pad to launch pad, along zip lines that ranged in length from 300-600 feet.; but seemed more like a mile. We whizzed past trees and seemed to be only inches away from a major collision. There were times when we felt like Tarzan and Jane. What a great way to be reminded that you are alive!

Although we had enjoyed Jamaica before, this experience was entirely new and even more enjoyable; perhaps because we were seeing it with “second time” eyes. Other than the sand fleas that insisted on feasting on us, it was a perfect trip. Even those little hungry critters can’t keep us from returning to this Jamaican paradise.

Categories
Active Travel

15 Days in Alaska

Author: Lonnie
Date of Trip: June 2016

We started out going north after flying into Anchorage. We stayed 3 days at a B & B close to Trapper Creek. The view of Denali was wonderful. The host was great and the lodging was 2nd to none.

The trip up to Denali I’ve always found to be disappointing, as most days it’s cloudy and/or rainy in the summer. Then we ventured over to Glenallen for a couple days. Again to a B & B and the host/lodging were great. The day we chose to Valdez was our worst of the 15 days for weather. Very foggy and cloudy so we didn’t see much. The we drove down to Moose Pass for two days. The lodging was adequate; clean and spacious with good views, but it ends there.

Drove up to Hope and then to Cooper Landing for rafting and had a wonderful time. Oh, ate at Gwin’s. A great old roadstop. Then down to Homer for 3 great days. The best views in the world when you stay at a B & B on the mountain overlooking glaciers, the spit and bay. The ferried over to Seldovia for one nite. The best day of the 15. We saw whales, birds, otters and the B & B there was the best ever. Money well spent. Then back to Moose Pass to be centrally located close to Seward, Whittier and Girdwood. Took the tram up the mountain at Girdwood; then to Whittier and finally to Seward. Now the bad news. I’ve been to Alaska now 6 times and the last time I went to Whittier; took in the train back in the 90s. Now, you’re herded into town via the train tracks converted to auto use. A complete waste of $13. It is so crowded and so little to do; why waste your time going there.

Lastly; the tour buses. Thousands of people are herded up and down from Fairbanks to Seward each day like sheep, hardly seeing anything but trees. From the dozens of people I’ve talked to about seeing Alaska; don’t do it. They don’t see wildlife like roadtripping. My advice; rent a vehicle or drive all the way up. On our trip, we saw lots of moose, caribou and even a porcupine, along with all the sea life and birds.

Categories
Cities

Two days in Belfast

Author: Nomadette24
Date of Trip: May 2006

After hanging out in Dublin for six days I decided it was time to head up north to check out Belfast and beyond. I compared the bus and train prices and schedules and decided to take the bus since it was half the price of the train (14 Euro roundtrip. Great deal!) and only took a half hour longer. After a pleasant two and a half hour ride, we arrived at the bus/train station in Belfast. The main bus station is just behind the famous Europa Hotel and across from the famous Crown Liquor Saloon. Both places are “must see” locations on the main street.

I checked in to the Jury’s hotel about a block away from the train station and immediately booked a “Black Cab Tour” for the coming afternoon, as well as a Giants Causeway Day Tour for the following day. The Black Cab Tour was a great way to learn about the history and current situation between the Catholics and Protestants. (They have a Web site, which you can see by clicking here.)

That night I went to the Crown Saloon for dinner and had a very pleasant meal and pint of Bass. The hotel is nice, but a bit pricey. If you want to use the internet, then don’t forget to buy a internet code card from the front desk before going up to your room. Also, don’t forget that Northern Ireland uses the Pound instead of Euro.

The next morning I jumped on a “Mini-Coach Tour,” which took us to the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge, Bushmills Distillery, Giant’s Causeway, and DUnluce Castle. This was a wonderful tour and a great way to see some of the gorgeous Northern Ireland coastline. A little “insiders info” is that the guide will ask for volunteers at the end of the tour — if you volunteer you get to be a taste tester. The only downside to this tour was that we got back to Belfast almost two hours later than scheduled, but other than that I would suggest this tour to everyone.

After getting back to Belfast, I got on the last bust to Dublin (9pm) and was back at my B&B by midnight. Good trip!