We are sitting here beyond thrilled and had to share. As most of my readers know we have booked, been cancelled and rebooked on a cruise tour in the Galapagos Islands on Celebrity’s Flora. When we rescheduled last year on our cancelled August cruise we decided to rebook for this summer (thinking we would have no problems—duh!). We really considered May, June or July but the route we wanted around the islands was only offered every other week so we finally settled on July 4 of this year. Sounds pretty independent, right 😜?
And since then we have been hopeful about going but each month since last summer we have changed what we thought our odds of going were. At first when we booked it we thought we had about an 80% chance of not being cancelled again. But then as we got into the winter months we revised that to thinking we would probably have to reschedule. Last month Celebrity cancelled all the Galapagos cruises through…June 30 but leaving all of July intact so we thought…maybe…please…please…please.
Since they cancelled through June we have been keeping a close eye on the Celebrity website and last week we saw that they were again selling our cruise, that Ecuador was open to travelers and the Galapagos Islands were 98% vaccinated. Today we were on a travel agent webinar and they officially announced…we are going!!!
Of course there are some caveats. We have to be vaccinated. CHECK! We have to pass a PCR (stick in the nose) test 96 hours before we go. We can do that but since we are going to go down to the LA area pre-cruise we will have to get it down there…so glad to have Kaiser. When we get on board we will be given an antigen test (spit) and again when we get off. We can do all that so I guess we are good to go. Now we have to get busy planning, pre-packing and so much more. Here’s exactly where we will be going once we get to the islands from Quito.
We also found out some great news about the cruise itself. First, it will be operating at about 50% guest capacity and 100% crew capacity which means incredible service and more food for me 😜. The ship we are on is the Celebrity Flora which is really just a great big yacht. By Ecuadorian law, the largest ships that can sail in the Galapagos can only carry 100 passengers so that means there will only be about 50 guests onboard. Here’s some pics of what the ship looks like inside and out.
Of course even though we are looking forward to the cruise itself, we are really looking forward to all the flora and fauna we will see. Both Kathleen and I are having having some trepidation about snorkeling in open water. Neither of us are the best of swimmers but the chance to be able to swim with giant tortoises, sea lions and other marine life is just too good to pass up. We had hoped to try it out off the beach last February in Cozumel but the weather did not cooperate so we didn’t get the chance. Kathleen did by me a GoPro more than a year ago to be able to film underwater so you will hopefully get to see some video when we return…or as we go along. Not sure how great the WiFi will be onboard. No matter when you see them, this is a chance for me to really take some amazing photos.
I love traveling and seeing new things, learning the histories of different cultures. But I’ve always wanted to go to the Galapagos to see the giant turtles.
Yesterday I sort of detailed the first two days of our SoCal trip to see my brother Steve, my sis-in-law Jamie and their awesome family. Here’s the balance of the week. As I am writing this I am sitting at the gate for our flight home to Everett at John Wayne International. I won’t post it until tomorrow because I have never done two posts in one day and I don’t want to start now 😜.
Day 3–Family Day
Jamie has a BIG family. Beside their daughter and son, her Mom Pat lives with them. And then she has two brothers and a sister and all are married and have lots of grown kids. We have traveled with her sister and her family and will again in 2022. I have booked travel for her brother and his wife and they were supposed to join us on our river cruise that was cancelled last year. Saturday Jamie invited all these folks to dinner. Mind you, her brother who lives in Fresno and his family didn’t come down but her sister and her family from Huntington Beach and her brother and his wife from Poway were there as well as another of the cousins and our niece Cassie’s boyfriend Omar.
Food was outstanding as Steve grilled chicken and steaks and Jamie did her usual awesome job of making every side known to man. Her mom Pat (who I mentioned yesterday) put together one of her world famous cheese platters and others brought dessert and lots of wine. We all ate and drank and had an awesome time. I can say that I truly enjoyed myself, even helping Jamie’s sis-in-law Jill wash dishes. I think everyone had an absolutely wonderful time—I know we did!
Day 4–The ’55 to Laguna and back
Sunday was listed as a day of lounging around the house on our itinerary but since one of the places I really wanted to go was Crazy Shirts in downtown Laguna Beach (just up the coast) Steve rolled out their 1955 Ford Fairlane Sunliner and we set off on a drive from San Juan Capistrano, through Dana Point, Laguna Beach and almost up to Newport Beach. It was a great drive, the sun was shining and when you are in a car like this you get a lot of looks from those on the sidewalks. I do have to say though that sitting in the back of a 1955 convertible at highway speeds is an experience in wind velocity I am not quick to repeat 😀.
Day 5–Home and Wine
My sister-in-law Jamie was our travel agent/tour guide on this cruise 😀. She had texted us about a week before we were to come down with a complete itinerary with all kinds of things for us to do and see. Today was road trip day. First we were heading to my brother’s and my hometown, Palm Springs. We had two goals: to see the house we grew up in (which has been REALLY changed by the present owner since we sold it to them after our Dad passed a few years ago) and to have lunch at one of my favorite Mexican restaurants, The Blue Coyote.
The house looked fine but quite a bit different. Lots of new growth around the front yard. We had a kind of funny experience with the house. When we got to the house we parked in front to take a look and the current owner drove out of the garage and as he drove by us he gave us a real good and long look. Like this bunch of almost senior citizens was going to burglarize his house. After he left we drove up to the other end of the block and turned around to back past the house again.
In the meantime he had driven up the street but came back and drove into the driveway of the people across the street to tell the neighbor to keep an eye on us (criminals that we are 😜). We (Steve and I) got out of the car and went back to talk to him and the neighbor who is someone who has lived in the house since 1961 and had been our neighbor since then. He told the current owner he had nothing to fear as we had grown up in the house and had a valid reason for stopping. We hoped he would then invite us in but he had an appointment and hurried off after he knew his house was safe.
Then it was off to lunch at Blue Coyote where the food was great, the service superb and the margaritas…AWESOME! We have been there more than 10 times over the years and I think this was the best yet but that just might be the margaritas talking. A very nice couple from University Place (about half way between our place and our grandkids in Olympia, WA) took our photo for us.
After lunch and a quick turn around the town we were off to our final destination for the day—South Coast Winery in Temecula. It was much more than we expected. A really nice place where Jamie had arranged a really nice one-bedroom villa for both of us set amongst the grape vines. The place was very reminiscent of Tuscany and we arrived just in time to catch the last wine tasting of the day. We did five different wines including a port and to be honest, I wouldn’t buy any of them again. Pretty run of the mill. Nothing even close to what we had in Walla Walla when we went with our neighbors Jayesh and Lisa two summers ago. When we did that trip we ended up joining three wine clubs but I don’t think I would join one at South Coast.
But their rooms and the restaurant where we had both dinner and breakfast were excellent. After a quick dinner we both retired to our respective rooms, watched a movie and basically passed out after this VERY busy day.
I was up early the next day for my usual pre-dawn photowalk and WOW, was I rewarded. Not only did I get some really nice sunrise pics from the vineyard, just as I was about to head back to the room to shower and change for breakfast I saw ten hot air balloons launch from near downtown so I had to wait to see what they would do. What they did was to come right at us. Within 20 minutes I was literally surrounded by hot air balloons as you will see in my photos below.
After this excellent photo experience we were off to breakfast where they had some of the best chilaquiles I have had since New Mexico. Truly delicious. One of my favorite breakfasts. After breakfast it was back in the truck for a quick tour of downtown Temecula. It’s a historic city from the 1800s and we spent about an hour walking around. Saw a pretty awesome old Chevy too.
From there we headed south and then west so we could stop in northern San Diego County to see the blooming ranunculus. Now I had never seen ranunculus before but these (from somewhat far away) were nice. Nothing like the tulips in Skagit County (north of Seattle) but still nice. Then it was home to S&Js place so we could fly home on Wednesday (yesterday).
Since we had a 6:25 pm flight we got to spend the day with S&J before we headed north to the airport and a late lunch/early dinner or as we like to call it, dunch. And because we had LOVED the food at Houston’s on the day we flew in, we decided to stop there again. I mean it was THAT GOOD! And guess what we ordered? The exact same thing—artichoke appetizer and fried chicken sandwich. And they were still as great as I mentioned in my last post except that this time I remembered to take a photo so you could see them. The artichokes are grilled on a wood fire. When mine came to the table part of the stem was still burning. They are amazing. And what makes the fried chicken sandwich so good is the slaw that sits on top of the chicken—amazing.
After lunch S&J dropped us off, we waited the prescribed two hours, boarded and took off right on time, landed almost 20 minutes early, found a Lyft in less than five minutes and were home and turning off the lights by 10:15! Whew, I got tired just thinking about that.
To sum it all up, we had an AWESOME time. It felt so amazing to be traveling again. My sister-in-law Jamie is a fantastic SoCal trip planner and we ate and drank a lot more than we should. Oh, and we would do it all over again in a minute.
It’s true! We are traveling. In fact as I write this we are headed for home later today after a six day visit with my brother Steve and his wonderful wife Jamie (S&J). We have been wined, dined, toured and traveled all over Southern California.
Day 1—Flying South
Let’s start with the flight south from Paine Field in Everett. Never had a flight that went so well. Just a dream. We did have a little bit of a hard time getting a ride to the airport. We tried Lyft first and no dice at 5:45 am. There was a guy at Bellevue who we thought was coming but then he found something closer. Finally we got a superb Uber driver who got us there in no time. And he drove a car with a stick shift. Shocking!
Once at the airport it was about seven minutes from the time we got out of the car until we were sitting at the gate. That’s the wonder of Paine Field. You can see the inside of the lounge between the two gates in the pic above. Boarding was beyond easy and the flight itself was about one third full.
We had paid a little extra for Alaska Air’s premium economy seats and on the Embracer jet we flew on, they were amazing. I am six feet, two and a half inches and I could fully stretch out my legs or cross them without a problem. So much so that I sent photos to my brother and other tall friends to say, “check this out!” See what I mean?
We flew into John Wayne International Airport in Orange County and Steve and Jamie picked us up. Another smallish airport (lots bigger than Everett but MUCH smaller than LAX). We were off the plane and out the door and in their truck within 15 minutes of landing. See what I mean about a great flying experience. We will find out if this continues this evening when we fly home.
After we were picked up we were headed out to lunch. Jamie had made reservations at a restaurant near the airport thinking it would take us a while for us to get our bag and find them but we were out so quickly, we ended up sitting in the parking lot of the restaurant until they opened. We didn’t mind the early lunch since we had been up since 4:30 am and had coffee and some yogurt at 6:00 am at the airport. There is currently no food service on the plane if you are in economy.
The restaurant we went to was new to us but they had tried to take us there a few years ago and we had to leave because we didn’t know you needed reservations for lunch. We weren’t that worried about going there because it was “just a restaurant.” But then I started my pandemic walking and listening to Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert podcast and he went on and on about the chicken sandwich at a small chain of places called Houston’s and that was the same place we hadn’t gotten into. So this time we really wanted to try it.
We were so glad we did. If you ever find yourself in a city with a Houstons, go there. Order two things—the fried chicken sandwich and the artichokes if they are available. Later that day I said it had almost a perfect lunch because not only had I eaten the best chicken sandwich I had ever consumed, I had also eaten the most amazing artichokes I had ever scarfed down as well. How much did we like it? So much that we are going back for a late lunch/early dinner today before we fly home. What am I going to order? The artichokes and the chicken sandwich. 😀 Maybe I will remember to take pics this time.
After lunch it was back to their house to rest a little, have a little dinner and just get a chance to catch up with them and our niece Cassie and Jamie’s mom Pat (who we love—my brother has the best mother-in-law ever!). It was a great start to what would be a great trip.
Day 2—Doheny Beach and San Juan Capistrano
On Friday we pretty much stuck around the town where they live, San Juan Capistrano (SJC). You may have heard of the town—it’s where the swallows return every year in March. I started the day with a really long (for me–8.9 miles) pre-dawn walk that took me down to the world-famous Doheny Beach (The Beach Boys sang about surfing there). Got some great pics as I hope you will agree.
After a quick breakfast we were off to downtown SJC to tour Mission San Juan Capistrano, one of the 21 California missions that stretch from San Diego to San Francisco. It’s a beautiful historic building with gorgeous gardens so it was great for photos as well.
After the Mission tour we met up with some cruising friends, Eileen and Bob, who live in nearby Cypress. They had journeyed about 30 minutes south to visit with us and it was great to see them and compare travel plans, past travel (we sailed with them to New England in 2018) and just generally catch up. It was a great meal except for the service. Suffice it to say that after complaints to the management while we were there and a blistering letter to the owners by Kathleen after we got back to S&J’s, the manager fired our server. That’s how bad it was. It’s a story best told in person so ask us the next time you see us. The restaurant is called Mayfield (so if you come to SJC, give it a pass). Food was fine but to me that’s almost a negative.
After lunch it was more rest, relaxation, catching up and food back at S&J’s. One thing about going there is you get fed very well. The next day would prove that true beyond a shadow of a doubt. Come back tomorrow to find out more. My fingers are tired now 😀.
We live life in restaurants, it’s the center of social life, where we celebrate with family and friends, make new friends, travel without traveling, and of course, eat.
First, yes…we know. We are not supposed to be doing anything but “essential” travel. Well, if you are traveling fanatics like us it feels “essential” for us to go someplace. We decided that since we are fully vaccinated and it is becoming more and more clear that vaccinated individuals can’t pass on the virus, we are going on a short six day trip to Southern California to see our usual traveling companions, my brother Steve and my sister-in-law Jamie as well as the rest of their family.
To be honest, this was a kind of spur-of-the-moment trip. We were texting with Steve and Jamie and they invited us (since they were all vaccinated), we looked at each other and just said, “Why not?” They had been up in October but after Jamie’s bad fall just after they got here, we only got to see her for two days of what became a 10 day visit for her at Evergreen Hospital. So we did some research and found the safest options for travel for this trip and put it together.
When I say the safest options, I mean avoiding Seattle-Tacoma International Airport at all costs. The crowds there have been terrible and the lines long according to press reports. So we have opted to go north and fly from Paine Field in Everett. If you are on the west coast or in Denver or Las Vegas and coming to visit Seattle, consider Paine Field. It was only opened a few years ago but we love it. Most of the flights are with Alaska Air but United does have a couple as well.
First, from our house the commute to get to the airport is against the traffic in the morning, when we usually fly. Then when you arrive you get out of your car (we are going to take Lyft for this trip) and walk directly to the security line. Because of the size of the airport and how few flights they have each day (about 20) as soon as you are through security (which usually takes less than a five minutes) you are at one of 2.5 gates. I say 2.5 because they have a gate 1, 2A and 2B. These last two are essentially two gates with the same waiting area, just different doors out to the airplanes.
That’s it. The last time we flew from there it was about 5 minutes from curb to gate. The gates are pretty great too with very comfortable furniture. Another thing we like about flying out of Everett is the kind of airplanes that Alaska Air flies from Paine Field—the Embraer E175. It is a small jet but the best part during the pandemic is that it is a 2-2 arrangement so we don’t have to worry about having someone we don’t know sitting in the same row as we are (on our side of the plane) as there are no middle seats.
At the other end of our flight is John Wayne International Airport in Santa Ana, California. Not exactly a small airport but definitely not a large one either. When we come off the plane we won’t have to spend too long before we grab our checked bag and meet Steve and Jamie who are coming to pick us up. I am really looking forward to getting into their car. Not just because I want to see them but because after about 4 hours it will be the first time I can take my mask off.
Speaking of masks, I got a new one just to travel with. It’s tough to find anything that has to do with travel that also fits my oversize head 😜. Got it from Amazon if you are interested in getting one for yourself if you love traveling the world like we do.
We don’t have a lot of things we want to do for the six days we will be there. We are mostly going just to see them. But we know that Steve and Jamie are making plans. We are meeting some old cruising friends for lunch (outdoors) one day. Haven’t seen them in a couple of years. We will probably take a day trip out to our old hometown, Palm Springs. Gives us a chance to see the house we grew up in. It had been turned into an AirBnB type rental but I can’t find it on any of the rental sites now. We have seen pics when it was a rental and you can still see it on Zillow. The pictures we’ve seen of the interior are quite impressive. We still want to drive by. We will also want to stop at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants, The Blue Coyote for a great lunch and some wonderful (if they haven’t changed) margaritas. I am so glad that Steve will be driving 😜.
I hope to do a bunch of photos walks so I will be posting while we are there. It’s going to feel so good to be traveling again since we haven’t left Washington State since the day we got back from our Mardi Gras cruise on March 2, 2020.
We know we aren’t going far away and we still have high hopes that we will still be going to the Galapagos in July. Our seven night cruise hasn’t been cancelled yet but we should know more later this week. Celebrity (the cruise line we are sailing) is starting up cruising again outside the USA. I will update as we get closer.
The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page. —St. Augustine
This episode of Jim & Kathleen’s Food Experiences will conclude the lunch portion of our show 😀. I am going all the way back to our very first international trip in 2002 for these two but they must be special if they stand out almost 20 years later.
Lunch in Venice—Eating with locals
It was November and we were ready to head to Italy, the home of half my ancestors. We had stops planned in Venice, Florence, Rome and Sicily. What the Italians call the “Golden Triangle” (plus Sicily where my family is from). Our first stop was Venice and it is there we learned a valuable lesson about eating in a foreign country—find where the locals eat AND then eat there.
We had spent the morning taking the vaporetto (if you haven’t been to Venice, that’s kind of a water bus) to the separate islands of Murano (where they make some really cool glass) and Burano (where they have some amazing and brightly colored houses I wanted to take capture photographically). Between walking around on both islands and the vaporetto ride to each of them, we didn’t get back to the main part of Venice until it was well into the middle of the afternoon and by then we were STARVING! Italians don’t do big breakfasts. Our typical breakfast in Italy was a croissant and coffee, maybe with some cheese or Nutella and some of the best coffee I have ever tasted. No eggs and bacon there. So when I say we were starving and it was 2:30 pm and we were STARVING.
Now the trouble was finding a restaurant that was open and that we would be able to get a decent meal in. Luckily for us, the vaporetto from the islands docks on the far side of Venice so you don’t get off (or at least you didn’t then) right into the touristy spots. If it had, we might never have had this experience.
Wandering around looking for someplace to eat we passed a bunch of places that had already closed. There were also small stand up bars where we could have gotten a small sandwich but we were looking for more than that. Luckily we almost got lost going down a small street (you can easily get lost in Venice) and saw a restaurant that looked open. When we looked inside the place was good sized but it was empty except for…about 20 gondoliers having lunch. We looked at each other and decided if this was where the gondoliers ate their lunch, it must be wonderful. And it was. We had not yet had an Italian specialty—spaghetti carbonara. If you have never had it think really great spaghetti with bacon, eggs and cheese. I have had it since then a few times but nothing can compare with that day. Of course looking back on the experience I often wonder if the carbonara was that good or if we were that hungry or if it was the entire experience of eating it in Venice in a restaurant with twenty very noisy gondoliers.
Lunch in Sicily—meeting Vito
About a week later we were exploring Sicily’s mountain towns looking for the final resting place of my great-grandfather in Corleone. Yes, my grandfather’s family comes from a town with the same name as The Godfather’s family. It was a Monday. If you have not been to Italy, finding almost anything open on a Monday is very difficult. This is especially true of restaurants.
We had risen early in our hotel in Monreale (just above Palermo) and headed into the Sicilian hills—a phenomenal drive as you pass walls and hill towns as old as the Roman Empire or the Moorish invasion. We found Corleone and headed to the cemetery where we not only found my great-grandfather’s grave but a man who claimed he could be my cousin who worked at the cemetery. By this time it was again about 2:00 and we wanted to find a place to eat lunch. Nothing was open in Corleone so we started heading back to the coast.
We passed through two or three small villages with nothing open. We were getting really hungry at that point. Plus, we really wanted to find someplace where someone spoke at least a little English so we could kind of know what we were ordering. All of a sudden we turned the corner into the tiny village of Masseri d’Amari and saw a big sign that said “Trattoria—Open!” By that time we didn’t care if they spoke English or not, we just wanted food.
When we got inside there was a HUGE seafood buffet all along one wall, a fairly empty dining room and two servers. One approached us and we asked if he spoke English. He didn’t and neither did the other. Since the buffet was all seafood we needed to know which dishes had no shellfish as Kathleen is allergic. We were about to abandon the place when in walked a huge man wearing all black with gold chains around his neck hanging down into a shirt that was unbuttoned fairly far down and showing a LOT of chest hair. Think Tony Soprano with a bunch of dark, black hair on his head. He saw us and walked over and said, “Hello, I am Vito. Can I help you out at all? I am visiting from New Jersey.” Seriously? We were in a tiny hill town in Sicily and we meet a Tony Soprano type guy with the name of Vito?
He was incredibly nice, told us what had and didn’t have shellfish in it and we grabbed a couple of plates from the buffet. After we had sat down at our table, Vito came over and asked if he could join us. We were thrilled to be able to talk to someone who spoke English and might know something about the part of Sicily we were in. As it turns out Vito knew a lot about that part of Sicily. He had grown up there. In fact, his family owned the restaurant we were in as well as most of the other businesses in town. We also found out that he spent about half the year in Sicily working on the family business and half the year in New Jersey. We asked him what he did in New Jersey and he REALLY said, “I work in waste management.” Unbelievable and kind of hilarious all the same time.
We had had a lovely lunch with Vito (who didn’t eat but just joined us to talk and order us the largest bottle of coke we had ever seen). When we were done we were both pretty full but Vito said, “You must have a cannoli. They are the best you will ever eat. The milk we made the cheese from was in the goat this morning.” We couldn’t pass that up so we said, “maybe just one.” Vito ordered and in about five minutes the server came out with two of the largest cannolis we still ever seen. They must have been at least six inches long and about an inch around and they were delicious!
That just about concluded our lunch experience except that when it was time to pay, there was no check. Now getting a check in Italy is pretty hard most of the time. The restaurants really don’t want you to leave. Seriously. It can often take 15 to 20 minutes after dessert is over to get the bill. But this time, there was no bill. I finally (after waiting a little while) asked Vito (since his family owned the place) if he could ask for it for us as we had to get on our way. He just reached down below the table and motioned with his hand so I could see it while saying, “Do you have 10 Euro? Just give it to me.” Far be it from me to turn down an amazing price on lunch or to not do exactly what this man told us to do 😀. And even after that, Vito insisted on walking us to our car and on the way introducing us to his brother who owned the local car dealership. It was a crazy day and we felt like we had found the true Sicily starting with Corleone and ending with Vito from New Jersey.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch. —Milton Friedman
Been severely tardy getting a post out lately but blame my daughter. For now I only have a finite amount of time for writing and for my birthday in December, my daughter gave me a one year subscription to StoryWorth. It is a very cool website that sends me a question to write about every week for one year. These are questions about me. For instance, since the first of the year I have written about what vacations were like when I was a kid, what my grandparents were like, something in my life that really surprised me, etc. At the end of the year they will print a book of everything I have written for my grandkids to know more about their grandpa. Kind of a history of me and my family. So each week I have been writing about my favorite topic, me 😜 and neglecting this blog.
Which brings us to another episode of Jim & Kathleen’s favorite food experiences. This time it comes with a big endorsement of the Seattle Area’s greatest travel expert, Rick Steves. If you love travel like we do, you have undoubtedly heard of Rick. When we decide to go someplace in Europe, we read Rick’s book about the city or country first. When we first started going to Europe we carried the books with us. Now we get them on Kindle so we have them on our phones. You can even download guided tours to use on your phones as well.
Lunch in Versailles
Don’t get me wrong. We don’t just follow Rick’s advice 100% of the time. For instance, we don’t always agree with Rick on lodging. Rick will stay in hotels with shared bathrooms—we won’t. We are just too old for that 😜. But when it comes to sightseeing, Rick gets it. If you ever decide to tour the great art museums of Europe, you would be crazy to do it without a copy of Rick’s book, “Mona Winks.” We have used it in the Sistine Chapel, the Louvre, the Ufzizi and others. He even puts a note in the book that you should tear out the chapter and carry it with you into a particular museum because the book is too big and heavy to lug around. And then when you get home, you send him the chapters you tore out and he sends you a new book. Pretty cool!
Rick also “gets” food. At least the kind of food we like. Food that is all about the region we are visiting. In that respect Rick is responsible for two of our very memorable food experiences, both at lunchtime, one in France and one in Italy.
Let’s start with France because that food experience happened first. We were on our second trip to Europe, on a two week ground trip that started with six nights in London, three nights in Scotland and five nights in Paris. While we were in Paris we did all the touristy things, the Louvre, Montmartre, Notre Dame and other Parisian must-see spots. One thing we wanted to do was take the train to Versailles to tour the palace and the grounds.
The palace is amazing. (That’s Kathleen at right, inside the Hall of Mirrors.) But when we went to see the grounds, it was FREEZING! It was a really cold day in November and we saw a little of the gardens before we decided we had to find some place warm to get lunch. We went into the village of Versailles and looked around and we were about to succumb to one of the touristy spots selling the touristy kind of “French food” you would expect to find in a tourist village. But these places looked cheesy and they had people standing at their doors trying to get people to come in and eat. Not an optimum experience.
We suddenly realized that the Rick Steve’s guide we had with us not only had a section about the palace and gardens (that we had used to tour those places) but recommendations for where to eat. We knew that Rick would never steer us wrong on food so we looked up the downtown village of Versailles and he gave a strong recommendation to a tiny place (whose name I can’t remember—this was in 2003) on the main square of the town. The biggest endorsement was…this is where the locals eat. So off we went and had a culinary and cultural adventure.
When we walked in the door, the smells were amazing but the place was JAMMED! In fact there were only two chairs left open—right in the middle of a long communal table. Each side of the table must have seated 20 people and the two chairs were across from one another just about in the middle of the table. We looked at each other and thought, “What the heck!.” We were cold and starving and this place was warm and the food smelled amazing. I don’t remember exactly what we had but I do remember it was awesome. And the people on either side of us were very friendly. It was a wonderful lunch.
Lunch in Sienna
Six years later we were on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean and we had docked in Livorno which is the port for Florence. Since we had been to Florence before we decided to hire a guide and head to the hill town of Sienna. We consulted our buddy Mike, the god of shore excursions and he hooked us up with a driver and guide named Marco that he had used before and really liked. So we were really looking forward to an awesome day. We had prevailed upon some of our Cruise Critic roll call friends to join us as well.
We should have known that there would be a problem when Marco did not meet us but instead we were met by Francisco. Marco was supposed to be taking us himself as we had been told he spoke excellent English and lived in Sienna. Francisco, although a very nice man, barely spoke English and with me sitting with him in the front seat trying to translate, we headed off to Sienna.
We still had hopes that we would be met by Marco once we reached Sienna but that was not to be. After the two hour drive (during which Francisco got lost twice), upon entering Sienna, Francisco drove up a one way street in the wrong direction and when a car came down the other way, he had to back up almost all the way out of the city. He then hollered out the window, “Excuse me, how do I get to the Duomo?” But the real kicker came when we arrived in Sienna and Francisco told us he would meet us to take us back to the ship at 3:30, handed me a copy of Rick Steve’s Tuscany and said Ciao!
We were astounded. We had contracted for a guided tour of Sienna and we got a car and driver who barely spoke English and who got lost both coming and going. But we made the most of it. We grabbed the Rick Steve’s book and walked the city.
No one else in the group wanted Rick’s book so Kathleen and I took it and headed out to see Sienna.
All in all it was great day as the rain stopped and the city and its Duomo were a truly amazing sight. The Duomo has incredible etched and painted floors that are kept covered for most of the year. But at the end of August each year, they are uncovered for only two months. We arrived six days before they were to be recovered so we got to see what many never do in Sienna.
We had a great time following all Rick’s advice about what to see…but then lunch rolled around and we knew we would be OK because we had Rick along. Sure enough, we opened the guide and found a wonderful little restaurant below ground level that we never would have seen just walking around. Not only was it gorgeously decorated but the food was amazing. I think the best way to describe the experience is that it was unexpected on a lousy day. Again, I can’t remember what I had but I know one of the best things that happened on that entire trip was that lunch.
Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch. —Orson Welles
This will be an unusual post for me, in that there won’t be as much writing as pictures. Pictures of our travel since the pandemic started…through jigsaw puzzles. Yup, like many of you, jigsaw puzzles became a big part of our lives. For most of the months since last March we have had a great big (500 or 1,000 pieces) under construction on our dining room table. We figured, why not use the table, it’s not like anyone was coming for dinner. We also have a big puzzle tray/box thingy that we could easily pack up the puzzle on the few and far between times the kids came to see us.
When we started we wanted to have a theme and I would say that other than one puzzle, I can at least remotely connect all of them to travel. And since the other one features the people we most like to travel to see, it kind of qualifies. So here, in order of our making them, are our puzzles. Hopefully in looking at them and reading my captions you will get the feeling of travel in your life.
Our first puzzle was this 1000 piece puzzle all about the Galapagos Islands. Santa had brought it to us on Christmas 2019 because our plans were to take a trip to the islands last August. We (of course) got cancelled out of that one and rebooked for this summer, thinking this would be all over. Now we are not so sure. But whenever we really get to go, we are going to do this puzzle again, just before we do.
Our second poster was full of vintage travel posters from around the world. I love it graphically and because it was a set of small blocks, it’s kind of a cheat. One thing we discovered with this puzzle was that different puzzle companies make better puzzles. Not so much the subject matter but how they hold together. Some fall apart if you breath on one piece. This one is from a company called Galison and it holds together so well, when we were done I could almost just pick it up. By far the BEST puzzle maker out there as far as quality of pieces and their cuts.
Another Galison puzzle. This one with scenes from New York City, a place we have visited quite a few times in our traveling years.
So we really have never traveled to get to a car show. But we do plan on attending the United States Grand Prix in Austin, TX one day. And when we do, we should see the greatest driver in the history of Formula One racing, Lewis Hamilton. That’s him in the white suit on the left (I know, it’s a stretch).
Now this is a place we have been—Key West, Florida. Both by land (driving the Overseas Highway to get there is way cool) and by ship (which the local populace is trying to ban) and we loved it both times. A very cool place. This puzzle is by a company called Dowdle. Their puzzles are on sale on Amazon a bunch but because they are paintings, I am not that big a fan. I prefer graphics. Easier to do 😀.
Ah beautiful Copenhagen, Denmark. Our only day in this very nice city was during a Baltic cruise we did with our friends Paul, Gail, Mike and Carol. Visited here and a BUNCH of other very interesting ports in Germany, Estonia, Sweden, Finland, Belgium and Russia.
One of the roads we drove on when we went to Albuquerque, New Mexico (had few meals at restaurants on it as well) was the famous Route 66. This road which stretches from Los Angeles to Chicago is widely known as “America’s Road.” This puzzle from Galison is of road signs, motels and more on the Route.
Keeping with that theme, our next puzzle was a diner that could have been on Route 66. It was a fun puzzle to do and this one was from a company called Ravensburger. Their puzzles are pretty good. Not as good as Galison (can you tell I liked those?) but not bad either. I would take them over a Dowdle.
Traveling a little closer to home, our ninth puzzle was another Dowdle, this time it was our home state of Washington. Kind of fun.
For our 10th puzzle we stayed in Washington State and did this Dowdle of Leavenworth, Washington’s Bavarian Village. This one was actually kind of special because when we first met I lived in Leavenworth and it’s where we got married as well.
Alright not really traveling but we have to drive at least 25 minutes to get to what used to be Safeco Field (it’s now T-Mobile Park), the home of the Seattle Mariners. This Dowdle (they have a LOT of puzzles) was fun to put together having been in this stadium so many times.
So this is the one I mentioned that isn’t really a travel puzzle but one with the people we most like to travel to see…our grandkids! My daughter gave me this puzzle for Father’s Day and she had it made by Shutterfly. I won’t even link it here because this was the WORST puzzle we did in terms of quality of pieces. If you sneezed, it fell apart. But we persevered and got it done because we loved the subject matter so much.
Back to Europe for number 13 as we explored one of our favorite cities, Barcelona. This one (a Dowdle) was fun to do because we had been to so many places that were pictured in it.
Another Galison (YEAH!) number 14 celebrates fifties style motel signs. Again, I love the graphics on this one—so retro.
Another place we have visited and loved, Sydney, Australia. I consider Sydney the most photogenic city we have been to. Everyplace you look there is something to shoot. We loved our stay.
Number 16 was awesome New Orleans. And it was very fresh in our minds since we had returned to Mardi Gras just a week before the pandemic really hit. We count ourselves VERY lucky to not have been part of their super-spreader event.
The Bay Area is where Kathleen grew up so this one of the Golden Gate Bridge is kind of like a trip home for her. We have been there together too many times to count and pretty much loved all our visits. It’s been a while since we have gone and we were supposed to meet our Brit friends Paul and Gail there last fall. Maybe someday.
It took us until puzzle 18 to find this puzzle manufacturer—Eurographics. We really like their graphics, especially on their travel puzzles. This one of lighthouses from around the USA featured many we have been to and one that we visited in December of last year when we went to the San Juan Islands for a short quarantine getaway. We really like the quality of these puzzles but especially love the edges which are always black with a red line. We liked these so much we bought a bunch more as you will see.
Number 19, also from Eurographics, is vintage travel posters from around the world. We find these much easier to work for a number of reasons. First, all the type makes them easier and the fact that they are individual posters also means we can separate pieces a lot faster.
Finally, this is number 20 (also from Eurographics) that we finished on Friday. It is very much like number 19 as it is vintage U.S. travel posters. Our next puzzle is much like this one but it is Canadian vintage travel posters. This one is still put together on the dining room table.
I hope you have liked my tour of the world through puzzles. They have been a constant companion during this pandemic and once one is put together and then taken apart, it heads to Olympia for the kids to do it (my daughter and her husband are MUCH faster than we are) and we used to just let her get rid of them on FB Marketplace but now we get them back and pass them on to our friends Elbert and Barry in Bellevue. I guess you could say that these puzzles really do some traveling themselves.
Every day is sort of a jigsaw puzzle. You have to make sure that you’re putting the most important things first. —Julia Hartz
It’s been a couple of weeks since our last installment of Jim & Kathleen’s Food Experiences. In case you forgot, I had promised a running bunch of posts on our best food experiences from our travel life. You can read about breakfast in Vancouver here or lunch in Barcelona here. For installment number three (this one will be all about the food) let’s travel to Pontone, Italy with the best tour guide in the known world, Marcello.
To set the stage we were sailing on Celebrity’s Galaxy on a 15 night cruise round trip from Rome that visited the usual Greek islands, Istanbul and even ventured into the Black Sea to stop in Romania and Ukraine. We were on our way back to Rome when we stopped for one last shore visit, in Naples. Pre-cruise we had contacted the “God of Shore Excursions” Mike Preisman who had recommended we contact one of his favorite tour guides, Marcello Maresca. He told us that Marcello was like no other tour guide. That if we let him pick us up in Naples and give us a tour of what he later called, “My Italy,” it would be a day well spent. Mike was right.
We contacted Marcello (we’re still friends on FaceBook and I hear from him all the time) and luckily he was available on the day we were there. We told him that we were more interested in Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast and Sorrento than we were in Naples, so he got us set up.
He was there on time and we headed off in his van. As we drove out of Naples, Marcello proceeded to tell us his philosophy of touring. “If you want to shop, don’t tour with Marcello. If you want to see ‘his’ Italy, the real Italy, tour with Marcello.” BTW: When I say we, there was Kathleen and I and four other friends we had met through our Cruise Critic roll call including Marybeth and Anne we have become friends with and cruised with in SE Asia.
We made stops on the way to lunch at lots of places where we saw incredible views, stopped in shops where only the Italians shopped and laughed at the other cruisers trying to navigate the Amalfi Coast in one of those huge busses. Oh, the places we could go that they couldn’t. Speaking of driving the Amalfi Coast, even though Marcello is the ultimate tour guide, he has this crazy habit of driving the coast road while looking back at us to talk. Scared the hell out of us but I guess he drives that road so much that he can do it blindfolded.
First stop was a tour through three villages surrounding Sorrento. These were towns that no one stops in because they don’t have the reputation that Sorrento has. But they show what Italian life is like now. I would tell you all of Marcello’s views of Italy today but it is best experienced firsthand from his mouth. So my advice? To see the real Italy and the real Amalfi coast, go to Naples and meet Marcello.
After driving the villages around Sorrento and then into Sorrento itself (where true to his word we saw a bunch of tourist trap shops) we headed down the Amalfi coast stopping whenever Marcello thought we could have great picture opportunities.
We did not stop in the tourist trap towns of Positano, Amalfi and Ravello but did stop on either side of them to take in the view and we drove through the multitude of tourist trap shops with goods from all over. The only semi-shopping stop we made was at an overlook outside of Positano where there was a fruit stand selling local fruit.
After we had driven through Ravello, Marcello announced that it was time to see the real Amalfi coast and we headed up into the hills to the village of Pontone. This village had not changed in more than 50 years. He told us we would have lunch in a wonderful outdoor restaurant where we would be the only patrons other than locals. A restaurant that grew all the food that they served, baked their own bread and everything was made to order.
After a quick tour around the village set high on a hillside we sat down to lunch. And “OH MY GOD, WHAT A LUNCH!” Those of you who know me, know how much I love Italian food. And I have to say without a doubt that this was the BEST Italian food I have had since my Italian grandmother passed away when I was a freshman in high school.
The meal started with an incredible antipasti. Bruschetta, zucchini squash blossoms and so much more. Check out the pictures above and make sure to click on one and watch the slideshow to see them in all their glory. Wonderful red and white house wines by the pitcherful were refilled every time we got near running out. Once we had gorged ourselves on the antipasti, out came the pasta. Three kinds. First a gnocchi that was wonderful, then a ravioli with cheese inside and cooked with arugala and finally a wonderful mixture of pasta shells, beans and pumpkin. We were in heaven. And a very full heaven by this point but wait, there was more. As if we had not had enough to eat on the cruise. Out came the desserts. On one plate we each had a piece of apple tart, a chestnut mousse and a incredible lemon dessert that was like lemon mousse and lemon pie combined. All this was accompanied by our choice of a melon liqueur, a fennel liqueur and our favorite (but not by much) lemoncello. It was wonderful. And this was lunch? What do they serve you for dinner?
After we had thoroughly gorged ourselves (did I already use that word? Gorged is the only word I can think of that describes how we felt), we were back on the road over the mountain to Piedmonte and then on to our tour of Pompeii.
To me, that’s what an incredible dining experience is all about. Awesome company, wonderful ambience and incredible food. We are hoping to go back there when we stop in Naples again in October 2022 and again see Marcello’s Italy.
People will travel anywhere for good food – it’s crazy. —Rene Redzepi
Consider this my end of the year/start of the year post. This blog (I still hate that word) is two years old now and this will be my 160th post. I truly believe if this had been a normal year for us, I would easily have written more than 200 posts by now. But without being able to travel there just wasn’t that much to write about. I mean how many lists can you make?
What did we get to do? A quick look back at our year does include our February/March trip to Florida, our cruise from there to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and then on to Mexico so I guess I can’t say it was all bad.
What did we lose? We had to cancel our spring cruise from San Diego to Vancouver on HAL’s Konigsdam, our summer trip to the Galapagos and our European Christmas Market river cruise in December. By now we should have added at least another eight countries to the list of those we have visited and I would have had pictures to prove it.
What have we been doing since then? The same as so many of you. Ten months of mask wearing, ten months of social distancing, ten months of being at home. Too many friends gone. The last week of the year I actually had to buy three sympathy cards. I have probably bought at least 8 this year and that doesn’t even count the GoFundMes I have contributed to when friends have become ill or passed away.
But we did have a little fun. We did two short get-aways to AirBnBs in Washington. We did four days at the coast with the grandkids. We FaceTimed with them at least twice a week. We Zoomed, HousePartied and Teamed with friends. We changed travel agencies we represent (one of the smartest things we have ever done). We are working on our 19th jigsaw puzzle, we ate a ton of takeout, we drank some serious wine and cocktails (we are doing a dry January 😔) and we watched five years worth of streaming movies and TV (always looking for suggestions).
For me, one bright spot this year has been my photography. The quantity of travel photos may have been lacking but the quality was much improved (at least from my standpoint). I took the best photo I have ever taken, I started posting a daily photo on Instagram (and have done that every day for more than a year–follow me@jimbellomo13) and later started doing that on Facebook (JimBellomo) as well. I started selling my photos (had a little luck but hopefully the more I post, the better it will get) on SmugMug (JimBellomoPhotography). Check me out on those platforms. You can even see my Instagram feed at right.
It is both funny and sad that so many people were glad to see 2020 end thinking that there would be some great change…but let’s be honest folks. Here we are on the fourth of January and it still feels the same to me 😜. Maybe once the vaccine is in my arm and I am getting on an airplane to go someplace it will feel a lot better.
What’s coming in 2021? It is so important to us to have something to look forward to, so we are still booked for our Galapagos trip (June 30–fingers crossed), a week with our kids at the beach in August and almost a month in Europe in December including that Christmas Market river cruise we missed (we are hoping for stops pre-cruise in Lisbon and Amsterdam). And that’s just what we have planned as of today. We are sure that as soon as they open the border we will be off to Chilliwack or Point Roberts. Maybe a long weekend in Vancouver, one of our favorite cities. I am sure even more will come up once we have those two shots in our arms. We actually have travel friends who are getting their first shots this week—lucky bums.
Which brings me to…we hope you are safe, healthy, wearing a mask in public, social distancing, dreaming of travel, awaiting your injection and all the other good things that can happen to you this year. The first date we are particularly looking forward to is January 20…for obvious reasons.
And now we welcome the new year. Full of things that have never been. —Rainer Maria Rilke
As promised in my post yesterday, here’s a short and sweet synopsis of what we did on our last full day on San Juan Island. Mainly we drove around. I had woken up at 2:30 am (couldn’t shut my brain off) so I got up and wrote, addressed, stamped and sealed our Christmas cards. Kathleen got up at a normal time and we had breakfast. When we were done with breakfast (see I told you this was short and sweet) we went out to see the rest of the island we hadn’t seen yesterday.
Many of our drives and my walks/hikes are just about finding things to take pictures of so we headed out to find some subjects. First stop, an old resort named Roche Harbor. It’s on the far side of the island from Friday Harbor but it only took about 20 minutes to get there. Has an old photogenic hotel and a nice marina but nothing photographically that made me jump for joy.
Then it was off to English Camp. This is a national historic park that has two locations, this and American Camp at the opposite end of the island. We have been there before but it is a really pretty place and this was the first time we had ever been there when we were totally alone. Above are pics of Roche Harbor and below one of English Camp.
There was only one other place I wanted to see (plus I was scouting for a place to take an afternoon hike) and that was American Camp, the other half of the National Historic Park. It is at the completely other end of the island and is almost a different ecosystem. Where most of the island is heavily wooded, the American Camp section is pretty much a wind-swept plain and nothing but grass. Sadly, when we got to the park, it was closed. They were doing some kind of construction.
Since we had driven all that way, we decided to continue on to the very southern tip of the island, a place I had never driven down to before. We always used to stop at American Camp and then head back. We are very glad we did as the views were amazing.
But even better than the views were the three wildlife shots I was able to get. First, after I took the panoramic photo above, we drove all the way to the end of the island where there was a turn around and found ourselves surrounded on two sides by deer. As if that wasn’t enough as we drove back (not more than three minutes later) we saw what we thought was a dog running through a field. But it was an interesting dog. And as it got closer we could see that it was not a dog at all but a fox. Strangely enough, the fox came right at our car (we think someone in a red car must be feeding it), nonchalantly walked in front of the car and then calmly crossed the road. All the way it was as if he was posing for pictures. Kathleen identified it as a red fox.
Once we left our foxy friend behind and headed into some trees, we saw what we thought was a hawk fly down and land on the side of a tree. I slowed down as we passed the bird and it wasn’t a hawk (we see hawks in the NW all the time) but an owl. Kathleen later identified it as a Barred Owl. As you can see from the photo, if the owl had not flown in just as we were passing, we never would have seen it because it blends in so well with the tree. In my opinion, the owl is one of the best animal pics I have taken.
The next morning (yesterday) we had a 10:30 am ferry to catch back to Anacortes and we struck gold. If you remember, I mentioned yesterday that on our way to the island we had been stuck on the car deck between two large trucks so we could see nothing. This time we got the very front of the boat so we had a totally clear view of everything on our way back. I have two photos from that morning I want to share. The first I took while waiting for the ferry. The sun was so perfect over the marina, I couldn’t pass it up. The second I took through the windshield of our car of another ferry approaching us (it was too damn cold to get out of the car) but it came out just fine for me.