Costa Rica: How pleasant a trip where everything went right

Now that Southwest Airlines flies to Costa Rica and the price is very reasonable, we had to give it a try- Phoenix-Houston-San Jose, Costa Rica.

Bogarin Trail, La Fortuna

I booked this trip with a tour operator that specializes in semi-independent tours. Everything is arranged for you to travel independently. We were met at the San Jose airport by our contact Ronny and he went over with us our itinerary for the week. He gave us phone numbers to call if needed and we were off on our own.

We arrived late into San Jose, so we were given an airport hotel for the first night.

The next morning, we were picked up in a shared shuttle for the 4-hour journey to the La Fortuna/Arenal area, the mountainous jungle of Costa Rica. We stayed at Arenal Manoa Hot Springs Resort…. oh my!

Our patio
view Arenal Manoa Resort

This was the highlight of the whole trip. We had a patio to die for with a large sliding glass door and a view of Arenal Volcano. This is the kind of resort that you want to hang around all day and not go anywhere else. We took a jungle hike and saw birds, a sloth in a tree, and had lunch in La Fortuna. That evening, included in our trip package, was a night-time pass to Tabacon Hot Springs and it was incredible. We had to show covid vax cards to enter. At night it is less crowded, minimal lighting, and very relaxing. Dinner was included after our hot springs soak.

The next morning was our shared van ride to Monteverde, a cloud forest over 4300 ft. It is much cooler there. We were picked up at our hotel in Arenal and driven to the bank of Arenal lake. From there we took a small flat bottom boat that holds about 10 people and a pile of luggage. We were then met on the other side by another van. From there it was a crazy, winding, dirt road drive, for almost 2 hours. It is nice to see that some things are still left rustic and primitive. Our van was struggling up those hills.

In Monteverde, the El Establo Mountain Lodge was nice, It was separate buildings placed along the steep hillside with magnificent views. The downside was, you had to call for a shuttle to go just about anywhere in the resort because the road was so steep. The inside of the lodge felt kind of like a Yellowstone lodge, lots of rock and wood.

The highlight here was the night-time jungle hike at Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve. I loved it when we turned off the flashlights and experienced the deep dark jungle with only crickets. It was just pure nature.

The next day we walked into town for lunch, and later that afternoon I did an afternoon/sunset horseback ride. It was a very reasonable price at $45 for 2 hours. I saw ant hills the size of a kitchen table.


This was a pretty quick trip. We again had a shared van ride back to San Jose, another winding, steep, and scenic drive. This time we took our Dramamine. We spent another night at the airport hotel. The next morning, we had to get to the airport 4 hours prior to flight time to get our covid test to re-enter the U.S. Our wonderful tour operator had this already set-up for us and included in our tour. This was great because the covid test had to be done 24 hours prior (very hard to do when you are traveling all day the day before) and from what I had researched the test cost anywhere from $65-$120 per person.

This trip was flawless, we were always picked up on time, and it was easy to call the company if we had any questions.

rotisserie chicken CR style

First cruise back- and it felt safe

Well, yes, there were a lot of hoops to jump through for this post-covid sail. The rules are new–all adults must be vaccinated, and you must present a negative covid test 48 hours prior to boarding. This could be a deterrent to a lot of people because the ship was only 1/3 full. What a delight!

Empty public areas

This is my first time on the Royal Caribbean ship Ovation of the Seas. In some ways I felt like I’d never sailed before; with the covid protocols and the experiencing of a newer and extremely large ship I was a little overwhelmed the first couple of days.

  • View from ship of inside passage

Here is my good and not so good list of this Alaska trip and the Ovation ship:


The layout of the ship is very easy to get around for a ship this size.

Food was very good. On lobster night waiters circled around the dining room with platters of lobster tails asking guests if they want more. The servers handed them out like candy. Dining rooms were divided into “E” for everyone, or “V” for vaccinated. It didn’t matter to us, but most people like the idea of dining with only vaccinated people. We purposely ate in the “E” dining rooms because they were so empty. The only unvaccinated were the kids and there were very few.

We purchased a specialty dining package. For $109 pp we could dine in 3 of the specialty restaurants. We chose Jamie Oliver’s Italian (my favorite), Izumi Sushi, and Chops Steakhouse. These restaurants are normally $35-$45 per person. Excellent Food!

Shows and music venues were top-notch. The main attraction shows were also segregated. “E” on the upper level of the auditorium, and “V” on the lower level. The vaccinated level didn’t have to wear a mask during the show.

Not so good

Embarkation felt confusing. Royal Caribbean really encouraged downloading their app. This was supposed to make all things easier. The only thing was we had trouble getting our phones to work at the pier, since we were only getting 1 bar on our phones. Next time I will make printed copies of documents.

We had a balcony cabin, which was fine, but there were no bathrobes in the closet, or drinking water. In my memory most ships we’ve been on have had these. Not having a robe for the pool or even just a pitcher of potable water to drink irked me.

Sunrise coming into Seattle

We only went into maybe two of the shops on the royal esplanade decks. They have many high-end purse and jewelry stores that were usually empty. We couldn’t find a shop that sold simple things like candy, chips, gum, Ibuprofen, and those types of items.

I was disappointed with the ship activities. They were mostly trivia games, relationship game shows, bingo, and casino specials. I’ve been on ships before that had cooking demonstrations, computer classes, and destination lectures. Again, maybe things were trimmed down because of covid.


We enjoyed the ports. Something to remember if you are a first timer to Alaska is that fall season can be rainy, cold, and dreary. I cancelled some of my outdoor port excursion because of that.

The morning we pulled into Endicott Arm and Dawes Glacier, I opened the curtains in our stateroom to a beautiful day and icebergs floating by.


I love these types of quiet relaxing cruises–lots of reading, eating, and napping. I was surprised at how much motion the ship had, mostly the first day out of Seattle in open ocean, and the last day before arriving in back in Seattle. We were taking our Dramamine.

We only had to wear a mask in hallways, shops, and walking around in the buffet area. Lounge areas had seats blocked off for social distancing.

We were really spoiled with the ship being so empty and loved every minute of it.

Outdoor Movies and Sports

A Tale of Two Floridas

Our trip to Florida was our first vacation since the Covid pandemic and exactly a year from our last vacation. Florida has never been a destination on our bucket list, but with international travel still difficult to do, we decided to make the best of a February getaway. Travel in any shape or form sounds good at this point.

Two Floridas? The first -My husband’s idea of a good time and my idea are not always the same. We travel together but our activities are split and we do our own thing. The other tale is that we divided our stay, 3-nights in St Augustine and 3-nights in Disney World. Disney was solely my idea and it took a bit of coercing to get my mate onboard with that one.

Yoga class on Vilano Beach

St Augustine- Florida Part 1

Since this portion of the trip fell on a Fri, Sat, Sun, I knew this would be a busy and crowded time. Since I wanted to see St Augustine and my husband was going to golf and enjoy the Golf World Hall of Fame which is about 20 miles away, I booked us a hotel off of I-95 in between the two. This worked out perfectly for the things we wanted to do. Below is my good and not so good list of my experiences.

Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche at Mission Nombre de Dios

The Good

  • St. Augustine is a beautiful town. I really liked the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche at Mission Nombre de Dios. It’s a pretty waterfront park…and it was the only free parking I could find.
  • Good restaurants
  • Dan golfed at 2 nice courses at Golf World Village, Slammer & Squire and King & Bear.
  • I took a backroads drive to Jacksonville, and in the town Green Cove Springs I found a couple of neat old cemeteries.

Not so good

  • St Augustine parking is next to impossible and the city was extremely crowded…(albeit this was a Saturday). Driving through on a Monday was much better.

Disney World- Florida Part 2

Leaving St Augustine we drove the A1A coastal highway, a little slow-moving but very scenic. We bypassed Daytona and got back on I-95 for a bit and then continued on to Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach. The drive and sightseeing took most of the day and we arrived at Coronado Springs Resort inside Disney World around dinnertime.

The GoodNot so Good
Coronado Springs resort is nice… and very gigantic.

Dan had 2 golf days inside Disney- the Palm, and Magnolia.

I went to Animal Kingdom one day- a nice, fun park, not too crowded. The best ride was Avatar: Flight of Passage.

The next day I went to Epcot. This was my eating day: so many countries with so many foods to try. This park was very empty, 20 mins was my longest wait for a ride.
Because of Covid only 2 full-service restaurants were open, not good for a resort of this size and the wait time  for a table was ridiculous.

We ate dinner one night at Polynesian Resort. Food was good but pricey, that was expected. Shuttle buses were about every 1/2 hour or else too full to get on. We used Uber when eating at the other resort.
Cemetery in Green Cove Springs, FL

Here is what I learned about Disney World… you cannot be in a hurry for anything. Everything takes a long time, restaurant waits, shuttle buses, lines for rides, and walking around the hotel/resort area, everything is far because it’s so big. Of course the travel agent in me spent a little bit of time shuttling over to other resorts to see what they look like.

Disney resorts are so nice, they are a vacation destination on their own–you don’t need a theme park everyday. I expected the Floridian resort to be nice, but I was blown away by how nice. Talk about the “wow!” factor.

Floridian Resort Disney World

Would I do Disney again? Yes! (my husband said absolutely not). What would I do different? Maybe I’d bring a car as to not rely on shuttle buses, bring an older school-age grandchild with me, and spend more time enjoying the resort amenities.

Woodpecker seen in Green Cove Springs, FL (Mt Olive Cemetery)

Crazy for Gardens in Hawaii

Oh, I love gardens. Our visit in the first week of December to the Big Island did not disappoint. There was plenty of blooming lusciousness.

The first stop was Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve and Garden. This park is about 7 miles north of Hilo.

Yellow Rattlesnake Flower

The day we visited this garden there was a warm misty rain. It was the perfect setting, and felt just like a tropical rain forest.

This Buda picture is from Buda Point in Waikoloa (the Big Island)

Finding a Little Bit of Greece in Arizona

Talk about off the beaten path in Arizona!

I recently overheard a lady in my local bookstore describing a monastery in southern Arizona that she had visited. I googled St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery in Florence, AZ. This oasis in the desert is about 72 miles southeast of Phoenix.

This sanctuary is a true garden of Eden- flowering bushes, fountains, fruit and olive orchards, with scattered small chapels.

First thing, when you stop at the gift shop entrance a nice lady provides a map and lets you know that you are free to roam the gardens and chapels at no charge (a donation is good). Photos are OK, just don’t take any of the monks. And most important you must be dressed appropriately. Since is was 90 degrees that day we visited we were wearing short sleeves and shorts. Baskets of long sleeve shirts and long pants and skirts were provided to put on over your existing clothes. Women need to wear a headscarf.

Just call me Ya Ya

The day that we were there, we saw no other visitors walking the grounds. We did however see a few monks. The gift shop was more busy, probably because they sell fresh baked breads, fruit preserves, olive oils, and baked goods like baklava. Of course, we did buy an armload.

One of the many chapels on the grounds

Pina Coladas and Getting Caught in the Rain

Sailing the South Seas on a Paul Gauguin Cruise

Visiting the South Seas of French Polynesia was not at the top of my bucket list, but since I’m always looking for a good deal we planned this trip kind of last-minute. As a fan of the TV show Survivor, I couldn’t imagine swimming in water so blue and clear.

In my research for flights I found that non-stop Air Tahiti out of Los Angeles was reasonably priced, and so were non-stops from San Francisco.  From San Francisco I found an airline called French Bee and the air was $650 pp round-trip. Since we live in Arizona it was a short flight to SFO to catch the French Bee flight. Plus, when I found out these nonstop flights to Tahiti were 7-8 hours long, I was sold! This is less flying time than going to the Caribbean for us.

Arriving 0530 am in Papeete, Tahiti. Disembarking from French Bee Airlines.

French Bee is a low-cost carrier originating in France. For the price I was happy with what we got. There was headrest entertainment with movies and music. You pay extra for meals and drinks. Soda was not complimentary, only water. It was very no-frills.

We arrived in Papeete, Tahiti, around 5:30 am, not great when you can’t board the ship until after 3 pm and you are dead-tired from the overnight flight. We discovered that a small hotel across from the airport would rent a day room for about $80. We were allowed to have the room from 8 am to 2 pm.

Outdoor dining on-board Paul Gauguin Cruise

The Paul Gaugin cruise started and ended in Papeete, Tahiti; the islands we visited were Huahine, Taha’a, Bora Bora, and Moorea.

I have to say Taha’a (or also know as Motu Mahana) was my favorite day. This is Paul Gaugin’s private island. A whole island of beach chairs, snorkeling, BBQ lunch, and open bar. It was pure heaven.

This type of trip is all about the water. This is a divers, snorkelers, swimmers, and wave runners paradise. There wasn’t much to do on the islands themselves. One day we tried the Aqua Safari Helmet excursion. You put on an 80 lb. helmet, sink to the bottom of the ocean and walk around with the fish and stingrays. It was scary, pretty cool, and we were proud of ourselves for trying something new.

Dock in Bora Bora

I feel like this was one of the most relaxing vacations I’ve ever had.  It seems that all I can remember is reading, snorkeling, floating in the warm water, taking lots of naps, and eating the best food.

We went in Feb and this is considered low season/ rainy season. There would be some afternoon showers on several days but they didn’t last long. And the warm rain storms just added to the tropical habitat.

Coconut Graveyard

First-Time Cruising on NCL

NCL- Norwegian Cruise Line may have just climbed to the top of my favorites in the category of large cruises. This was a pretty new ship–“Joy”–and I was curious to experience this line because it really tries to be different from the rest. There are some good things and bad things with all cruise lines, that is why it’s important to know your personal cruising style. It took a few days to get used to “Free Style”, but once I got the hang of it,  I found it was OK.

What does “Free Style” mean?

Eat whenever and wherever you want, many restaurants and lots of variety. I think this term also includes shows and activities. There is a screen in the hallways with a list of what is going on each evening, but many shows/activities require a reservation.

Lets go over the good, and the not so good, behind “Free Style.”


The variety of restaurants- half are included in the cruise fare and half you pay extra for. Some are a set price, and some are a la carte. The set price restaurants are the steakhouse and seafood; these are $50-$100 per person. With the a la carte you order items off the menu– burgers, BBQ, sushi; these are in the $10-$20 range.

We always got a table for two and we never had to wait for a table, even though we didn’t make reservations. This could be because we were usually eating early, probably not the case if you were eating at 6:30 or 7 pm.

The ship layout was good, elevators are large and plenty. For a large ship it didn’t feel that way. The ship was “Joy,” a newer ship. Layout may be different on other ships in the NCL line.

Half-way through the cruise they ran a laundry special, $20 a bag.

Besides the pool deck lounge chairs, there was another deck with nice outdoor seating . This ship had several gathering areas of fabric-style patio furniture– couches, chairs and coffee tables. Another great sitting area– gigantic, beautiful and quiet– is the Observation Lounge at the front of the ship, an area with bar, chaise lounge chairs, and floor-to-ceiling windows all around–a great place for reading and playing card games.

Horizon Lounge on Norwegian Joy
Photo by NCL
American Diner Restaurant

Not So Good

Making reservations for just about everything. I personally don’t care that much about shows and wine-tasting events. But, if these are the things you love about cruising you need to make sure you need to plan ahead and get every thing reserved. I was a little bummed that there was one show I did want to see and it sold out.

Sometimes I felt a little nickle-and-dimed. Besides half the restaurants on board charging a fee, some of the activities did too, like the race car feature. This is not unusual–most ships charge for little things, like Starbucks coffee and specialty pastries. Although, I did think it was a little too much when I was charged a gratuity on a bottle of water from the mini bar in my cabin.

Many ships allow you to carry on 2 bottles of wine at embarkation. NCL has no limit on how many you can carry on, but you need to pay a $15 per bottle corkage fee. They collect this fee and put a sticker on the bottle at embark.

No soda carried on at embark or during the cruise! This was a hard one for me, I usually buy a couple of small bottles of soda at the ports during the week. Nope–not this cruise.

My good by far outweighed the not so good list.  I plan on sailing again soon, because I bought “Cruise Next” certificates–a great way to get a discount on your next cruise.

Waterslide juts out over the side of the ship

A Glimpse of Life in Japan

There is so much I found fascinating about Japan. We made this trip easy and slow- paced; we didn’t pile on a lot of tours.

One super-nice thing was Singapore Air. We flew from PHX to Los Angeles–a quick one-hour flight–then LAX to Tokyo non-stop (same for the return). I was really dreading this super-long haul (12 hrs) — I don’t know why, but it just didn’t feel that long. The Singapore Air service (hot towels), entertainment, and food (candy bars and Haagen Dazs ice cream) on the plane helped.

I can’t tell you anything about the history of Japan. We saw plenty of shrines, temples, and gardens. But for me, I was paying more attention to the everyday life and doing a lot of people-watching.

The subway stations were packed with commuters and everyone seems to wear dark clothes and heavy sweaters and jackets while the weather was in the mid 70’s every day. It seemed like everyone was dressed for business or work. I saw no one in jeans, shorts, or sandals without socks.

The city itself and subway stations were so clean, although it was very difficult to find a trash can. It was also hard to find benches or seating on the streets or subway stations.

I never in the 10 days we were there (Tokyo and Kyoto) saw a beggar or street/homeless people. The city felt extremely safe.

 7 Eleven is practically on every block. Besides being a convenience store they are more like fast-food restaurants. They have cooked food in warmers, and lots of cold items packaged for easy to eat. I even saw a bar type eating area inside one 7 Eleven.

 In some of the restaurants, you walk in, place your order at a Kiosk machine and sit down. Then the waitress brings you your meal. Also, when you walk into most restaurants–the staff yells out a greeting. Sushi restaurants were not that easy to find. One of our guides said that Japanese people don’t eat it regularly, it’s expensive for them.


In most restaurants there were baskets underneath the table for storing your purse or backpack.

Let me tell you about the bathrooms! Hotels, subway stations, airport, they all had very fancy toilets. There were buttons for bidet, buttons for water-swishing sound, and a seat warmer. Some public bathroom stalls had a little seat for holding a baby, plus they had hooks for holding bags/purse at the sink. Oh, how I wish we had bathrooms like that here.

Fancy Toilet

My favorite sights:

–All the gardens were beautiful, and the fall foliage was just about to peak.

–The Bamboo Forest in Kyoto

–Kasuga Taisha Shrine in Nara. It was getting dark while we were there and the whole park felt mysterious. It had heavily forested paths leading through a botanical garden.

Roaming deer in Nara
Warning sign about the deer
Monkey Park Iwatayama …. people are in the cage and monkey’s roam free

I would love to go back someday and see more of the small villages and countryside.

Monkeys and More in Spain, 2019

I don’t want to be a travel snob, but of all my collected destinations thus far, Southern Spain’s Costa del Sol seemed to be a little bland to me– and I’ll tell you why. My guess is because it was a cruise. I love a good cruise and Windstar did not disappoint. Visiting the ports of the Costa del Sol was OK, but I think if I were to do this region again I’d rather do it as a land tour. It would have been nice to get outside of the port cities and see more of the countryside.

Seville, Spain

Our ship, the Wind Surf, departed from Lisbon, Portugal, early April 2019. Lisbon is a nice city. I can see myself going back to spend more time there.

Windstar Wind Surf Ship

On our first night onboard heading towards Cadiz, Spain, we experienced some rough seas. I was feeling a little nauseous and not sleeping well as it was… then all of a sudden in the middle of the night 2 pitchers of cold water slid off the nightstand and right on top of me. Yikes! what a way to wake up. In the hallway I could see that housekeeping was furiously running up and down the passageway cleaning rooms of other passengers with the same problem. I put in my request for dry sheets and ended up semi-falling asleep, curled up at the foot of the bed– the only dry spot, while also intermittently running to the bathroom and puking all night from sea sickness. Housekeeping did not come until around 9 am. It was a bad night. The next morning everyone onboard was talking about it, hearing that some people had the glass water pitchers break in their bed! Luckily the next day was a sea day. My husband and I were both seasick and spent most of the day in bed. That was OK, because it was a cold, rainy, windy day anyway. You can’t complain, rough seas are just part of the experience with small ship cruising, and it happens sometime. For the rest of the week the weather was beautiful and the sea was calm.

Alcazaba Fortress in Almeria

Back to why I found the port cities a little bland: they all seemed to look the same. This is a cruise itinerary where you might want to book excursions if you want to see more than cute towns with mostly tourist shops and restaurants. In Cadiz we took a excursion to Seville. Our other port stops were Malaga, Gibraltar, Almeria, Cartagena, Palma Mallorca, and disembarking in Barcelona.

My two favorite port stops were Gibraltar and Almeria. In Gibraltar we took a cable car to the top of the rock. There is a cave called St Michael’s with an amphitheater inside. In WWII it was used as a military hospital and for “girly exotic dancing” shows. Now it’s used more for weddings and concerts. The best part of Gibraltar was the monkeys. Monkeys everywhere, and we were warned not to feed them or even act like we had food or they’d be all over us. Gibraltar kind of reminded me of Monte Carlo–casinos and high-end resorts– a summer place. To top it off, there were dolphins jumping in the water as we sailed away.

Gibraltar Monkey
St Michael’s Cave, Gibraltar

The day in Almeria, Spain, was nice because is was so quiet. There were next to no tourists. We were the only ship in port and maybe it was quiet because it was a Sunday. Almeria had a real small-town feel to it–people walking dogs and families pushing babies in strollers. Apparently several spaghetti Westerns were filmed in this area in the 1960’s and 70’s.

Finally, I love cruising–dinner and drinks on the deck, the water at sunrise/sunset, and of course the food.

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

I have wanted to visit this prominent city in Mexico for a long time. We left the Arizona February snow to find 80 degree days even at 6,000 plus feet of elevation.

This is old world colonial Mexico, cobblestone streets, caballeros, and fresh fruit vendors. Staying in the old town is walkable and it feels safe.

My favorite thing about this visit to San Miguel de Allende (SMA) was our vacation rental house. I was in heaven. It was a walled compound with a tranquil courtyard of birds, blooming bougainvillea, and a fountain. The outdoor living area with a fireplace was a garden of Eden.

Vacation rental courtyard

I love the feeling of life in the slow lane here. We did a lot of walking. At night we took cabs, or Uber to be on the safe side. The restaurants were superb and busy. My favorite things to do when traveling are visiting the outdoor fresh food markets and cemeteries. The town is loaded with art galleries and cute stores, but I’m not big on shopping.

We also spent a few days in Mexico City in the Reforma area across from Alameda Square. Again, great restaurants and museums. We found out that almost all of the museums are closed on Mondays so we missed out on some in Chapultepec Park. Every Sunday the main Paseo de la Reforma is closed for bikes and rollerblades only. It is fun to see families enjoy the park with live music and foodstands.

Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City

More photos of Mexico

San Juan Mercado, Mexico City
Street Life San Miguel de Allende, photo by Peter Gassner

San Miguel de Allende, photo by Peter Gassner

Our Mexico Trip Info Bullets

Our Trip Information Bullets, Feb 2019

Closest airports to San Miguel de Allende (SMA), Del Bajio Airport, Leon/Guanajuato, and (QRO) Queretaro Airport, MX

We had a private driver from Mexico City to San Miguel de Allende. The drive was about 3 hrs and cost $279 usd for 4 people. Bajio Transportation

Ubers are nice, clean, very reasonably priced, and everywhere in Mex City and in SMA. They are hard to get on weekends in SMA when town is busy.

Baked goods, churros, and ice cream are wonderful!

We used Uber driver for round-trip to Guanajuato for about $80 usd

Every Sunday the San Miguel Library has a Home and Garden tour conducted by library volunteers

We were there for “Carnival” weekend in Feb. It was loud and busy. Fireworks start at around 4:30 am. Lots of costumes and kids breaking eggs filled with colorful confetti over each others’ heads

Church bells are always ringing in SMA

We used a private driver for 5 hrs ($110 usd) in Mexico City to take us to Teotihuacan Pyramids and to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe (equivalent to Vatican City in Rome)