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Singapore

Feb 29, 2016 – Singapore

We arrive early this morning in Singapore’s cruise ship terminal. We have a day in port and then overnight aboard the ship this evening. Most of the passengers are disembarking tomorrow morning, but I’m one of the 175 who are staying on board for the next cruise segment.

I take the Best of Singapore excursion today. It is an exhausting 8 hour tour, but we cover a great deal of ground, and I take some good photos and video. Our guide takes us to the City Gallery, where there are some wonderful scale models of the city and the whole country of Singapore. It shows just how much of Singapore is dedicated to gardens and other non-developed land, including the reservoir system for their water supply.

We take an electric-powered riverboat ride down the Kallang River and into Marina Bay, past Merlion Park. The Merlion fountain statue was erected as a symbol of welcome to visitors; the lion statue is emblematic of Singapore itself. We also see the historic Fullerton Hotel, on our way to the three towers that make up the Marina Bay Sands hotel and the observation deck, 200 metres (650 feet) above sea level, perched on Tower 3 of the hotel. I manage to photograph the amazing infinity pool (reserved for hotel guests) by leaning out from the observing deck to grab a shot. The view of Gardens by the Bay below the towers, as well as the city and harbour are fantastic from this vantage point. The Marina Bay Sands hotel has one of only two casinos, and a huge number of high end shops in a vast mall under the main hotel.

Our bus takes us to the entrance to Gardens by the Bay – a 100 hectare (250 acre) spectacularly designed park, home to an amazing variety of rare plants housed in giant, innovative domed conservatories. There are several different regions and ecosystems to discover, but we only have time to explore two: the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest.

The Flower Dome replicates the cool-dry climate of Mediterranean regions, and showcases flora that thrive in these conditions. Oddly enough, cactus and succulents, as well as Baobab trees are included in this ecosystem. True to its name, the Flower Dome showcases massive numbers of flowers from all over the world. As we move into the mist-veiled Cloud Forest, we feel the climate change to warmer and moister conditions. The 35 metre (115 foot) tall mountain showcases the world’s tallest indoor waterfall and presents plant life from tropical ecosystems, and is nothing short of spectacular.

We stop for a family-style Chinese lunch in a restaurant in Chinatown, which offers us a welcome air-conditioned respite from the heat and humidity on Singapore’s streets after seeing the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. The gold-domed Masjid Sultan Mosque is the centre of Muslim culture in the city, and nearby Arab Street offers lots of carpet dealers. Shopping in Little India is interesting, and there are bargains to be had here when compared with Singapore’s more upscale (and expensive) shopping areas.

We finish our day at the legendary Raffles Hotel. I have a Singapore Sling cocktail where it was originally invented in Raffles’ Long Bar. Named after the British designer of modern-day Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles, this property is one of the world’s finest and most famous hotels. The high ceilings and colonial architecture reflect the era of British rule (1819-1963). There is no public access to the lobby and other guest areas, however the Long Bar and shops are accessible to the public.

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Old Dubai

February 9, 2015 – Monday – Old Dubai – first full day of the tour

I’m awakened by the 5:30AM call to prayer outside. I sleep a bit longer and then go to breakfast at 7AM, since we depart on tour at 8AM. The buffet breakfast served downstairs is great: lots of choices, freshly made hot and cold food, very good coffee, and great table service.

We meet our local guide Kais (or Qais) this morning as we board our bus outside our hotel. He is Tunisian, but has lived and worked in Dubai for the last 10 years with his wife and daughters.

This morning, we walk along the Creek in the historic Bastakia Quarter, which has souqs and some fascinating displays of Emirati culture. The Ruler’s Court is located in this area, which is where the sheik still receives delegations of local people. Vendors in the souqs in this area sell spices, gold, perfume, and more. We take an abra (small taxi boat) to cross the Creek, and have lots of time to explore all the nooks and back alleys – it’s like a shopping mall full of specialty shops!

We have lunch alongside The Creek at Al Bandar restaurant. We have a variety of salads, hummus & another spread, pita bread, grilled lamb sausage and chops, chicken chunks, vegetables, french fries, and non-alcoholic beverages and water. Fresh fruit is served for dessert. There are some scrawny small cats lurking around, loudly begging for table scraps. Our guide Kais smokes a hookah, and one of our group tries it too.

This afternoon we photograph the lovely exterior of Jumeirah Mosque and later drive through the ruling family’s residential area, making a stop at the famed Burj Al Arab hotel, supposedly the only seven-star hotel in the world. Driving out onto the Palm Jumeirah Island reveals a world unto itself: lush homes (all waterfront), very posh shopping districts, high end business offices and towers, and a still developing resort complex.

Rush hour traffic back into the city means it takes well over an hour for our final stop of the day in New Dubai’s Marina District. This is a superb example of beautiful modern architecture combined with futuristic urban planning – a dream come true for architects and community planners. We leave after the sun sets to return to our hotel, the Arabian Courtyard Hotel. By this time, most of us are sleeping in the bus due to jet lag.

There are only 950,000 Emirates citizens. The rest of the 9 million people living in the UAE are foreign workers. When asked on CNN why Dubai is so “over-the-top”, the current sheik states that he feels it is his obligation to give his people the very best of everything possible.

Dubai is one of several sheikdoms in the United Arab Emirates. Dubai only gets 5% of the oil revenues of the UAE, but is traditionally a trading centre, and specializes in transportation. The Dubai port and airport are the biggest hubs in this area, and support extensive business interests both here and abroad.

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Venice

September 7, 2014 – Sunday – Austria to Venice, Italy

After parking in the Tronchetto parking area of Venice, we get our bags off the bus and take the Vaporetto (water bus) to the Academia area. Jennifer previously warned us that an historical regatta was happening along the Grand Canal, which means some bridges and portions of the canal are closed to traffic. We schlepp our bags through the crowds, but when we reach the Academia Bridge, it is completely jammed and is complete chaos. At this point we can no longer roll our bags as we squeeze through the crowds. It takes us about 20 minutes to carefully cross to the other side and regroup before continuing our rather stressful walk to our hotel.

The Hotel Serenissima is located just four blocks from St. Marks Square, and not much further to the Rialto Bridge area. My room is the tiniest hotel room I have ever stayed in, however it has a bathroom and a single bed, and is comfortable and quiet, since it faces the inner courtyard instead of the street.

Gondola ride on the Grand Canal at night in Venice

Gondola ride on the Grand Canal at night in Venice

We don’t have much time, but I manage to get cleaned up before we go out for a group dinner at Trattoria alla Madonna. The food and service is very good. The dinner includes salad, main course, wine, dessert, and some entertainment from a trio that wandered in from the street. They made out like bandits from all the tips our group gave them!

Another highlight of the tour comes next: a night time gondola ride through the canals, complete with a singer and accordion player! Our guide Jennifer arranges this extra cost activity for those of us who want to go, so we share in the (reasonable) cost, and end up in four gondolas. It is great to experience this with the group. It is a beautiful night, the Moon is full over the Grand Canal, and the city is alive with people as we glide by listening to our musicians. Jennifer even serves us Prosecco (Italian sparkling wine) before we start the gondola ride!

September 8, 2014 – Monday – Venice

After breakfast at the hotel this morning, we go on an early morning guided walk with a local guide. We see Marco Polo family’s square, then go to the Venice Hospital area, where we have a break. The hospital looks like a church to me. The walk continues wandering through Venice, and we eventually come to a little shop on a canal, which sells Venetian masks. Our guide takes the whole group inside to see how the Moroccan owner makes the masks. I’m not interested, although the rest of the group seem to enjoy it.

Gold decorated wall and ceiling murals in St. Marks Cathedral

Gold decorated wall and ceiling murals in St. Marks Cathedral

Our last stop on the tour is the famous St. Marks Cathedral on St. Marks Square (Piazza San Marco), where our guides leave us. Timing is important, since at 11:30AM, the lights illuminating the ceiling inside the church are turned on. This is new for the cathedral and well worth planning for, since the ceiling comes alive with the extra light, and photography of the ceiling detail is much more rewarding. I decide to pay extra to see the famous golden horses, which are upstairs in the museum part of the church. This turns out very well, since I also have access to the balcony over the main entrance, which gives an unobstructed view of the flooded St. Marks Square, the Doges Palace, and the nearby islands and canals. I skip touring the Doges Palace, since I saw it last time I was here in 2006.

I get my shoes soaked as I try to dodge the water in the square on my way back to the hotel. After a nap in my room, I go out walking around the Rialto Bridge and the Grand Canal, take some photos, and just enjoy my free time in Venice. I join a couple in the tour group for dinner at a nice outdoor restaurant with a great view of a canal near the Rialto Bridge. Now that the cruise ship passengers have left Venice, the place is civilized again!

September 9, 2014 – Tuesday – Venice to Florence

We don’t encounter any problems taking the Vaporetto back to the Tronchetto parking area of Venice this morning, since the Regatta is over – things are back to normal.

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Amsterdam

September 1, 2014 – Monday – Amsterdam, Netherlands

Anne Frank statue

Anne Frank statue

We are out the door by 8:50AM for a full day of touring Amsterdam. We take the inter-city train from Haarlem to Amsterdam Centraal train station (takes about 10 minutes). Across the street from the train station, we catch a tram to the Anne Frank House and walk in ahead of the long line already forming. It is surprisingly emotional to actually see the hidden rooms where the two Jewish families hid from the Nazis during WWII. The rooms are devoid of furniture and there are no photos permitted inside, as per Otto Frank’s wishes. The stairways are narrow, and the rooms feel so small. As Anne wrote in her diary, having the windows shuttered was depressing, and it must have been a huge challenge to keep still during the day in order to make no noise that might be heard by the businesses operating below the hidden rooms.

Jennifer then takes us on a walking tour of Amsterdam. First stop is the Pink Triangle granite Homomonument in the canal, celebrating homosexual civil rights and freedoms. The Netherlands was one of the first countries to recognize gay and lesbian rights. Spinning around the main Dam square in the city, we see: the massive Neo-Gothic retail store Magna PlazaMadame Tussauds Wax Museum, the Nieuwe Kerk (leading art venue in the city), and the Royal Palace. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to explore Dam Square.

After a stop for a late lunch, we find our way back to the Rijks Museum for an escorted tour. I must endorse taking an escorted tour through this museum, since there is so much art history to appreciate. The guides are wonderful! The museum doesn’t just feature paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and other Dutch masters; there is furniture, applied and Asian art, sculpture, fashion, ship models, weapons, and all sorts of artifacts illustrating Dutch history. Just to cap it off, I bump into friends from home in one of the galleries – what a surprise!

Two old canal houses fully restored

Two old canal houses fully restored

By the time we leave the museum some of us need some respite from all the walking and standing, so we stop for a mid-afternoon beer and wine break in one of the local bars across the street from the Heineken factory. Afterward, we see some fascinating glimpses of Amsterdam by taking a one hour canal boat cruise.

Our final walk of the day takes us to Amsterdam’s Red Light District for a quick glimpse at the girls displaying their wares. As a contrast, we also see the outside of the Oude Kerk (Old Church) located in the same district, before finally taking the inter-city train back to Haarlem and our hotel.

It has been a long day!

Amsterdam is obviously a prosperous city, since it has huge retail, government, and cultural sectors, and they all appear to be thriving. By all accounts, housing is exceedingly expensive in the city. Many people who work in the city must live elsewhere and commute by train. One thing is certain, most of them ride bicycles…there are huge bicycle parkades in the city, and they are everywhere you look.

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Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica

Monday, December 12, 2011 – Day 22 – Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica

I take a tour this morning, which takes us over the new highway to San Jose, but we turn off early and go to the upper reaches of the Taracoles River for a mangrove swamp boat trip. We see nesting Scarlett Macaws (from a distance), Crocodiles, a Jesus Christ Lizard, and some birds. The boat trip really doesn’t live up to my expectations, since it is so rushed, and we really don’t cover much of the river. The mangrove boat trips I took on previous visits to La Ensenada Lodge and Tamarindo were so much better!

The bus then takes us to nearby Orotina for a train ride back down to the coast near where Rotterdam is docked. The train trip is interesting, especially when the middle passenger car derails! The train crew uses a diverter to manoeuvre the car’s wheels back on the rails in short order. We see lots of interesting things along the way, including fields of cantaloupe and watermelon, the backyards of many Tico houses, some cute kids waving at us as we pass by, a long tunnel, and we cross over a river and see ever changing vegetation as we descend to the Pacific Coast. The bus is waiting for us at the station at Mata de Limon to take us back to the ship, which is only five minutes away.

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Trujillo, Peru

Friday, December 2, 2011 – Day 12 – Salaverry (port) and Trujillo (city), Peru

Rotterdam creeps into port of Salaverry this morning sounding the ship’s horn as she goes through the thick fog that envelops the area. The Cruise Director tells us later that we almost had to miss the port due to the fog. My friends explore the city of Trujillo, taking a shuttle bus from the port to the city centre in Trujillo. They report that the central square is charming, but the abject poverty in the rest of the city is shocking.

I take a shore excursion to the Huaca Dragon (Temple), the Chan Chan complex, and to see the fishermen with their reed boats at Huanchaco, a popular beach resort area. Huaca Dragon is a small temple on the outskirts of Trujillo, and has a ramp up to the top of the single temple and also has some fascinating rainbow decorations on the walls. A pre-Incan culture called the Chimu built this edifice as both a temple and a place to store food.

Chan Chan is an immense adobe city (20 sqkm, 30,000 residents) also built by the Chimu people, but closer to the coast than Huaca Dragon. In fact, from high points in the complex, the Pacific Ocean can be glimpsed. We visit the three huge plazas and former living areas used by the Chimu people before they were conquered by the Aztecs, who destroyed much of this complex. The vast majority of this city is still buried in the coastal sand.

The reed boats at Huanchaco are an interesting diversion. A couple of our tour members have a ride on them or try to paddle them in the ocean. As we travel around to these various sites, I also take note of the disturbing poverty in this region, other than at the resort town of Huanchaco, which is rather posh in comparison.

Rotterdam leaves port on time at 5PM. My friend and I try to see the Green Flash of the setting Sun from the Sports Deck, but no joy since there is too much fog out to sea this evening. After dinner in the Lido this evening, I pack my bags for our departure from Rotterdam tomorrow for a three day excursion to Machu Picchu. We rejoin the ship in the port of Pisco on Dec 6th.

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Waitangi, Pahia & Opua

Oct 25, 2010 – Monday – Kerikeri – Waitangi, Pahia & Opua, Bay of Islands, New Zealand

Keith makes us crepes for breakfast, which are served with a berry compote and real Canadian maple syrup. We then take off late morning to see the Waitangi National Trust Estate Treaty Grounds, where we take about an hour and a half to walk through the grounds and see the displays. I visited this site in 2004…the only thing that has changed is the price – it is now NZ$25/person, whereas I paid NZ$10/person in 2004! The displays are very impressive: the huge Maori war canoe, the carvings decorating the Maori meeting house, the grounds and view, and of course the Treaty House itself. There is lots of history to absorb from the exhibits – both colonial and Maori. The views of the Bay of Islands from the site is second-to-none. Give yourself at least a half day to do justice to this historic site.

Be sure to visit my (archived) 2004 Waitangi web page if you want to see more photographs.

JoeTourist: Bay of Islands &emdash; Joe at Opua marina where SV Sequoia was moored in 2004Last stop today is Opua, which brings back memories for me. I was here in 2004 (Bay of Islands 2004) while the Johnstons and I waited for favourable weather before sailing for Fiji in their 42′ sailboat. I have an “I was there photo” taken at the same dock as sv Sequoia was docked at in 2004 so I can send a copy to Barbara and Craig. I expect they will get a kick out of it. They are currently waiting in Alameda, California for favourable weather to depart to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico for the winter.

After we return to the B&B, Keith prepares a wonderful fresh seafood stew for dinner, complete with French bread and an Australian white wine. Keith has shown us so much New Zealander hospitality during our stay. You might say, well he is a B&B operator…that’s his job. Perhaps, but I feel he well exceeded our expectations, and was genuinely friendly…not just put on for business reasons.

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Tauranga, New Zealand

Port of call on a 2010 South Pacific Cruise from Vancouver to Auckland aboard the Volendam

Oct 21, 2010 – Thursday – Tauranga, New Zealand

My friends and I are scheduled to go on a sailboat cruise around the harbour this morning, but the wind is so fierce the sailboat can’t dock. Our Mount Classics Tours tour coordinator quickly arranges a very nice private land-tour in a minivan with our own driver taking us around Tauranga. First stop is The Elms Mission Station, then we drive north of town and see the city from an overlook. We then drive south of town, with the first stop being Kiwi360 in Te Puka, where all things to do with kiwi fruit are on display. We drive a bit further south and stop for lunch at a small seaside café in Maketu. The tide is out, and the Maoris are gathering shellfish in the huge tidal flats in this area. On our way back, we stop at the Comvita Visitor Centre in Te Puke to see the honey display and have some wonderful honey ice cream before we return to the ship.

Tonight I face up to the fact I have to pack everything that has been in the cabin closets for 30 days back into my single suitcase. It is a daunting task, but I finally fit everything inside and put my bag out in the hall for collection before going to bed aboard ship for the last time. All 800 disembarking passengers’ bags will magically appear ashore in the departure hall tomorrow morning. What a job!

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Bay of Islands, New Zealand

Oct 20, 2010 – Wednesday – Bay of Islands, New Zealand

Port of call on a 2010 South Pacific Cruise from Vancouver to Auckland aboard the Volendam

This is our first port of call since our departure from New Caledonia. We are anchored in the Bay of Islands, so we are tendered ashore to the Waitangi wharf. They have shuttle buses to take passengers to Pahia, which is the main town for the area.

We go ashore on the tender and take the lunchtime version of Darryl’s Dinner Cruise. We find the boat on the pier in Pahia, and have a very nice time with a bunch of Australians, who are on a bus tour of New Zealand. It is a bit choppy out on the harbour, however we travel around the little bay by Pahia, as well as down to within sight of Opua, then around Orongo Bay. There are some beautiful glimpses of Volendam before we return to Pahia wharf. Along the way, we are served our choice of New Zealand Lamb Chops, roast venison, or catch of the day, along with salad, steamed potatoes, and even a bit of chocolate for dessert.

JoeTourist: Food &emdash; Wendy McDonald's birthday aboard ship in the Rotterdam dining roomAfter walking around Pahia for a while, we return to the ship mid-afternoon. It is Crew Performance Night in the Rotterdam Dining Room, so the dining room serving staff dance between the tables, starting with placing napkins on everyone’s lap through to serving Baked Alaska (sans sparklers). After the Baked Alaska, the servers surround my friend who is celebrating a birthday and sing her a version of “Happy Birthday” in Filipino. Her chocolate cake is served in addition to the Baked Alaska, so everyone is overstuffed by the time we leave the dining room.

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Xigera Camp

Xigera Mokoro Trail Camp, Okavango Delta, Botswana

October 23, 2008 – Thursday – We take a Noon flight to Xigera airstrip, and are met at the airstrip by the Xigera camp manager. He drives us a short distance to the launch point for the motorboat which will take us to Xigera Camp. The problem is the water level is so low, the boat driver has to gun it so we “fly” through the shallows. It is a thrilling trip!

Xigera Motorboat Ride from JoeTourist InfoSystems on Vimeo.

There are no cots to sleep on at Xigera Camp, so we have to sleep on the floor of the tents with a foam pad under us. There are only short drop toilets (no flush). There are almost no mosquitoes at the camp, despite Victor warning us they would reappear here. The reason things are more “rustic” at this camp is because there are no roads into the camp. All camp fixtures and supplies have to be brought in by boat, and due to the shallow water, mokoros (dug out canoes) are the usual mode of transportation in this area of the Okavango Delta. We are staying at a tiny remote camp deep in the delta – some say this is the best water-based safari in Botswana.

JoeTourist: Xigera Camp &emdash; William poles a Mokoro carrying our camp supplies

William poles a Mokoro carrying our camp supplies

William is the local guide for this camp. He takes us on a walking safari at 5:30pm, and we see some Kudus. The camp staff setup a table in the savannah just outside camp, and serve us Sundowners. We have a wonderful lamb stew, rice & vegetables for dinner, and eat around the campfire. We don’t have a mosquito problem either night at this camp, probably due to the daytime heat and the evening breezes.

This area of the Okavango Delta is permanently flooded and is very picturesque, however there are fewer big game in this area. The game are harder to approach, since safaris in this area are either on foot or in a mokoro (dug out canoe). Without the use of safari vehicles, it is not easy to find or get close to the animals. This doesn’t really concern me, since our time in Linyanti Camp, Lechwe Island Camp, and the Chobe River boat cruise have fully satisfied me for observing and photographing African big game. However if you are booking safari tours in Botswana, be sure to include camps in other areas of the Okavango Delta where safari vehicles can be used.

October 24, 2008 – Friday – We are up at 5:30am for an early morning Mokoro safari through the waterways. We see a large family of baboons playing around in a big tree near the shoreline; Red Lechwe antelope bounding through the water; Kudu watching us from the shoreline; and we see crocodile tracks on shore and hear some Hippopotamus a short distance away from our mokoros. We return to camp by 9:20am – the Sun is already high in the sky, and the daytime heat is building. We have Brunch at 10:30am, then it is time for a siesta as the midday heat takes hold (about 40°C in the shade). All our tents are located under the shade of trees, so we are reasonably comfortable as we rest.

JoeTourist: Xigera Camp &emdash; Resident black-faced monkey in the trees above our tents

Resident black-faced monkey in the trees above our tents

Botswanan men normally keep their hair close cropped, but one strikingly handsome young Mokoro poler has about 1cm long curls. I saw Victor tutoring him as he poled us through the channels, so he is obviously studying to be a guide. Most camp staff take their careers seriously, with many studying so they can apply for advancement opportunities. The operator of the camps we used in Botswana is Wilderness Safaris, which appear to offer local people well paid careers in eco-tourism.

Later in the afternoon, I spot some very cute resident monkeys in the trees above our tents. They play peek-a-boo with me and my video camera. The camp staff have done a wonderful job of keeping all the food out of the way, and not tempting the monkeys to come down from the tree canopy. We have no problems with the monkeys as a result. We go on another mokoro safari through the waterways between 5:30pm and 7pm, and see some birds, a very colourful Reed Frog, and some elephant bones on an adjacent island.

Xigera Mokoro Okavango Safari from JoeTourist InfoSystems on Vimeo.

JoeTourist: Xigera Camp &emdash; Resting Giraffe

Resting Giraffe

October 25, 2008 – Saturday – We get up at 5:30am for one last early morning safari before we leave camp. This time we walk, and see two sets of Leopard tracks, Elephants in the distance, and some Impala on the savannah in the middle of the island we are located on. We leave camp at 12 noon on the motor boat – once again zipping through the shallow delta water at full throttle. It is just as thrilling as our arrival trip! We spot a Giraffe sitting down in the bush and resting (a first), and we also watch brown-striped Zebras graze beside the Xigera airstrip before we board the last local flight we will take in Botswana – flying from Xigera to Maun.