The PANDEMIC IS OVER!!! At least they think it is in Key West, Florida

We spent our first night after flying into Fort Lauderdale at the Le Meridian Hotel near the airport. It turned out to be a very nice place. Being about an hour late, Kathleen and I grabbed a very quick bite before I high-tailed it back to the airport to pick up my brother (Steve) and my sister-in-law (Jamie) and bring them back as well.

The next morning we were up early, off to Starbucks and then we hit the road to go down for a one night visit to Key West, Florida. Kathleen and I had been there in 2009 with our buddies Bob and Judy and had loved it. Today is a tale of what happens in 12 years—bad things.

The cute and quaint town we visited in March of 2009 is now kind of a drunken, slobbery, very expensive mess. Well, maybe not that bad but certainly different from what we had experienced. The really big news in Key West is that the pandemic is OVER! We knew that because when we were walking around downtown, shopped and ate in restaurants and besides the four of us we saw exactly two (YES TWO) people with masks on. So we guess it’s over. At least it is there. We were so careful to keep our N95 masks on all day, even in the humidity and we are hoping that was enough. We have to take COVID antigen test this morning in order to be able to board the ship tomorrow. Fingers crossed!

The experience wasn’t all bad. I did get two new Crazy Shirts (the greatest shirt in the world—I have about 30 of them and wear them pretty much every day), we had a wonderful dinner at a restaurant on Duval Street (the main drag) called Bagatelle. Food was amazing and service was great. Except for the lack of masks, it was about a perfect dinner.

The same cannot be said about our hotel. Key West is in high season and that means hotels are not only scarce but expensive. We could not find a single AirBnB. The hotel (The Gates Hotel) was more than $300 a night so we were only staying one night. When we arrived and tried to get into the lobby to check in there was a sign on the door that said something to the effect that “two hotels, one lobby” with directions to drive to the hotel next door.

Once we got in the correct lobby we found out that not only was the hotel more than $300, they tacked on an undisclosed “resort fee” of $40. This “resort fee” got us two bottles of water and some free but pretty slow WiFi. Then we headed to our room which was way around the back of the building in a different, motel-type building. We found our room but we had to walk across about about 15 feet of muddy ground to get to the door and sometimes you had to fight your way through a flock of Key West’s famous chickens. Once inside we found another sign that people in Key West think the pandemic is over as soon as we used the facilities. There was no soap. Seriously, in a hotel room that charged us more than $350 plus tax, there was no soap. Also no bath mat to step out of the shower on. So I get on the phone and call the office to see if we could get both. I called about 15 times over and over again for about 20 minutes and there was no answer. So we went off to dinner and I figured I would ask when we got back. In the meantime the person who had checked us in sent me a text asking if everything in our room was OK and I texted back that we did not have soap or a bath mat. She said she would send some right out. This was two days ago, we checked out yesterday and we still don’t have it 🙄. I can’t recommend this hotel less than I do.

But I did get in an early morning photo-walk the next morning and the best of what I took are in the slide show below. Hope you enjoy them. Got some great sunrises and pelicans and a few other subjects as well. (Click on the first pic and you can scroll through the rest.)

The next morning after a quick hit of Starbucks we were back up the overseas highway to drop our luggage at our AirBnB where we would spend the next two nights. That done we headed north to Wellington to have dinner with our friends Mike and Cathy. We had promised my brother who loves Greek food, a visit to our favorite Greek restaurant, Chris’ Taverna in Lake Worth. After an hour wait we were rewarded with an amazing dinner (just like always). Of course I had the octopus and it was maybe the best I have ever eaten. Plus it was great seeing Mike and Cathy. Kathleen and I will meet them for lunch on the day we get off the ship as we don’t fly back until early evening.

That brings us to this morning (Saturday) when we are happily ensconced in the AirBnB while doing our online-monitored COVID tests so we can board the ship tomorrow. So far two of us have passed, one is waiting for their proctor to come back and then Jamie will do hers and we are good to go. More tomorrow!

Laughter is an instant vacation.  —Milton Berle

 

 

We are trying to travel again…

Just a quick note tonight. We are at the start of what we hope will be a really great 14 night vacation that we booked to make up for losing our European trip in December. When that trip got cancelled we immediately looked for someplace else to go. We didn’t want Europe because at that point things were going south there pretty quick and we have a big Mediterranean cruise planned for next autumn.

So one of the first people we asked for advice was our good friend Seth Wayne. Long time readers of these posts may remember that Seth used to be a meteorologist in Seattle and we met him on Twitter because of our mutual love of cruising. He also had a travel show on KOMO radio and I was often one of his guests to talk travel. Two years ago, Seth left his job at KOMO-TV as the morning weather guy and became the Director of Communications and Brand Ambassador for Holland America (HAL) cruise line. Since then (minus the pandemic) he has been on a HAL ship. From time to time he does a special Sail with Seth cruise where he is on the ship with a group of folks and there are all kinds of additional activities that he runs for the group. So I called to ask him when the next one was…and he said, “Hey, come with me to the Southern Caribbean on January 23rd!”

So even though I am NOT a fan of the Caribbean, because it was Seth and because we hadn’t been anyplace since our July trip to the Galapagos (which is forever for us) we jumped on it. And then came Omicron. So for the last two weeks we have been following all the news to see what was going on with the virus and cruising.

Yes, we have heard all the CDC stuff about cruising but I still totally believe that being on a cruise ship is by far the safest way to travel. Sure you can drive, but eventually you have to stop and eat or sleep. You could fly but when you do, you have no idea if the person next to or in front of or behind you is vaccinated or willing to keep their mask on correctly for your entire flight. But when you cruise, you know that every person on board has been fully vaccinated and wears a mask except when eating or drinking. Not only that but you can’t board without a negative COVID test whether you are vaccinated or not.

So last Saturday we went and got ourselves a Kaiser PCR test to be sure we were safe to fly south. We passed with a NEGATIVE result (which is kind of weird…to say that it’s a bad thing to be POSITIVE) and then we quarantined at home (no market trips, no restaurants, etc.) until this morning when we were picked up by Century Car Service and whisked off to SEA-TAC airport for our flight to Fort Lauderdale. I would love to say that everything went perfectly and it almost did except for the one hour delay to replace a knob in the cockpit But we finally got here and we even had time for a quick dinner at the hotel before I ran back to the airport to pick my brother Steve and my sister-in-law Jamie who are back traveling with us again. (They haven’t gotten to go anyplace since we came home from Ireland in June 2019) And now I am sitting in bed at the Le Meridien Hotel in Dania Point, FL writing this post.

Our cruise does not sail until Sunday and between now and then we are going down to Key West tomorrow, then back up to Wellington to have dinner with our buddies Mike and Cathy and then an AirBnB back here in Fort Lauderdale so we can do another COVID test before we sail on Sunday.

The big message here is to get ready for some more photos and posts as we spend the next two weeks out and about in Florida and the Caribbean.

In the Caribbean the temperature never changes, the sun just goes down.      —Kris Marshall

 

2021 Top Ten (could be anything)

Over the last few days I have written about my five best food experiences of 2021, my 10 best photos I took in 2021 and my five biggest downers of 2021 so today, let’s get to the good stuff to close out the year. So here are the 10 best things I loved in 2021. BTW: Unlike my photos which I numbered, this group is in no particular order (except the NUMBER ONE which is down at the bottom).

Walking all year

It’s funny that I am choosing to write about this first. I guess it’s because I haven’t been able to do it for a week (as of today) and that’s killing me. Too much ice and snow outside keeps me indoors. I am going stir-crazy but I know if I slip and fall then I might not be able to walk for weeks. It has been a big part of my life this year. So far in 2021, I have walked 1,466 miles (that’s 2,359 kilometer for our Canadian viewers). If I had just kept going and not come home I could have walked to my childhood home in Palm Springs and then to my brother’s place in San Juan Capistrano. Or I could have walked back and forth to our friends in Chilliwack, BC almost six times. Can you tell I love my walks? (BTW: I know how far I have gone because I use the wonderful app, Map My Walk from Under Armour. )

Going to Southern California twice to see Jamie and Steve

This was supposed to have been the year that the four of us went to Europe (for the third time) together and did a bunch of other stuff. But we “made do” with visiting my brother and sister-in-law in Southern California…twice. Great weather, lots of fun, family, food and superb activities organized by Jamie made these visits at least a good substitute for Europe. Not really, but we did have fun. We even went to the historic Musso and Frank Grille in Hollywood for dinner.

Stopping to see Mike and Meeting Cathy in June

We had so many schedule changes for our Galapagos trip in July that we were thrilled when it all finally worked out and we ended up  flying through South Florida to get to Ecuador. Thrilled because this gave us a chance to add on a couple of days to see one of our best friends and fellow Martini Mate Mike and to meet the new love of his life, Cathy, in person. We had an outstanding time, Mike even got up at 2:00 am to take us all the way to the Miami airport (WHAT A FRIEND!) and we LOVED Cathy. So it really stands out as a highlight for us. Even better, we get to see them again (I really hope) in three weeks.

Getting to go back to Canada in September

Over the last 15 years we have spent a lot of time in British Columbia. Specifically Chilliwack, BC. That’s because that’s where our friends Bob and Judy live. And in case you missed it, since the start of the pandemic, Canada had closed their border. That meant that even though we could FaceTime to talk, we hadn’t seen them in person from the day we got back from our Mardi Gras cruise (March 2o, 2020) until we finally got to get tested, get the Canadian entry app, show our Nexus cards and get in to see them in September. That’s a long time not to see someone you are used to seeing at least every other month. If all works out and it doesn’t snow again, we may go up again next weekend!

Going to Seaside with family in August

Every summer (or at least three of them) we have rented an AirBnB type place with our grandkids (and their parents). This year we went to Seaside, Oregon. I can’t tell you how much I cherish that week with them. We play games, go to the beach, local attractions, make meals together and watch special movies in the evenings (Star Wars!!!). Can’t wait until August 2022 to do this again.

Ted Lasso–forever

I know. It’s a television show. But I love television and it is the best television show ever made—in my somewhat humble opinion 😜. There is not a single episode where I don’t laugh, cry and exult in these glorious characters. I have watched each and every episode at least four times and some even more. We watched their Christmas show on Christmas Eve and will every Christmas Eve from now on. I listen to two podcasts about the show every week during the season. I still listen to Brett Goldstein’s “Films to Be Buried With” podcast every week.  I follow all the actors on Instagram. I have downloaded every song Hannah Waddingham has recorded that wasn’t from a West End musical. I watch every YouTube video about the show that YouTube throws at me—and that’s a lot. I have my Richmond FC scarf and I am ready to root for Ted and the Greyhounds again next summer. I am a total fanboy and completely obsessed. The show just speaks to me. When it comes to Ted Lasso, I am never a goldfish (you only get this if you have seen the show—go watch it!).

Getting fully vaccinated and staying that way with boosters

This isn’t the highlight of the year but it led to everything else we did. Do you remember when the vaccine was first introduced and so many people (like us) were clamoring to get our hands on our first shot…and then our second. We got our first one at the end of January and our second in mid-February. Then in mid-July I was in our local Kaiser (our HMO) clinic and they said they were throwing away vaccine every day because it was defrosted and people weren’t showing up to get it. I just don’t understand the anti-vaccination crowd. We know friends and relatives of friends who are part of that group and they are normally intelligent people. Please explain this because I can’t. I just know that I have had three, full potency shots (I take an injected auto-immune drug weekly so I got a full shot for my third and not a booster) and Kathleen is boosted.

Storyworth–all year long

I think have mentioned Storyworth on this site before but here’s a quick explanation if I haven’t. For Christmas 2020 my daughter gave me a one-year subscription to Storyworth. Since then I get an e-mail every week with a single question about my life. Either my past, my opinions or my relationships. Each week I answer the question and they keep them and at the end of the year (now) I order a pre-paid, printed book of all of the stories so that my grandkids can know about their Grandpa and how he got this way 😜.

I am currently in the process of editing my book (that’s the cover above) and I will order the printed version for myself next week. Once I see my printed copy, I will order two more, one for each of the grandkids. This has been a wonderful experience. I have learned so much. Over my lifetime I have been in therapy a quite a few times, but writing these stories had been more therapeutic than any of that. It does get a little dark sometimes but it’s really brought back some good and not-so-good memories. And yes, I guess I am verbose. The average Storyworth book is about 250 pages. I am over 450 at this point. Can you tell I have loved the experience?

Retiring from Jostens Yearbooks after 39 years last June

To be completely honest, this was not supposed to happen until 2022. I love even numbers and I really wanted to get to 40 years with Jostens and my own company, Koobraey Productions. But COVID did this in as well. Yearbooks have been changing every year of those 40 years and I still found things to write and teach about but when the pandemic hit and things were NOTHING like they have ever been before, it was just enough to push me to walk away. Jostens and Koobraey have been a great place to be self-employed for those 39 years and there isn’t much I would trade for the friendships I have made during that time.

It was a career I never expected (I was supposed to be a history teacher) but loved and did quite well with. From the day I started in 1982 until last June 14, I loved a lot of it. The six months since retiring (I am still in my “funtirement” job booking travel with Expedia Cruises) have been so busy I can’t figure out where I used to fit this job into my life.

Going to the Galapagos on Celebrity’s Flora in July

Being honest, this is number one. I mean not only was it the BEST thing we did in 2021 it may be one of the 10 best experiences I have ever had in my life. It is definitely the best trip/cruise/adventure we have ever done. We loved it so much we are going to do it again in 2024 to see the Inner Loop islands. I find it very hard to put into words what this adventure meant to us. Not only was it the first time we got to really travel after the shutdown, it was so much more than I ever thought it would be.

For me, the biggest excitement was the photography. The Galapagos are a photographer’s heaven. After a year of not shooting much of anything other than grandkids (which I love shooting) it was like I got all caught up in a week. Certainly equal to the photography were the amazing people we met on Celebrity’s Flora. There is no way I would go again and not go aboard that ship. It made the trip so very easy not to mention being the best place ever to come back to at night. Every single crew member we met was amazing. The guides, the crew in the dining room, the chef who made me sango, the officers and we were especially lucky to have been sailing the week that Celebrity’s resident scientist, Ellen Prager was onboard. I was never much for science but going to this incredible place and talking to Ellen and the guides she trains really got me excited about it. I leave you with a special gift to close out 2021, a slide show of my best photos from the islands. Happy New Year!

 

Whether it’s the best of times or the worst of times, it’s the only time we’ve got.

Art Buchwald

The Worst of 2021— From My Point of View

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way today and I will come back New Year’s Eve with the Top Ten of 2021. So here’s the bottom five worst things about 2021. We experienced some of them personally and I know some of you have experienced them as well.

Number 5: The political divide in my country

I don’t think I have ever been political in these posts but I have had it. Not with anyone in particular but with the extremists on both sides of politics in the country I live in who continue to drive us apart. From science to religion, from insurrection to health care we are so divided. Talk of civil war is all the rage on social media. I am at a point where I just wish that all the red states would become one country and all the blue states another and we could live happily ever after—but in my heart, I know that is crazy. And sadly there are plenty of good, reasonable people who are either red or blue who live in the opposite type of state so that won’t really work. I don’t know what the solution is to this and to be honest I am kind of glad I won’t be around in 40 years to see what happens (I’m being optimistic 😜). But I worry for my kids and grandkids.

Number 4: The pandemic drags on

This is one of those things that we have all had to experience. Will this damn thing never end? I remember coming home from our Mardi Gras cruise in March of 2020 and we were discussing how long it would last. At that point we had major travel plans in May 2020, August 2020 and December 2020. We pretty much gave up on May immediately. We knew that trip wasn’t going to happen. But we had high hopes that COVID would turn out to be another version of the flu and could be contained so we felt pretty good about our August 2020 trip to the Galapagos. In hindsight, I laugh at myself thinking that. How naïve we were. But surely we would have no trouble doing our Viking River Cruise in December 2020? There would be a vaccine by then? Everyone would take it and we could move on? That would work right? Not a chance.

And now here we are, a year later and we have had a darned good vaccine that has been pretty widely available since early 2021 and we just cancelled our second Viking Christmas Market Cruise. I am not sure why, but when we thought of that vaccine a year ago we automatically assumed that everyone would rush to get jabbed so we could all move forward with our lives. But no! There is no accounting for stupidity and ignorance so here we are, in the last month of 2021 and we are back in full-blown COVID crapdom. Get a damn shot people. Science is real.

Number 3: The deterioration of my beloved Seattle

I wrote about this in depth about two month ago. You can see that post here. But at least things might improve in the new year as the voters decided that the people running Seattle had gone too far in the wrong direction trying to be “good people” (I am a firm believer that no extreme viewpoint—either right or left—is a good one) voted in some who have some logic. I will keep you updated as things progress but for right now, avoid Seattle. Cruising buddies—if you want to sail to Alaska this summer, leave from Vancouver (if Canada allows it—not even sure of that).

Number 2: Falling off a five foot berm in Oregon

This one is just a personal thing. Back in August on our annual beach trip with our kids and grandkids, I took a fall. I was walking in some high grass on a berm at the beach. There was about a 5-6 foot straight drop off to the beach itself. I was going to find a place to slide down on my butt until the part of the berm I was standing on (pictured from the top of the berm) collapsed underneath me.

Thankfully, I wasn’t badly hurt but I did screw up my good knee (still hurts from time to time), I landed on my Nikon (that repair bill was almost $500) and I think I scared the grandkids who had never heard Grandpa use that kind of language before. Suffice it to say that while I am pretty much fully recovered (as is my camera), there was about a three week period that I had to give up taking my long walks…one of my favorite things to do.

Number 1: We have to cancel our December European trip

You may have read about this a few short weeks ago but the biggest disappointment of 2021 was cancelling a trip we had been planning for more than a year. You can read about the cancellation by going here. And you can read about all the things I had to cancel, get vouchered or refunded by going here. I guess the best thing I can say about having to do this is that in hindsight, we did the right thing as Omicron showed up a week after we cancelled and Europe shut down for travelers. The river cruise that was the centerpiece of the trip turned out to be a bust with most ports missed, passengers who went complaining about it and worse. As I told someone who cancelled a cruise today (for January 22) on FB, better a postponed vacation than a lousy vacation.

Unless you have bad times, you can’t appreciate the good times.

Joe Torre 

My 10 Best Photos of 2021

As promised yesterday, here are my Top Ten Photos that I took in 2021. I have been posting these on Facebook and Instagram for the last few days but if you don’t follow me on either of those platforms, here are my Top Ten.

Number 10: The Wenatchee River in Leavenworth, WA

I decided to start with a photo I took in my old stomping grounds of Leavenworth, Washington. This shot of the Wenatchee River as it flows through the town was what I consider the best of the ones on my early morning photo walk.

Number 9: Blue-footed Booby on Española Island

Number nine in my countdown of my 10 favorite photos I have taken in 2021 is this marvelous blue footed booby I shot on Fernadina Island in the Galapagos. I am doing these in order of how much I love them. As you can expect the majority will come from our trip to the Galapagos.

Number 8: A foggy field in Redmond, Washington

Number eight of my top ten photos of 2021 is the only one I took with my iPhone 12. I was out taking my daily walk when I saw this scene early on what would become a very warm day. The last vestiges of moisture were hanging low over this field and rapidly disappearing in the rising sun. I realize it’s not much a travel photo as I was about three miles from our home…but hey, I was traveling.

Number 7: A Galapagos Tortoise on Santa Cruz Island

My choice for my seventh favorite photo I took in 2021 is this old guy I snapped while we were on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos. He saw me and decided he was going to see just what the heck I was doing with that big, ugly camera. I love the look on his face.

Number 6: Heron Reflection in Olympia, Washington

Number six on my top ten photos I took in 2021 is this heron I shot on an early morning photowalk in Olympia, Washington. It’s all about the reflection as far as I am concerned. The state capital of Washington was just a really nice bonus as the reflection.

Number 5: Blowhole landscape on Española Island

My Galapagos photos are mostly flora and fauna but this shot I took on EspañolaIsland is my favorite landscape from the trip. The water you are seeing is from a blowhole in the rocks that shot huge amounts of water up into the sky whenever a wave came in. Between that water, the incredible sky and the clear and clean air, I just love this shot.

Number 4: Two Pelicans over Santa Cruz Island

Number four in my Top Ten Photos I took in 2021 is one that I did not like when I first saw it. In fact my appreciation of it grows every day. Kathleen talked me into keeping it because I was going to throw it away. I didn’t like because of the way the pelican on the left is cut off. But I did like the contrast between the birds and the sky and the incredible sharpness I got by using a 1250th of a second shutter speed and a 16 f-stop. The birds were fast but every part of my shooting was faster except me. I just couldn’t turn quick enough. BTW: 2021 is the year I learned to back-focus on my Nikon and I will never go back. What a difference.

Number 3: Galápagos Sea Lion on Española Island

My number three choice is the best portrait I took this year. If you go to the Galapagos probably the MOST amazing thing is that all the animals will let you get within feet of them. This shot was not a telephoto or zoomed. I was about five feet away. I chose it as much for the clarity and photo quality as for the awesome subject that I hope to shoot again one day…and the look on his face.

Number 2: Mount Rainier from Olympia, Washington

I got this shot on another of my pre-dawn photo walks. We were staying in Olympia at an AirBnB so we could have the grandkids all to ourselves. Had the best time ever. I got up and went to do an Olympia, Washington photo walk. And lo and behold, the first thing I saw was Washington’s unofficial state symbol—Mt. Rainier. I guess the mountain is almost the official symbol—it is on our license plates and you can just about see it from every part of the state. That morning, as you can see, the sky was on fire. No retouching here, this was straight out of my Nikon.

Number 1: A flamingo coming in for a landing on Isabella Island in the Galapagos

Did you know that when flamingo’s land, they walk on the water as they come down? Neither did I. But this shot from a morning walk on the Galapagos Isabela Island is what I consider my best nature shot ever. I am so glad I did a lot of research into shooting wildlife before we went as it is not something I have done a lot of except in zoos. Learning to use back focus and shooting at 2000th of a second has enabled me to up my wildlife game. When I took this shot and the thousand others I took in the Galapagos I felt like I have made up for a complete pandemic worth of non-travel shooting in seven days. How much do I love this photo? I believe it is the second best shot I have ever taken…or maybe my third.

There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are.

Ernst Haas

 

My End of the Year Lists Begin Today with Food and Drink

With the end of this mixed bag of a year, I am seeing all the Top Ten/Bottom Ten of 2021 lists in every part of the news. I usually read the ones about movies and photos (there are lots about the latest music but it makes me sad when I have never heard of anyone on those lists 😂). If you have been following me for a while you know I love lists. I even have a page of nothing but lists I have made. Most were posts first and then added to the list page. Check them out sometime if you are new to the blog. You can expect these new ones to be added to that page as well.

This year I have decided to do my own set of Top Ten Lists. I am already doing my Top Ten Photos I Took in 2021 on Facebook and Instagram (I will post them here tomorrow). In that spirit I have decided to do a post about my Top Ten Things That I Loved About 2021. Then, when I started listing that Top Ten, I also thought about a bottom 10…or maybe 5. Then I started thinking about other lists from 2021 like my favorite meals or my favorite just about anything. But I decided that this could just go on forever. So I decided to do four lists (including my photos). First, the aforementioned Top Ten and then a Bottom Five of 2021. That leads us to this post,  The Top 5 things I ate or drank in 2021. And I was going to do them all in one post but I knew that would get too long so I broke them into four posts (for today the next three days) so I hope you enjoy them.

Food, Glorious Food!
My top five things I ate or drank in 2021

You know I love food and drink so here they are in no particular order. I had two of them in one meal and three of them within two days and the other two in the same week (Did you get all that?).

  1. Chicken Sandwich with slaw (Houstons restaurant in Irvine, CA)
  2. Wood-fire grilled artichokes (Houstons restaurant in Irvine, CA)
  3. Blue Coyote’s margaritas (Blue Coyote Grille–Palm Springs, CA)
  4. Sango De Camarón (onboard Celebrity Flora in the Galapagos)
  5. Fritada and Llapingachos (EB Hotel—Quito, Ecuador)

As you can see the first two things come from the same restaurant, Houstons. This is a small chain (11 outlets) of restaurants located across the US. I had first heard about them while listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Armchair Expert. The expert himself, Dax Shepherd, raves about them and my brother and his bride had been wanting to take us to the Irvine, California location for a while but we didn’t have a reservation the first time we went. But in April when we went to visit them for a few days, we stopped there for lunch right after we got off the airplane and based on the recommendation from Dax, we ordered the chicken sandwich.

Then, based on the menu description, we ordered the artichoke appetizer as well. Suffice it to say, these were both AWESOME! How much did we like them? Well, six days later when they took us back to the airport we had an early dinner ordered the same thing and when we went down to see them in October, we had lunch when they picked us up and dinner when they took us back to the airport and we ordered the same thing all over again. Yes, they do have other things on their menu but when something is this good and you don’t live nearby, get it! If you are ever in a place with a Houstons, go have these two dishes. You won’t be sorry.

I mentioned that I had three of my top five things within just a few days time. Well the first two were at Houstons and the third was the next day after both our visits to Houstons. We stopped by the Blue Coyote for margaritas. Blue Coyote is a restaurant in Palm Springs (my and my brother’s hometown) and we first discovered it years ago and then took Steve and Jamie a few years later. When I was a kid if you wanted Mexican food in Palm Springs, you went to Las Casuelas. They are still there but the tourists have taken over the place and it just isn’t as great as it used to be…so now we go to Blue Coyote.

We used to just order a round of margaritas but the last few times when we have been there with Jamie and Steve we have started getting a pitcher…they are that good. I do feel a little sorry for Steve because he is always driving and that means he only gets one (but not too sorry 😜).

The last two items in my list of food are both from our trip to the Galapagos in July. I had the Fritada and Llapingachos at the EB Hotel in Quito where we spent the night both before and after our visit to the islands. I ordered this the night before because it sounded good (it is a pork dish with potatoes and lots of other stuff) but it was so good, when we came back a week later I ordered it again—yup, still just as good and since I don’t know of anyplace to get it besides Quito, ordering it again was a no-brainer.

Lastly, Sango De Camarón is a traditional seafood stew with a plantain base and I ate that onboard the amazing Celebrity Flora while we were cruising through the islands. One afternoon Kathleen and I were looking at the menu for that evening outside the dining room and I told her I was sad because there were no real Ecuadorian dishes on the menu that night. I had learned on the four previous nights (plus the night at the hotel) that I LOVE Ecuadorian food. The maitre’d overheard me saying this and asked if I really liked the food from Ecuador. I said, “Yes I do!” So he said he would see what he could do. That night when we went to dinner—still no Ecuadorian food on the menu 😔. But the next night…I had already told our waiter what I wanted when the maitre’d walked up and said he was cancelling our order (of an octopus dish I knew I would love) and the chef had made a wonderful surprise for me. Being an idiot and looking a gift horse in the mouth, I told him that this sounded great but I loved octopus and I really wanted to have that entrée. He said to wait a few minutes and he would see what he could do.

About five minutes later he was back with an appetizer that was not on the menu. It was a big salad with a HUGE portion of braised and broiled octopus on top and tons of avocado (the avocado in Ecuador is amazing!). After eating that he brought me the regular octopus entrée I had ordered and set it down in front of me and then brought a huge bowl of something that smelled amazing. He set that down in the middle of our table (there were four of us) and said, “This is sango. It is a traditional Ecuadorian dish that is a seafood stew with a plantain and rice base.” So I had to taste it and it was AMAZING. If there was a kind of local seafood that was NOT in there, I would like to know what had been left out. There was shrimp, clams, mussels, different kinds of white fish, calamari, scallops and…octopus. The stew/sauce part reminded me of a very good risotto.

Sadly, because of Kathleen’s allergy to shellfish, she couldn’t eat any of it. And the better half of the couple we were eating with (Jamie and Catherine) said she couldn’t eat anything with tentacles. So it was up to Jamie and I do make that chef happy…and we did. We ate it all.

One of the main reasons I want to go back in 2024 is to have this dish again. The taste and texture were delicious but I think the thing that really made it special was the fact that just because someone had overheard me talking about my new love for Ecuadorian food, the chef had made me this wonderful dish that represented his homeland. Food experiences don’t get any better than that.

Eating is not merely a material pleasure. Eating well gives a spectacular joy to life and contributes immensely to goodwill and happy companionship. It is of great importance to the morale.

Elsa Schiaparelli

 

 

 

Cancelling A Trip–What I Learned in the Process

First, I know that I promised this post almost three weeks ago when we cancelled our three week trip to Europe. I really was going to write it fairly quickly after that, but I got so depressed about not going, the state of the world and the pandemic, that I just kept putting it off. But since I know that many of you may have to do some cancelling of your own someday I wanted to show you how, as of today we have cancelled four flights, one cruise, three tours, lots of land transport and event tickets. In all cases we have either received refunds or vouchers for another trip at another time within a certain time frame so I feel I really have a handle on this. That means we had already paid for this and they had our money. If it says No then we had not paid anything but they had our credit card they could charge if we didn’t cancel.

Things to CancelAt RiskAmount at RiskOutcome
Viking Christmas Market River CruiseYes$15,000Cancelled and voucher/rebooked 2023
Car Service to SEANo$0.00 paid in advanceCancelled
British Air Flight to Lisbon, PortugalYes$1,500 plus 120K milesCancelled and Refunded
British Air seat reservationsYes$785Cancelled and Refunded
Talixo Limo Airport to Hotel in LisbonNo$0.00 paid in advanceCancelled
Hotel Portugal, LisbonNo$0.00 paid in advanceCancelled
Lisbon Food Tour with Eating EuropeYes$150Cancelled and Refunded
Sintra TourYes$200Cancelled and Refunded
TAPP flight Lisbon to AMSYes$325Cancelled and voucher
Talixo Limo Airport to Banks MansionNo$0.00 paid in advanceCancelled
Banks Mansion hotel in AMSNo$0.00 paid in advanceCancelled
Reservation at Pantry RestaurantYes$100Cancelled and Refunded
Reservations at Restaurant ZazaYes$100Cancelled and Refunded
Boom Chicago TicketsYes$75Cancelled and Refunded
Tour with Tours by Locals around AMSYes$420Cancelled and Refunded
Van Gogh museum ticketsYes$80Cancelled and Refunded
KLM flight from AMS to PragueYes$720Cancelled and voucher
Delta flight from Budapest to SEAYes$3782Cancelled and voucher
Car Service home from SEANo$0.00 paid in advanceCancelled

As you can see we were not able to get all our money refunded but we were able to get vouchers that we could use on future travel. Some of that future travel has expiration dates but as much as we travel we have been or will be able to use it.

For instance, we have already rebooked the Viking River Christmas Market Cruise. We really do want to go on this cruise but we had to push it off to 2023 because we will already be in Europe in fall of 2022 and we really can’t afford to get home in September and then go back in November.

I also need to point out that we got really lucky with the British Air seats. Normally we would have had more of a problem with them. They were for a one-way ticket from Seattle to Lisbon, Portugal via London Heathrow. Our original flight left here at 6:45 pm, arrived at Heathrow at noon the next day and then we had a 2.5 hour layover before our flight to Lisbon. About two weeks before we were scheduled to go we got a note from British Air (and Alaska Air—we booked the tickets through them using miles) that they had cancelled our Lisbon flight and moved us to one that didn’t leave Heathrow until almost 8:00 pm and did not arrive in Lisbon until close to midnight.

When they move you that much you can cancel and rebook elsewhere at no cost…so when we cancelled with them, we just cited the change of schedule as the reason and Alaska Air cheerfully handed us back the miles and the taxes (Heathrow taxes are outrageous—$750 each)and British finally (last week) refunded our seat reservations. We have hopefully taken our last flight on British Air. We love everything about them except for the high taxes at Heathrow and the fact that even though you have Business Class seats, you still have to pay $750 each to choose your seat prior to check in the day before the flight. That’s just wrong.

Some of the other expenses we were pleasantly surprised to get back were the Boom Chicago (an improv show in Amsterdam, done in English, where Jason Sudekis, Seth Myers and other US comedy folks got their start) and the Van Gogh museum. Both state on their websites that there will be “NO REFUNDS.” But when I wrote them both a nice e-mail explaining that we just had to cancel due to COVID, they both said they understood and gave us full refunds. It should be noted that both of those are in Amsterdam and Amsterdam is locked down today so there is a good chance we might not have been able to go to either anyway.

Other tours (Sintra and the food tour in Lisbon or the Tours by Local tour in Amsterdam) we knew in advance were refundable right up to a few days before the tour. The same with the restaurants. I should note that this was the first time I did restaurant reservations that I had to provide a credit card and they charged me a refundable (up to 24 hours before) deposit of $25 per guest. And this happened at all three places we were going to eat in AMS.

Almost everything was completely cancelled and refunded within…3 days. The only things that we waited on were the British Air seat reservations and the Boom Chicago and Van Gogh museum tickets. And I only had to make a single phone call. All of the rest were either cancelled with an e-mail or by filling out a web form, except for my calling Alaska Air—which was super easy.

All-in-all I am VERY pleased at how easy this was to do. But even saying that, I would NEVER want to do it again. When you are a travel freak like I am, there is no bigger downer than cancelling a major trip like this. It put me in such a rotten mood that we had to quickly (like within three days) get refunded and get something booked for January. Now if Omicron would just get over itself so that doesn’t get cancelled, we are all set. I promise to come back and tell you all about it soon.

One last note about a date I missed. Last Thursday, December 16, was the third anniversary of this travel blog. The post you are reading is my 199th so I think I have done just a “fair job” of writing an average of two posts a month. If we had been traveling like we normally do (damn you pandemic) then it would have been a lot more. With three major trips planned in 2022 I truly believe that there will be a lot more in the year to come. Stick with me.

Cancelled isn’t a bad word because it happens everyday.

Wayne Brady

Total Disappointment–Trip Cancelled–Mad as HELL!

How do you start a post where you are both sad and mad? Today is November 24. Next Tuesday, November 30th we were SUPPOSED to be flying to Europe for a four night stay in Lisbon, a three night stay in Amsterdam, a two night stay in Prague, a one night stay in Nuremberg, a seven night Viking River Cruise from Regensburg, Germany to Budapest, Hungary with stops in Vienna, Passau and Krems. After the cruise we would spend an additional two nights in Budapest. We were going to be out doing what we love best for 22 days in glorious Europe. We would have seen the Christmas Markets of Europe, done a plethora of tours, gotten to travel with my brother and his bride once again…and so much more.

But last week we learned two things that made us reconsider the entire trip. First, due to a spike in COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths Germany closed all their Christmas Markets–one of the main reasons we were going. At that point we thought, “Well, let’s go ahead and go and we can do the Christmas Markets in Prague, Budapest and Austria.” On Friday of last week, Austria went into lockdown so the cruise was going to just be a lot of time on the river and not a lot of time in those cities that we really wanted to visit. When I called Viking I was told that they had rescheduled all the Austrian stops (3 days out of the seven) as river cruising days and that they might schedule a day in Bratislava, Slovakia but there probably would not be any independent touring allowed in any of the stops we would make except maybe Hungary at the end of the cruise. With all those restrictions, not  to mention the risk of getting COVID ourselves (even though we have had three shots) we decided to cancel.

This was a pretty bitter pill to swallow. We had originally booked and paid in full for this cruise in 2018. We were supposed to have taken it last winter (December 2020) but of course that got cancelled. And because it was cancelled by Viking, we could have either had a full refund or a voucher for 125% of our fare to use on a future Viking cruise. We opted for the voucher and used it to book the same cruise again in 2021. Now that we have cancelled that one Viking has again offered us a full refund or to reinstate our 125% voucher so we can try again. That’s what we decided to do. As soon as I have the voucher we will book this same cruise in 2023. If any of you would like to join us, we would love to have you travel with us. I will post all the details after we book it.

So that’s what made us sad. We had to cancel. Then we got mad. Not at the cruise line, not at the airline, not at all the tours and shows we had prepaid to do because they all gave us either a quick refund (in less than three days) or a voucher for future travel (which we are OK with since we intend to continue to travel). Of course we could have still gone to Europe but then we heard that other countries were also shutting down. Which brings to the people I am mad at. The people who caused our cancellation. The freakin’ European idiots (who are no better than our home-grown American idiots) who refused to believe in science and get themselves VACCINATED—they are why this happened.

We have two friends who live in Bavaria. They are both retired physicians. Their kids are all doctors. We were corresponding with them on a regular basis leading up to our decision. They were telling us that due to the infections in the unvaccinated, there were so many people who needed ICU beds they were shipping patients to Italy. How stupid are people? I guess we all know the answer to that one.

That’s all for now. Suffice it to say that we are sitting sadly at home and staying there until at least January…but that’s a whole other post. Stay tuned to find out how well we did with cancellations and where we are going instead.

To my US readers, have a great Thanksgiving. To everyone else–stay safe (especially if you are in Europe).

When things are a disappointment, try not to be so discouraged. –Carol Burnett

Mixed Emotions

If you are here because you like reading about travel, skip this post. Come back in 18 days when I will give you an early morning tour of Lisbon, Portugal…if all goes well. This post is personal. It is kind of about travel because we went someplace so I could experience it but it isn’t about travel, it’s about me.

Two weeks ago tonight was my 50th high school reunion. I graduated from Palm Springs High School in Palm Springs, California in June 1971 and with COVID we finally got around to holding the reunion. Also, because of COVID this reunion included the class before ours (1970) as they had missed theirs.

As you may have seen from earlier posts, I was really looking forward to going to the reunion and to spending a few days with my brother and his family as well. BTW: That part of the trip was great. We had our usually awesome time with Steve and Jamie.

But the reunion itself wasn’t that great. Or maybe I should say that the reunion (the event) was just fine. It was just not great for me. For a lot of reasons. Some external and some internal. I have been trying to decide if I wanted to write about it for the last two weeks. Each day when I walk I kind of plan out my posts in my head before I write them. Never had one perplex me more about how I feel about it.

Things I had almost no control over

One of the big things we (Kathleen and I) were really looking forward to was seeing my best friend from high school, Randy. She and I have known each other since elementary school and we became very close in high school. We were never boyfriend/girlfriend, just really close friends. I spent some of the best times of my life with her. We lost track of each other after our third year of college but we reconnected when I met Kathleen (my first wife did not like her) and we have been rebuilding our friendship ever since. Kathleen and I have visited Randy in Arizona and she and I communicate via e-mail, text, Instagram and FaceBook on a pretty regular basis.

Kathleen was only going to come to the reunion if Randy was going to be there because she wanted to at least know one person. I didn’t blame her. I doubt I would have really wanted to go if I didn’t know anyone. Especially being married to Mr. Extrovert who would be running around talking to everyone else.

On the day before the reunion we had planned to get together with Randy for lunch but early that day she texted that due to a medical problem she was headed home to AZ and would miss the reunion. She was crushed. We had been talking about doing this for more than a year. I was sad (more than sad) because when I look back on it now, I really only had only two or three people who I knew were going to be there that I really wanted to see. And she was definitely one of them.

When Randy let me know she wasn’t going to be there, I let Kathleen off the hook and told her to go have dinner with Steve and Jamie. They would drop me off at the reunion site and go get dinner and pick me up on their way back to our vacation rental, two hours later. I figured that with Randy not there, I could easily see the two or three other people I wanted to see, say hi to others and be ready to go. The reunion did include a BBQ dinner and a single drink ticket for everyone attending but food was not why I was still going.

When the family dropped me off I have to say I was not impressed with the site. I fully get that this is what the group could afford and still keep it affordable for everyone. It was held at a stables that is within a couple of miles of downtown. The place has a clubhouse kind of building and patio behind it where there were tables set up. Inside the building a lot of people were congregating and there was a bar, a place to take pics and some old high school photo stuff including a display honoring those in our class that had passed away. Guess what comes with a stables…horses (they were a pretty long way away) but that means they also bring…horseflies…and they were pretty close. So was that wonderful aroma that cowboys know well.

Now let’s get to something I was really uncomfortable with. I know I am partly to blame for my being uncomfortable and to be honest, I can’t believe I did what I did. When I got out of my brother’s truck, I had a mask on but when I walked up to the registration table that was in front of the building, I took it off because not a single person had one on. Yes, we were outside, but people were close together. Yes, I am vaccinated (three shots) but still, for the safety of myself and my family, I should have kept mine on. But I bowed to the unspoken peer pressure and shoved mine in my pocket.

After checking in, I immediately ran into someone who I had been friends with more in elementary school than in high school but our mothers had been VERY close. It was great seeing her and that was nice. But it was pretty much downhill from there until about 90 minutes later.

I headed into the building so I could get out onto the large porch area in the back. As I went in, I noticed a big sign stating, “By order of the City of Palm Springs, only vaccinated guests may be inside these premises and all must be masked.” Of course not a soul was…wearing a mask. Not sure about the vaccination status but of course after I got through the building and wound up outside in the back the first group of people I ran into was four men (I didn’t know any of them so I am assuming they were from the class of 1970) who were talking about “all those sheep who are vaccinated.” Needless to say I avoided those folks like the plague (no joke intended). Most of the rest of the time I was there was spent outside and trying as hard as I could to socially distance.

Internal stuff that I should have controlled

Looking back on the experience of that night, I have come to some sad truths about myself. The first being I realized I was neither liked nor disliked in high school. Most of my classmates, other than my closest friends, didn’t care one way or the other about me. Sadly, it took me going back to this reunion to realize that. I blame my job of 39 years in the yearbook industry for this. Writing, speaking, teaching yearbook advisers and staffers how to preserve memories for all those years has made me romanticize how “great” high school was. But to be honest, it really wasn’t. I, like most people, had a few close friends (some of those were in the class of 1972 and not there) and everyone else was just an acquaintance. Someone who had passed through my life for a few years.

So this led me to ask myself, why had I wanted to go if I really was only hoping to run into two or three people who I really wanted to see? Here’s my second hard truth: vanity. When I was in high school, I was a pudgy guy (to be real–I was fat). And I was a little nerdy. I was president of the Forensics Club for god’s sake. I wasn’t in sports. I was on the student council and I did help out with the yearbook (but wasn’t on the staff) because Randy was the editor but I wasn’t one of the “in”crowd.

Today I weigh about 15 lbs less than I did when I graduated. I am in so much better shape today than then and I work hard to get that way. And unlike about 65% of the guys in my class, I still have hair on my head as well as on my face, in my nose and my ears😜. To be honest, I look a lot better than I did in high school and I really wanted to have someone who knew me then be impressed. Talk about a bad reason to go and setting myself up for failure. Yes, I guess I am that shallow. The entire night, one person (just one) mentioned how “young” I looked. That’s it. And how sad am I that I feel this way.

Once I got past my motives for going, my other reason this was not the best reunion ever was my interaction with people. In all but three instances seeing someone I had known in high school went like this:

Me: “Hi (their name here)! I’m Jim Bellomo Remember me?”

So all I am saying is that it would have been nice if someone had asked me anything about what I had been up to in the last 50 years. I mean after just being there for two hours I can tell you about a guy who was a flight attendant for TWA and he quit when they were bought by AA and that he hates AA but his wife still works there. Or another person who owned a pool cleaning business for years and was now working in construction (I can even tell you about his truck and the people he works with). And someone who was a graphic artist and worked at Disney Animation in the 80s and 90s. Or someone who worked for a transportation company in a far off state. I know so much about so many others but was most impressed about how long they could talk about themselves without ever taking a second to ask a question.

It wasn’t all bad

Enough boo-hooing, I do want to make it very clear that the reunion wasn’t all bad. I did catch up with an old friend from elementary school who has had quite the life and wanted to know about mine as well. And someone who I had known in high school but we really hadn’t been friends then who I now hear from all the time on Facebook. She is a traveler like me and we have been corresponding about travel, so it was good to see her in the flesh, so to speak (that’s her on the left at the top of this post).

I was also thrilled to see one of the other three people I had been really close to in high school–Teresa (that’s her on the right at the top of this post). She and I were always great friends (she was my Senior Prom date–as a friend) but had completely lost track of each other after high school. The last time I had seen her was on the morning my son was born in 1979 when the doctor kicked me out of the delivery room (after my wife had been in labor for more than 14 hours and he wanted her to try and rest) and I went to find something to eat. Teresa was working in Palm Springs then as a letter carrier and happened to walk in the door of the restaurant to deliver her mail as I was standing there. 

She got to the reunion late so we didn’t have as much time as we would have liked before the family was picking me up and she too was crushed that Randy hadn’t made it but it was great catching up with her. In communicating with Randy and Teresa post reunion, I realized that we three  should have just had our own reunion. Those were really the only people coming who I had really wanted to see. Not that I didn’t enjoy seeing some of the other people who were there, but deep in my heart, I wish I had skipped it. 

When you have expectations, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. —Ryan Reynolds

Going home…kind of

As I write this I am sitting in an AirBnB in Palm Springs. Tomorrow night is my 50th high school reunion. For those of you who don’t know me personally, I grew up in the tourist-haven of Palm Springs way back in the 50s, 60s and 70s. So here I am back in my hometown with my bride, my brother and my sister-in-law. And I am kind of bummed out about the reunion because my best friend from high school that had been planning on being there had to turn around and head for home to deal with a medical problem 😔.

But we actually have been on the road since Wednesday. We flew down from our favorite airport, Everett, Washington (PAE) to John Wayne International in Santa Ana, CA where my brother picked us up. We got to see a bunch of friends we had cruised with (who just happened to be my niece and my sister-in-law’s sister and her husband and daughter and my niece’s boyfriend) when they all came over for dinner. We had a great time and my sister-in-law is an awesome cook and an award-winning baker and I may gain back all the weight I lost for the reunion before we go home.

My sister-in-law is also a great activity planner. Yesterday we drove two hours through Los Angeles traffic to visit the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. For a film buff like me, it was awesome. It is fairly new (opened just a few weeks ago). Lots of great stuff about how movies are made, about the Oscars themselves, about just everything and anything about movies. We spent three hours viewing all the exhibits as well as having a quick bite in their cafe and checking out their rooftop viewing area. It was wonderful. There were a lot of artifacts that you would know from movies.

Then we did a very cool drive up Hollywood Blvd and back down Sunset Blvd while waiting for our dinner reservations at the historic Musso and Franks. It was an outstanding dinner. Great bread, great drinks, 1050’s stuffed celery, pasta, steaks and the nightly special, chicken pot pie. The real reason to go to Musso and Franks is the experience. You sit in booths that have appeared in movies and books for years. Who knows who has sat in this booth before us.

Dinner at Musso and Franks

Today was all about getting to Palm Springs. We headed out about 11:00 am and have been here since 1:00. Stopped for a quick lunch and then it was off to head out and hopefully see my old nephew Sean who owns a vinyl record store in nearby La Quinta. Unfortunately, he was off on a record buying trip to Los Angeles so we missed him. Finally after a pretty long wait we were able to check into our AirBnB. This particular AirBnB experience has not been a great one so far. The place looks great in the pictures but not so much in reality. Tomorrow night is my reunion. More later and maybe some desert photos.

You can never go home again.

Thomas Wolfe