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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Feb 27, 2016 – Port Klang & Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Petronas twin towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Petronas twin towers, Kuala Lumpur

There is a giant NCL ship docked beside us this morning at Port Klang. She arrived first with 3,500 passengers aboard, so the shore resources are swamped. This delays the clearance of our ship, and the departure times for the shore excursions end up being almost an hour later than planned. We finally leave to board our buses and start the hour long drive through heavy traffic to Kuala Lumpur (KL).

The first stop on today’s shore excursion is a Hindu shrine, the Batu Caves. It is built into a huge Karst rock sticking up in the small community of Gombak, just north of KL. I take both video and lots of photos of the stairway of 272 steep steps up to the cavern containing religious temples and statutory. Using HDR and my fisheye lens are both helpful to capture this place. There are monkeys everywhere, and people are feeding them bananas of all things! Guess where the monkeys leave the peels…right on the steep steps! The caves at the top are interesting and well-lit, and have some shrines for the faithful.

Since we had a late start, lunch is our next stop: a sumptuous buffet in a local upscale hotel, the Concorde Hotel. We then make our way to the KL Tower, where we have to wait in what seem to be endless lines to take the elevators to the observation deck. Once there, the views of the city are spectacular!

By this time, we are running very late, so we make a quick photo stop at the Petronas twin towers, and can only stop at the Muzium Negara for a half hour. There are some very interesting historical artifacts in the museum, but we really don’t have time to appreciate them. Our last stop of the day is Independence Square, which offers us obstructed views of quite a few colonial buildings, as well as a cricket field, and other old buildings we have no time to explore.

Our tour is supposed to end at the cruise ship terminal at 4:30PM, but is is a full hour later before we finally arrive after battling traffic congestion most of the day. Not that it matters much to us as passengers, since the ship is not scheduled to depart until 10:30PM.

Warisan Seni Budaya are a Malaysian dancer troupe who come aboard the ship this evening and perform some fascinating dances reflecting the mixed cultures to be found in Malaysia: Malay, Chinese, Indian, Sarawak, and Sabah. A young dancer struts around the stage in a peacock costume, and their performance ends with a combo of all the ethnic groups dancing together.

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Phuket, Thailand

February 19, 2016 – Phuket, Thailand

Big Buddha against a blue sky in Phuket, Thailand

Big Buddha against a blue sky in Phuket, Thailand

I go on the Diverse Phuket shore excursion this morning, which is a six hour outing in a van. The weather is hot and humid as we drive away. Our first stop is the Big Buddha, atop Nakkerd Hill. It is a big 150 foot Burmese marble structure that is still under construction, but is visible for miles around.

There are views of the Karon, Kata and Kata Noi beaches from the back of the hill. Thais are mostly Buddhists, so there are statues and temples everywhere, and most Thai children train as monks for short periods of time.

At our next stop, we explore the Kratu Tin Mine Museum, where we learn about Phuket’s history with tin mining, and also find out about the cultural history of the very first Chinese immigrants to the area.

Map of my photos taken oh Phuket

Map of my photos taken oh Phuket

We don’t stop at any of Phuket’s famous beaches today, instead keeping to the viewpoints along both shores of the peninsula, and driving along the tourist strip for the Karon, Kata and Kata Noi beaches. It is a very crowded area…I’m glad we didn’t stop. We have a lovely Thai lunch at a hotel located beside a lake in the mountains. I have a Singha beer, which is included. It is wonderful to return to the air conditioned ship to get cleaned up and have an afternoon nap.

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Rome

September 11, 2014 – Thursday – Florence to Rome

Upon our arrival in Rome, our driver Sylvain has to maneuver through some pretty challenging turns and narrow streets to get us to the drop off point in the city at Repubblica Square. Driving a vehicle that large in Rome is a real challenge! After we schlepp our bags a few blocks to Hotel Nardizzi Americana in sprinkling rain, a bunch of us have lunch on our own at a nearby salad bar deli. I have a delicious prosciutto panino (we say Panini in North America, which is actually the plural form of panino in Italian).

We go on an extensive walking tour of Rome this afternoon from with a local guide. She succeeds in bringing the Colliseum, the Roman Forum, and the Pantheon alive for us all. Several of us are tired after all the walking this afternoon, so we return to the hotel on our own using the Rome subway. Jennifer taught us well earlier in the day when we started our tour by taking the subway, so we have no problem reversing the route.

Three of us have dinner at Ristorante Esperia, which is a trattoria only a couple of blocks away from our hotel. I have Spaghetti Carbonara, which is very rich and tasty. We all enjoy our meals, although the wine is a bit expensive.

September 12, 2014 – Friday – Vatican City

After breakfast at the hotel this morning, we take the subway to the Vatican to take an escorted tour of the Vatican Museum, which includes the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Rooms, and other amazing displays. I missed the Vatican Museum last time I was in Rome in 2006 due to a screw up with the arrangements, so it is great to finally see this astounding collection of friezes, tapestries, and paintings. Actually, I find the opulence to be obscene. I am fascinated with the painted maps of Italy in one hallway, since they were created so long ago and yet are very detailed.

Bernini's Baldachino in St. Peter's Basilica

Bernini’s Baldachino in St. Peter’s Basilica

We are then led through a side entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica, where we are on our own for the rest of the day. I think there is more lighting than the last time I was in St. Peter’s in 2006, which makes taking photos easier. I still find the place rather creepy, especially seeing the popes and cardinals who are embalmed and on display in crypts with glass windows in the side so they can be viewed. There are several worship services going on as I walk through the basilica taking photos.

I meet up with several members of my tour group in St. Peter’s Square, and we return to the hotel on our own using the subway ticket Jennifer gave us earlier. I’m completely bagged, so I have a two-hour nap this afternoon. I had great plans to work on my travel journal, but that doesn’t happen!

Nine of us go to the Oratorio Bistrot for dinner this evening, which is in the same block as our hotel. They have a wine bar downstairs and they have an upstairs patio where lunch and dinner is served. It is very nice on the covered patio, and the meals are very tasty. I have rolled veal with bacon as a main, and start with grilled zucchini, which turns out to be more of an omelet. I have an Italian beer with dinner, but the rest of the group order two glasses of wine each, since they don’t seem to have house wines served in jugs like the other restaurants we have eaten at up to now.

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

We have breakfast in our hotel and then everyone walks a couple of blocks to the bus, which is waiting for us at Repubblica Square with the beautiful fountain and the metro station beneath. We drive by St. Peter’s on our way out of the city, and pass Civitavecchia as we drive up the coast. This is where the cruise ships dock, and then the passengers are transferred by bus to Rome for the day.

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Florence

September 9, 2014 -Tuesday – Venice to Florence

The cornfields have turned brown and the farmers are harvesting as we drive from Venice to our first rest stop near Bologna, which has Jennifer’s favourite, an AutoGrill. The rest stops on the Italian expressways (Autostradas) serve very tasty food – not a Burger King or McDonalds to be seen thank goodness! As we travel through the Tuscany area, the road has more curves and hills, and we drive through lots of tunnels.

We arrive in Florence early this afternoon. The bus stops in a local square, we unload ourselves and our bags, and walk a few blocks to our hotel, Hotel Accademia Florence. After getting settled, we go on a walking tour of the centre of Florence. We have an Italian guide with us, but Jennifer leads the tour. Apparently, the Italian guide is with us so the Rick Steves tour group doesn’t get hassled for conducting “unauthorized” tours of the city – Italian bureaucracy in action!

JoeTourist: Florence &emdash; Michelangelo's statue of DavidWe line up for the Gallery of the Academy, and after 10 minutes or so get inside to see Michelangelo’s statue of David. I saw the copy of the David statue in the nearby Plazza della Signoria when I was last in Florence in 2006, but there is no comparison to seeing the original inside the museum. David is beautifully lit with both outside light coming through a transparent dome, and also floodlights. Jennifer points out how his expression changes depending on where you gaze upon him. His naked body is exquisite, although his right hand is too large. Jennifer explains that the original plan was to mount David high on the front of the Duomo, which might explain why his hand was bigger than normal…otherwise from the perspective of people on the ground, the hand would not be easily visible.

We go for a group dinner to nearby Trattoria Nella this evening. The food is good, and wine and bottled water is included with most of our Rick Steves group dinners. Our guide Jennifer takes us out for gelato afterwards, so I am really full by the time we return to our hotel.

September 10, 2014 -Wednesday – Florence

I am awoken at 6:30AM by thunder and lightning crashing and booming over the city. The rain comes down hard, however it is all over by 7AM. An exciting start to the day! Several of us go to the Duomo (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore) early this morning and climb up to the top of the dome. It is very close quarters, since the stairs to the top are between the inner dome and the outer dome. We are rewarded with superb views of Florence from the top.

Pasta a fagioli

Pasta a fagioli

I go to Trattoria Antellesi for lunch, which is the little trattoria right beside our hotel entrance.  I have a beer and a wonderful soup called pasta a fagioli, which is a vegetable soup made with pasta, beans, vegetables in a rich and creamy broth. It is often thickened with shredded bread.

We go to the Uffizi Gallery this afternoon with a local guide who specializes in the Uffizi. There is a crush of people and groups, so we have to wait about three quarters of an hour to get in. Photos are now allowed inside, but when I checked earlier, there was no indication of this recent change in policy. So I am stuck using my cellphone camera inside. Our local guide tries to maneuver us around the huge crowds inside, with limited success.

Quite a few of us go to Giglio Rosso Ristorante for dinner on our own this evening. Our meals are excellent, and they bring around a dessert cart with some really yummy choices, which virtually all of our group can’t resist!

Tipping in the European countries we visited is not required in restaurants, since servers and other staff are well paid. That said, leaving the change on the table when the bill is paid is considered polite. Americans (and Canadians) have the reputation of leaving too much of a tip, which the Europeans interpret as being too flashy. If exceptional service is rendered, a 10% tip would be in order, but no more. Payment in cash (rather than credit card) is expected, and many restaurants don’t accept credit cards, or charge extra if a credit card is used. So take Euros to pay for your meals, and don’t tip too much!

September 11, 2014 – Thursday – Florence to Rome

I am awoken again this morning at 6AM by thunder and lightning however the rain isn’t coming down hard like yesterday when we walk to meet the bus. Once we are on the Autostrada to Rome, the rain comes down hard, so the views are not great as we travel south. It’s a good time for me to write in my travel journal.