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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
Not So Good
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
I would love to go back someday
and see more of the small villages and countryside.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
More photos of Mexico
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)
This is our second trip to Russia for a river cruise. Last time in 2009 we went on Viking River Cruises. For this trip we went with friends and decided to go on a 5-star Russian line. Our ship was called Volga Dream. Compared to several other river cruises we’ve done, this ship was a little dated. The cabins were small and the deck was an open walkway, so people were always walking past your window. The dining room had one obstructed window and the rest were small portholes. This is not good when every evening you are missing the colorful river sunsets. Other than these small complaints the ship was nice, with excellent service and food.
We flew into Moscow…. Oh, the traffic! We spent 3 days touring the city before boarding the ship and saw the usual highlights: Red Square, Tretyakov Gallery, GUM shopping mall, and of course a subway tour. The subways stops are beautiful decorated like the inside of a Palace.
My favorite port/stop on the cruise is Kizhi. I love the onion-domed wooden church and village. The main church was under repair, with much of it being covered in scaffolding.
Sites along the Volga– People gardening, and lots of little sauna huts along the river next to houses.
spent the last two nights in St Petersburg visiting the Hermitage Museum,
Catherine’s Palace, and Peterhof Palace. We did this trip the last week in
August and weather was great–still lots of flowers in the gardens.
I’ve always considered myself somewhat outdoorsy, and the idea of 7 days on the Colorado river— rafting, hiking, and camping– made me a little nervous. I like camping and hiking, but rafting–not really. I will tell you things I loved, and the things I found challenging.
What I loved—
Living literally outdoors for a week, no tent, sleeping under the wide open full-moon sky. No showers, no bathrooms, matted sticky sandy hair, it all felt so primitive. I loved the idea of knowing we were so far from civilization. Your world truly revolves around the sun (up at 5 am in bed at 8 pm) and weather.
Camp food is always good. We had steak, salmon, fried potatoes, brownies and cake baked in a cast iron Dutch oven. Eggs and pancakes for breakfast, and lunch was a table buffet of sandwich fixings, chips, candy and cookies.
Getting to know your raft-mates, people that instantly became family. You become fairly intimate with strangers when you live so closely together for a week. We all worked together on the “duffel line” loading and unloading the raft each morning and evening. Evenings were nice sitting in our camp chairs with drinks discussing the day and being entertained by ravens circling and stealing camp snacks. After the trip our raft-mates exchanged and shared photos on Facebook.
We did not raft 6 solid hours a day, we had lots of hiking and swimming adventures throughout the day. We hiked to hidden waterfalls and natural pools to swim. One day we hiked up to the confluence of the Little Colorado River, a tributary where the water is an unusual beautiful color of turquoise caused by alkaline and high mineral content, a refreshing place to swim. One stop was a short hike to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We walked to the canteen in 100+ degrees to get cold drinks and sit on a picnic table under a shade tree. This was special since I have no desire to ride mules or hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon (the only other ways to reach this “resort”). I figured this was the only chance I’ll ever have to see this hot infamous oasis.
What I found challenging—
Hot, Hot, Hot! 100+ degrees in the canyon. Hot sand and rocks and next to no shade when we stopped for lunch and late afternoon camping. In the evening the hot wind would blow sand, I was covering my head with a sheet but sand was in the sleeping bag, my duffel bag, and caked to my wet sandals.
Some of the hikes were strenuous. I’m not in the best of shape for climbing hot steep rocks and walking along ledges looking down below at the pools in Havasu Canyon. We were all wearing slippery water shoes and sandals, while the guides were jumping from rock to rock, and climbing in flip flops, yikes!
And of course– the main event of the week rafting! I did it and after the first 2 days I was feeling more comfortable with it. In the beginning being hit with that shocking cold water was really uncomfortable. But with the heat and the hot-to the-touch rubber raft, it became refreshing. The front of the raft is nicknamed the “the bathtub,” which is where you really get soaked. In the few times that I did sit up there going through rapids– you get hit (and hard) by a wall of ice cold water–I would gasp, and it took my breath away, and then I’d immediately get hit again with hardly anytime to catch a breath in between. Our raft went through a few rapids rated “9“ and “10”. Hitting rapids would be a cross between riding a roller coaster and a bucking bronco. I was scared to death, but all I could think of was to hang on for dear life.
What did I take away from this trip?
It’s amazing the scary things you push yourself to do. Now, in my older years I’ve become a little wimpy to this kind of adventure. I hiked trails I would have never done on my own, nor would I have ever volunteered to sit in the “bathtub” of a raft… thank goodness for peer pressure.
I have to admit that when we first started talking about a trip to Ireland, I wasn’t that excited… it just seemed so old-school. Maybe a little too tame and mellow? Well it was, and that is the beauty of it. I personally get a little tired of touring ruins, cathedrals, and cute little towns full of souvenir shops. On this trip I was looking for more than that and I was surprised at how much I loved it.
The best way to visit Ireland is by driving yourself or hiring a private guide/driver. We went with another couple, so it made splitting the cost a little more feasible. Driving yourself didn’t look too hard. The cars are very small for the narrow roads, and the traffic was not that congested. The only thing that looked challenging was maneuvering in roundabouts from the left hand side of the road.
When you are able to customize a trip yourself, you can choose the things you are most interested in. For instance, I wanted to see old cemeteries and gardens, my husband was interested in golf courses, our travel partners’ request was to drive the shore roads, view marinas, and take a carriage ride around Dromoland Castle. We all got our wish… well almost. My husband desperately wanted to get out onto Skellig Michael island. He tried, but it’s nearly impossible. The tours only take so many people a day (it’s booked up months in advance) and it’s cancelled half the time due to the weather. It’s a long choppy boat ride. Also, it has become super popular because it’s the film location of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
The top 6 reasons I love Ireland–
The people are so friendly, I never tired of the hearing numerous times a day in that Irish brogue with such passion “Good morning, what a lovely day it is.”
My wish was fulfilled of visiting 2 beautiful cemeteries- Glasnevin in Dublin, and Aghadoe in County Kerry.
As usual for me… the food. Scones with rich Irish butter, mussels, fish & chips, cottage pie (AKA shepherds pie). My husband had a Guinness beer with every meal, he swears it tastes so much better there on draft. One thing we had to learn, bacon is ham. We never saw crispy bacon. Even if you order a BLT sandwich, it’s a piece of ham.
Our driver was able to get a private tour of Old Head lighthouse just outside of Kinsale, and we enjoyed a drive through its famous golf course. This is a working lighthouse with a salty seaman that lives on the grounds to care for it. From the top of the lighthouse there was an amazing view of the golf course, the craggy rocks and crashing waves below.
The biggest impression I got of Ireland was that it felt romantic, it seemed to me like a good place for a honeymoon. The hotels are so old and stately. When we stayed at The Great Southern in Killarney, I felt like we were staying at the Biltmore, very grand with a fireplace burning in the lobby. On one misty rainy day, we stopped into a pottery + coffee shop in Dingle and the cafe smelled of baked goods and coffee, as the rain hit the sky lights and windows. The pubs were always dark with cozy corner tables. See what I mean….. romantic!
We didn’t do this–but if we were to go back again, there are some fantastic walking trails. I saw a lot of backpackers walking the Kerry Way. It’s 135 miles of walking trails around Ring of Kerry, Killarney, Muckross Lake, Cork, Tralee, etc. It looks great.
I am always excited each time I try a new or different cruise line.
In November 2017 my husband and I took a 10-day cruise from Ft Lauderdale to Panama and back. We have sailed on several different lines, but this was our first with Holland America (HAL). As far as ships go, it’s extremely similar to other large ships of its class. I will give my list of the good and not so good from this particular voyage. And I will also list a couple of ship tips I have learned.
This is the first time we have tried open seating as opposed to a set dining time. We like having a table for 2 and this worked for the most part, but we also timed it right and kept our fingers crossed. Open seating is like walking up to a busy restaurant and asking for a table for 2. This all depends on table availability and you may have to wait. If you don’t mind sitting with others being seated without a wait is usually never a problem.
Holland America has a private Caribbean island called Half Moon Caye, and I really enjoyed this. It’s nice to get off ship and have a private uncrowded beach for swimming. On a cruise you forget that just because you are at sea for a week, you never get to swim in the ocean unless you take an excursion or can find a public beach on your own while at port. The private beach included beach towels, lounge chairs, and a wonderful gigantic lunch buffet.
There was a great selection of on-board activities. Since the Holland America demographic is more of a mature crowd, the activities are more geared towards classes, presentations, and demonstrations. Yes, I can live without Belly Flop and Hairy Chest contests. Many of the classes on board are health and fitness presentations, America’s Test Kitchen cooking demonstrations, and my favorite -Microsoft computer classes.
Every afternoon, 4-5 pm, was happy hour, with 2 for 1 drinks
The not so good…. because nothing was bad this trip:
Air conditioning…. Yikes! The a/c in public areas seemed to be turned up higher than I ever remember on a cruise. I tried to look for a cozy quiet lounge area to read, but I always had to have on some pants and a heavy sweater. I remember sitting in a computer class with a sweater on and still shivering.
The buffet was always crowded, especially breakfast. It was such a chore hunting for a table. One thing I noticed that seemed to be different from other ship buffets was how much of the food needed to be served from behind glass. If I wanted a bowl of oatmeal I’d have to stand in line behind people ordering eggs and pancakes. Why can’t I scoop out my own bowl of oatmeal? Same with the salad bar–you had to instruct someone how to make your salad… am I wrong? But most people like to build their own salad on a salad bar!
Having dinner in the specialty restaurants costs about $20-$35 per person. We found that you can have lunch in the same restaurants for $10 pp.
Avoid the crowded buffet at lunch and have an elegant, non-hurried, sit-down lunch by eating in the big dining room. Just know that the menu is limited to about 10 items, and the dining room hours are 12:00 pm – 1:30 pm.