I am up at 5:45AM, put my bag out at 6:30AM and have breakfast with the group.The tropical rainstorm lasted all night and only let up as we leave in the boat to board our bus waiting for us at the jetty on the other side of the lake. We have a long day ahead of us, driving over a road that is full of construction and bumps.
This afternoon, we stop at the Kampung Annah Rais, a Bidayuh longhouse – actually a series of houses strung together with bamboo boardwalks. There are 160 families and about 3,000 people in this community. The place is very quiet, since most residents are at work or away at school. They have a skull house, which contains about a dozen very old skulls from headhunting days long ago. Interesting note from our guide Lemon, although the Bidayuh were headhunters, they were not cannibals.
After arriving back in Kuching, we are again staying at the Waterfront Hotel. There is some time for us to explore Kuching on our own in the late afternoon and evening. The hotel is adjacent to the Harmony Arch in old Chinatown, the old courthouse and jail, and the Kuching waterfront on the Sarawak River.
The bus leaves at 8AM, so I’m up by 6:20AM and put my bag out and have breakfast at 7AM. These early starts to the day are killing me, but at least the breakfast in our hotel is very nice, and they have cappuccino! Lemon takes over as our guide since Sarawak is his home turf.
Our first stop is the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, which is only about a half hour’s drive south of Kuching. This sanctuary for Orangutans is only open for an hour in the morning and a half hour in the afternoon. The morning feeding, although crowded with people is very rewarding photographically. The camera angles are better than the wildlife sanctuary in Sabah, and two Orangutan mothers show up with their babies clinging to them. I’m very happy with my photos of these fascinating creatures!
We then spend several hours in the bus – another endurance contest. We stop twice: once for a rest break and a visit to the local market in Serian, and a second stop for lunch at a Chinese-run local restaurant beside the road in Lachau. We all order fried rice and at Lemon’s suggestion, buy some exercise books and pencils as gifts for the Iban villagers we will be visiting tomorrow.
We end up at a jetty on an artificial lake created by a hydro electric dam, and take a launch to the Aiman Batang Ai Resort, which is located across the lake. We are now only 1°24’ north of the Equator. Temperatures are in the high 30s C and the humidity is right up there as well, so everyone is feeling the heat as we get settled into our rooms.
I wake up at 4:15AM, just after the ship sails under Lion’s Gate Bridge. I get my dSLR out and take some photos of the bridge, Stanley Park, and the downtown, all lit at night. I capture some excellent photos, especially as the ship turns and docks at Canada Place.
Since it is 5AM, there is no coffee available anywhere on board. I go up to the Explorations Cafe on the off chance they are open at 6:30AM (their usual opening time), but no luck! My continental breakfast arrives right on time at 7:30AM in my cabin, so I have a cup of tea, a scone and pastry, yogurt, and cranberry juice.
I pack my last minute items and get ready for departure, double and triple checking the closets, drawers and bathroom to ensure I don’t forget anything. My friends call me at 8AM saying they are ready to disembark. Although it is a bit early for our time slot, I am ready to go as well, so we meet in the hallway outside their cabin. The passengers who have Expedited Departures are ahead of us, and they are still clogging the elevators, but we manage to get to the gangway deck and scan our ship security cards for the last time and leave the ship. Canada Customs and Immigration are waiting for us in the passageways to the main cruise ship terminal. They take our forms and wave us through, not even wanting to see our passports – welcome to Canada!
We are in the terminal an hour early, but find the waiting area for the bus to Victoria. Unfortunately, there are no chairs to sit on, so we stand, waiting in line until the two buses board everyone. We are on our way at 9:15AM, right on schedule, and our bus goes straight to the Tsawwassen ferry terminal. We are one of several buses on the 11AM sailing aboard the Coastal Celebration ferry, so it is a crush to get up the stairs. However, once we enter the Seawest Lounge, we leave the mayhem behind for serenity and quiet.
The Seawest Lounge has a choice of two Starbuck’s roasts of brewed coffee, so I finally enjoy some good coffee and a bit of quiet time. I go back for some snacks: sliced cheese and muffins, and a second cup of coffee, so I’m finally ready to greet the day properly! As usual, the onboard Internet service offered by BC Ferries is totally swamped, so I use my own cellular LTE hotspot to catch up with online happenings as we sail to Swartz Bay. There is a two-masted schooner sailing along the Pender Island coastline – very pretty on such a gorgeous day.
Once the bus rolls off the ferry, it makes several stops along the way to drop people off. I am dropped off a few blocks away from where I live, and since it’s a nice day, I roll my bags home.
Feb 17, 2017 Friday – Sacramento to Los Angeles by bus and train
My day starts early at 5AM when I wake up in my Roomette and look outside at the dark. The dining car doesn’t open before our arrival in Sacramento, so no breakfast for those of us leaving the train here. I say goodbye to my cabin attendant and shlep my bags into the terminal. I check into the ticket booth, and they issue new Amtrak tickets for both of today’s bus-train-bus segments, this evening’s train to Tucson, and my return trip back to Seattle. I sit with Jim, one of my fellow passengers, who tells me by his calculations our train averaged 43 mph from Seattle to Sacramento.
The Amtrak bus leaves the station an hour after our arrival and takes about an hour to transfer us to the Stockton station. We wait an hour before boarding the San Joaquin commuter train to Bakersfield. The train leaves at 9:25AM and arrives in Bakersfield at 1:49PM. Along the way, we pass huge fields of almond trees in bloom, and even some orange bushes. The fields are either flooded or are so wet that there is no way they can be worked. The train slows because of high winds in the valley. I go to the snack bar on board and have a hot panini for lunch.
We then take another Amtrak bus from Bakersfield to Union Station in Los Angeles. This proves to be a real endurance contest, since it is raining so hard. The US Weather Service is sending out warnings to stay away from the areas we are driving through! This was supposed to be a 2 hour and 20 minute trip according to the ticket, but ends up taking over four hours. I find it to be very stressful, not only because of the extremely hazardous driving conditions (see banner image above), but because we are stopped at least twice from entering LA because of mud slides, washouts, or MVAs causing roads to be closed. Apparently, the major interstate freeway I-5 was closed in both directions today!
After we arrive at Union Station, I find the Metropolitan Lounge; sit down to relax and have a coffee and snacks. I need some time to unwind a bit, and to recover from the stress of the last segment of our journey today. I leave my big bag in the lounge and have a nice dinner with a new friend I met on the train at the Traxx restaurant in the station.
I then return to the lounge, retrieve my bags, and get a red cap to take me to the train. They are ready to board passengers, so I quickly get settled into my Roomette. I have a shower before we depart the station, since it’s so much easier than when the train is rocking and rolling. Our cabin attendant tells me this train has no Wi-fi aboard, and the route the train takes means the cellular coverage cuts out as soon as the train clears the LA area.
10:00PM – The train leaves the station on time and slowly proceeds eastward through Los Angeles, but by 11:00PM it comes to a complete stop for about 15 minutes before proceeding slowly again. I have a feeling the operating staff are watching out for debris on the tracks, since this rainstorm has washed out many roads and gullies are full of mud and rocks. No doubt they are being careful to avoid derailment, because it is still raining, but just not as hard as this afternoon. The train starts and stops several times before I finally go to bed around 11:30PM.
I wake up at 6:30AM this morning, having had a good sleep at the hotel. I go down for some breakfast and the essential coffee. It is then time to leave for the train station. There are patches of blue sky and no rain, so instead of taking a taxi, I slowly walk the six blocks, pulling my big bag on wheels.
The King Street Union Station in Seattle is beautiful inside, with marble walls and classic high ceilings. The old-style wooden high-backed bench seats hearken back to previous eras. I go to the ticket booth to check-in and the agent explains that if I need stuff out of my big bag, then I will have to take it aboard with me instead of checking it through to LA. Next time, I will know to take a smaller bag, since there is no assistance with bag handling when boarding the train.
This is certainly slow travel, since our check-in consists of showing our tickets to the agent, and then they hand write a paper ticket with our car number and room number on it. No ticket scans and no security checks. The Homeland Security Police presence inside the station bring me back to the current reality, although they appear to be pretty bored, having little to do.
9:30AM – Leave Seattle, WA. There is a Sounder commuter train unloading passengers on the opposite track to ours as we leave. It’s so refreshing to see rail transport being actively used here in Washington State, unlike Vancouver Island, where rail transport is being neglected.
10:30AM – Tacoma, WA – we stop to board a few passengers before leaving for the most scenic stretch along the Puget Sound to Olympia. The Roomette on the opposite side of the isle is being used by George, our car attendant, so I scoot over there to shoot video and photos, since he said he doesn’t mind. We also briefly stop in Olympia to take on a few more passengers, and then the train goes inland through rural areas.
12:00 Noon – Centralia, WA – we stop for a few minutes to detrain some passengers, and then carry on our way. Lunch is served in the dining car in three seatings: 12:00, 12:30 and 13:00. I skip the first seating, since there is a rush of passengers. The rivers in this area are muddy and swollen with the rain and snow we recently had over the last month or so.
12:20PM – Longview-Kelso, WA – The rain starts as we travel south, crossing rivers and streams with the I-5 freeway beside us. I’m so happy to not be driving…just sitting here in my Roomette with my slippers on, fully relaxed as I watch the drivers on the freeway drive through the rain. I go to the dining car at 12:30PM and have turkey medallions – a very nice hot lunch!
1:50PM – Portland, OR – We stop in Portland for about a half hour, where passengers get on and off. It is also where passengers can get off to stretch their legs, get some fresh air, and to have a smoke (outside the terminal). I stay onboard, since it is raining quite hard.
I receive a voicemail from Amtrak stating that I should get off at Sacramento to be transferred by bus and commuter rail to LA to connect with my train to Tucson, since they are expecting delays further down the track to LA. They have refunded a portion of my ticket in compensation. I check with my car attendant, and he can’t see why that is necessary since the train isn’t currently running late. He suggests I check with the next conductor before arriving in Sacramento, but I should be prepared to get off the train in Sacramento at 6:35AM.
3:50PM – Salem, OR – Quick stop. Willamette University Bearcats female football players practicing. Lots of farming is going on in the Willamette Valley between Salem and Albany.
4:35PM – Albany, OR – Quick stop. Big rail yard.
The conductor comes by to find out what I was told about getting off in Sacramento. He confirms there is flooding near Chico, California, which will slow the train down, and there is also track work being done on the California coast section, so the train will likely be quite late. He confirms I should get off in Sacramento, and tells me I will be on a bus from Sacramento to Stockton, then a fast commuter train from Stockton to Bakersfield, and finally another bus from Bakersfield to LA, driving down the Central Valley. I will arrive in LA at 4:15PM, and my train to Tucson leaves at 10PM.
6:10PM I go for dinner at the second seating, I am seated with a couple who boarded in Tacoma. They are heading to LA and then getting on a cruise ship in San Pedro, the Port of Los Angeles, for a short 6 day cruise down the coast of Mexico.
8:00PM – It’s pitch black outside, but I see quite a bit of snow flashing by and snowflakes falling outside the window. We haven’t had cellular reception for quite awhile, which is to be expected in this area, according to the conductor. The train has slowed down to perhaps 10-15 mph and now it has stopped. Our conductor announces that the train will stop because an outside sensor is detecting that something is dragging below the train. He goes outside to investigate – in the dark and snow, and with a serious drop in slope beside the roadbed. After 10 minutes the train starts moving again after he reports nothing found.
8:33PM – I thought the train has stopped again, but it’s just become very quiet riding through the snow.
9:05PM – Chemult, OR – more passengers board the train, with deep snow outside.
10PM – Time for bed…my cabin attendant makes my bed – my first night aboard a train in my own Roomette.
September 16, 2014 – Tuesday – Lauterbrunnen Valley and the Alps, Switzerland
Technically, today is a free day in Switzerland, however Jennifer has organized a wonderful activity for anyone who wants to go: a gondola ride up to the Shilthorn peak, a walk along a ridgeline pathway from Mürren to Grutshalp, and a gondola ride down to the town of Lauterbrunnen. Then everyone is on their own to take the poste bus back to Stechelberg and our hotel (the bus terminus).
The mountains surrounding the Lauterbrunnen Valley are so steep, the mountain peaks are not visible from the valley floor. Since so many of us are signed up for this activity today, Sylvain drives us the short distance to the gondola station near Stechelberg, and Jennifer gets a group rate of 57 CF (CD$70) for the gondola rides. The first of four gondolas takes us from the valley floor, over the ridgeline to Gimmelwald, a small mountain community. The second gondola takes us to Mürren, a bigger mountain community. The third gondola takes us a long way up the mountain to Birg, which has a few houses, but is essentially a transfer station to the last gondola, which takes us almost straight up to the Shilthorn peak.
The Shilthorn is famous for being the location where some scenes of James Bond movies were shot, where James skis down a steep snowy slope being chased by the bad guys, and takes a luge down the mountain. The weather is totally clear when we arrive, and we have a good hour before some clouds come in and partially obscure the view. At this point, I go inside and have a hot chocolate in the revolving restaurant and post some selfie photos to my facebook page. There is free Wi-fi and good cellular coverage on the peak as well as at each gondola station thanks to Swiss efficiency!
Contented Swiss cows heading for the alpine meadow near Grutschalp
We regroup in Mürren, and then hike along a ridge line pathway to Grutshalp. The grade on the pathway is easy, but it is a two hour hike to the gondola station. The views along the way are spectacular: there seem to be new views of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau peaks at every turn in the path.
The famous contented Swiss cows with the bells around their necks are roaming the steep alpine meadows, and we stop for yogurt and other dairy snacks along the way. The gondola ride down to the town of Lauterbrunnen isn’t crowded. Some of the group stay in town to have lunch or shop, but I am tired, so I take the poste bus back to the hotel. Even the bus offers free Wi-fi while aboard!
Today is without a doubt one of the highlights of the tour for me!
September 2, 2014 – Tuesday – Haarlem, Netherlands to Bacharach, Germany
We are delayed departing this morning because a couple are leaving the tour to return home because of a medical condition. We are now down to 24 in the group, since two people also didn’t show up. We finally get away from the hotel at 9AM, with Sylvain as our driver. Our bus is huge, so anyone who wants his or her own pair of seats can have them. I end up taking 4 seats, so I can slide from side to side to stay on the shady side and take photos of whatever goes by!
The bus has a restroom, however we are encouraged to use the facilities at rest stops whenever possible. The bus also is stocked with soft drinks, beer and wine in two fridges – we use a tally sheet on the honour system for our purchases at only €1.50 for each bottle. This is often cheaper than what is available at our rest stops, depending on the country we are in.
We cruise down the Autobahn, stopping once at a typical rest stop you would find along any expressway/freeway anywhere in the world. We pass Dutch farms with traditional barns and houses, and Utrecht, a modern city. It is fascinating to watch the countryside fly by us as we travel eastward.
We make a midday stop at the Open Air Museum at Arnhem, where we have a couple of hours to wander around this historic park. The cultural history of the Netherlands is showcased, complete with windmills and recreated old towns with historic displays of life in the Netherlands in the old days. We have an authentic Pannenkoeken (pancake) lunch, which is delicious but filling. Three types of Pannenkoeken are served: a multi-cheese pancake, a savoury onion and egg pancake, and an apple dessert pancake. A not-too-sweet apple syrup is available to garnish the dessert pancake, but the first two are normally eaten without further garnish.
I catch up on my journal and annotating photos while we travel along the excellent Autobahns in the Netherlands and Germany. As we travel down the Rhine Valley to our stop in Bacharach, the road narrows into a good two or four lane highway. There are lots of tunnels, and the views of the valley, vineyards on the steep slopes, and little towns along the way all fulfill my expectations of the “Rhineland” area of Germany.
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, the Ambassador City Centre. 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 located 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).
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 my notebook computer out of the bag. Thankfully my flight on Delta to Amsterdam is in the same terminal, so I am saved from using those dreadful trains that run between the SeaTac terminals.
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.
I signed up to take a shore excursion today, but I’m glad it doesn’t leave until 9AM because I am having a tough time getting motivated this morning. After having some breakfast and my cappuccino, I am finally ready to get out there. When our group leaves the ship to go on our excursion, we discover we will be transported in a big, honkin’ tandem wheeled bus that is so high off the ground, we have to climb a set of stairs that folds down out of the back of the bus. It is air-conditioned and the seats are quite comfortable. There are big windows, and I’m happy the bus is only about half full, so there is lots of room to spread out. Another bonus is the weather – no rain, but overcast so it’s not too hot. The locals tell us the last few days have seen pouring rain, so we are lucky, since the good weather holds for the whole day.
Eric is our guide and Jose is our driver. They are business partners, and built this vehicle from scratch on a GMC truck chassis. We head south along the coast and then turn inland, traveling along the Banano River past the little community of Bomba, which is where the pumping stations are located for Limon’s municipal water supply. We driver further along the Banano River and then stop for a walkabout. Eric points out all sorts of flora and fauna, include the Golden Orb spider, a Balsa tree, and a red Poison Dart frog.
We carry on along the river and then turn off the road into a banana plantation, where we stop to have a snack and listen to Eric as he explains all about the banana business. Eric mixes a drink called a “Missile”, which is a local liquor called Guaro, a squeeze of local (sweet) lemon, and topped up with Fresca. I prefer to have a local Imperial beer, but those who try the Missile say it is very smooth and refreshing. The good weather is still holding as we return to the ship by 1:30PM. As we travel along the coast there are many Tico families swimming and playing along the shoreline since it is Sunday. Of course they all stop to wave when they see our bus – a bit of a contrast from my experience in Colombia, where the locals either ignored the tour bus or just stared at us.
It is a welcome relief to get back on board the ship, which is really starting to feel like a home away from home. We depart on time, with the First Officer piloting us this afternoon. We now head for the port of Colon to transit the Panama Canal tomorrow morning.