post

California coast by train from LA

March 3, 2017 Friday – north along the California coast by Amtrak Coast Starlight train from Los Angeles

Main waiting area in LA's Union Station

Main waiting area in LA’s Union Station

It’s a good thing I set my alarm last night for 4:00AM after leaving Tucson, because the train arrives in LA an hour early at 4:30AM Pacific Time. My car attendant predicted an early arrival, and he was right. I ask him to reconfigure my Roomette back to seating for the last hour. He gives me a light breakfast in a bag, which is very much appreciated, since the dining car won’t be open this morning.

After our arrival in LA’s Union Station, I schlepp my bags through the tunnel system under the tracks to the station. The Metropolitan Lounge for business class and sleeper ticket holders doesn’t open until 5AM, so I grab a cappuccino from the Starbucks in the station and kill time in the main waiting room. It’s a zoo in there, with all sorts of weird people, even in the area reserved for Coach ticket holders. I’m glad to get out of there!

Tables, chairs, loungers and a bookcase in the Metropolitan Lounge, LA's Union Station

The Metropolitan Lounge, LA’s Union Station

I have several hours to kill, since my train to Seattle doesn’t depart until 10:10AM. The Metropolitan Lounge has all sorts of snacks and beverages available at no charge. I take the opportunity to clean up in the bathroom, since it’s so much easier than when I’m being pitched around on a train. There is free Wi-fi, so I entertain myself, despite its slowness. When it is time to board, a Red Cap porter takes us to the train in a motorized cart.

As the train leaves Los Angeles behind, we see the light industrial side of the city and pass by Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, where some passengers board. The train stops a couple of times along the way for track work and oncoming trains, and goes slow through many areas. There are lots of fields with crops as we pass through Oxnard and Camarillo, with lots of workers in the fields.. As we hug the California coastline starting in Ventura, we pass along beautiful shorelines and beaches near Carpinteria, and sand dunes and estuaries by Vandenberg Airfield. I lucked out since my Roomette is on the side of the train with the coastal view, so I can sit comfortably shooting photos and video as the scenery flies by.

California Coast by train from JoeTourist InfoSystems on Vimeo.

I have lunch in the dining car while we are going through the Santa Barbara area. We arrive at Pismo Beach by 2:30PM, where the train turns inland, leaving the scenic California coastline. transitioning into huge tracts of range land.

We change engineers and conductors in San Luis Obispo, so I take the opportunity to have a shower while the train is stopped. I’m signed up for the 6PM dinner sitting, ordering the special roasted chicken breast with baked potato and veggies. We stop in San Jose at 8:30PM for 10 minutes, and then roll out of the station and sit around until 9:05PM waiting for another train to pass before we get going again. I notice there are lots of old motorhomes with people living in them parked along the tracks in this area. No doubt living in San Jose is very expensive, so if you are a normal wage-earner, living in a decent home isn’t easy. We arrive in Oakland at 10:00PM for a stop. As we leave the station, it is time for bed. The train has a lot of distance to cover before our scheduled arrival in Seattle tomorrow evening.

post

New Dubai

February 22, 2015 – Muscat to Dubai

We drive from Muscat, Oman back to Dubai, U.A.E. today. We are staying in the new section of Dubai at the Manzil Downtown Dubai hotel. This is perhaps the poshest hotel we have stayed at on the whole trip, and when I check out the room rates, they start at 1,400 AED (CD$400) per night. There are multiple concierges in the lobby, all eager to be helpful. I have dinner in the hotel restaurant this evening, since I don’t feel too adventuresome. The boneless beef ribs in date sauce with french fries are very tasty, and I chase it down with a Tiger beer. Service is impeccable. Cost is AED130 (CD$43) – about what I would pay for a nice dinner at home in Canada.

February 23, 2015 – Dubai to Atlanta – last day of the tour

Today is a free day to do what we want in Dubai, since our flight home doesn’t depart until 11PM. We have a late check-out from the hotel at 6PM.

Joe takes a selfie on the Observation Deck of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai

Joe takes a selfie on the Observation Deck of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai

Last night I booked a ticket for the Burj Khalifa’s observation deck (140AED or CD$50). When I initially went online, the standard tickets were booked until the mid-afternoon, however when I selected having a cappuccino and a cake for 15AED more, I suddenly had my choice of time slots!

So this morning I navigate my way through the Dubai Mall to the observation deck entrance at 9:30AM. The elevator zooms up to level 124, and I experience the tallest building in the world! There are inside displays and an outside deck. Although the deck is glassed in, there are gaps in the glass so photographs can be taken without window reflections. As I sip my cappuccino and pastry from the coffee shop below, I gaze up a this imposing building. It is visible from virtually anywhere in the city of Dubai, and casts its shadow for blocks.

Most people on the tour are shopping in the Dubai Mall, which is right across the street from our hotel. Since I’m not into shopping and I’m feeling it’s time to return home, I spend the afternoon in my hotel room packing, napping, cruising the Internet, and annotating my many photographs from the trip.

Our bags are picked up at 5PM and we depart the hotel at 6PM for our farewell dinner. The restaurant is near the airport, and the food is underwhelming, so I won’t mention the name. I guess we have been spoiled with all the good food we have had on our tour. Our flight leaves the airport at 11PM, so we have plenty of time to wait. The flight to Atlanta will take 16 hours and 4 minutes according to the pilot.

post

Muscat to Sharqiya Sands

February 17, 2015 – Tuesday – Muscat to Sharqiya Sands

We drive from Muscat along a new inland road to our lunch stop in Sur at an Indian restaurant. Our first stop is to see a large sink hole, where some people are swimming. The Bimmah Sinkhole is in Muntazah Hawit Najam Park. This otherwise sun parched area obviously has water below ground, since there is vegetation here and I even spot some birds.

Our next stop is Wadi Tiwi, which is a lush river valley just a short distance from the coastline. The plantations and a string of emerald pools in the narrow valley are especially beautiful as we walk along the narrow road as it winds up the valley from village to village.

We stop for lunch in the sleepy little town of Sur, located right on the coast. There is a wonderful view across Sur’s corniche, beach and fisherman’s boats to the nearby village of Ayjah, with its whitewashed houses and dhow-building yard.

A couple of hours later we approach the little town of Bidiyah, and turn off the main road to drive across a sand road for about 11km to Desert Nights Camp, where we will stay for two nights. It is pretty luxurious considering it is setup in the desert along with another more modest camp about a kilometre away. Sharqiya Sands (aka Wahiba Sands) is a large area of rosy-hued dunes, some of which are over 100 metres high. We quickly get settled and then go out on a dune ride to see the sun set over the sand dunes.

Map of our 4x4 drives in Oman,

Map of our 4×4 drives in Oman,

post

Musandam Peninsula

February 14, 2015 – Saturday – Musandam Peninsula, Oman

This morning we board a traditional Omani dhow for a half-day cruise into the Musandam Peninsula’s nearby fiords, or khawrs. Dolphins play in the wake of the boat as we travel along the tranquil waters. We arrive at Telegraph Island, which was a repeater station built in 1864 by the British to connect Bombay with Britain via an underwater and overland telegraph cable. The boat is anchored and I am the first one in to have a swim. The water is a bit cloudy, but it feels great, and floating is no problem in the very salty water.

We see the famous Sherry fish marinated and grilled for our hot buffet lunch, which is served aboard the dhow, and then we return the same way back to Khasab harbour. There are numerous fishing villages along the shoreline. Some have power, water and communications, while others don’t. As we return to Khasab harbour, we see Shinas, the fastest catamaran ferry in the world docked. It travels between Khasab and Muscat down the coast in about five hours.

This dhow cruise is one of the highlights of the tour for me!

In the afternoon, we take a 4×4 drive, climbing up into the mountains along steep gravel roads to Jebel Harim (1,800 metres or 5,900′ elevation), where we see a beautiful oasis and some petroglyphs. There are century-old villages built into the rocks on the sides of the wadis, including Bait ai-Qufl with its old stone houses, and the lush nature of Al Khalidiyyah Park with its many acacia trees, and interesting clam and oyster fossils.

The gravel roads throughout this mountainous region are very impressive, since they are very well engineered and maintained.

February 15, 2015 – Sunday – Khasab to Muscat, Oman

We visit the Khasab Castle, originally built by the Portuguese in the 17th century, but now a museum to showcase Omani history and culture. Traditional boats and other historical artifacts unique to the Musandam region are featured. After withdrawing some Omani Riyals from a bank machine, I take a few photos of Kasab’s lovely Friday Mosque: As Sultan Qaboos Mosque. There is a small souq in the town square, with mostly livestock, fodder, and a few food items for sale under the tents. Next, we drive to the nearby Oudah village, located in Wadi Oudah. There are some petroglyphs in the rocks at Tawi village at end of road.

We drive to Khasab airport and take an Omani Air mid-day flight to Muscat, Oman’s capital city. We meet our Omani guide Yacoob and our driver, who take us to our hotel, where we have the afternoon to ourselves.

Our travels in Oman

Our travels in Oman

post

Al Ain, UAE to Musandam Peninsula, Oman

February 13, 2015 – Friday – Al Ain, UAE to Musandam Peninsula, Oman

I get up a bit earlier this morning, since we are leaving early for the long drive north to cross the border into Oman. The breakfast buffet is very extensive, and they have cappuccino, which is always a big bonus in my books!

Before leaving Al Ain, we stop at their camel sale this morning, where there are hundreds of camels in sheds and open air pens, as well as sheep and goats. It is fun watching the haggling, but I finally go back to the bus early to get away from the heat and the smell. Kais tells me even city people buy camels and keep them outside the city, in order to maintain their connection with their culture…and no doubt some race them.

The steep road along the Musandam coastline

The steep road along the Musandam coastline

We drive along the expressway to the outskirts of Dubai, and then north to Ras al-Khaimah. Here we drive along the coastal highway to the border crossing, and leave both our UAE guide and driver. The border crossing process takes awhile, due to some confusion which I don’t fully understand. Our Omani driver and guide meet us, and we drive the beautiful and scenic highway along the Musandam coastline to Khasab.

Before we check-in to our hotel, we have a late lunch or early dinner at the Al Shamaliah Grill and Restaurant in the New Souk Area of Khasab. Since it is Friday, everyone is being called to evening prayers – the whole town is filled with wailing sing-song broadcast from the minarets on the mosques. Our hotel is the Atana Musandam, built right next to the harbour, and it is right next to a LuLu Hypermarket (like our supermarkets).

The Musandam Peninsula is separated from the rest of Oman by the east coast of the UAE, and is in a very strategically important location with the Strait of Hormuz separating Oman from Iran. Iranian smugglers pick up goods (mainly household appliances and cigarettes) in Khasab early every morning and zoom across the strait to customers in their country. The Musandam Peninsula is very arid and rocky, but features beautiful khors (rocky inlets), small villages, and dramatic, mountain-hugging roads.

post

Cinque Terra

September 13, 2014 – Saturday – Rome to Cinque Terre, Italy

JoeTourist: Cinque Terre &emdash; Seafood stew cooked in an amphora
After driving from Rome, we turn off the Autostrada and drive down a steep valley to Vernazza, where the bus parks. We walk over to the train station, and after riding the train for four minutes we arrive in Monterosso. This pretty little town by the sea on the Cinque Terra (the Italian Riviera) is our home for the next two nights. Since today is Saturday, there are lots of Italians here on weekend get-aways. We are staying in the Hotel Punta Mesco, a nice hotel located about a block off the main street, so it is nice and quiet.

This evening, we have a group meal at Ristorante Belvedere in old town. They cook a rich seafood stew of squid, fish, and mussels in an amphora and then pour it out into big bowls and we serve ourselves family-style.

2014.09.14 – Sunday – Cinque Terre, Italy

JoeTourist: Cinque Terre &emdash; Riomaggiore village
Today is our “vacation from our vacation”…in other words, a free day. I take the little ferry on a round trip from Monterosso al Mare, where out hotel is located, and go to Vernazza, Corniglia (hill town, no ferry stop), and Riomaggiore. On the way back, the ferry stops at Manarola and Vernazza, before terminating at Monterosso. I had planned to get off in Vernazza, see the town and walk back to Monterosso, but after seeing the crowds in the square at Vernazza, I decided to stay on the ferry and return to Monterosso.

I have lunch with a couple from our group, and then just chill out in my hotel room for a while. My ground floor room has a small patio, so I catch up on some journaling and annotate my photos while sitting outside. Our hotel hosts a Happy Hour this afternoon for our group – pizza, cheese, cold meats, bread, wine, and Limonchella. I fill up on the delicious pizza since they have lots, and skip dinner!

2014.09.15 – Monday – Cinque Terre, Italy to Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland

After leaving the Cinque Terre this morning, we bypass Genoa and Milan and we cross the border into Switzerland at Lugano.

post

Massa Marittima

2014.09.13 – Saturday – Rome to Cinque Terre, Italy

After leaving Rome on the Autostrada, our first rest stop is a small AutoGrill, where many of the group rave about the fresh-squeezed orange juice. I have a cappuccino for 1.40 Euro – no tables, just a stand-up bar, Italian style. The area we drive through up the coast is much drier than the areas of Italy we have traveled through up to now. This is where the olives are grown, as well as grapes.

Our midday break is in a little town called Massa Marittima, where we go for a wine, cheese and olive tasting at Il Baccino. Everyone on the bus does the tasting (modest extra charge) and thoroughly enjoy ourselves. We spend almost two hours in this beautiful little town, so there is plenty of time to soak up the Tuscan sunshine. It is an absolutely perfect day – blue sky and warm, but not too hot. I walk uphill to the ancient Siennese wall, which runs through the town half way up the hill. It is 3 Euros to go up the clock tower and along a portion of the adjacent wall, but it is well worth it to take in the wonderful views of the town from above, and appreciate the vistas of the whole glorious valley. I stroll back down the hill along the back alleys to the town square, where there is a troubadour playing some lovely music that echoes off the buildings. I have a simple lunch of prosciutto in a fresh crusty role, and sit outside Il Baccino with others in my group, soaking up the ambience of this Tuscan town. It simply doesn’t get much better than this!

As we drive the Autostrada north along the coast, we pass some interesting sights. There are resort areas all along the coast featuring cottages and recreational vehicle parks, a massive power station, endless vineyards and farms, and sales yards featuring beautiful white massive blocks of Carrara marble. The mountains where this well-known marble is quarried is visible inland across the valley behind the sales yards. Imagine Leonardo da Vinci making the journey to these same quarries to select the marble for his famous statues.

Eventually we turn off the Autostrada, and drive down a steep valley to the Vernazza train station, where the bus parks. We walk over to the train station, and after riding the train for four minutes we arrive in Monterosso. This pretty little town by the sea on the Cinque Terra (the Italian Riviera) is our home for the next two nights.

post

Nuku Hiva, French Polynesia

March 9, 2014 – Sunday –Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Group, French Polynesia

I wake up very early and look out the cabin window to see that the ship is very close to the coast of Nuku Hiva. I grab my camera and go out on the Promenade Deck to take some photos as we enter Taiohae harbour. The light is wonderful, and a rainbow appears as the ship anchors in the harbour.

My excursion assembles in the Showroom so early, so I don’t have time for breakfast or even a coffee. I’ll just have to suck it up and survive, since the tour will end mid-morning. Private vehicles are waiting to take us for a drive, since Nuku Hiva lacks the tourist infrastructure the main French Polynesian Islands have. I luck out on two counts: our driver speaks some English, and I get the front passenger seat in the new Ford Explorer 4X4. Our driver owns the car rental agency on the island, and has worked in Honolulu.

We drive away from the harbour, over the mountain ridge, and into the next harbour and valley. It is a pretty drive, and we stop for two photo opportunities along the way. The first stop is a lookout high over the harbour. The second stop highlights the Survivor Marquesas location, and gives us great views of a long inlet with very pretty colours and interesting topography, with a community at the head of the inlet.

We drive down to sea level through the Taipivai valley and the community of same name. A river runs beside the community, and we eventually come to the head of an inlet called Comptroller Bay, where there is a little community called Houmi. There is a nice beach and a single sailboat is anchored in the sheltered bay. Our stop here includes fresh fruit snacks, and the obligatory crafts for sale. Since it is Sunday, most people are attending church this morning.

Map of the locations of my photos of Nuku Hiva

Map of the locations of my photos of Nuku Hiva

We then return along the same route back to the main town of Taiohae, stopping at the local historic Notre Dame Cathedral, and return to the departure point near the tender dock.

By this time, it is starting to heat up, so I’ve had enough and head straight back to the ship on the next available tender. As always, it’s great to be back aboard the ship, where I can shower, change clothes, and have some lunch in the Rotterdam dining room, and have that much-needed cappuccino afterwards!

The ship departs on time at 3PM, cruising along the coast of Nuku Hiva before setting a course for San Diego, which will take us six days.

post

Tahiti, French Polynesia

March 5, 2014 – Wednesday – Tahiti, French Polynesia

My excursion this morning is called Off the Beaten Track: Tahiti by 4-Wheel Drive, which is another tour using 4X4 trucks, but this time to explore the interior of Tahiti. We drive along the north coast of Tahiti from Papeete to the Papenoo Valley, and then head inland up to the base of one of the volcano calderas, now covered in lush tropical vegetation, with a river and waterfalls. The river is used for hydropower generation, although the dams, reservoirs and power stations are very small by British Columbia standards. We return using the same route, marvelling at the huge rough surf crashing on the rocks and shoreline. Our final stop is at an outlook over Mataval Bay and its black beach, with the capital of Papeete and island of Moorea behind.

After lunch, I venture out to walk around Papeete for a few blocks. Everything is closed today, since it is Ash Wednesday (and Missionary Day), both a civic and religious holiday. There are a few restaurants open and a few tourist shops, but otherwise the city is closed for the day. The Vaima Shopping Center was newly opened when I was here in 1978, but it is closed for the holiday like most other retail. The afternoon heat is a killer, so I return to the air-conditioned ship.

JoeTourist: Tahiti &emdash; Tahiti Ora folkloric dance troupeThis evening there is a special folkloric Tahitian dance troupe the Showroom aboard ship: Tahiti Ora. They are top-notch, high-energy performers, and the room is packed for their single performance. After the show, the rain is pouring down outside. We have been incredibly lucky during out time in French Polynesia, since this is their rainy season. We seem to have been perpetually a day ahead of serious-looking rainstorms. See my photos of our scenic cruise along Raiatea and Taha’a for some major clouds and even a funnel cloud!

post

Raiatea & Taha’a, French Polynesia

March 4, 2014 – Tuesday – Raiatea & Taha’a, French Polynesia

My excursion this morning is called Land and Sea of Taha’a, which involves a boat ride to Taha’a, the sister island to Raiatea, where we are picked up by 4X4 trucks and taken on a tour of a black pearl farm, and then a vanilla plantation. Then we return to the boat and go to a motu for a swim and snorkel. I’m very impressed with the island of Taha’a. The roads are paved, the houses are neat and tidy, and the infrastructure is all there. This contrasts with Bora Bora, where they have dirt roads and everything is done in a haphazard way. The swimming and snorkelling is in shallow water, and I spot several Puffer fish – a first on this trip.

Our departure this afternoon is most interesting! Instead of leaving through the opening in the reef adjacent to the harbour that we entered through, the captain and pilot opt to take us on a scenic cruise between Raiatea and Taha’a, heading towards Bora Bora, but along the shoreline of Taha’a. A spectacular sunset occurs just south of Bora Bora as we sail away, and there are rain storms and huge cumulo-nimbus clouds to the west of us. We even see a funnel cloud appear out the bottom of a particularly large, dark cloud!

I had hoped to see a Green Flash as the Sun set this evening, but it was not to be. Despite this, I take some wonderful sunset photos, some including Bora Bora in the distance. The shoreline along Taha’a is absolutely stunning as we sail along in the early evening hours. It is a beautiful ending to a wonderful day, as I go back inside to get dressed for dinner.

Map of my photos taken on Raiatea & Taha'a

Map of my photos taken on Raiatea & Taha’a