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

A Week of Extremes: Rafting the Colorado

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.

The turquoise water of the Little Colorado River

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 feel like I’ve gotten my adventure mojo back.

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

 

What I learned from my first Holland America cruise

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

Closing Time, Yellowstone, September 2017

What a beautiful time to visit Yellowstone– mid-September, about 2 weeks before closing for the primary tourist season. The weather was really good, with temps in the mid 70’s. On the last 2 days it rained and was just starting to get cold, especially at night.


I had no idea that there was so much to see inside the park, and 4 days was perfect. Besides the famous Old Faithful geyser there are waterfalls, canyons, hiking trails, hot springs, wildlife, and a large lake. My favorite area was Norris geyser basin with walking trails on boardwalks.


Although we had booked this trip last-minute, we were able to get rooms inside the park lodges, but we had to move around to different hotels 3 times: Canyon Lodge for 2-nights, Old Faithful Inn 1-night, and 1-night in the Old Faithful Lodge cabins.

Dining room Old Faithful Inn


Here are some things to know about visiting Yellowstone–

  • The park is very user-friendly. There are hundreds of miles to explore. As long as there are no orange cones up blocking the road you are free to roam. There are plenty of picnic areas and pull-offs to stop at and take pictures.
  • This park is very accessible. I was surprised at how many people I saw with wheelchairs and walkers. The park provides ramps, accessible rooms, and special parking.
  • The food was not very good. You have to eat in the park restaurants, or buy food in the little convenience store. The buffets were priced fair and the nicer sit-down restaurants were a little pricey for the quality. If I were to do it again, I’d bring more food in.
  • It gets really dark at night. You need a flashlight, and there are not many streetlights. This is great for star-gazing.
  • No televisions, no wifi, and no radio. Welcome to off-the-grid!



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

 

Mexico Resorts 2017 revisited

14 Resorts in 3-days!
In April 2017 I took an AmResorts “Fam Trip” a travel agent tour of several all-inclusive resorts in– Cancun, Cozumel, and Mayan Riviera, Mexico. I love these tours– a great way to see, eat, sleep, photograph, and meet the managers of some beautiful resorts. Here I will share some of the new and fun things going on at the resorts.
Seen one resort and you think you’ve seen them all? I don’t think so!

Dreams Playa Mujeres

 

Walkway to the beach Dreams Playa Mujeres

 

Dreams Playa Mujeres Beach

 

Cozumel Sunscape Sabor– Divers heading out

 

Cozumel Sunscape Sabor– Dining beach side

 

Room at Breathless Riviera Cancun. A glass shower in the center of the room (with some curtains of course)

 

Dreams Sands Cancun, a family resort with a loaded activities board/screen

 

Dreams Sands Cancun, a white sand and clear blue water beach

 

Dreams Tulum Spa

 

Dreams Tulum pool next to the beach

 

Dreams Riviera Cancun Hookah Nights…. what?

 

Now Sapphire Resort, setting up for a beach side wedding

 

Secrets Akumal, adult only resort, a porch swing bar

 

Secrets the Vine Cancun, a wine themed resort

 

Secrets the Vine Cancun… exercise with a view

 

Secrets Silversands Riviera Cancun, over the water bungalows

 

Secrets Silversands, friendly staff

 

Secrets Maroma Beach, lunch in the water?

 

Secrets Maroma, how about ping pong in the water?

 

Secrets Capri Riviera Cancun, dining room Portofino

 

Secrets Capri, beach side dining

 

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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Planning a Family Reunion: How To Get Started

Maybe you are thinking about how to plan a family reunion. Here are some quick guidelines you might find useful for getting started. Keep in mind that Pickwick Travel can provide any assistance you might need in setting up or organizing a family reunion vacation or any other type of group travel.
Set up committees

Don’t go it alone. Share the work. Everyone has different skills and experience to bring to the planning. More than likely, you’ll have to do this long-distance with emails and phone calls.

Some of the different ways you can divide up the organizing—
• Food/Catering Committee
• Communications–Compile a list of invites and send invitations. Keep guests in the loop with updates. (See below: “Creating a family information web site.”)
• Establish one person to collect money and keep track of the finances.
• Activities, decorating, putting together a memorabilia table.
• Committee to organize the set-up and clean-up.

Create a timeline & payment schedule

The first meeting should be to determine what kind of get-together you want to have– a one-day party, a weekend, a family vacation week, or a cruise. Use a spreadsheet to keep track of deposits and final payments.

Set up a budget
Remember to add up all the little things. You may want to pad it just a little for unexpected expenses.

Things to budget for–
Venue rental * Banquet/Catering cost * Decorations * Invitations and postage * Entertainment * Family website * Welcome packets and award gifts.

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After your planning committee is formed and dates and location are established, the next step is to fill in the details.

If you are going to block hotel room space at a group discount, be careful–some hotels require a contract with an attrition clause.
• Negotiating guest rooms sometimes involves an attrition clause, which basically guarantees the hotel that you will use a certain percentage of the guest rooms contracted or blocked. Most standard hotel contracts have an 80 percent attrition rate, where the group is financially responsible for eight out of 10 guest rooms blocked even if they aren’t reserved. It’s vital to go into a contract negotiation knowing your group. If you overestimate the number of rooms needed, you may find yourself receiving a hefty attrition bill at the end.

Create a family information website.
There are several internet companies that let you create a small simple website for events. These websites are reasonable–around $10/month. You can also set-up a Facebook page.
Catering/Banquet room
Buffet style is best and is usually the most affordable for a group. When getting a quote, be sure to get beverage (non-alcoholic) and gratuities included in the per-person cost. If you are planning far in advance, touch base with the restaurant manager or sales director periodically to ensure they are still in their positions, and confirm that your group reservation is still on the schedule. At least a week before event call to give them your final head count.