Our ship anchors for the day offshore. Malacca is a city with an interesting history. It was originally colonized by the Portuguese, and then the Dutch came in and took over. Finally, the British ousted the Dutch, in the final wave of colonial rule before Malaysia gained independence in modern times.
We need to cover very little ground with our shore excursion today Walk the Dutch Trail, since the history of this small city is concentrated within a few blocks in the centre of the city. Malacca was once a spice centre for eastern and western traders, and boasts a colourful history forged by Malay Sultans and European colonial powers, which resulted in the formation of multi-cultural communities. Each of these historical eras left its own heritage and influence, as we walk back through time to discover the great empires of Malacca: the Malay Sultanate, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. Starting in Dutch Square, we see the Stadthuys, built as the official residence for the Dutch governors and their officers – an excellent example of Dutch period architecture. Christ Church, standing tall since 1753, is another contribution of the Dutch who defeated the Portuguese in 1641.
Seri Melaka, now known as the Governors Museum was the location of the head of state for this area from the Sultanate of Melaka’s time onward through the various colonial governors. Also on St Paul’s Hill are the ruins of St Paul’s Church, where Catholic missionary St Francis Xavier was briefly interred in 1553. The ruins of the Portuguese Fortress are visible as we descend the hill to tour the replica of the Malacca Sultan’s Palace. Finally, we head back to the pier by trishaw – gaudily-decorated bicycles with the back axel extended so there are two back wheels and a small seat with a canopy rigged up.
I was waitlisted on two shore excursions for today, but neither came up, so I’m on my own. I walk out of the cruise ship terminal, running the gauntlet of taxi drivers trying to get me to hire them. Instead, they piss me off, so I put my head down and keep walking past them all, intent on getting out onto the street and freedom.
I encounter one last driver, parked by himself about a block away on one of the nearby streets. Cheah offers me a four hour tour for a bit less than the Holland America excursions I was considering. Initially I walk by him, but noting how hot and humid it is this morning (33°C and 85%), I realize that touring in an air conditioned car makes a lot of sense, so I agree to hire him for a customized tour. I’m glad to see the money go directly to the operator; I see the sights I’m interested in; and I can stay longer at a site or leave more quickly, as I wish.
Despite it being completely unplanned, I enjoy my day ashore. It works out wonderfully!
My customized tour of Penang
St. George’s Church – is a beautiful church, and it is apparently the oldest Anglican church in SE Asia.
Eastern & Oriental Hotel – this is a sister property to the famous Raffles hotel in Singapore, and is the classic old hotel from SE Asia’s colonial past. Cheah stops outside just long enough for me to pop inside and check out the lobby area. It is beautifully appointed.
Local street art – paintings and sculpture on outside walls along Lebuh Armenian street.
Clan Jetties – a fascinating look at an old, established Chinese community where people still live today.
Kek Lok Si Temple – I must confess I didn’t walk up all of the 200 steps in this temple, preferring to take the small funicular train to the top (cost is 6 Ringets up and down, CD$2.25). There are still plenty of steps for me to tackle in the hot and humid weather! The huge bronze statue at the top is very impressive, and the Seven Tiered Pagoda is beautifully sited on the hillside. On the way down, there is an old Buddhist monk being helped to the main worship room, which contains a big golden buddha statue. The temples and courtyards are all decorated with Chinese lanterns for the Lunar New Year, which is being celebrated right now.
Penang Hill – Cheah drops me off at the bottom of the funicular tram, where I get in line to purchase a ticket. The line for the regular tickets (30 Ringets) seems to go on forever, so I decide to pay 60 Ringets (CD$22) to get an Advanced Boarding pass. With this pass, I get to bypass the huge lines (saving about an hour), have a quiet area to wait and have priority boarding on the trains, so I am seated before the throngs push and shove their way onto the train. Penang Hill is 2,750 feet above sea level, and has temples, restaurants, a museum, some residences, and even a police station located on top. Since the weather is clear, the views of the city of Georgetown and Malacca Strait are spectacular.
My driver: Cheah TH +6011-3688 0532 +6010-389-6933 email@example.com
We depart the Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland early this morning after having breakfast at the hotel. The light is gorgeous as we drive through the valley of many waterfalls, and onto the Autobahn. Our first rest stop is still in Switzerland in the Bern area. I buy nothing since the prices are so high and I have spent all my CF coins. I don’t want to break another bill, since I can sell those back to my bank when I return home. As we pass through the French border, there are no formalities. We stop at a mall for lunch, and find the prices much more reasonable since we are now in France.
As we drive along the expressway, we see French chateaux in the midst of verdant fields or on hilltops, herds of Charlebois cattle, and of course vineyards everywhere. The Burgundy area of France is famous for its grapes and the fine wines that are produced from them. We happen to be here at harvest time, so workers are in the fields picking the grapes. Jennifer and Sylvain take us on an impromptu drive through some of the wine producing areas around Beaune before we arrive at our destination in the early afternoon.
After getting settled in Hotel Athanor, we have plenty of time to explore the lovely small city of Beaune: Roman walls and aqueducts, old stone buildings, coloured tile rooftops, and cobblestone streets. Later in the afternoon, we walk a few blocks to a wine tasting (modest extra cost) at Bouchard Aîné & Fils. These wine cellars fulfill my mind’s eye of what a wine cellar should look like: stone steps, cool and dark, and wine barrels and dusty wine bottles everywhere. The owner’s private collection is stored down here behind bars – some of those wines go back as far as 1911. Apparently the corks need to be replaced every 20 years, so they must sacrifice a bottle in order to top up the other bottles as they replace the corks and taste the wine to ensure it is still drinkable.
We stand on the old rampart wall of the city as we walk back to the hotel. The group dinner this evening is at a restaurant around the corner from the hotel. They serve a delicious three-course dinner, however I don’t have any wine with the meal, since it is too expensive. As we return to our hotel, there is a laser light show being projected on the outside walls of the nearby Basilica Notre Dame.
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! Once we are parked, we schlepp our bags the 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 with a local guide who succeeds in bringing the Coliseum, 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, but I find the opulence to be obscene. I am fascinated with the 40 frescoed maps of Italy in one hallway, since they were created so long ago and yet are very detailed and beautifully crafted.
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 am 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 an upstairs patio where lunch and dinner is served. It is very nice on the covered patio, and the meals are 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 also 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 in 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 west coast. This is where the cruise ships dock, and then the passengers are transferred by bus to Rome for the day.
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!
We 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.
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 pull out my notebook computer to write in my travel journal.
After leaving Rothenburg, we drive down the Autobahn to the little Bavarian town of Dachau. Of course, everyone has learned this name in their history lessons, because this is where the Nazis built their first Concentration Camp during WWII. Our guide Jennifer carefully prepares us for our experience this morning by describing the history of the war, how Dachau Concentration Camp is now run as a memorial to the prisoners. She also lets us know that we can stay in the bus if any of us can’t handle seeing the Concentration Camp. I seriously consider staying behind, but I decide I owe it to the prisoners to bear witness to their suffering by seeing this place for myself.
We are taken on a walking tour by a guide who is originally from Ireland. He first assures us that there is nothing gory about the exhibits we are about to see. He explains that dehumanization of the prisoners was the primary aim of the Nazis. The prisoners were literally worked to death. If they weren’t healthy, or if they were too big or too small, they were immediately executed. Our guide tells us the crematorium was going full bore most of the time, and in the weeks running up to the end of WWII the Germans ran out of coal, and then resorted to burying the bodies in mass graves. Dachau was the first concentration camp built on German soil, and was a training facility for the staff that ran the other concentration camps as they were built in other countries.
We have an hour and a half to ourselves after our guide leaves us. It is very sobering as I walk around the site, and I soon realize that I only have a limited amount of personal energy I can expend in this bad place where so many suffered and died horribly. I force myself to take some photos to document what I see, but I can’t bear to look at them for weeks after I return home from the trip.
It is a relief to leave this deeply disturbing place.
We stop to visit the Pilgrimage Church of Wies in Steingaden, Germany. This Rococco church has Jesus sitting on a rainbow on the ceiling. In the adjacent farm there are young cows frolicking in a paddock with bells around their neck, and children playing in the farm yard. I find this a welcome relief from the profound sadness of seeing Dachau earlier today. We take the Autobahn to Austria, and check into Alpenhotel Ernberg, our hotel in the small city of Reutte.
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).
March 9, 2014 – Sunday –Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Group, French Polynesia
I wake up very early and look out the cabin window to see that the ship is very close to the coast of Nuku Hiva. I grab my camera and go out on the Promenade Deck to take some photos as we enter Taiohae harbour. The light is wonderful, and a rainbow appears as the ship anchors in the harbour.
My excursion assembles in the Showroom so early, so I don’t have time for breakfast or even a coffee. I’ll just have to suck it up and survive, since the tour will end mid-morning. Private vehicles are waiting to take us for a drive, since Nuku Hiva lacks the tourist infrastructure the main French Polynesian Islands have. I luck out on two counts: our driver speaks some English, and I get the front passenger seat in a new Ford Explorer 4X4. Our driver owns the car rental agency on the island, and has worked in Honolulu.
We drive away from the harbour, over the mountain ridge, and into the next harbour and valley. It is a pretty drive, and we stop for two photo opportunities along the way. The first stop is a lookout high over the harbour. The second stop highlights the Survivor Marquesas location, and gives us great views of a long inlet with very pretty colours and interesting topography, with a community at the head of the inlet.
We drive down to sea level through the Taipivai valley and the community of the same name. A river runs beside the community, and we eventually come to the head of an inlet called Comptroller Bay, where there is a little community called Houmi. There is a nice beach with a single sailboat is anchored in the sheltered bay. Our stop here includes fresh fruit snacks, and the obligatory crafts for sale. Since it is Sunday, most people are attending church this morning.
We then return along the same route back to the main town of Taiohae, stopping at the local historic Notre Dame Cathedral, and return to the departure point near the tender dock.
By this time, it is starting to heat up, so I’ve had enough and head straight back to the ship on the next available tender. As always, it’s great to be back aboard the ship, where I can shower, change clothes, have some lunch in the Rotterdam Dining Room, and have that much-needed cappuccino afterwards!
The ship departs on time at 3PM, cruising along the coast of Nuku Hiva before setting a course for San Diego, which will take us six days.
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!
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, 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.
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 across the Pacific Ocean enroute to Fanning Island and French Polynesia. I will then be back to using the slow, unreliable, and expensive satellite connection aboard the ship.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011 – Day 24 – Puerto Quetzal & Antigua, Guatemala
The cruise ship port in Puerto Quetzal is a welcome change from most of our previous ports, where we usually docked at container terminals. Today, there is a nice, clean dock, with lots of souvenir vendors, and a café and bar serving snacks and beverages, including coco loco (coconut cocktail with or without booze).
We take the Antigua On Your Own shore excursion, which provides transportation to and from Antigua, a small Guatemalan town designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our guide refers to Antigua as St. John, since this is the patron saint of soldiers, and the Spanish conquistadors established this town after the original site was destroyed by the nearby volcano. It takes the bus about 1.5 hours to travel from the port to the city. We pass three volcanoes along the way: Volcan Fuego and Volcan Acatenango to the West, and Volcan de Agua to the East. Volcan Fuego decides to put on a little show for us as we pass by, sending puffs of smoke skyward.
I can see that Antigua is normally a nice town to visit, however with all the cruise ship passengers drifting around, there are scores of Guatemalans selling trinkets everywhere. They are constantly after us to buy stuff, so it quickly becomes annoying. We wander the few blocks from our drop off point to the big town square with a cathedral and shops all around. There is a large tour group about to enter the cathedral, so we decide to walk a bit further to see La Merced Church, which is very ornate and very quiet, since it is off the beaten path. Along the way, we see the famous arch at El Carmen, and take photos of the Volcan de Agua framed by the Arch.
We stop to have some cappuccino made with genuine Guatemalan coffee, which has to be one of the best-tasting coffees I have had on the trip so far. I distract myself from all the persistent street vendors by giving myself a photographic assignment as we find our way back to the drop-off point: take photos of all the beautiful and ornate door knockers found on many of the big wooden doors to be found as entranceways to shops, restaurants, and inner courtyards.
Thursday, December 15, 2011 – Day 25 – At sea
Our position this morning is 14° 19’ N 93° 13’ W and we are drifting along at 8.6kts, just off the coast of the Mexico/Guatemala border in very smooth seas. After breakfast this morning I see a turtle drift by my cabin portholes, so I put my telephoto zoom lens on my camera, grab my binoculars, and go out on the Promenade Deck. There are lots of Sea Turtles drifting by, and I get some terrific shots. One photo in particular is a once-in-a-lifetime shot. I also see dolphins and flying fish.