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 i shows includes 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.”

Good

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

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.

Russia on a Russian River Cruise Line

Ship in water

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.

laying on bed in stateroom
stateroom on ship with twin beds

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.

melons floating in fountain
Melons floating in the fountain–“Gum” shopping mall
subway in Russia
Subway in Russia
Fish in market

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.

Church in Kizhi Russia
Scaffold Church in Kizhi, Russia
woman selling crochet on street
Woman selling her crocheting
lady making pelmeni dumplings in Russia
Lady making pelmeni (dumplings)

Sites along the Volga– People gardening, and lots of little sauna huts along the river next to houses.

We 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.

golden statue in Peterhof Palace
Peterhof Palace
statues on St Petersburg building tops
View from our hotel room in St Petersburg

What I learned from my first Holland America cruise

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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.

Bird in Curacao

Good:
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

Holland America Zuiderdam Pool

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!
Cruise Tips:
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.

Cruisers watch as we pass through the locks, Panama Canal

Below are some street scene photos of Panama City

Ice cream shop in Panama City

Street Scene in Panama City

Painted Bus, Panama City

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The Great Wall of …..Croatia (and also Touring Italy on a Windstar Cruise)

I have decided that early May is the best time to cruise in Europe–that’s my opinion anyway. The weather can still be a little cool and rainy, flowers are blooming, most other cruise lines have not yet arrived, and the crowds are minimal. This was our second cruise with Windstar and again it was superb.
Here are some of the highlights and my favorite photos.

Quiet deck early morning on Windstar

 

Amalfi Coast

 

Syrenbus, pleasure on wheels!


The old City of Dubrovnik, Croatia– you can walk around the top of the walled city. It costs about $25 per person and was worth it. Not good if you don’t like the heights and it can be a pretty strenuous walk with lots of stairs.

View from the wall walkway in Dubrovnik

 

Parade in Dubrovnik

 

Waterfront walkway in Split, Croatia

 

Restaurant in Rovinj, Croatia

Venice was busy, hot, and humid. I didn’t like it as much as I liked the other ports in Croata, Sicily, and Amalfi.  When I look at the picture below I realize this is not very crowded, it could be worse.

St Mark’s Square, Venice, Italy

 

Wonder how your luggage gets to your hotel?

 

Restaurant window, Venice, Italy

 

Norway and the Arctic Circle in Winter

The primary reason for this winter trip up north was to see the northern lights. In the 8 days we were there, we only saw the lights one time. Yes, I am disappointed, but it is the way nature works. On the other hand, I was curious to experience the extremely long days of darkness. This did not disappoint.
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The Hurtigruten cruise started in Bergen, where we spent one night prior to embarkation. Their version of daylight (dusk) started about 10 am and ended around 3 pm. When we crossed over the Arctic Circle the days grew really short, the sun never rose above the horizon.
Hurtigruten is a different type of cruise experience. It is a passenger/ferry ship. Accommodations were simple, but comfortable. Our ship Trollfjord sleeps about 600 passengers, and for our cruise week we had about 250 people on board. The ship stops at approximately 30 ports in the 6-night voyage to Kirkenes before it turns around and goes back to Bergen. A lot of the stops are for 30 mins to an hour and passengers are able to get off and walk around, or pick up snacks from the small convenience stores at most ports. The ship also picks up day passengers going from one port to the next.
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Arctic Superior Cabin, couch folds down to another bed

City tour excursions where a little disappointing since it was usually dark as night and hard to see anything. The mid-day trip to Nord Kapp (North Cape), the northernmost point of Europe, was very cold and windy, and the dark pictures I took were taken around 12 noon!

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North Cape, above the Arctic Circle

71°10′21″N 25°47′04″E     Nord Kapp coordinates 
 I spent a good amount of time in the front lounge reading and looking at whatever scenery was visible. They keep the lights dim so there is not a lot of glare for looking out of the large floor to ceiling windows. The lounge has small twinkling lights above like a nights sky and it was warm and cozy.
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And the most wonderful thing of all is the food! Fish, seafood, fish, and more seafood, delicious! I never saw anything made with chicken and ground beef the whole week. So many varieties of fish, salmon, coalfish, smoked dogfish, pickled halibut, etc. I did try some reindeer meat: to me –not that good. Piles of seafood–king crab is considered everyday food to them so it was always on the buffet, a staple. As always in Europe the bread and butter was heavenly. And I really need to figure out how to make those sweet Norwegian pancakes.
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I would go back in a minute. I’d like to try this same cruise in a different season next time. In summer it would be a completely different cruise with more daylight and opportunity to actually see the great fjords.
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Poppy Fields and Swans– Springtime in France 2016

We have just returned from another fantastic river cruise in Europe. This time we went on Avalon Waterways and we weren’t disappointed. There were quite a few cloudy days with splashes of rain here and there, and our boat just missed hitting some of the flood areas (early May). 

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My favorite thing about river cruising…. The lazy days of gliding down the scenic river, the food, and the freedom.  I think I noticed it more this cruise than with others. We were encouraged to get off the boat and go for walks around town or down the river walkways.  The tours were great but sometimes I chose to skip them and wander around by myself. One day I walked around town alone, hurried back to the boat before the tour groups came back so that I could go updeck and sit in the hot tub. There was no one else around and I sat in that hot bubbling water alone, smiling and staring up at  a castle on the hill.
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St Paul de Vence
St Paul de Vence cemetery

My Highlights of France

  • Paris-  Montparnasse cemetery, Pompidou Modern Art Musem,  and crepes with homemade toffee and vanilla ice cream.
  • Wildflowers and poppies growing on the side of the road.  In Beaune, there were grapevines growing in the center of the roundabouts.
  • Sampling Beaujolais wine at a local winery.

The ship– Avalon Affinity
Pro’s— Sliding full window/door in our stateroom, and spacious bathroom. Daily happy hour with discounted drinks, good food, especially lunch buffet and cheese assortment. This was a smaller ship and we were able to get into smaller town ports that some of the bigger boats like Viking would not fit into.
Con’s— We wished there were better wine variety pairings with dinner. And the breakfast/lunch buffet layout was not the best, very congested in places.

Beaujolais Winery
Beaujolais Winery

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My most favorite part of the trip was Monaco/Monte Carlo. It was about 10 days prior to the Monaco Grand Prix Race. The town was setting up bleachers, banners, fences, and guardrails. We drove the route and walked a good part of it, and our hotel Fairmont was situated right at the infamous hairpin curve.  Other great sites were the Exotic Garden, and the Monte Carlo Casino.

Paella
Paella

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Monte Carlo

Monaco Grand Prix track
Monaco Grand Prix track

 

Highlights of Greece 2015

May 2015 trip to Greece and Turkey. Below are my top 5 personal highlights of Greece. I will follow soon with my list of high points of Turkey.
Food
For some reason food always seems to find its way in my “best of” blogs. I made a list of “must try foods” before leaving on my journey and I wasn’t disappointed: calamari (fresh), real Greek yogurt, baklava, fried sardines, and olives. I even found that I enjoyed eggplant and stuffed grape leaves, items I don’t normally care for.

Fresh Squid (Calamari)
Fresh Squid (Calamari)

Lunch in Santorini
Lunch in Santorini

No ships!

Unbelievable, but yes, there were no other cruise ships in the ports until the last day arriving in Istanbul. Timing and pre-season was on our side. Normally, there could be 3-4 large passenger ships sharing the island ports of calls. Yay for shoulder season! The craziest thing of all was at embarkation. When the 4 of us were dropped off at the Piraeus port terminal, we were greeted at the van by two welcoming Windstar representatives pointing us in the right direction. We were relieved because we thought we were at the wrong place since there was absolutely no crowd of other cars or buses around. Inside the terminal not a single soul besides the people working there! I kept looking around in disbelief that we were the only passengers checking-in to board the ship (or yacht, as they call it).

Santorini
Of all our island visits this one was the most surreal and indescribably beautiful–the color of the water contrasting with the white patchwork of buildings clinging on the hillside, the views from the cliff tops, and the meandering scenic walkways in the town of Oia. We had a private guide who drove us around the island to the quieter, non-touristy spots, like the Profitis Ilias (Prophet Elijah) monastery at 1800 feet above sea level.

Santorini Hillside
Santorini Hillside

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No other ships in port

Stray Cats
I had read before traveling that are lots of stray cats in Greece/Turkey, so I packed kitty treats for my little friends along the way.

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Let sleeping cats lie
Let sleeping cats lie

Swimming-

I can now say that I have swum in the Aegean Sea, well sort of. The water was way too cold, so we floated on blue mats tied to the back of the “yacht”.

Floating in the Aegean Sea
Floating in the Aegean Sea

Alaska Cruise…notes exposed

I started out writing this in my usual day by day format and found it to be just too boring. Almost everything on this trip has gone as planned and what more is there to cruising than excursions and eating. I did experience/learn a few new things this time and here are some of the highlights—
Vancouver—In addition to doing a full day excursion to Victoria and Butchart Gardens, we did spend a morning walking about Granville Island. From our hotel downtown (Westin Grand) it is about a 15 minute walk to the Yaletown pier. There are several water taxi’s (Aqua Bus) going to different piers and Granville Island. This area is a farmers market/flea market type place selling fruit, vegetables, seafood, etc. There are lots of handicrafts and art galleries.
• Second night on ship I do believe I witnessed the best sunset of my life and I am not usually one to ooh and ahh over sunsets. I also enjoyed having daylight until 11pm, more time to watch the whales from my balcony.
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• Celebrity Millennium, as most ships do has a pretty good offering of daily activities. Many that I regret not getting around too. I-phone/I-pad orientation, Zumba, a variety of wine/martini/port tastings. There are watercolor classes, scrapbooking, and most days a talk from the naturalist.
• Something I learned this cruise for the next time I cruise… Our cabin happened to be a couple decks directly below the gym and the pool. Easy access and you don’t have to slog around half the ship in a wet swim suit.
Internet/Wifi on board is very expensive, when docking in a port ask the crew where to find internet cafes and libraries, they know these things. For this particular cruise, Juneau has a library about 1 block from the ship, and in Skagway the library is on 8th and State, just off of the main drag.
• And here is a great tip I discovered if you are taking the round trip White Pass Railroad excursion– Going up the mountain left side is good because you have the best views, but everyone from the right side will be hovering over you trying to see out. And of course- the little balconies on the back and front of the train car are packed, everyone with a camera is trying to get pictures. Here’s the deal, when you get to the top of the mountain the train comes back down and the crew makes everyone change seats with the other side of the car. My advice is to ride up on the right side and then at the top you move to the other side. You will have the window to yourself and the balconies because everyone has already gotten their pictures on the way up.
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