Detomo's Abroad

Detomos Abroad

Dallas Texas

November 2, 2016 3:19 pm
Flying red horse - a Dallas icon from the 1930's

Flying red horse – a Dallas icon from the 1930’s

October 13-21, 2016

It’s been 13 years since our last visit to this Texas City and lots of changes. As with a lot of the US cities re-vitalization of downtown has come to Dallas. Uptown is the new place for millennials and broken down warehouses are replaced with lofts and upscale apartments. Residential towers are planted among high-rise office buildings. Market and Main streets and the West End are hopping with restaurants. We are here for the SEG (Society of Exploration Geophysicists) Annual Meeting and Convention. We were greeted with the SEG silhouetted on to the hotel facade. It took us a while to realize that even our hotel did not exist on our last visit. The front of the convention center has a massive bronze cattle drive sculpture and it is awesome to walk among the “cattle” in the middle of downtown.

Hotel lighting welcoming the SEG.

Hotel lighting welcoming the SEG.

 

Cattle sculptures at the front of the convention center.

Cattle sculptures at the front of the convention center.

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I also had the opportunity to see a few local sights and to tour the Perot Museum of Nature and Science – a massive modern building offering dynamic and interactive experiences for visitors of all ages. The Earth Hall has an earthquake simulator for one to experience, and the Energy Hall has a drilling well and petroleum plant. There were fossils and gems, a hall devoted to the human body, and exhibits everywhere that encouraged touching, building and exploring. You could learn to program a robot or even pilot one around. On the basement floor was a Children’s Museum for those under 5 years and an Athletic Museum, which was a favorite with the teens. A most fascinating place to visit.

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I also spent a day at the Arboretum when the autumn flowers were in bloom, and the Pumpkin Village was amazing. There were over 50 different kinds of pumpkins and 90,000 pumpkins covering everything – so many of every kind and color. There were houses built out of pumpkins as well as spirals, and there were horses made from cornstalks. The gardens were interlaced with creeks, waterfalls, and lakes, as well as eight bronze statues seated on benches throughout. It was an outing away from city noises and distractions as we saw hundreds of monarch butterflies among the fall flowers.

Pumpkin House at Pumpkin Village

Pumpkin House at Pumpkin Village

So many Pumpkins

So many Pumpkins

Cornstalk horses.

Cornstalk horses.

We attended the International Reception which included Russian dancing and food. To close the convention, we attended a the Wrap-up party which stated “bring your cowboy boots” and we had the opportunity to ride a mechanical bull and to eat Texan food while John Wayne movies played on the wall and line dancing was led on the stage.

Russian dancers

Russian dancers

Rocky riding the mechanical bull

Rocky riding the mechanical bull

 

Caribbean Sailing Adventure

October 25, 2016 5:50 pm

September 23- October 11, 2016

Once again this year we would have the opportunity to sail in the Caribbean with close friends, Nikki, Peter and Jackson. This time, we went “bigger & better” bareboat chartering a 56’ Dufour monohull in Grenada from Dream Yachts, and beginning our adventure sailing ~500 miles north to the British Virgin Islands. We began by flying on Friday from Orlando, through Miami, to Grenada where we had a 2-day pre-trip stay at our favorite beach resort, located between the airport and marina. Here we enjoyed the swim-up pool bar, the lush, tropical landscaping, and took a stroll up the beach to a familiar restaurant named “Umbrella’s” where we met our sail-mates for dancing & dinner. The next day was spent relaxing at the pool, while prepping for our trip with a visit to the marina, immigration, and local stores. Sunday was “boat check-out” day, where we familiarized ourselves with the generator, air conditioning, bow thrusters, desalinator water-maker, and assorted high tech devices which were part of this beautiful, large boat! That night, the 5 of us slept aboard and prepared to leave the marina early the next morning.

Our Boat and home for the next 3 weeks - "Le Titien"

Our Boat and home for the next 3 weeks –            “Le Titien”

Monday’s sail started beautifully with a dozen dolphins playing off our bow as we headed north from Grenada towards St. Vincent.

Underway with our first dolphin escort!

Underway with our first dolphin escort!

After stopping at the island of Union to check into the country and arrange an evening lobster dinner, we proceeded to the Tobago Cays where we hooked up to a mooring ball next to the sea turtle sanctuary and swam in the crystal blue waters. The area abounded with large red starfish and sea turtles whom were calmly eating grasses from the seafloor in only 10 feet of water, and oblivious to our observations. That night, the “boys” came to the boat to “collect us” and take us to a nearby shore where they grilled a fabulous lobster dinner including salad, rice, potatoes and vegetables, all washed down with homemade rum punch. After feeding the enormous puffer fish that came to shore in curiosity, we watched the sunset before returning to our boat in the dark to prepare for tomorrow’s trip.

Our lobster feast!

Our lobster feast!

Relaxing at the Tobago Cays.

Relaxing at the Tobago Cays.

Our colorful women aboard...

Our colorful women aboard…

And the guys aboard.

And the guys aboard.

 

Now we had been following weather reports of an Atlantic tropical storm called Matthew which was moving our way, but next morning we left the Tobago Cays and hoped to make it north to the island of St. Lucia. After a breakfast of scrambled eggs with leftover lobster, we checked on the weather again, and called in to the boat’s home base. Unfortunately, Matthew had intensified and laid a course that would intersect us at St. Lucia, so we decided to turn back south and take refuge in a protected harbor called “Blue Lagoon” located at the southern end of the island of St. Vincent. This brought us into one of the most unique encounters we have ever had while sailing, as we came upon a single, ~45’ humpback whale heading east. He was cruising at the surface and allowed us to approach within a few hundred feet of him as we followed for 15-20 minutes. Finally, he dove deep and flipped his tail on the surface to finally vanish from our sight.

Sighting a 45"Humpback whale near St. Vincent.

Sighting a 45″Humpback whale near St. Vincent.

On this note, we returned to a journey to Blue Lagoon, where we were met by the local marina representative, who helmed us through a treacherous reef into a small protected cove where we would be connected to a mooring ball, shielded from the winds by the surrounding mountains, and protected from the waves by the surrounding shallow reef. We spent the rest of the day visiting with the locals who were in full preparation themselves for the storm. We returned to the boat where we removed everything topsides that we could, took down the bimini, dropped the sail and boom, and lashed everything tightly to the deck. That night we settled in with our generator and air conditioning to see what the coming day would bring.

All battened down for Hurricane Matthew.

All battened down for Hurricane Matthew.

Wednesday we spent the day weathering (what was now Hurricane Category 1) Matthew’s fury as it aimed for 30 miles north of us between the islands of St. Vincent and St. Lucia. The cabin was comfortable, calm and protected as we spend the day playing cards, drinking and eating.

Matthew passed during the night and early morning, as it headed off north east towards Haiti and Cuba. Accordingly, the morning’s rain slowly gave way to a calm sunny afternoon, as we then took time out on deck and worked to reassemble the boat’s gear.

We left Blue Lagoon at daybreak on Friday morning and set off on out original plan to sail to St. Lucia. Having now lost 2 days, we no longer had the extra time we had planned into the schedule for sightseeing along the way, and instead headed straight to Marigold Bay along northwest St. Lucia. Along the way, we decided to put out a handline behind the boat, and was rewarded with our first fish – a 3-foot barracuda – which we promptly turned into “barracuda bites” for a future dinner. However, in the ocean channel between the two islands where the hurricane’s eye had passed, we ran into a sea of debris full of coconuts, trees and plastic washed out to sea by the storm and requiring an extreme level of vigilance. Finally, we made it to Marigold Bay, a beautiful, picturesque inlet harbor which we had visited before. Here, we would take the opportunity to refill our fuel tanks and then took dinner onshore at Pirate’s Bay Restaurant.

Saturday morning, we left early to be sure we made it north to the island of Martinique, where we were scheduled to pick up another sailing member. Again, along the way we were escorted by about a dozen dolphins who played along the boat’s bow-wave. We made it to the port of Marin mid-afternoon, where we docked at the marina and met-up with Scott. We then proceeded to restock groceries before enjoying dinner of duck and steak upstairs at a Marina restaurant called “20”.

Sunday, we left Martinique and started heading further north towards Guadeloupe. Because this would be a very long journey, we decided to go around the island of Dominica to the east, hoping for better winds to boost us along more quickly. Initially, we ran into fields of crab traps closer to the island, and went 20 miles offshore to help avoid them. Again, we pulled a fishing line behind the boat, and again, we caught another 3-foot barracuda. That evening, while under sail, we breaded the first barracuda bites and fried them. This we served up with salad, rice and corn for a feast on-board. Unfortunately, the winds were not favorable for us, and so we were traveling at only 4 knots. Because of this, we decided to sail all night along the coast of Dominica. The night was relatively clear, but with no moon, and with the worry about potentially catching debris in the prop, we slowly sailed along with the engine off.

Monday morning sunrise came with us at the northeastern end of Dominica, where we turned northwest and headed to the islands of Guadeloupe called Isle de Saintes – a very quaint “French” town that we find enjoyable and relaxing. Unfortunately, during the night, we had broken one set of “lazy jacks”, which help guide the sail when raising and lowering it., and we had developed a small tear in the mainsail’s edge along the mast. Our generator had also stopped working. Therefore, some of us spent time at the boat waiting for a mechanic while hoisting Rocky to the top of the mast to repair the “lazy jacks”, while others went ashore to check-in and look for a sailmaker that could sell us some “sail tape” and for a store to restock our ice. The mechanic arrived and discovered a dead fuel pump for the generator, but no replacement was available. And so he “jury-rigged” it with a cheap, manual override. While there, he also found and cleaned the Desalinator filter, which brought it operationally back online. It was a busy day, and that night we relaxed on deck with a barbeque chicken dinner cooked on the boat’s grill.

Tuesday morning, we left Isle de Saintes and continued our journey north on the west side of Guadeloupe. The winds were favorable that day, but first, Rocky, Peter and Jackson repaired the sail with “sail tape” and with hand-stitching using the boat’s sail repair kit. With the repair, we averaged 7 knots, and took the time to stop at Pigeon Island, a marine sanctuary off the west coast of Guadeloupe preserved in honor of Jacques Cousteau. We picked up a mooring ball there and spent a couple of hours swimming, snorkeling and exploring the beautiful corals and fish that resided there. After a swimming, we had a quick lunch and left to continue our journey to the port city of DeShaies on the northwest coast of Guadeloupe. Here we had drinks and shopped ashore before having dinner in a fantastic little French restaurant called “la Kaz du Douanier”, where we partook of delicious veal and French red wine.

French Village on Isle de Saintes of Guadeloupe.

French Village on Isle de Saintes of Guadeloupe.

Wednesday, we sailed from the island of Guadeloupe to Antigua with excellent winds, where we entered the historic English Harbor and tied up at the Dream Yachts Fuel Dock. Again, the mechanics tried to solve the generator fuel problem, but again, they did not have the part available, as the temporary repair was now starting to leak diesel slowly into the bilge. We would have to wait until we reached the BVI to get a final repair. That night, we walked a short distance to the nearby Jolly Harbor where we had dinner and drinks at “Trappas”, a local restaurant.

Thursday we sailed from Antigua to St. Kitts (also known as St. Cristopher). Today, we hooked a 4 ½ ft. long Mahi Mahi which we cleaned and fileted while underway as the rear of the boat had a sink and cutting board hidden under one of the benches. Because we arrive there late, we dropped anchor in the bay at St. Kitts and grilled our second barracuda on the grill and enjoyed a starry night on the boat’s deck. That night, we followed the internet news as Hurricane Matthew was now getting ready to come up the Florida East Coast, potentially impacting Peter and Nikki’s and Rocky and Julie’s homes and relatives located there.

The first Mahi Mahi - the catch of the trip!

The first Mahi Mahi – the catch of the trip!

Friday, we sailed the relatively short distance to St. Bart’s, where we took up a mooring ball and went ashore in search of supplies and adventure. The girl’s enjoyed the chance to shop before we gathered at a local pub for afternoon drinks. That night we found “25” Quarter, a small “hip” restaurant for dinner where we played beer-pong with the local and left our mark on their chalkboard wall.

Saturday, we left St. Bart’s very early to sail the long distance to the British Virgin Islands. Along the way, we caught another, albeit smaller, Mahi Mahi, which along with the first catch, we proceeded to grill on the Barbeque while under sail. The fish feast was capped by a last minute small tuna catch, which we filleted into sushi for our dinner’s appetizer. Dinner was capped with after dinner drinks before we settled in for a bit more of night sailing into the BVI, where we picked up a mooring ball in the dark at ~10pm in “The Bight” bay of Norman Island.

Friends sailing - Rocky & Peter

Friends sailing – Rocky & Peter

Sunday, we had to deliver Scott and Jackson to The U.S. Virgin Island of St. Thomas for Scott’s morning airplane departure. After rising at 4:30am, we sailed around St. John’s to Crown Bay Marina in Charlotte Amalie near the airport on St. Thomas. After dropping them at the fuel dock, we ran afoul of the Port when diesel from our bilge and fueling created a sheen that required reporting to the Coast Guard, and then a short boat “impoundment” while we checked-in with U.S. Immigration. After straightening out all of the requirements and formalities, we took brunch at the Marina during a huge downpour before leaving and sailing to the Dream Yacht Base at Hodge’s Creek Marina on Tortola in the BVI. That night, the remaining four of us taxied into town for drinks and dinner at Pusser’s before returning to the boat for the night.

Julie relaxing at sunset.

Julie relaxing at sunset.

Monday, the boat finally got its generator fuel pump replaced, and the bilge cleaned up from the diesel that had been deposited there. That afternoon, Walt and Allison, and their friends, Jay and Kathy arrived to join us on the boat, and after settling in, we all went back to Pusser’s again for dinner. That night was spent telling stories and drinking, before an evening of sleep – the last on the boat for Julie and Rocky, as the next morning saw us saying our goodbyes as their adventure was just beginning.

Sanibel Island Florida

September 7, 2016 5:16 pm

August 2016

Rocky moved to the East Coast of Florida over 50 years ago, but in all that time had never been to Sanibel Island, the USA Capital for Seashell collecting. Julie, being an avid beachcomber, had also never been to the southwest coast of Florida, and so it seemed appropriate for a short trip to the Island. Sanibel Island is a 4-hour drive from our home on the east coast across the south-central part of the state. It is a “sleepy” community of hardy locals during the summer, that grows into a crowded retreat from the north during the winter for weary “snowbirds”. The relaxing morning drive takes us just north of Lake Okeechobee, through expansive orange groves and grazing cattle pastures, until we reach Fort Meyers, and then a short trip south to Sanibel Island. Island access is over a toll bridge that costs $6, but once on the Island, we were prepared to stay a couple of days with a hotel reservation in the center of the Island right on the beach.

Julie at the connection between Sanibel Island onto Captiva Island

Julie at the connection between Sanibel Island onto Captiva Island

We used the afternoon to explore the Island and its adjoining northern extension, Captiva Island. Sanibel Island is a narrow sandbar about 10 miles long and never more than 2 miles wide, that connects over a narrow channel to Captiva Island, about 5 miles long, located to the north. The islands have maintained their classic, nostalgic charm from the 1950’s and 1960’s, with many small bungalows hidden among the low-rise resorts and hotels. Before having lunch at Th Mucky Duck on the beach in Captiva, we went to Bowman Beach, where we recovered a nice collection of Florida Fighting Conch shells. After lunch, we checked into our hotel, and after checking out the local beach, took a drive through the local wildlife preserve, J.N. “Ding” Darling, where we saw local snakes, manatees and gators. Then we drove to the Sanibel Lighthouse on the southern tip of the Island to walk “the flats” during low-tide. The area was full of swimmers and shell-seekers, and covered with so many sand-dollars that one could barely walk without stepping on them. That night we had dinner at a local restaurant, Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille, before settling in back at the hotel for a western shore sunset and a nice bottle of wine.

“Booty” found on the beach during our brief visit, including a number of beautiful Florida Fighting Conch and Lightning Whelk shells.

“Booty” found on the beach during our brief visit, including a number of beautiful Florida Fighting Conch and Lightning Whelk shells.

 

A look northwest along Bowman’s where few people visit.

A look northwest along Bowman’s where few people visit.

 

A view of our hotel, The West Wind Inn, located between Tarpon Bay Beach and Bowman’s Beach facing south on the Gulf of Mexico

A view of our hotel, The West Wind Inn, located between Tarpon Bay Beach and Bowman’s Beach facing south on the Gulf of Mexico

The next morning, we had breakfast at a spectacular, local establishment, The OEC (Over Easy Cafe), before traveling back to the north end of the Island to explore the Turners Beach and Blind Pass Beach. By now, our shell collection was growing quite large, and so we decided a visit to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum would be appropriate. The Museum is also located on the Island, and has world-class examples of seashells from the local area and from around the world. After one last beach visit, we then left the island and began the drive home. A short but wonderful excursion into a “backyard” spot that we will likely come visit again.

 

Sunday morning breakfast at “The OEC”, The Over Easy Café, where visitors and local both congregate

Sunday morning breakfast at “The OEC”, The Over Easy Café, where visitors and locals both congregate.

A Whirlwind Tour of the Canadian Rockies

July 16, 2016 5:19 pm

June 2016

Our adventure to the Canadian Rockies begins in the city of Calgary in the Canadian Province of Alberta. While Rocky is busy providing classroom instruction to Canadian oil staff, Julie arrives and takes in the sites of this modern, yet frontier, city. The city of Calgary is laid out along the Bow River, with its streets oriented north-south and east-west to take advantage of the sun’s path overhead. The city was founded as the portal to Western Canada and served as the commerce and trade center in the region, experiencing significant growth around the turn from the 19th to the 20th century. In order to see and enjoy much of the city quickly, Julie scheduled a private, 2-hour Segway tour that explored the numerous parks, islands and landmarks around the city while learning its rich history. The city still has many reminders of its hosting of the 1988 Winter Olympics sprinkled among its architecturally interesting modern skyscrapers, beautiful gardens and public art. Connecting the downtown is an excellent public transit system and an historic, pedestrian town center along 8th Street. During the winter, people traverse the city through its extensive “Plus-15” – a system of skywalks that connect most major building above ground level. But, during the summer, the sidewalks downtown and along the river fill with an abundance of cafes and restaurants where we enjoyed lunches and dinners.

Inside the Plus-15 at Devonian Gardens

Inside the Plus-15 at Devonian Gardens

 

Julie Touring on a Segway

Julie Touring on a Segway

 

1988 Olympic Ski Jump

1988 Olympic Ski Jump

When Rocky was free for the weekend, we rented a car and began our adventure to the Canadian Rockies. Traveling upstream along the Bow river, our first destination was Lake Louise, located north of the resort town of Banff, famous for its hiking, climbing, water sports, and home to a resort that celebrates its location for its beauty, and for being the birthplace of North American winter skiing and climbing. From there, we visited nearby Lake Moraine, where the view of 10 mountain peaks once graced the back of the Canadian $20 bill. Then it was a short trip to the other side of the Bow valley to the Lake Louise Ski Resort where we took a ski lift up the side of the mountain to enjoy the view of the valley and Lake Louise from afar. After enjoying lunch at the local lodge there, we continued our journey by retracing our route back past the town of Banff to the lakes of Minnewanka and Two Jacks. Although the weather had degraded, we were lucky enough to see a small group of big-horned sheep and still enjoyed the serenity and beauty of the area. Then, we went into the town of Banff via the “Tunnel Road” that meanders along the mountain side above the town. Once in town, we visited the Bow waterfall and marveled at the historical building, such as the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel build nearly 130 years ago, before finally checking into our hotel. That night, we shopped before we ate dinner in the center of town, and enjoyed watching the people in town for its annual marathon race.

Moraine Lake & the ten peaks

Moraine Lake & the ten peaks

 

Lake Louise from the Other Side of Bow Valley

Lake Louise from the Other Side of Bow Valley

 

Bighorn sheep

Bighorn sheep

 

Old Banff

Old Banff

The next morning, we decided to drive the 2+ hours north on Hwy 93 to the Columbia Icefields which are located at the southern end of Jasper National Park. Here we toured the Athabasca Visitor’s Center where we began our adventure with a ride onto the surface of the Athabasca Glacier in the all-terrain Ice Explorer. The trip included traversing the glacier’s lateral moraine and traveling out onto the glacier where we explored on foot. The glacier was crisscrossed with rivulets of melt water and ice-cracks that penetrate to unknown depths. We were careful where we ventured, but we explored the ice sheet for about an hour, before re-boarding our Ice Explorer for the return trip. After this adventure, we were bused a short way to the Glacier Skywalk, a cliff-edged, glass-bottomed walkway suspended 918’ over the glacial valley where giant glaciers still rest above and the spectacular glacier-formed Sunwapta Valley stretches below. From here, the view was spectacular in all directions, and the geologic history of the area was clearly exposed. After lunch at the Visitor’s Center, we drove back south towards Banff when we spotted two moose grazing in a roadside meadow near the Vermillion Lakes. This last highlight sent us happily driving back to Calgary where our whirlwind Canadian Rocky Mountain Adventure came to a close.

Columbia Icefields

Columbia Icefields

 

Ice Explorer Vehicle

Ice Explorer Vehicle

 

Julie on the Athabasca Glacier

Julie on the Athabasca Glacier

 

The Glass Observation Arch Skyway

The Glass Observation Arch Skyway

 

Moose in the Meadow

Moose in the Meadow

2016 Caribbean Carnival Cruise

April 20, 2016 8:42 pm

April, 2016

Miami – Half Moon Cay – St. Thomas – Puerto Rico – Grand Turk – Miami

A few weeks before the cruise, we received an excellent “last-minute” offer from Carnival to travel their 7-day Exotic Eastern Caribbean Cruise out of Miami. This cruise was appealing to us since it was such a “good deal” and our schedule was open at that time, and Julie had never been to Grand Turk. Then, two days before leaving, Carnival called us up and offered an “upgrade” to a balcony room on the Lido Deck, which we accepted! On Sunday, we drove to Miami (~2 ½ hours) and parked at a remote lot before getting priority boarding aboard the Carnival Splendor, because of the number of Carnival cruises we historically have been on. After the normal formalities, we departed Miami on time and began our exploration of the ship.

Julie on deck of the Carnival Splendor getting ready to set sail from Miami, Florida

Julie on deck of the Carnival Splendor getting ready to set sail from Miami, Florida

The Carnival Splendor is the only Carnival ship in its class, since it was purchased, instead of custom-built for Carnival. It carries ~3000 passengers and another ~1200 staff. We were impressed with the ship’s staff, including our first experience of having a female Cruise Director, Chloe, who was excellent. In addition, the evening entertainment “shows” were energetic and exciting, performed by an in-house cast of 8 singer-dancers (4 males, 4 females) who were vey talented and outstanding. Usually, after the shows we attended the Comedy Club shows, which showcased an array of talented individuals.

View of the ship from shore at Half Moon Cay

View of the ship from shore at Half Moon Cay

On Monday, we arrived at Carnival’s private island beach, Half Moon Cay, where we enjoyed swimming, snorkeling, walking and laying in the sun, while being entertained and enjoying an island barbeque. We walked to the other side of the island where we watched stingrays swim near the shore and had a great day just relaxing. That night was the ‘70’s music show “V.I.P” which found Rocky being selected as one of 15 individuals that were interviewed on a live broadcast and brought upstage to participate with the dancers.

Stingrays swimming near shore in Half Moon Cay

Stingrays swimming near shore in Half Moon Cay

Tuesday was a “sea day”, and so we enjoyed the pool decks, the sun chairs, and one of the 5 hot tubs on board. That night was the first “elegant evening” aboard the ship, and we enjoyed all-you-can eat lobsters before meeting the captain and crew, and taking in the evening’s show, “88 Keys”, focusing on hit piano music of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s!

View from our balcony of the boats in the bay at St. Thomas

View from our balcony of the boats in the bay at St. Thomas

Wednesday brought us to the U.S. Virgin island of St. Thomas, where we scheduled a Catamaran Champagne cruise to the nearby island of St. John’s. St. John’s is 80% National Park, and so only about 600 people live on the island, but the beaches are fantastic. We picked up a mooring ball off of Honeymoon Beach where we swan and snorkeled along the reef before swimming to shore and talking a short stroll. Julie successfully scoured the beaches for her “beach glass” before we swam back to the boat and began the journey back to St. Thomas, all the while drinking champagne and rum punch, and enjoying cheese and crackers. A fine trip! That night we checked out the comedy, the casinos and the music nightclubs.

Fish and Coral at St. John’s Honeymoon Beach

Fish and Coral at St. John’s Honeymoon Beach

The next day, we arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a place we have been many times before. Therefore, we decided to do something different and take a zip-line trip in the nearby mountains. The trip only accommodated 22 of us from the ship, and after a short bus ride, followed by a steep “tractor-pull tram” ride, we were outfitted with harnesses and helmets for the 9 different traverses set out beneath the beautiful rain forest canopy of the National Park Forest. We rode an overhead sky-tram to the top of the mountain rainforest to begin our adventure down. The traverses ranged from about a hundred yards long to over a quarter mile long, and included a vertical rappel/drop at one station. We had a great time and recorded most of our “zips” with a helmet-mounted GoPro! After returning to the ship, we left Puerto Rico and headed south, spending our evening checking out the local bars and music venues.

Julie outfitted for zip-lining at La Marquesa in Puerto Rico

Julie outfitted for zip-lining at La Marquesa in Puerto Rico

 

View of the Old Fort as we are leaving San Juan, Puerto Rico

View of the Old Fort as we are leaving San Juan, Puerto Rico

 

“Octopus” towel art on board the Splendor

“Octopus” towel art on board the Splendor

Friday, we arrived at the island of Grand Turk – a beautiful “pearl” in the Caribbean that Rocky had last visited ~30 years ago! We disembarked the ship to enjoy the small shopping village and free beach chairs and proceeded to enjoy the crystal-blue water. The snorkeling right off the beach was great, with many fish, some coral and a series of old anchors and cannons lying right at the edge of “The Wall” – a precipitous drop-off to great depths that borders the island and attracts divers of all ages. Julie collect a huge amount of sea-glass, and we enjoyed the day under the palms and in the water. Tonight was the second “elegant night”, so we dressed up and took pictures. That night, the show was “Epic Rock”, a fantastic medley of dancing and singing dedicated to the epic rock and roll of the last 50 years!

View over Grand Turk island

View over Grand Turk island

 

Julie at our chairs on the beach in Grand Turk

Julie at our chairs on the beach in Grand Turk

Saturday was another “day at sea” as we sped our way back towards Miami. The day was filled with free cocktail parties – one for the V.I.P. selection, one for being “platinum” frequent cruisers, etc. We drank free nearly all day, before saying goodbye to our dinner companions, watching the evening show, “80’s Pop to the Max”, and packing our bags.
Sunday, we docked early, and were off the boat, through customs, and in our car driving home by 9:30am. A great cruising adventure!

 Julie with Cruise Drector, Chloe

Julie with Cruise Drector, Chloe

Some of the performers from the show at the V.I.P. party

Some of the performers from the show at the V.I.P. party

 

 

Adventures “Down Under” AUS

March 13, 2016 7:59 pm

January 2016

After nearly 3 weeks in lovely New Zealand, we could not return home without spending at least a little time in Australia! Since the east coast of Australia was only a few hours away, we flew from the end of our Backroads Trip in Queenstown to Sydney, Australia.
Part-3: Visiting the Cities of Australia’s East Coast
We arrived at the airport in Sydney midday on Thursday, and caught a taxi to The Swiss Hotel, where we would be spending the next few nights. It was located in the middle of downtown, near the Metro train station, but within walking distance of the harbor, bridge and opera house. That afternoon, we explored the streets and shops around the hotel, stopped for sandwiches and a bottle of wine, and spent the evening planning and making reservations for our activities over the next few days.

Julie & Pam under a large fig tree at the Sydney Conservatory of Music

Julie & Pam under a large fig tree at the Sydney Conservatory of Music

Friday started out rainy, but it did not deter us from walking to the Conservatory of Music at the entrance of the Government House, built in the 1850’s. It was an historic building that was nearly fully restored, and it was surrounded by old and magnificent gardens, including 160-year-old fig trees that dwarfed anything around them. As the weather began to clear, we strolled down to Sydney Harbour and along the waters of Farm Cove to the iconic Sydney Opera House, where we had reservations to tour the building. The Opera House had a long, storied history as it was built from a design mimicking sails, submitted by Jorn Utzon of Denmark, without any certainty that it could actually be built. The early cost estimates were in the $12 million range, and at the end of the day, it ended up costing over $100 million! Jorn oversaw the construction for the site preparation and outer shells of the buildings, but disputes drove him from the project back to Denmark, and he never set foot in Australia again. The infrastructure goes 5 stories down beneath the opera house and studios that everyone sees, as this is where the offices, delivery docks, and infrastructure is all located. We toured all of the buildings and took “peeks” at rehearsals and sets in the playhouse and studio theaters, as well as the opera house and symphony house. After the Sydney Opera House tour, we took a ferry for the hour-long trip to the town of Manly, located near the entrance to the Harbour, and home of iconic surfing legends. Once there, we walked on the Manly beach, watched the surfers and surfing classes, and explored the town and local botanical gardens. After a nice Mexican lunch at the wharf, we caught the ferry back to Sydney. On the way back to our hotel, we stopped into the famous Queen Victoria Building, a palatial building converted into a high-class shopping mall, full of stained glass windows and ceiling, and decorated with beautiful and colorful floor tiles. Hanging strategically within the mall are two large animated clocks that play on the hour. That night we ate Chinese before returning to the hotel for wine and a rousing game of Eucher (cards).

View of the Sydney Opera House from the top of Sydney Harbour

View of the Sydney Opera House from the top of Sydney Harbour

 

One of the famous clocks suspended in the Queen Victoria Building

One of the famous clocks suspended in the Queen Victoria Building

On Saturday, we walked to “The Strand” and ate an Aussie breakfast – Italian style. Then we purchased “Opal Cards” for $10 each which would get us free travel all day tomorrow (Sunday) on the Metro train (and bus, and ferry) system. We then walked through Hyde park to St. Mark’s Cathedral, which had preserved its original wood buttresses and relics of the dead. Then we headed over to the Sydney Botanical Gardens, where we had lunch, and then, finally back down to the water’s edge onto Mrs. Macquarie Point, where we each sat in Mrs. Macquarie’s chair and took pictures of the water, flowers and ourselves. From here, we stopped for a tour through the New South Wales (NSW) State library to see the “What a Life” rock music photography display by Tony Mott, and an emotional flower exhibit in commemoration of the nearby Martin Place Siege of December 16 ,2014, where Sydney residents lost their lives. We then walked to the Sydney Harbour Bridge for our sunset hike to the top of the bridge. Upon arriving, we had to undergo a breathalyzer test before changing clothes into jumpsuits, where every single thing on your person could be hooked on or clamped down – no watches – no earrings – no cameras! After passing through metal detectors, we were strapped into harnesses that connected each of us to a stainless steel cable that would run the length of the climb and tour. Our small group of 12 then climbed through and up the beams of the heaviest steel bridge in the world, until reaching the top of the upper beam, which we then proceeded to walk on, until we reached the summit at the middle of the bridge, just as the sun was setting. Our guide took pictures of each of us, and our group of four, and Julie and I sent Mike his 35th Birthday Wishes via a short video. We then made our way back down with the whole trip taking nearly 3 hours. That night, it was simple burgers for dinner, and, after having walked over 25 miles that day, we simply had a few nightcaps and went to bed.

Rocky & Julie at the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge

Rocky & Julie at the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge

Sunday morning, we used our Opal cards to negotiate our way onto a Metro train out of Sydney to Featherdale Wildlife Park. The hour-long train ride was followed by a brief bus ride to the gates of the Park just in time for its daily opening. Inside, we were treated to seeing much of the native wildlife of Australia, including its huge crocodiles, its numerous types of kangaroos, and it strange assortment of birds, reptiles and other mammals. We had the good fortune to pet a koala bear, to feed an assortment of wallabies and kangaroos, and to see the “little penguins” eat close-up. After the day there, we had a late lunch before taking the bus and train back to Sydney. Once in Sydney, we walked back to the Harbour Bridge to climb to the top of one of the bridge’s massive pylons for a final scenic view of the city. After taking pictures there, we stopped in a nearby pub in an area known as “The Rocks” to have dinner and to watch the Green Bay Packers play their NFL Playoff game on Australian television. To A.J.’s dismay – they lost! We finished off a great day with a game of cards in our room and an Australian bottle of wine.

Julie petting a Koala Bear at Featherdale Wildlife Park

Julie petting a Koala Bear at Featherdale Wildlife Park

Rocky feeding a Wallaby at Featherdale Wildlife Park

Rocky feeding a Wallaby at Featherdale Wildlife Park

 

Australia's "Little Penguins" getting ready to eat

Australia’s “Little Penguins” getting ready to eat

 

View of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from its pylon

View of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from its pylon

It was now Monday, January 18th, and time to leave Sydney. After a taxi ride to the airport, we caught a flight to Melbourne, Australia and taxied into the heart of town to the Pegasus Hotel. Once checked in, the four of us explored Burke street and went to a local restaurant on the corner for dinner. Again we gathered to make plays for our time in the city, to enjoy a lively game of cards, and to drink the local wine, before calling it a night.
Tuesday’s are Market Day in Melbourne, and so we walked over to the nearby, massive “Farmer’s Market” for breakfast and shopping. After exploring the wares of the locals, we walked through the city’s Central Business District and shops to Federation Square – an eclectic set of building featuring cultural and artistic centers. Then we walked over to Melbourne Park, where the Australian Open Tennis Tournament was just getting underway. It is easy and convenient to get around in downtown Melbourne, since there are street cars nearly everywhere, and in the Center of Town, they are free! After the Tennis Expo, we walked to an area in the park where Cook’s Cottage is preserved. Although Captain Cook is credited with “rediscovering” Australia, his cottage was actually in England, until the City of Melbourne bought it, had it disassembled, shipped, and reassembled. Now, one can explore the history and life of the man, and dress up in period-clothes and costumes from those times. After a long day exploring the gardens and town, we made our way back across the river to our hotel for “Happy Hour” before heading down the street to a Chinese Restaurant for dinner.

Rocky & Julie at the Australian Open Tournament

Rocky & Julie at the Australian Open Tournament

Wednesday, after breakfast, we trammed and walked to the “Old Treasury” Building. This is the building that stored that vast gold bars that characterized the great Australian “Gold Rush” that turned Melbourne into a thriving metropolis. We then returned to town and visited “The Ugg House” – home to UGG boots and shoes, and Pam tried to find a pair that we just the right shade of pink to suit her. For lunch, we had reservations on The Colonial Tram Restaurant – a traveling restaurant that only consists of 3 cars that travel the tracks at lunch time serving a spectacular 4 course meal with free drinks over a 2.5-hour journey. We took a tour of the city while we were served an outstanding Aussie meal including champagne, wine and port – duck, steaks, and deserts – all with excellent service. Then we explored the waterfront where the river meets the harbor and where old sailing ships and restaurants abound. Finally, we made our way back past the hotel to the Wednesday Evening Market, where live bands and street vendors abounded. We joined with the locals to have a BBQ dinner with wine and beer here tonight before heading back to the hotel for the evening.

The Colonial Tramcar Restaurant - a traveling restaurant

The Colonial Tramcar Restaurant – a traveling restaurant

The next day, we took a combination of tram and walking to make the journey to the Carlton United Brewery. This major Aussie brewery is the result of a uniting of a number of local breweries to compete with the local hotels who used to brew their own beer. Today, it consists of 7 major brands, including: Carlton, Fosters and Peroni. We toured the entire operation and finished up with a large tasting of their many brands. While there, we were treated to be able to get up close and personal with the Carlton Clydesdales while they were hooked up to a typical beer wagon. After returning to town, we toured the Royal Botanical Gardens – a series of footpaths and walkways that wind through manicured examples of rainforest, meadows and gardens – all beautifully and carefully taken care of. Finally, we spent our early evening shopping before getting dinner along the River and returning to the hotel to pack.

Impressionist photo of Pam & Julie behind a waterfall pane

Impressionist photo of Pam & Julie behind a waterfall pane

Friday, January 22nd, and we prepare to finish our month-long visit to the land “Down Under”. We showed up at the airport, only to find that our return flight is cancelled due to weather problems over the Pacific. Instead, the airline put us up at the Mantra Hotel in North Melbourne for the night so that they can fly us to Sydney the next morning to connect us to a flight that returns us to the USA via San Francisco. That all goes well, but when we get to San Francisco, (1 day late), our flight to Washington, D.C.is also cancelled, this time due to the snow storms in the northeast. Rather than spend another couple of nights stranded, Julie and I fly to Houston to spend two nights with our friends, Dave and Angie, before finally getting home 3 days late.
What a great adventure!!

Cycling the “Down Under” South Island NZ

March 12, 2016 8:30 pm

January 2016

After spending 10 days ushering in the New Year, 2016, in the North Island of New Zealand with our Backroads Multisport Adventure, we headed to New Zealand’s South Island where we would begin Part 2 of our adventure, with a challenging cycling trip along the island.
Part-2: Backroad’s Cycling Trip in New Zealand’s South Island
We arrived in Christchurch at the airport fresh from our North Island adventure on Monday, January 4th, and immediately took taxi’s to our hotels near the train station. We gathered up at Speight’s Ale House for dinner and made our plans for meeting everyone for the first day of our new trip the next morning. It had been a long day, and we called an early night after a dinner of burgers, beer, fries and wine.

Tower at Railway Station in Christchurch.

Tower at Railway Station in Christchurch.

The next morning, we gathered with all of our gear at the train station, fully dressed ready to ride bikes. The six of us were joined by 16 other people this time, and they came from Brazil to Canada. Our guides, Bradley and Darren, would be supported by two other staff, Grant and Sophia. After loading up all of our gear into luggage vehicles that Grant, Darren and Sophia would drive, Bradley joined the rest of us on the train for a cross-country scenic tour through the Southern Alps, from the east coast to the west. Along the way, the scenery was gorgeous, and, in addition to a dining car, there was an “open air” car without windows where one could take pictures. As we climbed into the snow covered passes, however, most people stayed to the inside cars. Near the midway point, the train stopped at Arthur’s Pass, allowing us to stretch our legs outdoors and view the local flora.

Julie & Rocky at Arthur's Pass.

Julie & Rocky at Arthur’s Pass.

We finally disembarked before the coast in a small town of Moana on the shores of Lake Brunner for lunch at the Station House Café. After lunch, we fitted out our bikes and then began our first ride – 26.5 miles from Moana to the coast. We followed the Arnold River down from the hillsides, crossed the Grey River and passed the mining town of Rununga, to end up at a “beach pub” in Rapahoe. There, we gathered for a quick drink while others made their way in, before taking the van a short way north, up the coast, to the Punakaiki Resort, located on the beach. After cleaning up and a relaxing stroll down the beach, we met up with others for drinks and dinner at the hotel and discussed the upcoming day.

View of Sunset over the Tasman Sea from Punakaiki Resort

View of Sunset over the Tasman Sea from Punakaiki Resort

The next morning, after breakfast, we took a brisk walk up the coast on the side of Highway 6 to the “Pancake Rocks” – stacks of limestone layered into amazing formations, eroded by the runoff from the mountains and the pounding surf.

Pancake Rocks hike north of Rapahoe

Pancake Rocks hike north of Rapahoe

From there, we boarded our bikes to begin a 27-mile ride south along the Coastal Highway and then to the city of Greymouth. After crossing the Grey River bridge, we all met up at another Speight’s Ale House where we were free to order whatever we wanted for lunch. After lunch, we rode another 12 miles to the coastal town of Hokitika – an historic gold mining town that morphed into a quiet resort community. The town is also known for it “driftwood art” that springs up along the beachfront on unexpended occasions. Once we were checked into our hotel, we met a local historian for a walk-about around the historic buildings of the town. That night we traveled to a local working farm restaurant called The Stations Inn for wine and dinner, before settling in for the night.

Driftwood Art at Hokitika Beach

Driftwood Art at Hokitika Beach

The next morning, we were up for breakfast early before shuttling a short distance to the town of Ross, where we boarded our bikes for the most challenging day yet – a morning 30-mile ride along the Kakapotahi River and through the Waitaha Reserve to the town of Hari Hari to take lunch at the Pukeko Tearoom. After lunch, it was another 37 miles, but this time with over 2000’ of elevation change making our way over Mt. Hercules and through the Whataroa Reserve to the Te Waonui Forest Retreat in the town of Franz Josef. It was a grueling but rewarding ride, and we were met with a fierce but friendly Maori warrior, and guided to the nearby geothermal pools to soak and recover. It was a long but adventurous day, and we all gathered for dinner at the hotel restaurant and made plans for the next day’s exploration.

Biking up the Kakapotahi River Valley

Biking up the Kakapotahi River Valley

 

Rocky with Maori tribesman at Te Waonui Forest Retreat

Rocky with Maori tribesman at Te Waonui Forest Retreat

It was now, Friday, January 9th, and we were free to explore the local area and town on this day. After breakfast, we traveled a short distance to the entrance to the Franz Josef Glacier terminal moraine. There, we hiked through the temperate rainforest to the river where one had the option to hike up to the Franz Josef Glacier’s retreating ice-face. Unfortunately, it was raining and chilly, but Rocky hiked in to check it out, while the rest of the group headed back to the hotel. Thankfully, the weather cleared enough to make a great hike, but not enough to allow us to take a helicopter to the top of the glacier. Therefore, after walking 3 miles back to the hotel, Julie, Pam and A.J. joined Rocky in returning to explore the glacier’s retreating moraines and ice-face once more. The glacier has retreated over 2 miles since it was discovered in the 1800’s, but it is still an impressive, massive ice sheet, hundreds of meters thick. This time, on return to the town, we explored the local shops and made reservations for dinner in town – again at a Speight’s Ale House! After over 15 miles of hiking that day, a few drinks, and some steaks, we called it a night.

Rocky holding ice from Franz Josef Glacier in the background.

Rocky holding ice from Franz Josef Glacier in the background.

Today we would cycle further into the South Westland National Parklands and along the wild and sparsely populated New Zealand’s West Coast. However, before leaving, we were again treated to training in learning a Haka from the local tribesmen. It was great fun, and will certainly be the source of numerous pictures and movies. Then we boarded our bikes and began our 38.5-mile morning ride from Franz Josef through rolling fields to the Salmon Farm Café for lunch. The Café is surrounded by pools of salmon in various stages of maturity. After a light lunch of chowder and salads with a coffee boost, we took off again for another 17-mile long ride to the Lake Moeraki Wilderness Lodge – a quaint retreat on the shores of a small lake, in the middle of a Reserve, only a few miles from the coast. It turns out that it was originally a Worker’s Camp during the construction of the Western Coastal Highway in the 1960’s that was rescued and improved by Dr. Gerry and Anne McSweeney. They then petitioned and actioned to get the surrounding area protected and preserved from development. The area now serves as a home for many native species of temperate rainforest trees and flowers, and is home on the coast to colonies of New Zealand’s “little penguins” and fur seals. Before dinner, Dr. Gerry gave us a brief walk through the rainforest, pointing out the native species, including the massive trees that served as inspiration for the movie “Avatar”. After returning, cleaning up and having dinner, we again followed Gerry, this time into the night in the search of “glow worms”. These are centimeters long worms that glow with a fluorescence, and that are usually found making webs in areas located in overhung embankments. In the dark, the banks along the road looked like a million stars, glowing and twinkling as the breeze rustled the foliage around them.
The next day, we skipped a short morning bike ride to explore the area on our own. We hiked down to nearby Munro Beach through rainforest trails to check out the nesting site of local penguin colonies, but we were too late in the season to see any remaining penguins. We wandered upstream along the glacial Moeraki River to look for the large native eels that populate these waters, and where we have the option to feed them. Finally, we returned to the lodge where there are kayaks available to go further upstream into Moeraki Lake. After lunch, Dr. Gerry took a group of us on a challenging hike through a more secluded part of the rainforest to a deserted portion of the beach, where we clambered along surf pounded rocks and avoided large waves to make our way south to a fur seal colony hanging out at a point on the shore. The seals were numerous and wary of us, but we did not get between them and the water, and so it went well. Along the way, we stopped to pick up sea urchins and to sample them raw straight from the shell and to take an afternoon coffee. The way back involved pulling ourselves 500’ vertically up with an extended rope and crude steps carved into the cliff face. It was the most physically challenging part of the entire trip, but everyone who went made it, with a little help. It was then back to the hotel for showers and dinner and the sharing of excited stories.

Hike along Coast to Seal Colony near Lake Moeraki

Hike along Coast to Seal Colony near Lake Moeraki

 

Fur Seal Colony on Tasman Sea

Fur Seal Colony on Tasman Sea

In the morning, we left the Lake Moeraki lodge early, knowing that this would be the most challenging day of the trip. Today, we would ride our bicycles from the coast, inland and uphill through the Mt. Aspiring National Park, past a series of scenic lakes, and over the Continental Divide of the Southern Alps, to the scenic town of Lake Wanaka. Our morning portion of the ride consist of 48.5 miles, with over 5000’ of elevation climbing, including a steep ascent over Haast Pass. Today, A.J., Peter and Rocky decided to tackle the challenge together. It then became clear that both Peter and A.J., and especially A.J. are “hill animals” when it comes to ascents. We all made it, however, to our lunch stop at the Makarora Café. Then, after a quick and light lunch, we took off again for the afternoon challenge of another 60 grueling miles! This time, Peter and Rocky supported each other and rode together past the pristine lakes, stopping to briefly enjoy the scenic overlooks and to keep hydrated. After replenishing their water supply, Peter and Rocky rode into the vacation town of Wanaka, and to the Edgewater Resort Hotel with their odometers reading over 110 miles of travel that day each! Of the only 6 individuals that completed the whole challenge that day, they arrived first! Meanwhile, while the boys were finishing their ride, the girls cut their ride short, and had explored the local area around the hotel, including a nearby winery. However, such an accomplishment by everyone called for drinks at the bar before our celebration dinner.

At the top of Haast Pass - The Southern Alps Continental Divide

At the top of Haast Pass – The Southern Alps Continental Divide

The next day was Tuesday, January 12th, and we were free to explore town or take a plane ride over the Southern Alps to Milford Sound. Again, the weather’s high winds did not permit the flying option, and we chose to spend our morning with Julie and Pam bike riding and Rocky, A.J., Peter and Nikki hiking. The bike ride was a short, but challenging 24 miles out to Treble Cone ski area and back, and the hike was a 5 mile climb up Iron Mountain with a hike back down and into town. We all met up at the hotel and walked up to Rippon Winery for a scenic lunch overview of Lake Wanaka. That night, we went back to town to have dinner at a local pub where we watched the NCAA Division 1 National Championship Game on TV. After strolling 2 miles back to the hotel, we all met up in Nikki and Peter’s room for nightcaps and camaraderie.

 

View of Wanaka Lake from Rippon Winery

View of Wanaka Lake from Rippon Winery

Wednesday would be our last day on bikes in New Zealand – The “Final Ride!” It would encompass a challenging morning ride of 37 miles along the Clutha River to Bannockburn and the Otago wine region. Along the way, we coasted through “Old Town” Cromwell historic district, before heading out along country roads lined with vineyards. Our destination for lunch was Wild Earth Wines, a restaurant across the Kawarau Gorge ravine, with a small suspension bridge leading to it. The restaurant is built upon the ruins of an old mining village where cables, buckets, and wash-nozzles are scattered about. Here, we loaded our bikes up onto the vans for the last time, and proceeded to enjoy a great lunch of wine-barrel BBQ and local vino, before loading ourselves into the vans for the hour-trip to Queenstown. Upon arriving in Queenstown, we checked into the Sofitel Hotel in the center of town. Queenstown is located on the waters of a large lake, and is one of the recreation capitals of the country. After checking in, one could explore the upscale shops in town, walk the picturesque waterfront, explore the local Arboretum, or take on bungee jumping from the original bungee jumping venue in the world. New Zealanders A.J. Hackett and Henry van Asch built the sport here in Queenstown from observing vine-jumpers in Vanuatu, opening this first venue in 1988. That evening we gathered in the hotel bar for a group cocktail hour, and then walked next door for a “last meal”. Everyone had been challenged and had a great time.

Silver Fern Art in Queenstown

Silver Fern Art in Queenstown

The next morning, some of us met Bradley for a final walk and tour through the local Arboretum and lawn bowling club. Many of the trees there were hundreds of years old, and the flowering shrubbery was fully in bloom. Then it was back to the hotel for shuttles to the Queenstown airport for our flight to Australia, and the third-leg of our adventure. As we climbed away from the runway, we said “good-bye” to the country that had hosted us for the past 3 weeks with adventure, beauty and hospitality. We will miss it!

Backroads Guides Bradley and Darren

Backroads Guides Bradley and Darren

 

Cycling the “Down Under” North Island NZ

3:17 pm

December 2015 – January 2016

In spite of our extensive previous travels with friends and family, we had actually never been to New Zealand or Australia, and Julie and her sister, Pam, had this “idea” that we could see it more intimately by “biking” the country! Now, although we wanted the physical challenge of biking, we were not willing to completely “rough it”, so we planned a 3-part vacation by chartering “back-to-back” cycling trips with Backroads Active Travel Company and following it up with a week exploring the east coast of Australia.

Starting out in front of our Backroads' van with our bikes

Starting out in front of our Backroads’ van with our bikes

Part-1: Backroad’s Multisport Trip in New Zealand’s North Island
Our trip began on Christmas Day, 2015 as we flew from Washington, D.C. through Los Angeles and Sydney to Auckland, New Zealand. After checking-in for the night at the Auckland Hilton, we connected-up with family, Pam and her husband, A.J., and with friends, Peter and Nikki. For dinner, the 6 of us explored the local marina and docks, viewed the historic America’s Cup boats, and sampled the local cuisine before preparing for the next day.

A renown New Zealand "Silver Fern" which grow to tree-size.

A renown New Zealand “Silver Fern” which grow to tree-size.

The next morning, we met up with the other 14 “adventurers” and our 3 Guides, Heidi, Johnathan and Max, loaded up into three vans and traveled east to the Coromandel Peninsula where we had lunch in Pauanui and began our afternoon with a 3-mile hike to explore local fauna and flora of the Broken Hills area. Then we checked into chalet cabins on the edge of an undisturbed rain-forest ravine at the Puka Park Resort. This was only about a mile from the coast, and so we walked to the beach and explored the popular local recreational area. That night, we had dinner outside at the Miha Restaurant, located high up on a hill overlooking the surrounding vineyards, countryside and Mercury Bay.

Taking the bikes out to the ferry after leaving the Puka Park Resort.

Taking the bikes out to the ferry after leaving the Puka Park Resort.

The next day we boarded our bikes for the first time, and then rode to board a ferry, after which we began a challenging bike climb up Pumpkin Hill along the Mercury Bay coastal road in the wind. This ride would take us 18 miles to Mercury Bay Vineyard for lunch and a little wine, but a significant number of riders got lost along the way. After recouping, we rode another 6 miles to the beach where we were outfitted onto our 2-man sea-kayaks for the 1.5-mile paddle to Cathedral Cove – a section of beach where low-tide exposes a beach tunnel that towers beneath a lands-head that extends into the bay. After beaching our kayaks and exploring the area, our guides surprised us by setting up a “pop-up” coffee service on the blanket on the beach. After a return kayak trip back to our starting point, we rode the vans back to the hotel for drinks and dinner, and to get ready for the next day’s adventure.

A glass of wine looking over the grapes pf Mercury Bay Vineyard while having lunch.

A glass of wine looking over the grapes pf Mercury Bay Vineyard while having lunch.

 

Sea-kayaking on Mercury Bay on our way to Cathedral Cove.

Sea-kayaking on Mercury Bay on our way to Cathedral Cove.

The next day, we shuttled in vans to Karangahake Gorge, where we explore the remnants of an historic mining area. We hiked over 5 miles through tunnels, over the ruins of wash plants, across suspension bridges, and along mining-car train tracks to eventually reach a beautiful swimming hole with crystal clear water and inviting jumping-off points. After a refreshing swim, we had a picnic lunch, before hiking out of the gorge to rejoin our vans for the trip to Rotorua. Our hotel here was a resort on Rotoiti Lake where we were treated to a dinner or pork belly and snapper, and an enchanting evening socializing on the lake’s grass lawn and strolling along the lake’s edge.

Taking a "break" while cycling in the area of Rotorua.

Taking a “break” while cycling in the area of Rotorua.

It was now Thursday, December 31st, and after breakfast, we began the day with a vigorous bike ride of only 16 miles through the quiet local countryside. Upon returning from the cycling loop, we showered, ate a barbeque lunch of chicken, beef and lamb before collecting ourselves and heading to the “Agrodome” – a working sheep farm where we got to visit various “fiber-providing” animals up-close, and where we were treated to demonstrations of herding dogs and competitive sheep shearing. On the way back from the Agrodome, some of us took on an extra adventure of “Zorbing” – rolling down a hill inside of a double-hulled, giant plastic ball that’s partially filled with water! It’s a crazy minute-long ride that we all would recommend. Upon returning to the hotel, we cleaned-up again and prepared to visit a Maori marae at Taheke. We were welcomed into their ancestor’s house, the Whare Tupuna, in a traditional “calling” event, and spent a number of hour’s getting to meet and learn from on of the tribal leaders, Sean, and his wife, Jen, and their family. We had a local dinner prepared by them, and the men of the group were then privileged to learn a haka. – a Maori war chant made famous by New Zealand’s World Championship Rugby Team. When we returned to the hotel, that night was New Year’s Eve, and since we were only 2 hours from the Earth’s “date-line”, we ordered a bottle of champagne and celebrated the occasion as a precursor for the rest of the world.
2016 would begin with a 21-mile cycle ride along the white cliffs of the Paeroa Range through grasslands and farmlands to the Waikite Hot Pools. Here we were treated to a good swim and soak in geothermal pools while enjoying a lunch of lamb burgers, fries and a beer. After lunch, we rode a short distance to the Waiotapu Geothermal area, where we walked along artist’s palate of colorful pools of boiling mud and steaming water filled with arsenic, sulfur and mercury.

View of a colorful pool at the Waiotapu Geothermal area.

View of a colorful pool at the Waiotapu Geothermal area.

We then checked into the Millennium Hotel on Lake Taupo, before taking a short drive to Taupo Bungy for a chance to jump from New Zealand’s North Island’s tallest Bungee platform – more than 160 feet. Some took the plunge headfirst, but many of us chose to take the drop on the “swing” instead. That night, the six of us took dinner on our own at Mulligan’s Irish Pub before making a wine stop at a local store and making a gentle stroll along the lake back to our hotel.
After breakfast in the morning, we made a short trip to Huka Falls and took a 3-mile hike along the Waikato River. Huka means “great body of spray”, and the falls were not so impressive in height, as they were in water speed and volume. We then traveled to the River Valley Café in Hawke’s Bay wine region, for a meal of chowder and salads. The Café was a kitschy little place with knick-knacks and lots of charm, and from here we were to kick-off on one of our more difficult bike rides thus far – 33 miles with a substantial uphill to start. Wouldn’t one know it, Rocky’s bike chain broke on the climb, and after an hour’s delay to get it fixed, he and Peter rode and still caught nearly everyone on the ride. We checked into a lavish private hotel called the Mangapapa Petit Hotel. It consisted of only 12 rooms, and so we had the whole property, and it was a magnificent, quaint but modern place. That night, we traveled a short distance to the Elephant Hill Winery Restaurant for our best meal, by far, thus far on our trip. Dinner of chicken, fish or beef followed appetizers on tuna, venison and pork-belly, and desserts included cheesecake, mousse and crepes, all accompanied by their own wines! Back at the Mangapapa, we took a leisurely stroll around the gardens and readied ourselves for the next day.

The six of us in the Hawke's Bay Region at cape Kidnappers'

The six of us in the Hawke’s Bay Region at cape Kidnappers’

On Sunday, we would have the opportunity to bike from our hotel up the Te Mata Peak Road, riding 36 miles and climbing over 1100’ of elevation. The first part of the ride was relatively level, past wineries and out to Cape Kidnappers Point, where we took pictures of the ocean and ourselves. Then we stopped at Clearview Winery for tasting, trying hard to avoid the rain and to maintain an ability to continue to cycle. The route then took us over hills and the Tukituki River, past vineyards and wineries, until we reached the scenic overlook of the ride on Te Mata Peak. From there, it was mostly downhill back to the town of Havelock North, where we stopped for a late lunch at The Rose and Shamrock Village Inn. Finally, we returned to the hotel to get ready for dinner there, hosted by David and his staff, and preceded with a rousing sing-along with one of our group, Steve, at the piano. After a dinner of lamb chops, we took time to explore the hotel rooms more fully while drinking nightcaps with David, the manager. We were very much impressed by the gold-plated plumbing and the original Chagall’s, Picasso’s and Tiffany lamps spread between our rooms.

The whole group "hugging" Redwood trees at the base of Te Mata Peak

The whole group “hugging” Redwood trees at the base of Te Mata Peak

Day 8 of our North Island Multisport Trip began with a short drive to the base of Le Mata Peak, and a pastoral 3.5-mile hike through the redwood forest groves and up the grassy ridgelines to the summit. From there, the group surveyed the past day’s routes, took pictures and returned to the Mangapapa hotel for lunch and departures to the Napier Airport. We said our “good-byes” to our newest friends, and set off on our flights to Wellington, and then to Christchurch on the South Island to begin the second part of our adventure.

Climbing Te Mata Peak in the wind, rain and cold.

Climbing Te Mata Peak in the wind, rain and cold.

 

The view from the summit of Te Mata Peak with the Tukituki River in the background.

The view from the summit of Te Mata Peak with the Tukituki River in the background.

 

Jonathan, Max, and Heidi - our Backroad's Guides for our Northern Island Multipart Adventure.

Jonathan, Max, and Heidi – our Backroad’s Guides for our Northern Island Multipart Adventure.

London’s 2015 Rugby World Cup

November 9, 2015 5:07 pm

September 2015

On Sunday, September 20th Julie and Roc continued their 2015 European Adventure by flying from Prague in the Czech Republic to London’s Heathrow Airport. There we were met by our good Shell friend, Guy, who drove 90 minutes from Southeast England to pick us up and take us to he and Sue’s house, a converted “double Oast” named “Lymden Oast” located near the town of Stonegate! Oast buildings were a type of kiln built during in the 19th century to dry hops. After we unpacked in our bedroom on the Oast’s second floor, Sue made us an excellent English traditional Sunday dinner of leg of lamb, potatoes, mashed carrots, and string beans, followed with drinks by the fireplace in their sitting room.

Lymden Oast

Lymden Oast

On Monday, we drove a short distance to the town of Tonbridge Wells to explore town and have lunch. We walked through the village, looking at an old church where Princess Elizabeth once attended, and window shopping the stores that that line the old town built when the town hosted summer visitors for the curative waters that might cure their ills. Now, the town is home to a huge pedestrian street of shops, in addition to an indoor mall with a Marks & Spencer’s store. The day was cool and overcast and so we had lunch indoor.  As we left town to return to the Oast, typical English rains began to fall. That evening, we went to a local pub, “The Bull” for drinks and a dinner of fish and chips, ribs and lamb burgers. The evening was followed-up back in the sitting room, in front of a fire, playing a card game called “Frustration”.

Tuesday was a rainy, cool day, and we traveled by car to visit Sue’s mother, Jo, in the town of Bromley for afternoon tea and biscuits.  We then returned to the Oast in time for dinner with Guy’s mother, Shirley. That evening we all had a lovely time catching up since we had last met years before.

On Wednesday, September 23rd, we took the train from the nearby town of Wadhurst, into London, where we caught the “Tube” to travel to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Stadium, soon to be the home of the West Ham Football Team.

Queen Elizabeth II Stadium at Olympic Park - West End

Queen Elizabeth II Stadium at Olympic Park – West End

 

This stadium would host tomorrow’s World Cup Rugby Match for which we had tickets, and we used this preview to walk around the area and to tour the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the tallest sculpture in England. Located at the top is a beautiful observation deck and a series of inverted mirrors. To get back down, we walked the series of 450 steps and connecting ramps that wrap around the sculpture.

Arcelor Mittal Orbit

Arcelor Mittal Orbit

We then had lunch at a sports pub, “The Football Club” located in the adjoining shopping mall, “West End.” We felt completely at home in our rugby jerseys, watching the many soccer games that surrounded us on television. After returning to London on the “Tube”, we exited at the Waterloo Station and began a walking tour to the London Eye. From the giant wheel, we could see much of downtown London.  After the 30-minute ride on the “Eye” we walked across the Thames to Big Ben and Parliament, and then on to Westminster Abbey, King James’ Garden, and Buckingham Palace.

London Eye

London Eye

 

Big Ben (from the London Eye)

Big Ben (from the London Eye)

 

London Architecture from above

London Architecture from above

 

Royal Courts of Justice - London

Royal Courts of Justice – London

 

We then strolled through the park to Piccadilly Circus for shopping and dinner. After a light dinner, we made our way through Leister Square to Charring Cross where we caught the train back to Stonegate for Rugby Match watching on television.

Thursday morning, we relaxed with Sue & Guy. Julie went out to the edge of the yard and picked blackberries. Later that day, Roc and Julie retraced yesterday’s route taking the train and tube to the QEII Olympic Stadium to attend the RWC Match of New Zealand vs. Namibia. We arrived early enough to enjoy the Fan Zone, including free Coca Cola, signs and flags for everyone. All of the fans were in full rugby attire and there was a big screen showing rugby matches, with volunteers making sure everyone was having a good time. There was lots of food and drinks, and even champagne available.  We entered the stands early and people watched, listened to an Irish band and watched the teams’ warm-up. It was a predominantly a New Zealand crowd, but there was lots of cheering for the Namibian team. A large group of fans from France were behind us and there were locals to each side.  New Zealand scored in first five minutes and the game was on.  Namibia eventually had 2 field goals and one try. But, by the end of the game, New Zealand was out front: 58-14. It was a fun game!  The stadium personnel funneled everyone out one direction and we easily caught the tube and then the train arriving back at the Oast at midnight.

QEII - Olympic Stadium - New Zealand vs Namibia

QEII – Olympic Stadium – New Zealand vs Namibia

Friday, September 25th was Sue’s birthday, and after breakfast, Julie and Roc took a long walk along the local footpaths through the valleys and farmers’-fields to the “The Bull” Pub at Three Leg Cross in Ticehurst for beer and cider. Later that day, we all caught the train into London and walked about Coventry Garden for shoppers, stopping at SoHo for a drink. We then headed to “The Archer” for a celebration of Guy and Sue’s daughter, Nicola, and her fiancé, David’s, engagement. After a bit of partying, we were off to visit nearby Chinatown, for a birthday dinner of duck, scallops, beef and chicken.  Eventually, we took the train home, arriving back at 11:30pm.

We began Saturday leisurely with a light breakfast. That day, we were all meeting for lunch at “The Bell”, including Nicola and David, some of their bridal party, as well as Guy and Sue’s younger children, James and Frankie. That afternoon, Julie and Roc walked some of the footpaths of Lake Bewl, stopping for a drink on the return at The Bull” before walking back to the Oast. That night, we were on our own, as the Kent Family had tickets for the England-Wales Rugby Match in Twickingham – a match disappointedly lost by England. Julie and Roc watched on television and relaxed in front of the cozy fire.

Sunday, we spent time doing laundry and getting ready for our Rugby Match that night – Ireland vs. Romania. Tonight Guy and Sue were our guests, and it so happens that the rest of their family was going, as well, since David’s family is from Ireland. This game was in Wembley Stadium on the opposite side of London from QEII Olympic Stadium that we had traveled to before. We drove to the Wadhurst train station where we caught transport to the game. The crowd was pro-Ireland, and the large Wembley Stadium allowed it to be filled to the max, setting a new RWC record of over 89,000 fans! Romania played well, but they were no match for the strong Irish Team which won handily. Again, when the match ended, we made our way back home for another late night.

Wembley Stadium Open Ceremony of Ireland vs Romania

Wembley Stadium Open Ceremony of Ireland vs Romania

 

IRB World Cup Rugby - Ireland vs Romania

IRB World Cup Rugby – Ireland vs Romania

Monday, we packed and then took the final occasion to take a longer walk around Lake Bewl. The walk started at the Lake’s Marina, and we made our way across the damn and through the meadows until we exited near the town of Ticehurst and made our way back to “The Bell”, where we had fish and chips for lunch. That night, we watched rugby, played cards and went to bed early to be ready for our trip the next day.

On Tuesday, September 29th, we rose early and Guy drove us the 2-hours back to Heathrow airport for our flight back to the USA. We so enjoyed our time spent with good friends in England and in attending the Rugby World Cup Matches. However, it had been 6-weeks since we had left the USA, and it felt good to finally be returning home to reconnect with friends and family.

Touring Eastern Europe 2015

November 7, 2015 11:12 pm

September 2015

After our 3-week sailing adventure along the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia, we were set to begin the “overland” portion of our adventure. The 6 of us, (Julie and Roc, Nikki and Peter and Terry and Elaine), caught a bus from Split to Zagreb, Croatia. The trains do not move efficiently between these two cities, and so the “Express Bus” is a much better option. The bus was large and modern with coffee service aboard and a stop every two hours, (a 6-hour trip.) Along the way, we passed Roman aqueducts while traveling the “A1” – a very modern highway toll-road and lots of tunnels. Our driver also took the occasion to stop along the way to pick up his family members and gather his lunch bag from relatives. When we arrived at the bus terminal in Zagreb, we took a taxi into the center of Zagreb, and then had a short walk along a pedestrian-only area to our hotel – The Hotel Dubrovnik. This hotel was built in 1929 and our room was in the old, original part of hotel.  We were located on the city’s Jelevic square – the center of town – and within easy walking distance to most major attractions of town. On the square, we sat outside and had dinner while watching the crowd that had gathered to celebrate Croatia’s win in Euro-Championship Basketball Tournament!

Jelevic Square Old Town Dubrovnik, Croatia

Jelevic Square Old Town Dubrovnik, Croatia

Sunday began with a huge breakfast buffet at the hotel and was following with a walking tour of town, taking in: the old Cathedral, the local vegetables market, the famous Stone Gate, and St. Marks Church with its “National” tiled roof.

St Mark's Church, Zagreb

St Mark’s Church, Zagreb

Roc climbed the ancient Fire Tower for a panoramic view of the “old town”. We then boarded a Funicular to travel back to town center when a cannon went off right above our heads, scaring us to death! It turns out that every Sunday at noon the cannon fires and we just happen to catch it while only yards away! We then made our way to the City’s Observation Deck and Restaurant where we had lunch and drinks while watching the changing of the guard in the city square from above. That afternoon, we took a long, walking U-shaped tour of the city’s parks, museums, and botanical gardens, ending up at the train station in front of a large set of fountains and museum. It was a beautiful day, and people were relaxing on the grass, reading books and soaking up the sun. On the way back to the hotel we came across a local food fair and enjoyed BBQ spareribs and local music. We returned to the hotel, went for a dinner of “volcano” pizza on the square and then met up in the Observation Deck for viewing the city’s lights at night. The day was polished-off with nightcaps in the hotel bar while meeting sports fans from the country of Georgia who were there watching Euro-Basketball, but were excited to talk about the upcoming IRB Rugby World Cup which we would be attending later this month.

Zagreb, Croatia

Zagreb, Croatia

On September 7th, the 6 of us flew from Zagreb to Istanbul via Turkish Airlines. Although it was only a 2-hour flight, we received drinks, a nice sandwich, salad and chocolate mousse. Upon exiting the airport, our preordered limo met us at the airport and we headed into the city old town to the Skallion Hotel. We checked in and then headed for a walk, exploring Little Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the main Hagia Sophia and its associated obelisk and gardens. We then walked to a little restaurant located on a nearby rooftop (for the view of the city) for dinner of kabobs before wandering to a local Greek-Turkish restaurant for evening drinks and deserts.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

Tuesday was spent “walking the city” – starting in the morning, we took the local tram to the Karakoy district across “the Golden Horn” in search of the world’s best baklava at a restaurant named “Karakoy Gulluoglu”. The historic restaurant was 3 blocks behind the tram stop and it took us a while to find it, only succeeding after asking many locals for directions. We had seen a story on this establishment on the travel channel and decided to go and have a taste for ourselves. While there, we had 5 different kinds of baklava with a Turkish tea for 15 lire ($5), and it was all fantastic! Next we climbed a nearby narrow street up the hill to Galata Tower, where we rode an elevator and climbed to the observation deck around the top. From there, you could see the never-ending city stretching to the horizon. Next we took the tram back to the Sultanahmet, (mosque, palaces and obelisks), walking among the structures hoping to get into Topkapi Palace. However, it was “closed” on Tuesdays. We then headed for the Grand Bazaar, finding a Starbucks along the way, (and acquiring the “souvenir mug”). We walked throughout the Grand Bazaar, finding everything and anything, and purchasing some spoon and bowls as gifts. Outside of the bazaar, we stopped for lunch – a kebab wrap and a fresh-squeezed juice drink. Then, we wandered on to Istanbul University, – a treed and spacious campus surrounding the stunning tower Beyaal. It was also originally used as a city fire lookout, but now it is covered with cell and satellite structures, and used for traffic and weather advisories. Nearby, we visited a huge mosque at the top of the hill (the view was great) and saw Suleimon the Magnificent’s tomb. Back at the hotel, Peter and Roc went in search of bus tickets to get us to Varna, Bulgaria later in the week – an adventure that took them miles around town to find a Travel Agent! Dinner that night was a group affair at the local Greek-Turkish restaurant that we had drinks at the night before. We ordered “The Palace” – a large, mixed kebab platter that arrived with a lit candles located in each corner. The proprietor insisted it wouldn’t be enough, but it was plenty for the 6 of us, and it was delicious.

Baklava at Karakoy Gulluoglu, Istanbul, Turkey

Baklava at Karakoy Gulluoglu, Istanbul, Turkey

On September 9th, we arranged an all-day tour of Istanbul through the hotel. It started by on a bus collecting other adventurous people from their hotels, and then making our way to a waiting boat on “the Golden Horn.” We boarded the boat, and began a guided tour of “the Golden Horn” region before passing under the local bridges and into the Bosphorus Sea. We then traveled east along the European side of the Bosphorus, first seeing the old navy yard, several old palaces converted to modern hotels, and the Rumeli Fortress at the foot of the William the Conqueror Bridge. This is the narrowest point between the two continents at 624 meters. We turned around and then traveled the Asian Side of the Bosphorus, seeing homes that cost millions of Euros. Returning to the port, the tour continued with a short bus ride to Pierre Lottie Hill for a view of the city, followed by heading down the hill for a short cable car ride. Next, it was on to see a short, commercial, fashion show for leather jackets (Roc modeled!) and then on to lunch. Our tour lunch was a traditional meal of bread, lentil soup, salad, and mixed kebabs, with a sweet baklava for dessert. Our tour continued with a trip to the Dolmabahce Palace, once the home of Turkey’s last ruling Sultan, prior to his exile. It was built over a period of 13 years, and has the largest reception hall in the world! It is now a fully-restored museum with its original floors, draperies, furniture and glass chandelier from Britain and France. There was even a clock tower and Aviary on the grounds, along with Turkish cannons that were once the largest in the world. Our tour then continued by crossing the Bosphorus to the Asian side of Istanbul, and up to the top of Asian Hill for drinks and an overlook of the city. To get there we traveled over the largest Bosphorus Bridge – standing at 64 meters over the water and 1500 meters long (7th largest suspension bridge in the world!) Pedestrians are only allowed on the bridge a single day each year. Our tour ended with a ride back to the hotel for drinks and packing, before getting a quick carry-out from the local Burger King, which we ate while drinking wine in Elaine’s hotel room.

On September 10th, Peter and Nikki and Julie and Roc checked out of the hotel early to transport to the city’s bus station. Terry and Elaine would be flying out later to Budapest. Upon checking out, the Hotel Skallion gave us a nice box of candies as a “thank you” gift. The taxi took us to another part of town where the bus station was designed very much like an airport. We found our Gate (122) at Terminal 2, and waited for our Metro Busline bus to Bulgaria to arrive. While there, we watched a very orderly process of buses loading and unload, including an extended family who apparently unloaded their entire household from the bus luggage, (including dishes, clothing, and sleeping mattresses), which they proceeded to set in the middle of the road. Once we boarded the bus, the attendant collected all of our passports and tickets, later returning them to us after they had been entered on a ledger. Shortly into our 9-hour trip, we were serves a mid-morning snack of hot chocolate and raisin cake. After another hour and a half of travel, we exited the suburbs of Istanbul, and countryside finally became pastoral, dotted with crops of grains and vegetables. After a lunch and bathroom stop, we traveled a few more hours to the coast of the Black Sea where we finally arrived at the downtown bus station in Varna, Bulgaria – a popular Eastern European resort town that caters to Russian tourists looking for an inexpensive holiday. We caught a taxi to our hotel, The Panorama, located across the street from the beach at the Black Sea. After dropping our bags and admiring the view of the coast from our windows, we explored the local area for a grocery and pharmacy. With “shopping” take care of, we walked to the end of the local pier into the Black Sea and ate at restaurant that was built into an old, converted, grounded Galleon.

The next morning, we decided to walk-tour this historic town of Varna. In the center of “old town”, we strolled through open markets and Russian Orthodox Churches, and ended up at the region’s Archeological Museum, where 5,000 years of the city’s history were chronicled. We then made our way to the “Sea Garden” – a scenic vista park along the coast of the Black Sea with flowers, a zoo, an amusement park, monuments and lovely, tree-covered walks. Finally, we ended up at a public beach where Peter and Rocky took the occasion to take a swim in the Black Sea. After drying off, the group collected at a local beach bar for drinks, before returning to the hotel to prepare for dinner on a beach restaurant.

Varna, Bulgaria

Varna, Bulgaria

The next day, we checked out of our hotel and walked to the nearby train station for our trip to Bucharest, Romania – a 9-hour trip with beautiful scenery and interesting activities along the way. Crossing between the two countries was an exercise in transferring train engines and cars at the border and completing immigration aboard the train. The Dining Car was part of our train, but it was empty and unmanned making the decision to take lunch along with us a wise choice. Upon arriving in Bucharest, we walked to our nearby hotel and then began a late evening a search for dinner. After walking the wrong direction for a bit, we finally found a very nice Italian restaurant about two miles from our hotel.

National War Memorial, Bucharest, Bulgaria

National War Memorial, Bucharest, Bulgaria

Sunday, September 13th was Roc’s birthday! We celebrated by walking to Old Town Bucharest and taking in the views of the remnants and ongoing restoration of the destruction remaining from World War 2 bombings. In spite of the work, the streets were lined with shops, cafes, street musicians and many tourists looking for bargains and exploring the historic sites. We ate lunch at a Greek Gyro shop and then walked to south of town to visit the Eternal Flame, National War Memorial and beautiful city parks. We even ran across the Romanian Rugby Federation Headquarters where preparations were just completed for the upcoming Rugby World Cup. We would be watching their team play against New Zealand in a few weeks in London. Later, we returned to Old Town and had celebrated Roc’s birthday with dinner at a traditional Romanian restaurant.

Happy Birthday Roc!

Happy Birthday Roc!

Monday’s weather was beautiful, and we took the occasion to walk north to city’s Arch de Triumph at Herastrau Park, which was beautifully landscaped with flowers and swans and lakes. We then returned to de Gaulle Piata for lunch – a piata that had been renamed for Hitler and Lenin during past occupations. After lunch, Roc and Julie walked through Park Kiseleff to Victory Square, and then onto Ion Voicu Park – a pretty little square surrounded by old mansions and populated with children playing.

Tuesday morning, we checked out and walked back to the train station for an early train to Budapest, Hungary. At the train station, we were the first people into McDonalds for breakfast when they opened at 4:30am. We then picked-up some KFC chicken strips to-go for lunch aboard the train.  This trip was to be about 13 hours long, and we were a little worried about the growing Syrian Refugee crisis ongoing in the Region.  During the long trip, the 4 of us played cards, ate food, and drank wine. This train was an “Express” and so there were only a few stops and one delay at the border, where the engine was again changed.  We finally arrived at 7:00pm, squeezed into a taxi, and went for a ride to Buda side of Budapest to check-in at the Burg Hotel. This was an elegant little hotel, overlooking the Cathedral and the Fisherman’s Bastion.  After unpacking, we walked 2 blocks down the street for a traditional Hungarian dinner of boar ravioli, chicken paprikash and cucumber salad.

Dinner, Budapest, Hungray

Dinner, Budapest, Hungry

Wednesday would be spent sightseeing in Budapest – a city that we have been to before, and one of our favorites. After a huge, buffet breakfast at the hotel, we met up with Peter and Nikki and walked to the Fisherman’s Bastion, down and around the Castle and to Government Offices for Peter to pick-up his new Hungarian passport. We then shortcut back through the tunnel under the Castle, where we crossed the Danube River on the famous Chain Bridge into Pest. Once there, we strolled through the pedestrian shopping area, stopping for drinks and shopping.  Later that evening, we had dinner of traditional Hungarian Goulash, back on the Buda side of the river, in a local restaurant only a block from our hotel.

Parliament as seen from Pest, Budapest Hungry

Parliament as seen from Buda, Budapest Hungry

Thursday, September 17th was time to move on again to the city of Prague in the Czech Republic. In taking the train from Bucharest to Prague, one had to pass through Budapest anyways, so it was an opportunity to be taken advantage of. This train trip was a bit different, as in addition to several planned stops along the way, there were two unplanned stops for technical problems. Tickets were checked not only at every border crossing, but at every stop! In addition, police swept the train at each crossing, checking passports and identification in response to the Syrian Refugee crisis. The trip required us to cross first into Slovakia then into the Czech Republic. When we arrived, we left the train station and walked uphill to the hotel, only to find that we had been “bumped” from our reservations, and moved to a sister hotel around the corner. We were apologized to and told that the reason was that the local soccer team, AC Sparta, had a game in town and their hotels was fully booked. After settling in, we walked into the center of town for a dinner of pork ribs and goulash.

The next day, we explored Prague by walking first to Old town and then across the Charles Bridge to explore the Cathedral, Palaces and Castle on the other side.  We sampled the street food and local wines and beers. We ended the day with dinner in an old, rustic pub with kolbasz (a type of sausage) and rabbit legs.

 

St Charles Bridge, Praha

St Charles Bridge, Praha

On Saturday, we walked through Old Town to finish our shopping and then stopped at a little island beneath the Charles Bridge where Nikki and Peter put a lock to demonstrate their love. We then decided to hike up to the old city wall and observatory at top of the hill. The view from there was beautiful, but we were disappointed that no one can walk on the top of old wall. So, we had a drink before trekking back down the hill and back to island for a traditional Czech meal of goulash, cheese board, pasta, and chicken escalloped with sauerkraut. After lunch we went in search of the local football jerseys for AC Sparta, finally finding them in the local Nike Store. After picking up gifts and jerseys, we walked to the Dancing Towers for a drink on the rooftop and to watch the sunset.  Then, we went to dinner at a local patio waterfront restaurant, complete with heaters and blankets for the cooling evening.

Clock Tower, Praha (Prague), Czeck Republic

Clock Tower, Praha (Prague), Czeck Republic

Sunday, September 20th would be our last breakfast together with Peter & Nikki, before we headed to the airport for our flight to London.  Our trip of Eastern Europe was over and took us on boats, planes, buses and trains as we got a chance to experience people and cultures that we had long wanted to do. But now, it was time to switch gears, and to get ready to experience the 2015 IRB Rugby World Cup with friends in London.