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.

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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

Travel Ireland: Why it’s not your grandparents’ trip

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.

Lighthouse caretaker

  • 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.

Ireland, we will be back.

Kerry Camino

 

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