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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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Rothenburg

September 4, 2014 – Thursday – Bacharach to Rothenburg, Germany

Lavazza coffee bar at an Autobahn rest stop

Lavazza coffee bar at an Autobahn rest stop

After breakfast in our hotel in Bacharach, we schlep our bags across the street to where the bus is parked. Our bus really hustles along the German Autobahn, passing the ultra-modern Frankfurt airport before arriving at our morning rest stop.

This rest area facility is very deluxe: a nice gift shop with high end stuff for sale, German pastries, Lavazza coffee bar, deli smorgasbord, and wonderful toilets and showers! There is a 0.70 Euro charge to use the toilets, but they give back a 0.50 Euro coupon for merchandise purchases. There is even an adjacent, small hotel for overnight rest stops. Our bus driver tells me he has used the hotel on winter ski trips, and says the rooms are very nice, and quite inexpensive.

Ornate signs on Schmiedgasse in Rothenburg

Ornate signs on Schmiedgasse in Rothenburg

We arrive at Rothenburg ob der Tauber around noon, and after some lunch on our own, Jennifer walks us through the main street to familiarize us with this medieval city. It is obviously what Disney uses to pattern their Fantasyland theme parks after. Rothenburg has an impressive wall, towers and gates around the old city, cobblestone streets, quaint shops with eclectic merchandise, and beautiful vistas of the valley below.

As I wander the streets, there is much to see and experience: German confections in a bakery window; castle gates; giant bird’s nests on rooftops; clock towers; churches with flying buttresses; pretty half-timbered houses; endless window boxes sporting Geraniums and other flowers; cobblestone streets; ornate metal signs above all the businesses; huge numbers of hotels, drinking and eating establishments; Christmas shops and other specialty shops.

Then there is the Medieval Kriminal Museum, which I decide to visit. It is filled with masks of shame, executioners costumes, racks and torture chairs, bludgeons, and describes medieval justice in great detail (not all of it gory). The Meistertrunk town clock is very special, since two mechanical figures appear out of two doors beside the clock face once in awhile, and do an elaborate ritual before retreating back inside. I would say, there is something for everyone in Rothenburg.

The city is jammed with day-trippers during the afternoon, however by evening they all leave on the buses they came in, and the streets return to normal. Some of us go to a Greek restaurant across the street from our hotel for dinner. I then grab my camera and take advantage of the beautiful pastel-coloured light as the Sun is setting. The whole city looks magical as I walk along a section of the city wall during “the golden hour”.

The Night Watchman of Rothenburg In front of the Franciscan Church

The Night Watchman of Rothenburg In front of the Franciscan Church

Later, I meet up with the tour group in the main square at dusk. We follow the Night Watchman, which is a guy in medieval costume carrying a scepter and lantern. He delivers a humorous historical talk as we wander from place to place through the city. He explains the function of the night watchmen in medieval times: ensuring doors are locked and people are not on the streets as night falls. He describes the city gate system, and how people had to make their way inside the security of the walled city an hour before dark. He does two walks/talks – one in English and one in German.

September 5, 2014 – Friday – Rothenburg, Germany to Routte, Austria

The breakfast buffet at Hotel Gerberhaus

The breakfast buffet at Hotel Gerberhaus

The breakfast buffet at Hotel Gerberhaus this morning is very impressive and quite delicious. The coffee is also the best we have had on the trip so far, despite it being filter coffee. There are all sorts of cheeses, cold meat, pastries, fruit, cereal, and sweets, including chocolate!

We then schlepp our bags out the back door, down the alley and through the doorway in the city wall to our bus waiting for us in the parking lot.

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Haarlem

2014.08.31 – Sunday – Haarlem, The Netherlands

Fall colours along a canal with car, boat and bicycle parking in Haarlem

Fall colours along a canal with car, boat and bicycle parking in Haarlem

At breakfast this morning, I meet some of the tour group. I sleep on and off during the day (dealing with jet lag), and walk the city, exploring and photographing as I go. It is a beautiful autumn day, and this old city has some lovely trees showing their colours and old buildings both lining the canals. Since it is Sunday, there are services being held in the Grot Kerk church across the street from our hotel. Once the service is finished, I go inside and listen to the magnificent pipe organ being played, and take in the impressive stained glass windows and huge arched wooden ceiling inside the main sanctuary.

Café Colette next door to the hotel serves great cappuccino, so I sit outside and catch up on my travel journal and photos while sipping my coffee. The tour group meets at 4PM in the hotel, where our guide Jennifer describes the tour details and Rick Steves’ tour philosophy.

We then go as a group to the nearby De Lachende Javaan Indonesian restaurant for a traditional Indonesian ‘rijsttafel’ dinner. The food is wonderful and there are so many dishes, but the food is not as spicy as I remember how Indonesian food normally tastes. This is a good opportunity to meet some of the people on the tour, and start learning names.

From Wikipedia: The Indonesian rijsttafel (Dutch), a Dutch word that literally translates to “rice table”, is an elaborate meal adapted by the Dutch following the hidang presentation of Nasi Padang from the Padang region of West Sumatra. It consists of many (forty is not an unusual number) side dishes served in small portions, accompanied by rice prepared in several different ways.

Afterward, we go on a walking tour of Haarlem with local tour guide Yodi. She points out the plaques on many of the old buildings, which give clues to the business interests of the original owners, and highlights the history of this area. She talks about the tolerance for the Marijuana ‘coffee’ shops, and points out The Hiding Place – where the Ten Boom family hide Jews and others the Nazis wanted in their home.

September 1, 2014 – Monday – Haarlem & Amsterdam, Netherlands

We are out the door by 8:50AM this morning for a full day of touring Amsterdam. We take the inter-city train to Amsterdam and back again to Haarlem in the late evening (about 15 minutes each way). We return to our Haarlem hotel after 7PM, so after quickly cleaning up a bit, I join two couples for dinner at Café Colette restaurant next door to the hotel. I have a very nicely done rib eye steak, and the others also enjoy their meals. It is time to pack for our bus departure tomorrow for Germany.

When I travel, I often ask myself the question “Would you live here?” I have to say that living in the Netherlands would be very easy, especially in a small city such as Haarlem. The people are very friendly, virtually everyone speaks English, the country is prosperous and stable, and it is part of the European Union. The only downside to living here is that it is very expensive, and it rains a lot (average 133 days per year).

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Flight: Victoria to Amsterdam

August 29, 2014 – Friday – flight from Victoria, Canada to Amsterdam, The Netherlands

I am up early this morning, get out the door and take a taxi to Victoria airport. I check my bags through to Amsterdam, and wait for my flight to Seattle to depart. Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air is using the usual De Havilland DHC8 Dash 8-400 turbo-prop aircraft. Once I arrive at SeaTac airport, the travel stress kicks in. I forgot that this is the Labour Day weekend, so everyone is traveling, and flights are full or overbooked. So this means lots of kids and families are in the air terminal and on the flights.

Immaculate timing meant that our little flight from Victoria arrives at the same time as a couple of large aircraft from the Far East. Despite this, I clear US Immigration quite quickly, since there are new automated kiosks that Americans and Canadians use. The kiosk takes my picture and scans my passport, I answer a few questions on a touch screen, and I’m good to go. This is a big improvement and much faster than going through a normal immigration interview with an immigration agent, especially when these large foreign flights arrive. Of course, most of those people have to go through the regular procedure of seeing an immigration agent, but I’m done in about two minutes!

I retrieve my bags from the carousel and go through US Customs. Thank goodness our bags arrived first on the carousel that is also assigned to a big airliner arriving from China. I re-check my bag and go through a security check. Of course this is the TSA, so I have to take my shoes and belt off, and take notebook computers out of their bags. Thankfully my flight on Delta to Amsterdam is in the same terminal, so I am saved from using those dreadful trains that SeaTac connects their terminals with.

Beginning of the flight northward out of Seattle to Amsterdam

Beginning of the flight northward out of Seattle to Amsterdam

The good news I discover at the gate is that the aircraft is already there, despite me arriving about two hours before loading time. The bad news is the crowds of people in the waiting lounge. Loading takes way longer than expected – chaos barely under control is the way I would describe it. How they all fit in the aircraft is astounding!  We eventually roll away from the jet way almost an hour late, however the pilot assures us he expects to make up all but 15 minutes of the delay during the flight. Let’s hope so, since many of the passengers I talk with are concerned about making their connecting flights. I don’t personally care, since no matter what time we arrive, I’m going my hotel in Haarlem, a small city between the airport and Amsterdam.

My seat on the aircraft is right beside two restrooms, but at least I have the window seat. The young Belgian guy sitting beside me in the isle seat has to put up with people waiting to use the facilities. The Delta crew serve us drinks shortly after the flight takes off. Beer, wine and cocktails are all free, but I just have some Coca Cola. I observe the great circle route on the monitor in front of me as we progress on our track at 33,000’. It is a smooth flight in Delta’s fairly new Airbus A330-200.

August 30, 2014 – Saturday – arrival in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

We have a very nice flight over to Amsterdam. As we fly over the southern tip of Greenland, the most spectacular aurora appears. It is so bright, it reflects off the cloud cover below us. Later during the pre-dawn as we fly south of Iceland, I observe Venus and Jupiter in the eastern sky.

Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport is huge and quite dated, but I manage to retrieve my bag, clear customs, and leave though the correct exit without a problem. I follow the instructions which the Rick Steves tour gave me, since I have to take a local bus to Haarlem, the city where I am staying until the tour gets underway. I find the bus stop, the bus comes, and I’m on my way in no time. The fare is only €4.50, versus about €45 to take a taxi. The bus drops me off at the terminus in Haarlem (which is also the train station), and I walk the few blocks to the hotel. Initially I get lost, but eventually find my way. I’m very tired, and just can’t concentrate.

After checking into the Hotel Ambassador, I have a shower and go to bed, and manage to sleep for several hours. I’m feeling a bit better when I awake, and go for a walk with my camera. There is a local market on the Grot Mark, which is right next to the Grot Kerk, the main church in Haarlem. Haarlem has very little vehicle traffic. Most people walk or bicycle. There are thousands of bicycles of all descriptions, and there are dedicated bike roadways, although wearing helmets is not mandatory, and virtually nobody wears one.

I meet a member of the tour group in the hotel, and we have dinner next door at Café Colette restaurant. We both enjoy our meals, so I’ll file this away for future reference.

There are hundreds of cafes, bars, restaurants, fast food kiosks and shops, however I have yet to see an American fast food outlet. Smoking is widespread in the Netherlands, and it is allowed almost everywhere. That is a real step back as far as I’m concerned, although I see very few overweight people here. I suspect many people who live in the cities simply don’t own cars, since they are so expensive to own and operate. In Haarlem, parking runs to several Euros per hour, and is scarce.

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Cruise: San Diego to Hawaii

Cruising from San Diego, California, USA to Hawaii aboard ms Statendam

February 15, 2014 – Saturday – Enroute San Diego to Hawaii – Sea day 1

I wake up too early at 7AM and need my morning coffee, so I go to the Explorers Café for a cappuccino. After sitting in the leather recliner looking out at the calm Pacific Ocean from the quiet library, I am feeling much better, and then go for breakfast in the Rotterdam Dining Room, which opens at 8AM. I have a cup of tea and a frittata as I chat with my fellow passengers.

Since this is a day at sea, the entertainment staff have a full slate of activities scheduled. All is revealed in the daily newsletter published each morning. I’m big on enrichment talks, so I go to all of them:

11AM Showroom – Pacific People: How the Islanders Arrived – Charlie Urbanowicz explains how the original inhabitants of the islands crossed the Pacific Ocean and where they came from. I learn that human migrations used cloud tops over the island groups for navigation. I already knew they used wave patterns, the Sun and stars to navigate.

3PM Showroom – The Wildlife of Remote Pacific Islands – Hawaii and Tahiti – Clive Catchpole presents some of the fascinating and unusual creatures that inhabit these isolated islands. Clive points out that the Pacific Islands we will be visiting have very few endemic species. Most species were imported. He points out that the Humpback whale migration is in full swing right now, and we will likely see them in Maui. He also talks about the big seabirds, such as Albatross (offshore), Boobies, Gannets and Frigate birds found near shore.

Catch A Wave group

Catch A Wave group

After dinner, I enjoy a Benedictine liqueur while listening to Catch A Wave, a Beach Boys tribute band this evening in the Showroom. The tunes are very well done, with a near-perfect 5-part harmony, and they are dressed in the early striped shirts and white pants the Beach Boys originally performed in. However they just stand there – no movement or dancing around during their performance.

After the show, I go to the office to check that they know about my departure from the ship in Hilo, and re-boarding in the following day in Kailua-Kona. The young woman tells me my plans are contrary to the US Merchant Marine Act (successor to the Jones Act), and I will be subject to a $300 charge by the US government for contravening this maritime law. She points out that the cruise line has no problem with me leaving and rejoining the ship on the Big Island of Hawaii, but the US government does.

This means I have to cancel my plans to see Mauna Kea at night, so I send an email to the Old Hawaiian B&B to cancel my night’s stay in Hilo. I will also have to contact Harper’s Car Rentals to change my arrangements to a one-day rental with no drop off in Kona, but I can wait until we arrive in Honolulu so I don’t have to pay the expensive per minute rates while aboard ship.

This is very disappointing, since I was looking forward to seeing the night sky from Mauna Kea. Perhaps I’ll drive up there during the day, since my rental car is a proper 4×4 Ford Explorer truck. I will have to decide very soon how best to use my day in Hilo, and the following day in Kona.

February 16, 2014 – Sunday – Enroute San Diego to Hawaii – Sea day 2

I wake up at 8AM this morning, which is a bit late for me, so at least I’m starting to get into “holiday mode”. I go to the Rotterdam dining room for breakfast and have a cappuccino, and Eggs Royal (2 poached eggs on an English muffin with smoked salmon and some home fries), hold the Hollandaise sauce.

I am starting to know the layout of the ship. The Statendam is the oldest ship in this series, and it is showing its age a bit, however as with other Holland America ships, it is kept up-to-date and spotlessly clean, and has a rich-looking décor without being “over the top”. My cabin is mid-ships on Main Deck. Since my cabins on my two previous Holland America cruises were near the bow, I have to learn the most efficient way to get to the places I most want to go to: the Showroom At Sea, the Explorers Lounge, the Rotterdam dining room, the Lido buffet, and the Sea View pool.

It is formal wear tonight so I dress in my blue blazer jacket, dark grey dress pants and white shirt and tie. The Maître ‘d seats me at a large 8 seat oval table in the middle of the dining room. I order Rack of Lamb and have a glass of white wine…a very nice dinner indeed.

Bob Mackie costume

Bob Mackie costume

I go to the Showroom tonight to see Bob Mackie’s Broadway, which is a song and dance show well performed by the ship’s resident troupe of entertainers. The Bob Mackie costumes look great, and I always enjoy the singing and dancing of the resident entertainment troupe.

February 17, 2014 – Monday – Enroute San Diego to Hawaii – Sea day 3

This is another day at sea, so I take in more enrichment speakers. Kainoa is a Hawaiian man aboard the ship as the Location Guide. Strictly speaking, he works for the Excursions Department, and his job is to sell passengers the ship’s excursions. Kainoa takes it up a notch, and gives very interesting talks on the ports, and is more like another enrichment speaker in my books.

Charles Darwin portrait

Charles Darwin

9AM Showroom – Location Guide Kainoa Present: Honolulu & Oahu – Kainoa recommends going to the Ala Moana Beach & Magic Island, which are between the cruise ship dock and Waikiki, about 2 miles from the cruise dock. This sounds like a good plan for me, since I’m going on a North Shore tour one day, but I have the second day we’re in port to myself. He also mentions the Foster Botanical Gardens. Apparently they are both 2 miles from cruise dock.

2PM Showroom – Amazing Voyage of Charles Darwin – Clive Catchpole – Darwin’s work as a naturalist aboard the Beagle was nothing short of amazing. Keep in mind; Darwin was trained in both theology (which he hated) and botany (which he loved). The ship discovered Beagle Passage, an easier alternative to going ‘around the Horn’ of South America. Darwin noticed that mockingbirds and finches differed from island to island in the Galapagos Islands. Darwin predicted the decline of the Aboriginals in Australia, and waited 20 years to publish his famous work On the Origin of Species in 1859. Clive is an outstanding speaker, with a dry sense of British humour.

3PM Showroom – Location Guide Kainoa Present: Kingdom to State – Kainoa describes how the US annexed Hawaii, over the objections of the Hawaiian monarchy. Business interests drove this annexation. Now there is a “Nation within a nation” – Hawaiian sovereignty movement.

I saw an old guy in the casino yesterday with a t-shirt slogan that simply said “I’ve been there…”. When Kainoa recently asked people in one of his talks who were first time cruisers, nobody raised their hands! That speaks volumes about the demographic on this cruise. Arman the Cruise Director mentioned in a previous session in the Showroom At Sea that one passenger has spent something like 10,000 days on board Holland America ships…more than 27 years, which exceeds Arman’s age!

February 18, 2014 – Tuesday – Enroute San Diego to Hawaii – Sea day 4

I go to the Rotterdam dining room for breakfast and have a Southwest Omelet and a cappuccino. One couple is from Connecticut and another couple is from Toronto, so they both have storm stories to tell – ice and hurricanes. The Toronto couple were aboard the Prinsindam when she sailed around South America and further south near Antarctica. Apparently the ship nearly capsized when it was hit with a double wave. According to them she was heeled over 60 degrees, they lost 80% of the crockery, and there were several injuries among crew and passengers. I may reconsider my plans to do that cruise!

As in past cruises, the older folks are about evenly split between reading paperbacks and using various brands of electronic readers. I’m using my iPad for occasions when I feel like reading. I have a 650 page book I’m working on, and I also loaded a couple of year’s worth of magazines on it, so I have lots of reading material. My music is on my iPhone, and my documents are on my MacBook Air, so I’m well equipped to entertain myself with my high-tech gear.

There is only one enrichment talk today:

10AM Showroom – The evolution of life on planet Earth – Clive Catchpole – Clive has turned out to be a real treasure on this cruise. He is witty, has a dry sense of English humour, and presents the most interesting lectures. I always take lots of notes at his presentations.

There are no presentations this afternoon that appeal to me, and I have nothing planned. Several passengers and Clive have mentioned there is a Lysan Albatross flying with the ship, so I grab my camera and circle the outside decks looking for this bird to no avail. As usual, I skip lunch in favor of having a cappuccino and a couple of cookies in the early afternoon around 2PM. I take my iPad and read my book for an hour while I have my coffee.

The ship has been lurching a bit in large 8’ swells, which are apparently coming from a couple of storms north of the Hawaiian Islands, where the captain tells us the swells are 20’. Weather reports are apparently good for when we arrive in Hawaii, but at the moment they have overcast skies and rain. We also have had overcast skies but no rain since we left sunny San Diego. The outside temperature is a mild 21°C during the day…not exactly time for swimming in the outside pool, but pleasant enough.

I go to dinner this evening at 6PM, my usual time. I am seated with two couples that are both from Burnaby, so our table isn’t just Canadian…it’s British Columbian! One couple booked the cruise three weeks before departure date, and paid half fare. Obviously they didn’t get their choice of cabins, but they were upgraded from an inside cabin to an outside cabin, so they did pretty well. His luggage was lost by Air Canada/United in Denver, so he only has one pair of pants to wear, and had to rent a tuxedo for formal night, as well as buy spare socks and underwear in the shop. Apparently United will be paying them $300 for the inconvenience, and will ship his bag to Honolulu.

February 19, 2014 – Wednesday – Enroute San Diego to Hawaii – Sea day 5

I wake up at 6:30AM, which is too early, but setting the clocks back an hour last night has screwed me up. I head up to the Explorations Café for a cappuccino at 7AM. Yesterday the captain reported we were moving clear of the big swells and would experience confused seas, and that’s exactly what I see out the windows this morning. We still have overcast skies, and the sea is grey just like at home during the winter months. The ship is making 17.7 knots this morning, and we are within a day’s sail of Hawaii, so I’m sure the captain is pleased to be on schedule (as am I).

I’m looking forward to the end of these days at sea. At day 5, I’m finding it a bit tedious, although I am certainly catching up on my rest! Breakfast in the Rotterdam dining room this morning was very pleasant. I was seated at a table for six: 2 Brits (SE England), 2 Americans (S central WA), and a Canadian woman (Calgary). We discuss the XL oil pipeline proposal. Of course the Americans are all in favour of the pipeline, and hate Obama. The English complain about the long tags on their clothing and other goods, which now have to accommodate all the languages in the EU.

I decide it is time to do laundry this morning since I’m not interested in any of the morning presentations, and we are experiencing a tropical downpour outside. It costs $2 to wash (including detergent), and $1 for the dryer. I buy a roll of quarters from the front desk, so I’m set for the trip. While I wait for my laundry, there is a balloon toss game being played in the Atrium. It’s called “keep the guests busy” on their fifth day at sea!

By Noon the Sun is out and the clouds are mostly cleared in favour of blue sky. People are out on deck sunning themselves almost immediately! I decide to have some lunch in the Lido and eat out on the Lido pool deck where the HAL-cat band is playing. Now this is the typical cruise ship experience…all I need is a beer! It’s formal night tonight, so perhaps I’ll have a glass of wine with dinner.

1PM Showroom – The social life of animals – Clive Catchpole – Clive talks about Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, who defends Darwin’s views about individual selection theories, but proposes that Evolution is all about genes being passed on, and believes that genes are immortal, unlike human bodies, Dawkins Book: The Selfish Gene 1978. This was another first-rate talk by Clive! He won’t be back until we leave Hawaii.

Sea View pool and blue skies, lots of sunbathers

Sea View pool and blue skies, lots of sunbathers

I was going to listen to Kainoa’s talk on the History of the Hula after Clive’s presentation, but decide to skip it in favour of going for a swim in the Sea View Pool. The water is cool, but it is great to swim a bit – a refreshing break from all my inactivity so far on the cruise.

I dress for dinner and am seated with the couple from Atlanta, and the couple from Burnaby I previously met, and one other woman. After dinner, I go to the Showroom to see a magician and comedian act, but he is less than entertaining, so I leave mid-way through the performance.

Since it is clear outside, I go up to Deck 14, the Sky Deck to measure the sky darkness with my Sky Quality Meter and to observe the stars. The lights are on up there, but I get an exceedingly dark reading. I also see the Orion (the Warrior) constellation on his side and Cygnus (the Swan) constellation, which is also flying on her side.

Tomorrow morning we land in Honolulu, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. I think it’s safe to say everyone aboard is looking forward to it. I know I am!

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Flight: Victoria to San Diego & departure

Victoria to San Diego flights, and departure from San Diego aboard ms Statendam

February 14, 2014 – Friday – Victoria, BC, Canada to San Diego, CA, USA

It is a stressful day flying from Victoria to San Diego. First of all, my alarm awakes me at 3AM, and I am out the door and in a taxi to the airport. After check-in at the United counter at Victoria Airport, I pass through security and then have time for a cappuccino from the new Spinnakers on the fly in the holding lounge at the gates while I wait for my flight to leave at 6:30AM. After we board, the aircraft sits on the apron for about 15 minutes, but the pilot finally announces we are ready for departure. Apparently the delay was caused from San Francisco, where there was some doubt we would get a slot for landing due to fog. The weather cleared enough for landings in San Francisco, so we take off from Victoria. The first hurdle is cleared, and I’m on my way! This flight is very odd: there are no children or babies aboard, and everyone is very quiet…a bonus for me since is so early, and I’m not a morning person.

The flight down is very scenic once the Sun rises. We fly inland from Victoria to San Francisco. It certainly is very foggy in San Francisco as we approach, however there are clear patches and the pilots bring the aircraft down perfectly and everyone leaves the aircraft quickly. I’m thankful for this, because I’m still nervous about all I have to endure before boarding my next flight to San Diego. As soon as I leave the gate, I can see the airport is being renovated…never a good sign for someone not familiar with a large airport.

Before I can claim my bag, I have to clear US immigration. Two large aircraft from China have just arrived at the same time as our little aircraft. For some inexplicable reason, we have to go through security again before we can get to US immigration. There is a woman in uniform at the crossroads of a major intersection inside the airport that insists on directing all of us to the busiest security checkpoint with hundreds of those Chinese passengers waiting in line. As I reluctantly follow her bad advise, I stop to ask a man with a badge if this is the best way to get to my gate. He immediately says “no”, and thank goodness he volunteers to lead me and some of the other passengers from the Victoria flight in the opposite direction to another, less busy security checkpoint. He also points out that some of our tickets are marked “TSA PRE”, which means we are pre-cleared and entitled to use a priority line. Although we still have to go through the security checkpoint, he probably saves us a half hour of waiting!

It ends up taking me about 10 minutes to clear security. At that point, I can go through US immigration, but wait…there are those hundreds of Chinese passengers ahead of us again! After about 20 minutes of waiting, they open up additional immigration agents, so I finally get processed for entry to the USA. Now I go to the baggage carousels and find my bag, and proceed through yet another US inspection. I re-check my bag for the next flight, and I’m off to find the boarding gate.

As it turns out, the gate for my San Diego flight is only the third gate past the baggage checkpoint I’m already at, so I arrive 45 minutes early! This flight only has a few empty seats, and we are back to the typical flying bus scenario: crying babies, sneezing and coughing kids, old folks who struggle down the isle to their seats, and the rest of us, who just want the flight to end.

We take off northward from San Francisco, and then circle around and fly down the coast to San Diego. The urban development between San Francisco and San Diego is impressive. This is a very crowded patch of the USA. We touchdown in San Diego at 12:25PM, arriving on time! Thankfully, the cruise terminal is a short taxi ride from the airport, so after I deal with the surely Russian cabbie, I present myself at the check-in for the ship. It is fairly well organized, but with over a thousand passengers checking in, it takes a bit under an hour to wind my way through the various lineups before I am issued my Holland America ID card and walk on board the Statendam.

I knew ahead of time that this day would be stressful, and it was, but ultimately everything worked out fine. I’m safely aboard the ship, and I still have time for a late lunch in the Lido buffet before I unpack my bags. I have a quick look around the ship’s outer decks, then go back to my cabin for a well-earned shower and nap. By this time, it is nearing departure time, but as per Holland America’s policy, there is a mandatory lifeboat drill before we leave.

San Diego photos map

San Diego photos map

Once that is over, the ship slips away from the dock, turns around in the harbour and heads out past the city as the sun sets off our bow. San Diego has a beautiful harbour, and the setting Sun gives the place a wonderful glow, so we have great views of the marinas, city centre, airport, and naval base as we sail away. A lovely Moon rises from the California hills behind the city as the pilot leaves our ship. There is a dense fog bank waiting for us as we clear the entrance to the harbour and head off across the Pacific Ocean, bound for Hawaii.

After spending an interesting hour on deck during our departure, I drop off my camera gear in the cabin and get dressed for dinner. The Rotterdam Dining Room offers classic table service with a 4-course menu, which I always look forward to. Since I am traveling solo, I always make a point of asking to join a large table, where there are many people to meet and talk with. It is so interesting to hear their stories and tell them mine as we work our way through our fine meals.

I have five days at sea to look forward to before we arrive in Hawaii.

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Te Kuiti & Waitomo Caves

Nov 3, 2010 – Wednesday -Rotorua to Te Kuiti, New Zealand

We drive from Rotorua to Te Kuiti today.

We are staying in Simply the Best B&B, a farm stay located in small community of Te Kuiti, which is located just a few minutes’ drive from Waitomo and the famous caves. This B&B offers pretty basic accommodation, so I’m not sure I agree with the name! We knew it was a farm stay (our first on this trip), but we were unprepared for our rooms having no closets or dressers, and having to share a bathroom. Their website states “3 double rooms with private bathrooms”, however only one of the three rooms has an en suite, and that room was not offered despite us requesting it. Also, there is no wireless Internet. The back bedroom my friends are staying in is very small – essentially only having room for the double bed, with nowhere to sit and relax. My room is a bit bigger with two single beds, a sofa, and two chairs, however it appears to be a converted TV or family room. It has a sliding door instead of a real door, which means I have limited privacy and no security.

Despite these negatives, Margaret, the B&B operator is a real gem. She is exceedingly helpful, and makes our stay in this part of the North Island rewarding. Margaret recommends two restaurants in town, so we pick the first one and give it a try for dinner this evening. The Riverside Lodge is in a lovely location right by the river; however it is basically a bar that serves food. There are smokers all around, so we sit outside on the patio. Everyone looks at us as though we are from outer space and the service is exceedingly slow (we wait an hour). The food is good once it arrives.

Nov 4, 2010 – Thursday – Te Kuiti

The day starts badly, since Margaret makes us instant coffee this morning. She also serves us a continental breakfast instead of the full English cooked breakfast we have had at all the other B&Bs so far. The fresh fruit and rhubarb compote for the cereal is nice, and the endless toast and homemade preserves are appreciated, however the instant coffee is dreadful.

Marokopa Falls

Marokopa Falls

At Margaret’s urging, we drive out to the coast on Highway 37 to Marokopa, where there is a black iron sand beach. The beach and estuary area is quite spectacular. On the way out on the highway, we also stop to see Marokopa Falls, which is 15-20 metres high…an amazing sight. On the return trip, we see Mangapohue Natural Bridge, a land bridge caused by a river eroding limestone to punch a gorge through the rock. These are both great sights, and they are no cost. On our way home, we checkout the Waitomo Caves, but don’t go in since Margaret has booked us into the competing outfit Spellbound, which she promises is a better glow worm cave experience. We check out the competition while we are here, and find the rates are significantly more expensive than Spellbound. After we return home, Margaret makes us tea, which is very much appreciated.

Pavlova at Kai Cafe

Pavlova at Kai Cafe

We go out to a nice restaurant tonight called Kai Cafe, which is run by a local young man and his French wife (who does the cooking). The meals are a blend of French cooking and local tastes. I have the Filet steak, which is a “Scotch” cut (unlike any filet I’ve had in Canada), however it is a very nice steak cooked to order, topped with a creamy mushroom sauce and accompanied by roasted potatoes, fresh steamed green beans, and a grilled tomato. My friends rave about their main course selections as well.

Pavlova is offered for dessert, which we all agree is better than the Cherries Jubilee we were served aboard ship in the Pinnacle Grill. I have a Cappuccino, which is nicely made. The young man who runs the place is thrilled that we are happy with our experience. I add my favourable rating after returning home. Now called: Bosco Cafe on TripAdvisor

Nov 5, 2010 – Friday – Waitomo Caves

JoeTourist: Glowworm Caves &emdash; Exit to caveToday after breakfast, we leave for a 10am booking at Spellbound, the glow worm cave and dry cave tour located in Waitomo. It only takes us 10 minutes to drive from Te Kuiti, and the tour starts promptly at 10am – ending around 2pm. Our guide Norm gives us a terrific experience along the way. First he drives us about 20 minutes west of Waitomo to the entrance to a private cave which has a stream running through it. We don a hardhat with a light, get in a zodiac boat and slowly go into the cave to see the glow worms. We learn these are actually maggots, however they are tiny. They do indeed glow, and glow brightly enough to light the inside of the cave once we turn off our headlamps and become dark adapted. The glow reflects off the water, and I can see the other 12 people in the boat.

Norm hand propels the boat using an overhead cable, taking us within a few metres of a small waterfall before returning us to the landing. We then walk back to the entrance, leave our hardhats, and walk a few metres to the “coffee shop” where Norm makes us instant coffee, tea, or hot chocolate made from hot water stored in thermos. Biscuits to dunk complete the offerings. Toilets are also available nearby. There are wild Turkeys roaming in the pasture as we walk for five minutes to the dry cave, where Norm tells us he was one of the founders.

It is a superb cave with a walkway that goes for perhaps 300 metres or so. There is a large gallery, some air shafts, other entrances to see, and of course lots of stalagmites and stalactites. There are also some animal bones: some you would expect such as farm animals and possums; however there is also a skeleton of a Moa, an extinct bird which had a trachea, hip bones and big thigh bones. After exiting the dry cave, Norm takes us on a drive over some farmland along the ridgelines, and finally returns us to the starting point.

This evening we return to Kai (now called the Bosco Cafe) for our last dinner in New Zealand (and of the trip). I have the fish of the day (Snapper), which comes with oven roasted potatoes, green beans, and a very nice pesto topping, as well as some salad around the plate: a quite novel presentation with the salad. When we return to the B&B I get serious about packing – tossing out heavy paper and other stuff that is now useless. We settle our accounts with Margaret for our stay, however she only accepts cash, so that makes it a bit inconvenient. All the other B&Bs accept credit card payments.

Nov 6, 2010 – Saturday – New Zealand to Canada

We have breakfast a bit earlier this morning, say our goodbyes to Margaret and her husband Graham, and leave for the Auckland airport by 8:30am.

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Rotorua

Oct 31, 2010 – Sunday – Whangamata to Rotorua, New Zealand

We have a nice omelette for breakfast at our B&B in Whangamata, and then we depart for Rotorua. It isn’t a long drive today, so we detour to see Waihi Beach, which is yet another spectacular New Zealand beach, complete with a small town. We spend a half hour or so walking the beach, and watching the locals enjoying the beach with their families, since it is Sunday. We then resume our drive to Rotorua. The GPS takes us through the outskirts of Tauranga, and then we are into quite a remote area of New Zealand until we arrive in Rotorua.

Butter Chicken, Aloo Matar (potatoes & peas in gravy), Lamb Korma, rice and Nan bread at Lovely India restaurant

Butter Chicken, Aloo Matar (potatoes & peas in gravy), Lamb Korma, rice and Nan bread at Lovely India restaurant

Our B&B is located in a small community just south of Rotorua called Lake Okareka. At this location, we don’t have to put up with the sulphurous smell that is so apparent in the city, and we are hoping the light pollution may be subdued enough to allow us to take some astronomical photos of the night sky. Lake Okareka B&B is quite deluxe (now closed, but a new property, same owners & area), and our hosts Patricia and Ken are very helpful.

Once we unpack and have a bit of a rest, we drive back into town and have a look at the hot bubbling pools of water and mud in Kuirau Park, which is a civic park that is free admission. This evening, we go to the Lovely India Restaurant for dinner, and order the Butter Chicken, along with some Lamb and vegetable dishes with rice. The food is superb…the best Indian food I’ve had in a long time!

After returning to the B&B, Ken tells us he has found a good spot to observe the stars from. He shows us a lovely beachfront park which is only about a five minute drive away. An alternate site is the neighbour’s place next door to the B&B. They are away, so the place is dark, and it is so convenient. I setup my astronomy camera and take a time lapse sequence starting at sunset, however the clouds are factor tonight, so I call it an early night.

Nov 1, 2010 – Monday – Rotorua

Patricia makes us a continental breakfast each morning, accompanied with a savoury frittata. This is the only B&B who have a super automatic espresso machine, so I take advantage and have two Cappuccinos each morning!

Pukeko bird on the Lake Okareka Walkway

Pukeko bird on the Lake Okareka Walkway

Today is a down day, which means no activities involving driving. I catch up on my JoeTourist blog, sort through the hundreds of photos taken so far on the trip, do some laundry, and take a long walk around part of the lake. The Lake Okareka Walkway is a boardwalk over a marshy area of the lake where the wildlife are protected, so there is ample opportunity to see marsh birds such as Black Swans, ducks, Pukeko birds, and many other birds, including their young.

We drive into Rotorua for dinner, and after wandering around for a while, settle on Café Ephesus. This small, unpretentious restaurant is run by some Indians, but offers mainly a Greek menu with some Middle Eastern influences. We have a very nice dinner of a mixed Greek platter and a pizza, which we share around. We also buy a bottle of wine from a vendor across the street and bring the bottle to the restaurant. “Bring your own” is quite common in New Zealand restaurants – not something that is encouraged in North American eating establishments. Cafe Ephesus – TripAdvisor

This evening after dark, both my friend and I setup our camera gear again on the hill beside the B&B. It is quite cool this evening, so I leave my camera clicking away and retreat back to the warmth of my room at the B&B. I shoot a wide field time lapse video of the Crux-Centauri region: Alpha and Beta Centauri slowly slide below the hill while the bottom star of the Southern Cross moves north along the ridge line. Eta Carina is visible in the frame for the full duration of the video from 9:50pm to 11:45pm. This time of year is not ideal to observe the Southern Cross, since it is upside down and low in the sky. The Milky Way is clearly visible as a wide band of red visible behind the hills.

Southern Milky Way from New Zealand – a time lapse from JoeTourist InfoSystems on Vimeo.

HINT: Click on the little four segment icon beside the “HD” in the lower right corner of the video window to view the video in high definition mode.

Nov 2, 2010 – Tuesday – Rotorua – Waimangu Volcanic Valley

We drive the 17 kilometres south to Waimangu Volcanic Valley, which offers a very special experience with volcanic pools. Although publicly owned, this park is run by a private operator, so admissions are charged. We choose the self-guided EcoTours, since we feel it offers the best value: Walk/Hike and Boat Cruise option at NZ$77. Please note that discounts are offered, so check out the website and ask for the discounts at the admission booth.

Walking the 4.7km from the entrance to the lake jetty takes us about two hours at an easy pace. The slope in this direction is generally downhill, with a few steep grades and the occasional uphill section. Anyone who can normally walk this distance on flat ground should have no problem with this walk/hike. Be sure to take water and a snack with you, since there are restrooms, but no refreshment stands along the way. If you get tired, there is a shuttle bus you can catch in two spots mid way, as well as at the end where the boat jetty is located. We also take the boat tour of the big lake located at the end of the trails – Lake Rotomahana. It is worthwhile if for no other reason, to appreciate the sheer scale of the largest volcanic eruption which took place during human recorded history – Mount Tarawera in 1886.

Waimangu Volcanic Valley from JoeTourist InfoSystems on Vimeo.

HINT: Click on the little four segment icon beside the “HD” in the lower right corner of the above video window to view the video in high definition mode.

Nov 3, 2010 – Wednesday – Rotorua to Te Kuiti

We drive from Rotorua to Te Kuiti today. Along the way near Mangakino, we stop to see the Pouakani Toara Tree. We stop at the nondescript entrance located on Highway 30, and walk for 10 minutes to see this giant tree in the forest. It is immense…similar to the trees we saw in Costa Rica on the jungle walk. It is the largest Totara tree recorded in New Zealand, so it is certainly worth a look. Speaking of looking, the tree is so large it is difficult to see the whole thing from the forest floor.

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Coromandel Peninsula

Oct 28, 2010 – Thursday – Warkworth to Whangamata, Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand

We are traveling to a B&B on the Coromandel Peninsula today, which means driving through the motorways surrounding Auckland. The drive through Auckland goes extremely well, with traffic being a bit heavy, but it keeps moving nicely. The GPS keeps us on track and helps us to manoeuver through the maze of motorways and ramps around and through Auckland on our way around the Hauraki Gulf to Whangamata on the Coromandel Peninsula.

JoeTourist: Coromandel &emdash; Surf shopOur destination is the Kotuku B&B, located a block from the beautiful estuary on the Otahu River in Whangamata (fang-a-mata). We are only about four blocks from an absolutely stunning fine sand beach, which goes on for several kilometres. There is virtually nobody on the beach at this time of year, which makes it even more attractive to us.

On the recommendation of Peter, the B&B operator, we go to Oceana’s restaurant, which offers a choice of three mains on special this month for NZ$15. Two of the three choices are great: Scallops in mornay sauce, and Fish and Chips. The third choice, Steak Sandwich is not too terrific.

Oct 29, 2010 – Friday – Whangamata, Coromandel Peninsula

Whangamata beach & offshore islet

Whangamata beach & offshore islet

After breakfast this morning, we decide that today will be a “beach day“, borrowing a term used on the cruise ship. Peter lends us some beach towels, and we sunbathe on the beach, wandering back and forth, and generally soak it all in for an hour or two. Nobody wants to burn, so we reluctantly return to the B&B to get cleaned up a bit.

We go to town for a coffee and a snack from one of the local bakeries, and after a bit of window shopping in town, we spend most of the afternoon at the B&B relaxing and having tea with Peter around 4pm. For dinner, Peter suggests we try a Thai restaurant in town. We order the deep fried Snapper, which is good but not very big. We also order some vegetables to go with it, and share the platters, however even with rice, the meal was a bit too small for three people. Oh well, it won’t hurt us to go away a bit hungry for once on this trip, especially after all the food we consumed on board the Volendam!

Oct 30, 2010 – Saturday – Whangamata, Hot Water Beach, Onemana Beach, Coromandel Peninsula

After breakfast, we drive up to Hot Water Beach, which is spectacular with the surf crashing along the kilometer or so long sandy beach. Getting there however was stressful, since soon after we left Whangamata we encountered the K2 Cycle Race – a huge bicycle race going on along the highway. There were hundreds of bicyclists racing along the road in huge groups. New Zealand roads are so narrow and generally there are no paved shoulders, so the bicyclists took the lane, which held up traffic and caused some near accidents. That said, Hot Water Beach was worth seeing, and the trip back was less stressful since we were driving against the flow of bicycles, which were still being dispatched down the road.

JoeTourist: Coromandel &emdash; Blue and white shellWe stop at Onemana Beach on the way back, which is yet another spectacular beach along the Coromandel Peninsula. There is a small community here, and the beach is virtually deserted at this time of year. After returning to the B&B and having a bit of a rest, Peter serves us tea at 4pm. Afterward, we go back to Oceana’s restaurant for dinner and have their specials again. Good food at a great price.

Oct 31, 2010 – Sunday – Whangamata to Rotorua

Peter makes us a nice omelette for breakfast, and then we depart for Rotorua. It isn’t a long drive today, so we detour to see Waihi Beach, yet another spectacular New Zealand beach on the Coromandel Peninsula, complete with a small town. We spend a half hour or so walking the beach, and then resume our drive to Rotorua.

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Warkworth

Oct 26, 2010 – Tuesday – Kerikeri to Warkworth, New Zealand

We reluctantly leave our B&B in Kerikeri this morning, and drive down the highway to Warkworth. We leave late and arrive early. The Warkworth Country House B&B is ready for us, with the doors open to our rooms, and the beds are made, so we make ourselves at home. As it turns out, Perry Bathgate, the B&B operator is working in the garden, so he doesn’t see us until we have been there for an hour or so. We go to the Bridgehouse Lodge Pub for dinner this evening. It is located on Elizabeth Street, which is the main street in the little town of Warkworth. As it turns out, it is pretty well the only eating establishment that is open in Warkworth this Tuesday evening. The food is good, and the Montieths Original Ale tastes fine.

Small Magellanic Cloud & 47 Tucanae

Small Magellanic Cloud galaxy & 47 Tucanae star cluster

My friend and I take some photographs of the night sky from the front lawn of the B&B this evening, since the sky is relatively clear, and this is a dark rural site. I take photos of the Milky Way, which is a glorious overhead band, as well as the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, which are sister galaxies to the Milky Way. Despite not using my tracking mount, the photos turn out quite well due to the dark skies in this rural location.

Oct 27, 2010 – Wednesday – SheepWorld, Warkworth, Point Wells

Jan and Perry serve us a delicious full English breakfast this morning at the B&B. We decide to go to the farm at SheepWorld, which is only 4km north of Warkworth. We walk around the farm pens to see all the animals: sheep, lambs, pigs, rabbits, Alpaca, cattle and goats. Of course, the highlight is when the dogs herd the sheep from the pasture into the pens; as well as the sheep shearing demonstration, and the finale – we get to feed the lambs milk from bottles.

SheepWorld – sheep shearing & sheep dogs from JoeTourist InfoSystems on Vimeo.

HINT: Click on the little four segment icon beside the “HD” in the lower right corner of the above video window to view the video in high definition mode.

In the late afternoon we drive over to nearby Point Wells to visit with my cousin Cindy and her family. They have a wonderful property located on the estuary, and the layout of their house takes full advantage of outdoor living and the beautiful view.. Before dinner, my cousin’s husband Graeme takes us on a walking tour along the shoreline surrounding the little community of Point Wells. It is a beautiful area, with some fine views all the way to Omaha Beach.

The dinner Cindy and Graeme prepare for us is excellent: ceviche and fresh tomatoes, fresh caught fish grilled on the BBQ, lovely plump scallops off the boats at nearby Omaha, a nice salad, and oven roasted potatoes. We have a couple of white wines we brought along – a pinot gris and a chardonnay – which both work well with the meal. Yet more of that wonderful New Zealander hospitality!

Oct 28, 2010 – Thursday – Warkworth to Whangamata, Coromandel Peninsula

We are traveling to a B&B on the Coromandel Peninsula today, which means driving through the motorways of Auckland. After we leave the B&B in Warkworth, we do a quick drive to the neighbouring Parry Kauri Park & Warkworth Museum, where there are two very old and extremely large Kauri trees. The drive through Auckland goes very well; traffic is a bit heavy, but it keeps moving nicely. The GPS keeps us on track and helps us to manoeuvre through the maze of motorways, lanes and ramps around and through Auckland on our way around the Hauraki Gulf to Whangamata (fang-a-mata) on the Coromandel Peninsula.