Sunday, April 22, 2018

Long Spring Cruise to Mexico, Through the Panama Canal, the Caribbean, and Florida

This is the Life.....

I'm just about a year late in getting this blog up.  

Early 2017 found me happily retired and planning adventure after adventure.  As we were planning our trip to China (in March and early April), I noticed a fantastic deal on a cruise through the Panama Canal with one of our favorite cruise companies, Holland America.  (Yes, its for people like us who don't stay up late partying and like some of the more "genteel" entertainments -- cooking classes, academic lectures and classical music.)  

Anyway, the deal was so good, that I thought, "heck, why not?" and I booked our 20 day cruise and added an extra few days on our own in the Florida Keys since we landed in Ft. Lauderdale and who knows when we'll be there together again.

So, we left in late April for almost a month away from home.  (Our front yard sprinklers broke while we were gone -- so we had quite a lawn regeneration project once we got home....we now have a gardener.)

We started our adventure as we like to do, via train.  We got a ride to the Riverside Metrolink Station and rode it to Orange where we hopped onto a transfer to Oceanside. From Oceanside, we just jumped on the Coaster (San Diego County's commuter train) and ended up a the Santa Fe Depot in San Diego, just a short walk downhill to the cruise terminal.  The terminal is right near the Star of India at the San Diego Port. It was a stress-free, cheap way to get to our boat without inconveniencing those we love. And, its a bit of an adventure in itself -- as long as you have your routes well planned out in advance!

This was taken from the train on our way to the cruise terminal in San Diego -- a great way to start our adventure.

Our ship, Holland American's Maasdam.

We attended some cultural classes on Mexico and made these paper flowers.  (I remember doing something similar in elementary school.)
We used our flowers to decorate our room number in the hall.  One day, we discovered the prettiest ones (mine) missing. We had a little mystery to solve but never did find the culprit.

 Our first stop was Puerto Vallarta.  On our Mexico Riviera cruise a couple of years ago, we had the best time on a jungle 4 wheel drive, mule ride, zip-line, rappelling, water slide (and more) adventure.  As much as we both loved that, we wanted to try something new. So, this time, we arranged for an ATV adventure.  (I bought this trip on my own before we left -- not through the ship.)  We just found our way to a pick-up spot near the terminal and it worked out perfectly.

Taken at the Canopy El Eden.  Where the movie "Predator" was filmed.  I could never sit down long enough to watch that movie -- it's totally NOT my kind of film.  Still it was a fine destination for our day in PV. (But not as fun as our Outdoor Adventure by Vallarta Adventure.)

I ordered civeche at a restaurant right on the beach (our feet got wet at our table) and this is what I got....raw shrimp, cucumbers and onions in a green sauce. It wasn't quite what I expected -- and i was a little worried about the raw shrimp, but I'm a risk-taker and try to be open to new tastes, so I got through most of it but didn't quite clean my plate -- or bowl as it were.

On our way back to the ship, we stopped at a Wal-Mart (within walking distance of the port), picked up some two liter bottles of our favorite pops and got some Mexican dinero at an ATM and got back into our luxury liner in time for our nightly dinner reservation at 6.  We love the nice dinners in the dining rooms and don't usually miss them....we even enjoy getting dressed up -- either a little or a lot. And, most nights we enjoyed the shipboard entertainment as well.  Some of the entertainers I can remember are Dale Kristien (from the original Phantom of the Opera production), a fun electric marimba guy, lots of other singers, illusionists, etc., and of course the shipboard singers and dancers.    There were some great movies in the theaters and on the cabin TVs too.  We saw the movies, Sully, Lion, The Tailor of Panama, The Grand Budapest Hotel (our favorite) and quite of few others I can't remember looking back a year.

Second port, Manzanillo. We just walked through the town. I got a visor, we got just a little lost but figured out our way back without stress.

We just hung out at a lot of beaches.  I love the stress free life of a cruise or time at the beach. About the biggest worries are what to eat and how long to sleep.

At another on-the-beach restaurant, I ordered shrimp. It came with eyes, legs and feelers -- not quite what I was expecting, but, hey, why not?

Once we got to the Peninsula in Southern Mexico and Guatemala, we saw several Mayan ruins. We didn't get to any of the huge ones, but, still they were very interesting and the bus rides through the cities and towns let us see a lot of people, cars, houses and gave us a glimpse of life in Southern Mexico and Central America.

We visited a banana plantation in Nicaragua.....loved it!

Getting ready to zip line in Costa Rica

The food in Costa Rica was muey bueno!

The Panama Canal

So, this is what the trip was all about -- going through the Panama Canal. I read the David McCullough book "The Path Between the Seas" several weeks before we embarked, just to get a full understanding the the canal.  Bottom line, it was politically difficult, France tried and failed.  Roosevelt pushed hard;  the land was once Colombian but the US fomented a bit of a revolution to create Panama.  The Americans came in and finished it but with tons of deaths from Yellow Fever and years and years of problems and setbacks.
This is our ship crossing another one heading the opposite direction.
It took a complete day to go through one end of the canal -- starting in the Pacific Ocean and coming out the other end in the Carribean Sea in the Atlantic.  Bucket list item -- check!

In the Carribean

Aruba -- my first time scuba diving.  Loved it and now I want to certify so I can do it again.

After scuba diving, we went back to our ship, cleaned up, ate lunch and then hopped on a tour bus right outside the port for a $20 afternoon tour of the island.  We ran into some really fun Canadian Mormon girls who had just gotten off the huge Carnival ship.  They led everyone of the bus singin the Beach Boys Kokomo (you know, "Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya.....) all afternoon in the bus.  We loved these girls and they took this photo of John and I enjoying coconut juice.  They look cool but I don't really love lukewarm coconut water.

In Curacao, we just took a quick little submarine ride and then spent the rest of the day checking out the sweet port city of Willemstad. We found a cool museum that had free wifi. The exhibits were fine but I really enjoyed catching up on my emails, social media and getting a few messages via texts and voxer to our family members -- and the air conditioning felt great too.

Is this not the cutest port town?

Our last stop of the cruise, Turks and Caicos

We spent the morning in Turks and Caicos trying out Snuba.  It was OK, but I really prefer actual Scuba -- being tethered to our oxygen tanks cramped our style.

We asked some of the locals from our Snuba excursion where to eat and spend some time and they recommended this little beach place, Jack's Shack, a short walk from the ship, and they were right.  The food and location couldn't be beat.
I kept my bathing suit on most of the time, so after lunch, went out for a float.  These sweet kids were playing in the water near me.  I rescued their boogie boards several times when they went astray and before you know it, we were all playing together....just me and these sweet kids. They called me Miss Annette and one of the little girls said my eyes looked like blue diamonds.  We became truly the best of friends and this was one of the best times I had in this long, fun vacation.  I could have stayed for hours except for one thing.  I didn't bring sun screen and I knew my time in the sun was overspent.  I had to say good bye to these fun, friendly kids and hit the shade.

Our wonderful cabin guys.  Its so nice having a made bed (even after a nap) and chocolates and a cute towel creation waiting for us as we came in each night.  They even helped us try to find our stolen paper flowers.

The Florida Keys

After landing in Fort Lauderdale, we headed to Key Largo for a couple of nights in an AirBnB cottage rental.  We enjoyed Key Lime Pie, driving down the Overseas Highways to Key West, a day at Everglades National Park, a trip to an alligator farm, a ride on an air boat through the everglades and a fun dinner cruise and tour of very expensive homes in Fort Lauderdale on the Jungle Queen.

The Overseas Highway

Ernest Hemmingway's Home in Key West

An alligator in the wild at Everglades National Park

We both held a baby alligator -- that wasn't really on the old bucket list but I'll say "check" anyway.

We few into LAX and finished our trip the same way we started it -- on the train.  From LAX, there is a continual bus that goes to Union Station and from there, there are regular buses heading all over Southern California. We used Uber for about a five buck ride home and it was all good (except for the dead grass). And no matter how much we love to travel, there's nothing like coming home to your own kitchen and food, bathroom and most importantly, your own bed.

I has something else to come home to as well -- a new job.  I called this sweet period of rest and travel my first retirement.  I had a great job offer I just couldn't refuse.  And, I'm enjoying my new job as a sales manager for Aetna. It helps cover our health insurance (until we qualify for Medicare) and is helping save for more trips during my "real retirement".  

What a great vacation this was -- I gained six pounds and a year later, I've only lost maybe three, but I'd do it ALL again in a heartbeat.  

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

China, March 2017

We started our China vacation on the Metrolink train from Rancho Cucamonga in to Union Station in Los Angeles.  
From Union Station to LAX, we had to get on a BUS.  The "Fly Away bus isn't too bad, but there really should be trains that go to all of the airports.  I've heard that the reason trains like Metrolink don't go to the airports is that the taxi unions opposed them for obvious reasons.  Well, their business is becoming history anyway -- for other obvious reasons -- so bring on the linking trains folks!   (This beats the freeways as it is anyway.)


The flight to China is so long.
We first few to Seattle and from Seattle took a 12 hour flight to Beijing.  For hours, the plane flew over Siberia...and, yup, this is what Siberia looks like....just the way you imagined it when your learned about Russian rebels and dissidents being sent there.

This is a color photo and it was taken during the day.  But, as you can see, the smog was thick and hid the beautiful socialist architecture of one of the terminals.

The view of the control tower.

At the Beijing Airport, I was introduced to the floor-based female urinals (at least I think that's all they're for?)  Anyway, in these stalls, there's no toilet paper.  Luckily I had read this ahead of time and had little pocket packages of tissues with me.  At first it was a little awkward, but by the end of a week, I was a pro.

Customs wasn't too bad and it was nice to get the first foreign stamp in my new passport!

There was one (or two) of these in each of our hotel closets.  I'm not sure if it's for the smog or a gas attack, but, it's nice to know we're covered either way.

Our first night, we walked around near our hotel looking for an ATM.  But, sadly, we hadn't called our bank before we left the United State.  They thought our debit and credit cards had been stolen and had them locked the first time we tried using them.  The second time I tried to withdraw money, an ATM actually kept my card. We were flat out of luck that night.  Fortunately, I had thrown in some granola bars, apples, oranges and one package of freeze-dried backpacking stew into my luggage (just in case). Luckily we ate stew that night and just laughed it off.  Everything got straightened up with a quick phone call the next day!

Summer Palace, Beijing

Our Beijing adventures began with a visit to the Summer Palace.  Opened in 1750, it has a lake, gardens and beautiful art and architecture.  This is where the Dragon Lady lived in the summer.  She at her meals from over 100 tiny little plates to avoid getting poisoned.  Her opulent lifestyle contributed to the people getting ticked off at the monarchy and kicking them out of the power.

Just some sweet old windows

These ladies doing tai chi and dancing kind of made our morning.  I

After the Summer Palace, we went to the Hutong (old town) and took a ride on a rickshaw-like, pedicab.  This was a little dream come true!

We enjoyed lunch at a home in the Hutong and the sweet young mother, after cooking and serving us a delicious lunch, played a traditional Chinese tune on what they called her ancient zither.  (I've seen zithers before and this isn't much like the ones my elementary school teachers in Utah played in the classrooms.)

Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City 

Our tour guide tell us that the Chinese people revere Chairman Mao almost like a God.  Anyway, he also told us that the Chinese people liked President Obama so much for what they saw as his socialistic ideals that they call him "Obamao" a compliment.

The Great Wall

From our boat ride in the ancient canals in Hangzhou

Middle Aged couples dancing on the street corners are common in Shanghai

The Bund in Shanghai at Night

The Daoist Temple in Shanghai