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Victoria to Dubai

February 6, 2015 – Friday – Victoria to Atlanta

I’m out the door at my home and in a taxi to the airport by 4AM.  The United counter Victoria airport opens at 5AM (2 hours before flight time). Once my bag is checked through to Atlanta (US$25+tax), I clear security and grab a cappuccino from the Spinnaker’s On The Fly restaurant in the boarding lounge. My flight for San Francisco leaves at 7AM, so I have some time to kill. Once the flight to San Francisco departs on time I can relax, since there is nothing further I can do about anything except find my gates at each airport along the way. I’m flying through San Francisco and Houston to get to Atlanta today.

I only have an hour to find the gate in Houston for the final leg to Atlanta, but I catch a break. The flight arrives on time, the aircraft isn’t full so unloading goes well, and the next gate turns out to be in the same terminal. So instead of rushing around, I have a few minutes to spare.

Atlanta’s domestic terminal is under construction, and is a mess both inside the terminal buildings and outside with the access roads. I finally find the hotel shuttle and arrive the Hyatt Place at South Terminal. This hotel is a pretty good choice. Although the room fixtures are starting to show wear and tear, check-in is quick, and it is clean, quiet, and well-run.

February 7, 2015 – Saturday – Atlanta to Dubai

Today is a lazy day to start with, since my flight to Dubai doesn’t leave Atlanta airport until 9:45PM. I have a leisurely breakfast in the hotel lobby, fool around on the Internet for awhile, and then go for a walk in the sunshine along a local bike trail. I pay the hotel an extra charge so I can stay in my room until 6PM, since it makes no sense to spend an extra half day in an airport when I’m facing a 14 hour flight later today. I have a shower and sleep in the afternoon, and put on some fresh clothes before catching the airport shuttle at 5:30PM. The shuttle takes me to the domestic terminal parking area, where I have to transfer to the International terminal shuttle, which takes a good 20 minutes. I remember Atlanta airport being big, but not quite this big!

I check in at the Delta self-serve kiosks and give my tagged bag (Dubai-DXB) to the check-in clerk. Since I am “TSA Pre-cleared”, I breeze through security and onward to the concourse and find our gate by 7PM. An hour later I meet the tour group near the gate for the flight to Dubai. Of course it is a blur of introductions; names I will not remember for a few days yet. Boarding is disorganized, and it is a full flight on a Boeing 777-200SP. I purchased Economy Comfort in order to get an additional 4” of legroom and more seat recline, so I am in the Group 1 boarding. It’s nice to get onboard ahead of about half of the passengers for this 14 hour direct flight.

Flight path from Atlanta to Dubai

Flight path from Atlanta to Dubai

The captain announces we will arrive in Dubai a few minutes ahead of schedule. Our route is up the Atlantic coast, past Newfoundland, south of Greenland and Iceland, and over Western Europe. Let’s hope we steer clear of Syria on our way down to Dubai!

February 8, 2015 – Sunday – Atlanta to Dubai

7AM (Azores Time) I take a guess at the time zone as we are south of Iceland when the Sun rises. Sunrise over the North Atlantic is spectacular from my SE-facing window seat, and of course I take lots of photos since I’m such a sucker for sunrises and sunsets. I’m the only one with my window shutters open, but I can’t sleep and want to look out the window. We are served a cold breakfast bun and some coffee, and then everyone goes to back to sleep, except me of course. A flight attendant comes by and asks me to close one window and keep the other one half-shaded, so I finally give up and close them both and try to sleep as we fly over Europe. Now I’m sitting here typing this journal entry in the dark cabin while it’s full sunshine outside as we pass Sicily, crossing the Mediterranean on our way to the Middle East. Four hours and 15 minutes to Dubai.

We are now 1 hour 50 minutes from Dubai, flying across the Arabian Peninsula. The cabin is still dark despite it being early evening outside…bizarre! We are served another meal before our 9PM arrival in Dubai. The airport is controlled chaos as our group retrieve our bags and walk at least a kilometre (no people movers) to clear immigration, and then wheel our bags out to the waiting bus. We are staying in the old part of the city at the Arabian Courtyard Hotel, which is an older hotel, but I like it. My room is very nice, they have a couple of restaurants and a bar, and the location is ideal for shopping and sightseeing.

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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.

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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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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

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Bora Bora, French Polynesia

March 3, 2014 – Monday – Bora Bora, French Polynesia

I have some breakfast in the Lido early, since I have to be ashore for my excursion by 9AM. Another cruise ship has anchored beside us, replacing the one I saw yesterday. Bora Bora is obviously a popular port-of-call! After breakfast, I take the 10 minute tender ride ashore, and eventually we are collected and board our catamaran. We actually depart a bit early since everyone is on board from the ship. Moana Adventure Tours runs this excursion with four Tahitian guys. They are well-rated on TripAdvisor and I can see why – I had a great day, as did the others from the ship on this excursion!

First stop on the tour is just around the seaward side of the closest motu (islet) to Vaitape harbour, so we arrive there in only 15 minutes. We see Stingrays and Black-tipped sharks in the shallow water. Most of the people get into the water with them, however I stay aboard and get some great photos and video from the deck.

Next stop is about 20 minutes away: a small, private motu where there are coral reefs and a nice sandy beach. It is a wet landing, so everyone gets in the water here. I have a wonderful hour poking around, taking photos and video of the fish and the coral formations in the shallow lagoon. The excursion guys serve snacks and drinks under the shade of the palm trees before we return to the catamaran for the trip back to Vaitape harbour. This 3.5 hour excursion couldn’t be much better, but I’m very glad to head back to the ship’s air conditioning, since the oppressive heat hits us once we are back in the town of Vaitape.

Map showing the location of my photos taken on Bora Bora

Map showing the location of my photos taken on Bora Bora

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Kona & Place of Refuge

February 24, 2014 – Monday – Kailua-Kona, the Big Island of Hawaii

My excursion this morning leaves early. I have to be at the assembly point at 7:50AM, and when I show up five minutes early, my group has already left for the tender, so I quickly follow. Our bus is waiting for us on the pier, but we end up waiting for a few people who obviously showed up on time or a little late. This inexpensive tour ($40) is called Kona Highlights, which is really just a nice drive south of Kailua-Kona (and back). We stop to sample some coffee at the little town of Captain Cook, where I get to sample some Kona Peaberry coffee – very nice, but I’m not paying $50 for a bag of it!

Collection of photos taken in 2009 and 2014 along the Kona coast on the Big Island of Hawaii

We then proceed onward to my favourite place, Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, or Place of Refuge down on the shoreline. It is volcanic down here, as is most of the Big Island. I take a few photos and just relax under the shade of the palm trees and take in the sound of the ocean swells crashing against the black volcanic shoreline and surging into the bay. There are no turtles today in the Ali’i landing bay, but the place still feels wonderful – I can feel the good mana here, and I’m not one to normally believe in superstitions. We only have an hour here, but I enjoy it immensely. Next, we drive to the nearby Painted Church in the community of Captain Cook. This little Catholic Church is a popular stop for sightseers. I get to try out my new fisheye lens inside the church, taking a photo of the alter, the whole ceiling, and part of the walls.

Collection of photos taken in 2009 and 2014 of Place of Refuge

After we return to Kailua-Kona, I find a little general store, where I buy some supplies before returning to the tender dock. As we approach the ship anchored in the bay, the tender has a terrible time trying to tie up, since there is quite a bit of wave action. Once the tender ties up, it beats against the gangway, wreaking the landing platform. Passengers are unloaded when there is a lull in the wave action, so the unloading process takes over 20 minutes. This isn’t the roughest tender landing I have experienced, but the tender was certainly bucking against the gangway landing in an energetic fashion.

As always, I’m glad to be back aboard ship and in my comfortable cabin. I toss my dirty clothes into the self-serve laundry, while I try to take advantage of the high speed Internet access I have with my cellphone connection to the Rogers/AT&T LTE. Since we are anchored offshore, I sit out on the Promenade Deck facing the shoreline to get a decent signal. This convenience will end once we sail away from the Big Island of Hawaii enroute to Fanning Island and French Polynesia. I will then be back to using the slow, unreliable, and expensive satellite connection aboard the ship.

Na Pali Coast boat tour

January 20, 2001 – Na Pali Coast boat tour from Waimea area of Kaua’i

A small boat cruise to the Na Pali coast offers an excellent way to get out on the water around Kaua’i, do some snorkelling, see some whales, turtles and spinner dolphins (depending on the season), and get up close to the Na Pali coast without having to hike for days. I chose Liko Kaua’i Cruises, who operate the Na Pali Kai vessel, a fiberglass hulled, custom designed catamaran with twin Cummins diesels capable of moving the boat at a speedy 31 knots. The crew are knowledgeable about the area, they serve good quality food and drinks (no alcohol), and are very safety conscious. Liko’s offices are in the town of Waimea. You will need to check in there before proceeding to the dock in the boat harbor at Kikiaola (5 minutes further by car).

Sunrise from Kikiaola Boat Harbor, Waimea, Kaua'i

Sunrise from Kikiaola Boat Harbor, Waimea, Kaua’i

The cruise I chose departed at 7:30am, so I had to check in to the Liko office by 7am. Since there was road construction along the way, and I was driving from the opposite side of the island, I had to leave very early! Just to prove that I was up at the crack of dawn, have a look at the gorgeous sunrise photo!

The cruise took us past Barking Sands, all along the Na Pali coast almost to Ke’e Beach (where the North shore road stops. Along the way we saw numerous Humpback Whales (one baby a few days old) and Spinner Dolphins. We were within 50′ of the shoreline at times, so we saw the Na Pali coast up close. A very different perspective than from a helicopter.

They served us a very nice deli lunch and soft drinks on the way back. As soon as we rounded Mana Point (Barking Sands), the afternoon swells hit us full tilt, making for a roller coaster ride back to the harbor. However, along the way we were treated to an adolescent Humpback whale doing repeated breaches, flipper flapping, and other acrobatics. Although we didn’t get to snorkel due to the choppy seas, the whale made a memorable ending to a very successful cruise.

Free advice

Taking photos of whales, dolphins, turtles and fish consumes huge amounts of time you could otherwise spend enjoying these creatures. If the opportunity presents itself, by all means take a photo or two…otherwise buy some postcards!

There are many cruises to the Na Pali coast to choose from. I would suggest you select one that either leaves from Hanalei Bay (only two operators do this), or choose an operator who has a very fast boat (such as Liko) if they leave from the Waimea (southwest) coast area. It is over 20 miles by sea from Waimea to the start of the Na Pali coast (Polihale area). It is only 5 miles to the start of the Na Pali coast (Ka’ilio Point) from Hanalei Bay.

Helicopter tour of Kaua’i, Hawaii

January 19, 2001 Helicopter Tour – Lihu’e, Waimea Canyon, Na Pali Coast, Hanalei, Kawaihau

Jack Harter Helicopter Tours

Jack Harter Helicopter Tours

Jack Harter Helicopters started the helicopter tour business in Kaua’i, and they came recommended by the B&B I was staying with. They use six passenger Eurocopter AStars custom-equipped with the largest windows and a unique cabin layout, giving passengers the best views possible. They also offer doors-off flights with their Hughes four passenger helicopters for those who want an extra thrill, or for dedicated photographers who want to avoid window reflections in their photos. I learned from my trip to the Grand Canyon that helicopters are an excellent way to see the country, so I decided to spend the money on this tour.

Jack Harter Helicopter tour map

Jack Harter Helicopter tour map

The tours start at the Lihue heliport, which is adjacent to the main airport, but you need to check in at the Jack Harter Helicopter office, which is located very close to the airport. You will be briefed on safety procedures and then driven to the heliport. Takeoff was smooth – an indication of the rest of the flight. We flew around Kaua’i in a clockwise direction.

South Coast

Looking over Ha’upu (Hoary Head) Ridge from the air offers a gorgeous view towards Kipu Kai, Kawai Point, and the Menehune Fishpond. The spectacular Mana Waipuna Falls is next on the itinerary, and as we proceed toward Waimea Canyon, we fly over Olokele Canyon and can see the irrigation ditch which supplies the fields in this normally arid area with water for the sugar cane crops.

Waimea Canyon

Driving to Waimea Canyon by car presents some spectacular vistas, but seeing this canyon from a helicopter is a whole new experience. As we approach the canyon from the south, we catch glimpses of the colors and water courses that make this canyon so interesting. The red rock and soil that makes up so much of Kaua’i is laid bare in this area of high erosion. The vistas from the head of the canyon looking back south show the way the layers of mountain ranges fades into the sea, and we get an excellent view of Barking Sands from high atop the ridge just before we dip over the top and catch our first glimpse of the Na Pali Coast.

Na Pali Coast

Our first glimpse of the Na Pali coast as we clear the ridge line wows us with the view of the Kalepa Ridge cones on the  Na Pali coast. Streaming sunlight over the mountains is simply magical; the high surf makes the Na Pali coastline stand out. This is simply awe-inspiring. There is no substitute for seeing the Na Pali coast from a helicopter.

Hanalei & Central Mountains

Maniholo Bay & Ha'ena Pt looking toward Hanalei

Maniholo Bay & Ha’ena Pt looking toward Hanalei

As we leave the Na Pali coast and head past Ha’ena Point, the beautiful Hanalei Bay comes into view. Maniholo Bay & Ha’ena Point frame pretty Hanalei Bay, with Princeville further down the coast. We fly close to falls in the mountains behind the valley, which are the source of the Hanalei River. In quick succession as we cruise down the coast towards Lihue: the Makaleha Mountains, fantastic Keana’awi Falls shrouded in cloud , beautiful Kohalalele Falls, showing us the wettest place on earth are the central peaks of Kaua’i – Wai’ale’ale and Kawaikini.

East Coast & Lihue

As we approach Lihue and the end of our tour, we see Wailua Falls and look north along the east coastline over Hanama’ulu Bay, productive farmlands, the upper Wailua River, and glimpse the Sleeping Giant. We float down on the helicopter pad and reluctantly return to our land-based existence.

What was the highlight of the helicopter tour? The Na Pali Coast was a clear winner, although seeing the Waimea Canyon from the air was interesting after having driven there the day before. The Hanalei Valley is even more beautiful from the air. Incidentally, the narration from the helicopter pilot was amazing. He had facts, figures, answered our questions, and had some very interesting stories to tell the whole time we were airborne. He even knew when to be quiet, and let us enjoy the amazing views!

I enjoyed this helicopter tour immensely – this is a vacation highlight you should not miss!