Quick (well not that quick) Updates

Just dropping in with a couple of things I have seen in the last few days that I wanted to share…and a comment on my writing.

Follow up to my Seattle post

If you read my last post you know that I am really unhappy with the state of the city we live closest to—Seattle. This morning this was in The Seattle Times:

If you have been here, you know that the number two (after the Space Needle) tourist attraction in the city is Pike Place Market. It’s now a haven for drug users, panhandlers who are aggressive and lot of other problems. This happened yesterday (October 4). Everyday brings new reports of problems. If you are coming to Seattle in the next months, be VERY careful.

Cruising is the safest way to travel right now

Earlier this week I saw an excellent article by Gene Sloan about cruising. Gene used to be the travel editor at USA Today. He now writes for the website, The Points Guy. (If you aren’t familiar with The Points Guy—the site is all about the best way to use points and mileage rewards but also covers major travel stories.) The story he wrote is all about why cruising is probably the safest way to travel right now. His reasons include the fact that most cruise lines are requiring everyone on a cruise to be vaccinated. They are, in many cases, requiring masks to be worn as well. The people who are on these cruise ships have agreed before sailing to these rules. There’s no discussion about vaccinations and no fights about masks. If you are onboard, you have already indicated you will comply. If not, they put you off at the next port.

Contrast that with some places in the USA where many are unvaccinated, won’t wear masks or think COVID is a government conspiracy. Or airplanes where people who won’t wear masks fight with the flight attendants. So I get where Gene is coming from and I couldn’t agree more. You can read the entire article by clicking HERE.

It’s October!

Of course you knew that, but it is really exciting to us because now we can say that we are traveling this month…and next month…and the month after too. Sadly not until the very end of October and November but we are still traveling.

Later this month (on Kathleen’s birthday–October 27th) we are off to Southern California for a few days. The big reason we are going is my 50th high school reunion in Palm Springs on October 30th. Happily, it also means we get to see my brother and his family as well as spend a couple of days with them in Palm Springs.

Then on November 30th (see what I mean about the end of the month) we are flying to Europe! First up, five days in Lisbon, Portugal. Never been there before but can’t wait to go. Then we fly to meet my brother Steve and his wife Jamie in Amsterdam to stay at our favorite hotel in the world…The Banks Mansion. We stayed there in 2017 when we did a British Isles cruise and can’t wait to go back.

That part of our trip is on our own—not a cruise ship or tour group in site. But after we leave Amsterdam we come under the care of Viking River Cruises as we fly to Prague for a three day pre-cruise visit. Then we move on to Nuremberg, Germany for another one day pre-cruise visit.

Then the cruise starts. We board the Viking Long Boat Atla in Regensburg, Germany for an eight day cruise to visit the Christmas Markets in the cities on the Danube River. We stop in Passau, Germany, Vienna, Austria, Krems, Austria and then finish in Budapest, Hungary. Of course I will be blogging it all so you can follow along with us as we go. Expect a whole lot of Christmas!

Being verbose

A while back my best buddy Bob told me that I was verbose. I answered him in a post that you can read by clicking HERE.

If you don’t feel like going back to read it, here’s the definition:

Why do I bring this up now? Because I know I write that way. I mean this post was supposed to only be a quick look at three topics. And here I am at 713 words so far (WordPress keeps track of it). But about three months ago I heard a great quote about being verbose and I had to share it for those of you who read my ramblings. It is below. I had originally heard it attributed to Mark Twain but I found that it wasn’t but it does sound a lot like me.

I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.  —Blaise Pascal

Heading out for more travel…this time with kids!

Just thought I would give the regulars a heads up that we will be traveling next week which means I will be posting a little more often. It’s our annual (2nd year in a row 😀) trip to the Washington/Oregon Coast with our grandkids👍🏻 …and their parents. We started doing this last year so we could have them all to ourselves for a few days. Last year we did a three night stay in Ocean Shores, Washington. This year we are venturing further south to Sunset Beach, Oregon.

We have a rental that sits right between the beach and a small lake. (Click here to see where we are staying.) The rental looks really nice and for the first time we are getting it through VRBO and not AirBnB. I just could not find anything I liked on AirBnB. We usually book with them and have one set up for Palm Springs in late October. If you aren’t a regular vacation rental person, we love them. We have used AirBnB 18 times (I just counted and I was pretty surprised it was that many). We have done them all over the USA as well as one outstanding one in Edinburgh and a nice big one for three families in downtown Dublin, Ireland. If you haven’t used them, both services are pretty good. We have had only one place we didn’t like and many we loved. And the place we didn’t like just needed a good sweeping.

We have found that when we travel with the kids it is more challenging to find a place to rent because we need more. When we are by ourselves we can get anything with a bed and a bath. For me a real must is a living room so when I wake up REALLY early I can go in there and not disturb Kathleen. I also like a living room when we are traveling with friends. One of my favorite parts of getting a rental when there is more than just us is that it gives you a great place to socialize with everyone you are traveling with. Hotel lobbies are not conducive to family/friend fun. That’s another reason we cruise. Everyone has a bedroom and the entire ship is your living room.

When we book with the kids it HAS to have three bedrooms and two baths. We love them dearly but we aren’t sharing a bathroom 😜.  Also, for the trips with the kids, a kitchen I can cook in is a must. Grandpa loves to make pancakes for his grandkids. And we eat most of our meals at the rental. The one we have this year has a nice kitchen (according to the pictures and reviews) and unlike the one we had last year, this one has a gas BBQ as well. We also found out that there is a bakery less than 400 feet from the front of the driveway. This sounds very dangerous to us as the bakery is very well reviewed and pictures of their baked goods look awesome.

Other than pancakes, it’s everyone for themselves at breakfast, lunch wherever we are in the day. We take turns making dinner. I usually take two of them, my daughter and son-in-law take one or two. This year I have already pre-made and frozen Grandpa’s famous pizza and Grandpa’s newly famous carnitas so we can make tacos and nachos. Those will come along with us, and the kids are doing hamburgers and hot dogs since we have a grille this year.

Of course photos will be forthcoming. Especially wildlife and early morning stuff. Probably some beach stuff as well. I usually don’t post pictures of the grandkids without my daughter’s permission so you may not see any of those. Last year (because they knew they would be with Grandpa and he would have his camera) we did family portraits that came out really great (at least I think so), My guess is we are doing those again.

There’s lots to do in that area as Sunset Beach is right between the Oregon Coastal communities of Astoria and Seaside. Astoria has a famous column and Seaside in the other direction has the Seaside aquarium. Plus, last year in 4th grade, our grandson Mason studied the Oregon Trail. The class all became pioneers (he was the famous Nate Arnold😜) and in a three month unit, they moved from Springfield, MO to Oregon, just like Lewis and Clark. That trip ended at Fort Clatsop which is also in Astoria so we have to stop there. These kind of things will take up our days. Last year we really couldn’t do any of that stuff due to COVID.

All this stuff sound like a bunch of fun but the most fun we will have being together and playing all the great games we bring along. If you like games or you have grandkids and want to play games, you have to see the line of games from Exploding Kittens. Between us and the kids, we own all their games. They are hilarious to play and are really fast and creative. Everyone from the two of us (68 years old) to our granddaughter who is almost eight, loves playing them. Check them out if you want to have some fun. You can get all but one of them through Amazon. Sadly we ordered the newest one that you can’t get through Amazon directly from Exploding Kittens and it is still stuck in Indiana.

So follow along as we travel south to the beautiful Oregon Coast (for those of you who don’t live in the Northwest, I have always thought it was funny that in California you go to the beach, in the Northeast, it’s the shore but here, it’s the coast) next week.

The reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they have a common enemy. —Sam Levenson

 

You got questions…I got answers

I keep promising to answer some questions so here we go:

  • In shortening the pre-cruise portion – were you given any type of compensation at all?This question comes from the fact that originally Celebrity had us booked on an 11-night trip that included not just our seven nights on Flora but two nights pre-cruise and one night pos- cruise in Quito (with some meals and a full-day tour) but with COVID they decided to cut back to a nine night with no tour of Quito either before our after the cruise. The answer is yes, we were refunded a little less than $400. This doesn’t sound like a lot when you realize that the difference between the 11 night package and the 7 night cruise. But if you are doing just the 7 night cruise, you have to find your own way to Baltra. So part of the trip that we were not refunded for was the single night pre and post in Quito as well as our charter flight to and from Baltra. All we lost was two nights, one before and one after and two breakfasts.
  • Were the fully vaccinated pax due to cruise line mandate, or did it just work out that way ie: no 5% unvax allowed onboard? Why were crew still in masks if vax’d? Was there a decrease in crew or full compliment?Vaccination was mandated for anyone eligible to be vaccinated. And since the youngest people on board are two 8th graders (who are a hoot) who are already vaccinated, we are at 100%. I suppose if people wanted to bring kids under 12 there would be some not vaccinated. The crew wore masks all the time because if there is one case on board, they might be banned from landing on any of the islands so they are just taking one more step in staying safe. I applaud them for that. And I asked and the crew is at full complement. The service has been amazing and we loved having only 66 people on board. We were told the next cruise would have just about that same number.
  • Are there any staterooms that hold more than two people?
    Nope! Not a one. Even the suites are limited (by the National Park and not Celebrity) to two people. That means if you want to bring the kids, they have to have their own stateroom. It is to make sure that there are NEVER more than 100 guests on board as there are 50 staterooms. And to get to 50, they had to give up some staterooms on their Expedition ship.
  • The rocking and rolling of these small ships at anchor in calm waters is worse than anything I’ve ever experienced on a larger ship in motion.  No one ever warned us about this motion at night.
    We have not had any problems that affected us adversely. It was just a pain some time. Others who are not used to sailing have had problems but we have felt a LOT WORSE motion on bigger ships than we did here in the Galápagos on Flora. The motion, for us, was not that big a problem…until a huge thump happened in the middle of one night. Freaked us out and I searched the entire stateroom to find the source of the crash. Couldn’t find it in the middle of the night. The next morning we realized that it was an unopened bottle of champagne that had been sitting on our small table in front of the couch. It has fallen over along with the full ice bucket it has been sitting in. It completely disappeared into the drapes of the window so I didn’t find it until morning. Carpet was wet but the bottle did not break. One other problem we had was the shower door kept slamming open and shut but we fixed that by shoving Kathleen’s sandals under the door. Celebrity might consider having a door stop for the shower (best shower we have ever had on a ship).
  •  If you have time can you find out if a scuba diving option is offered aboard Flora?
    Sorry, no scuba, just snorkeling.
  • I am an experienced snorkeler and on our trip I had trouble getting into the water then managing my flippers due to the strong current. On the next beach snorkel I wore my Keens in the water instead of the flippers and swam (slowly I might add) over to the rocks.
    On the more difficult snorkel trips (off the Zodiacs) they will not allow you to go unless you are wearing flippers.
  • Looking at the  menu you posted, I do hope that they repeat the menus each week as there were multiple choices that I’d love to try.  Ceviche, yeah!  Plus the other local specialties.
    I checked and YES, they do repeat the menus with slight variations. And they completely redesign them on a periodic basis. Not sure if that is quarterly, or yearly. I will try and post all the menus eventually.
  • What cabin are you in?  Our cabin is towards the front of the ship so I am concerned about motion.
    We are in 522, a traditional verandah in the aft area of the ship. We would book it again in a minute and if you have a forward cabin, I would see if you can move back. People we met who were in the front of the ship did feel more motion but not by a lot. One of the things we loved about our stateroom was that there is a kind of “secret” stairs at the back of the ship that led up and down and hardly anyone had discovered it. We used it all the time.
  • You have mentioned that you are on the “Outer Loop Cruise.” What does that mean and is there an “Inner Loop Cruise?”
    Yes, we are on the Outer Loop. This is where we have gone:

    And here is what Celebrity calls the “Inner Loop.”

    As you can see, some stops are the same (not many). We have been told the Outer Loop is more about animals and birds and the Inner Loop has the most beautiful scenery. We have loved this vacation so much that we are actively making plans to come back and do the inner loop.
    Our scientist friend Ellen who plans and organizes the off ship tours tells that the park requires them to have the two different trips to limit the number of people on each island. We totally get that. It is not just a ploy by Celebrity to get us to come back. 😀 BTW: I would not JUST do the inner. My favorite two days (BY FAR) were on Española and Floreana, neither of which are on the Inner Loop. So if you do one, do the Outer.
  • About footwear, any notes?
    Yes. I have two pairs of footwear with me. With size 13 feet, that’s all I can fit in my luggage. I wore my hiking boots (up to my ankle and helpful on the rocks and lava) on the plane and had Teva sandals in my bag. I have worn the Tevas on all the wet landings. Bare feet are NOT allowed in the Zodiacs. I have also worn them on short walks. Has not been a problem. The hiking boots have been a godsend on the long walks. Especially the ones over rocks (Española walk on Day 2) and all the days we were walking on lava. All of these long walks were on dry landing days so they never got really wet. And always know that whenever you return to Flora they have a station where you have to wash off (with brushes) your footwear to make sure no biological material is transferred from one island to another. This is another park rule and a damn good one. Lastly, I wore shorts and sandals in the dining room most nights as did just about everyone.
  • Was all the COVID testing you had on the trip covered by Celebrity or your own extra expense?
    We were tested pre-cruise with a PCR test at Celebrity’s expense. We were originally told that we would also be tested as we got off but as of this morning (I am waiting to leave the ship) they have not said that we will be tested as long as we are vaccinated. We know that vaccination allows us to enter the USA without a test so maybe we won’t have to. They are being extremely cautious and we don’t blame them. I will let you know in a future post if we do have a post cruise test. BTW: All guests tested negative pre-cruise so we felt very safe. But yesterday we were off the ship at the Darwin Station (with non-Flora people) and we were asked to wear masks all day. Some people were not happy with that. They need to grow up (sorry for the editorializing but this really ticked me off as they have asked so little of us, COVID-wise).
  • I did google Ellen (the Celebrity Science adviser) and now I want her to be my buddy too! Do you know how long she’ll be aboard, our cruise is 7/25.
    Sorry no, Ellen has been here for two weeks and she is on our flight to Miami tomorrow morning. Her presence has added much to our trip. I have learned so much from her. I call her the Neil DeGrasse Tyson of the Galapagos but she is so much more and a great speaker. She was here a week before we got here touring all the islands with the naturalists to check trails and conditions. Then she stayed on for our cruise. I learned early on that she is a early bird like I am and was almost always out on the first Zodiac. I made a point to be in the Discovery Lounge early to be in Group 1 to leave the ship because as I told my fellow Group 1 friends (who also got there early most days)…the Early Bird gets the Ellen. And it was always worth it. She rocks. I think Celebrity should advertise (do you here me Sussana?) when she is onboard and have a “Cruise with Ellen!” She is that good.

I think that’s every question I have received either here in the comments or on Cruise Critic where I am posting this as well. If you have more, I can address them as soon as I get caught up with the rest of our trip.

As I mentioned earlier in this post we are waiting to get off Flora right now. My plan to finish up my Flora blog is to post Day 5 later today or tomorrow and then do a post on the ship and our stateroom followed by Day 6 and then some general stuff and Day 7 (Giant Tortoises) finishing up with some general comments so I can answer more questions then. See you soon…here online.

And welcome to all my new blog followers. You rock! So glad to have you here.

Day Four and More!

So I have some questions but first day four. (In fact I am going to answer the questions in the next post so I can get this one online. Sorry to give you so much to read but there is so much happening.) We are still having an amazing time. How amazing a time? Well the route we are traveling on this week on Flora is called the Outside Route. It hits certain islands. Celebrity (by direction of the Galapagos National Park) must have two different routes with alternating schedules. So to tell you how much we are now enjoying this trip we were actually discussing at lunch coming back in the future to do the Inner Route. When we had dinner with the Captain and the Chief Engineer they both told us that their favorite island was Bartolome and it was on the Inside Route. So maybe we have to see that. 😁

On day four both our tours were on Isabella Island, the largest of the archipelago. Here’s today’s schedule:

In the morning I chose the long walk and Kathleen chose the short walk. I should also tell you that as you can see they also combined both of those with an “extended tender ride” which meant that after our long walk we took the long way back to the ship stopping to take pics at very slow speed. We saw so much. BTW: The “very rocky trail” was hardened lava. And since this was dry landing we had to get off on lava and we stayed on it for almost the entire way. Most of our “long walks” are about two miles but over very rocky trails. The lava varied between types but no matter which type it was (and I know what the types are but I can’t spell them. I will see if I can find Ellen our resident (for our cruise) scientist and get the rights ones.).

One other thing I want to say before I drop in the pics is that so far, this was my best day photographically. I took a photo which I consider my second best shot ever. See if you can figure out which one it is. Those of you who follow me on FB and Insta already should have a good clue. Remember, if you look at these photos on a computer or a tablet, you can click a photo and use your arrow keys to go through a slide show at full screen.

See you soon with answers to your questions and about food! And then I will tell you about day four’s afternoon excursions.

 

 

Off to Quito

Disappointing Flights

(Hope you don’t mind me posting twice in one day but I wanted to share a bunch of stuff that happened today.) As I mentioned in an earlier post, our buddy Mike took us to Miami Airport at 2:15 am so we could get there by 3:30 which would be the recommended three hours before our 6:30 am international flight on Copa Air. This flight had been hard to come by so we took what we could get even if it meant that we had to get up way before dawn.

If you have never heard of Copa Air, they are the national airline of Panama. Originally we had a non-stop flight on American Airlines but that was cancelled last weekend and the best we could do was a one-stop trip from Miami through Panama City to Quito. The good news was we still got to keep our business class seats on both flights. But that turned out to just be an OK thing as Copa Air’s idea of business class differs widely from what we have experienced in Business or First class before.

When we arrived at the airport we were so early that there was no place open to even grab a cup of coffee. In fact there was no place open at all. To grab anything. And to the best of my knowledge nothing opened before we took off at 6:38. On our flight we got two cups of really bad coffee, a ham and cheese croissant and a very dry granola bar. The seats were much like US domestic air FC seats. Fairly comfortable but certainly no place to lie back and sleep. I need to mention we were flying on a Boeing 737-8. You will see why in a minute.

Our flight from Miami to Panama City was just a little more than two hours. We arrived in Panama City in just enough time to get from our arriving gate to our departing gate. Once we reached our new gate, we boarded within minutes. And once on board we were pleasantly surprised to see full lay down seats in a section that looked like a true business class section. And this was on exactly the same 737-8 plane that we had just gotten off. Sadly, this flight was just about 90 minutes so even though we had the seats to sleep in, there just wasn’t time to sleep.

When we saw the seats we thought maybe we would get something a little better to eat and drink but that was not to be. We were offered a bag of pretzels, a small bag of cookies and a can of Perrier for me and a ginger ale for Kathleen. One thing I am very happy about is that we did not spend our own money to upgrade as Celebrity arranged our air. If you ever get a chance to fly Business class on Copa Air, give it a pass.

Quito!

We did it! We finally arrived in Ecuador and we have much to report if you are planning on cruising the Galapagos with Celebrity post-pandemic…at least for awhile.

When we landed in Quito we made it through customs in no time and with a minimum of questions. There was a temperature check and we had to show our vaccination cards but after they checked those, we headed to passport control. We were very lucky because our flight (which was not full) was the only international flight landing at the time and being in the front of the plane, we got to the health check and passport control very quickly. Our luggage took a little longer so getting through customs inspection (they didn’t inspect anything) took a little longer. Once on the other side of security in a very nice and clean airport we used the facilities and I was about to try and contact Celebrity here in Ecuador when a man walked up to us holding a Celebrity sign. Within minutes we were in the van and on our way to the EB Hotel.

Pre-COVID this was an 11 day trip with two nights and a full day in Quito before the Galapagos segment and then a day after in Quito as well. But due to the COVID conditions Celebrity wanted to keep us out of downtown Quito. So instead of the regular hotel they use (The JW Marriott–Quito) we were at the EB Hotel near the airport.

If you are coming, do not worry about it being near the airport. These three photos show you the area around the hotel.

We have been here for at least five hours and have not heard a single airplane.  By keeping us near the airport we will be able to go right back to the airport tomorrow morning for our flight to Baltra where we embark on Flora.

The hotel itself is modern, new and beautiful and the rooms rock. Here’s a quick tour of ours. It is easier to see the video if you click the headline at the top of the e-mail and read the entire post in a web browser.

As you can see. it is pretty darned impressive. A true suite which we did not expect at all. Kathleen says to tell the ladies that if you are staying here, the products in the bathroom are all very high quality so you don’t have to plan for those. And Celebrity left us some really nice water bottles, a bottle of horchata (a plant-milk based South American beverage) and a health goodie bag with a mask and a bottle of hand sanitizer.

After getting settled into our suite we found lots of info from Celebrity including instructions about the included dinner and breakfast as well as all the hoops we will need to jump through before we can get on the plane to Baltra and the islands in the morning. Here’s our schedule:

Breakfast is 6:30 to 10:00 either in the restaurant or via room service. But either way we have to have our luggage in the hall outside our rooms by 8:00 am when they will collect it for inspection by the Galapagos Agricultural Authorities. They are making sure we have no organic materials coming into the islands that could change the environment there. To be honest, I totally understand their doing this but I hate the idea of them going through my bag because everything BARELY fits in the small carry-on I am taking for this trip. I have to be VERY careful when zipping it up or I will either break the zippers or catch my clothing inside. But we did find out later that we don’t have to put out our carry-ons. That made me happy as I don’t want them messing with my camera or this MacBook Pro.

We are also scheduled (we don’t have our time yet) to be health-screened sometime between 7:00 am and 11:00 am. We will have to go to their health screening room, get our temp checked (mine has been taken twice today already) take an antigen test, provide proof of vaccination and be approved for our flight.

At 11:00 am they will load us into vans and move us back to the airport for the 90 minute charter flight to Baltra. I will give you a full report on that flight tomorrow if the internet connection on the ship is a good one.

Celebrity seems to have this all really well taken care of. We have seen some folk in the lobby area we know are on the ship with us and we met the head of sales and marketing (Susanna) for Celebrity Galapagos who will be sailing with us. But I also know that some poor folks won’t arrive until the last Copa flight in tonight at 11:30 pm and they will have to be up doing the same things we will have do to tomorrow.

If you are sailing on Flora while they are still doing their pre-cruise at the EB hotel, here’s a tip for you. Request a parking lot view. We have a pool view and it faces west. And the afternoon sun beating against the windows (even though it is only 60F something outside) has made our room really warm. I have the thermostat set to 18 C but the AC just can’t keep up with the sun and it’s 23C in the room right now. Love the view from here but wish it was a little cooler and hoping it cools down once the sun sets in the next 15 minutes.

Another note about the hotel; because of the lousy food on the plane we were ready for lunch when we got here and the restaurant in the hotel (Tabla Bella) makes superb food. Kathleen had a wonderful salad and I wanted to try two Ecuadorian appetizers. I got the empanadas (they were OK) and something called an arepa. It’s two pieces of masa stuffed with avocado (they LOVE avocados here), shredded, braised beef and cheese with a side of their wonderful avocado sauce to dip it in. Pics are below to make your mouth water.

Almost out of here…stay tuned for more

Yesterday I started this post to detail a huge problem we ran into with our flights on Sunday/Monday. But it all got figured out and we are ready to go…to the Galapagos. So let’s concentrate on the positive because we are all packed and ready to go!

To be honest, first we are going to South Florida to visit with our good buddy Mike and to meet his new girlfriend, Cathy. We will spend three nights with them and then Mike (who is an INCREDIBLE friend) will drive us to the airport at horrible-o’clock in the morning so we can catch our new flight to Quito via Panama City, Panama on Copa Air. (I promise to come back and detail the problems we have had with the cruise line about our air in a future post).

I am just doing this post so you can remember to come back here on a regular basis from July 3 through July 11. I will be doing my best to post a report everyday with photos so that those of you who have never been to the Galapagos can follow along with us.

I am also going to try something new—video. So that’s why you can see my face above this post. Not sure if it will work, but I am going to do my best. Kathleen gave me a GoPro for Christmas 2019 when we thought we would be doing this trip last summer and I will be taking it with me for lots of short video clips. I am especially hoping to capture some great underwater stuff while we are snorkeling.

Lastly, if you have friends who can’t travel right now that you might think would be interested, drop them our URL (www.redmondtravel.com) and tell them to sign up so they get notifications when I post. In the meantime, wish us luck!

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.   —Saint Augustine

Two Italian Lunches

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

Puzzling Travel

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

Cities I love–part 2

About 12 days ago we were talking about cities that I love here in North America. If you missed it, you can just click here. I thought I would come back to talk about cities I love internationally. There aren’t as many as in North America but there are a few. If you didn’t see the first list then I will tell you that these are cities that we love, cities that we have either been to more than once or want to go back to again. They aren’t all the places we love. We have other places we love but they aren’t cities. For instance, we LOVED New Zealand and can’t wait to go back but we weren’t as impressed by Auckland or any other city there as we were with the rest of the country. We really want to go back but that’s a really long flight 😀. Another good example might be the Yorkshire area of England. We loved visiting there and spending time with our friends but even though Leeds and York were lovely, they aren’t a city we yearn to go back to. Going back to Yorkshire is another story—we can’t wait.

Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

Edinburgh, Scotland

We have been to Edinburgh three times. The first time way back in 2003, again in 2016 and then again a year ago this month. Each time we have stayed longer. We just love Edinburgh. I like it so much, I could live there. It is a wonderful mix of history and modern. There are miles of places for me to walk. Great restaurants and just a super small city. I want to go back again and again. Maybe part of the reason we love it is that Kathleen is of Scottish descent. Or that we love Outlander so much. We have just had a great time every time we have visited Scotland.

Panorama from the city Amsterdam in the Netherlands at sunset

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

We have only been to Amsterdam once but WOW! We were there for almost a week before we sailed on our British Isles cruise in 2016 and we loved it. At least I know I did. A lot. Amsterdam is downright gorgeous to me. Walking the canals and really any part of the city is a great way to spend time. It is also a photographer’s dream. There are great photo opportunities in every direction. Good food, great people (who all speak fluent English) and we got to stay at the best hotel we have EVER stayed in, The Banks Mansion. I would go back in a minute and when we look at European trips, if the cruise or the trip takes us near Amsterdam, you can be sure we will.

Barcelona from Santa Maria del Pi church, Spain

Barcelona, Catalunya, Spain

Like Amsterdam we have only been in Barcelona once but we were there (pre-cruise) for almost a week and it truly made an impression on us. I always tell people that Barcelona is like a city at a party—24/7. Again, great food, great people (who treat you wonderfully), a lot to do and so much to photograph. From the crowds on Las Ramblas to the incredible market, La Boqueria, to the free concerts in front of the cathedral on Sunday it rocks. When we talk to friends and clients about traveling in Europe I tell them the perfect vacation would be to spend a week in Barcelona and then take a cruise to our next favorite city and spend a week there. You would have a week of partying followed by a cruise to lots of Mediterranean ports and a week of peace in…

Romantic gondola ride near Rialto Bridge in Venice, Italy

Venice, Italy

One of the people that most affected my life was my Uncle Jack. He traveled (not as much as we do) and he always told me that Venice was the least favorite city he had ever been to. So when we went to Italy for the first (and only) time in 2002 I was prepared to be unimpressed. But instead, I fell in love with this amazing place. When we returned I told him that I had loved it and he couldn’t understand why. Took me a few years (and talking to others who either loved or hated Venice) to figure out why so many people had this love/hate relationship with Venice. It all comes down to WHEN you visit this city. My uncle had gone in the middle of July, the HEIGHT of the tourist season. The place is jammed with people slammed together just about everywhere. Long waits at restaurants, higher prices, packed markets and the canals that smell from the summer heat.

We on the other hand, visited in early November. The weather was still great (they had gallons of rain the week after we left) and there were no crowds. None. We walked the Piazza San Marco almost alone. No lines to go to the top of the Campanille. It was a city totally at peace breathing a huge sigh of relief at the absence of visitors. But we were welcomed everywhere in restaurants and shops that were still hungry to serve visitors. We had an amazing time and would go back (at the right time of the year) at the drop of the hat. One reason I can’t wait to go back is that I had not gotten as involved with photography and early morning photo walks then and I really want to walk the streets of Venice with my Nikon. What pictures I could take!

Sydney Skyline Panorama 1

Sydney, Australia

This is the city I refer to as the most photogenic city in the world. Everywhere you look there is a something amazing to shoot. And the Opera House seems to be in all of them. It’s amazing how many of my shots of Sydney it is in. As you can see in the picture above,  the cruise ship we were on (not the one in the photo) docked right next to that Opera House so you get to start shooting it as soon as you get there. We were there for four days post cruise in 2012 and it is a fantastic place. Again, great food, incredibly welcoming people and just plain fun, not to mention the best zoo we have ever been to (yes, better than San Diego). We had flown to Auckland for three days pre-cruise, sailed all along the southern coast of New Zealand visiting small cities and towns and then crossed the Tasman Sea to Melbourne and finally Sydney. We would love to go back.

Hong Kong Skyline Panorama bei Nacht

Hong Kong, China

We spent three days here after our 2010 South East Asia cruise on the wonderful Azamara Quest (I think this was probably my favorite cruise of our more than 25 cruises). This is the only city I really loved that I probably will never get back to nor do I now have any desire to go. When we visited it was just following the transition from English rule to Chinese and the place was a wonderful, bustling, interesting, photographer friendly city. Nothing like the demonstrations you see from there today. We were able to get around and felt totally safe all the time. Stayed at the second best hotel we have ever stayed in, The Langham. Rode to the top of Victoria Peak (where the photo above was taken) and had lunch at a truly authentic Asian restaurant, Bubba Gump’s Shrimp 😜. Maybe someday it will be safe to go back to this amazing city. We hope so.

That’s about it for our favorite cities…so far. I have high hopes for the months ahead. Even if our Galapagos trip is cancelled in July/August we are still hopeful our Christmas Market cruise down the Danube will happen in December. Before the cruise we will (at least we plan to) visit Lisbon, Portugal and I really think from all reports from friends who travel, that we will love it. Then we go to Prague, Vienna and Budapest while on the river cruise. We won’t be staying long in Vienna but we do have three days in Prague before we sail and then three days after in Budapest. Might just have to go back. You never know.

I have never felt salvation in nature. I love cities above all. —Michaelanglo

Back to travel—Cities I love-part one

We have been having amazing weather so I have been out walking a lot the last couple of weeks. On my walks I try to come up with something to write and since it has been so long since I posted something good, fun and non-virus related, let’s get back to travel.

I have been seeing a ton of list making on social media: best albums, best songs, favorite food, etc. To be honest, I love lists. If you look up at the top of this page, you will see four menu items. One of them is Lists. Check it out sometime. It’s all the lists I have posted since I started this blog in December 2018.

Cities I love in North America

So, when I was out walking yesterday I was thinking about my favorite cities. For my purposes today, I am going to just list our favorites in North America (I’ll be back soon with the rest of the world). We have been to many of America’s great cities, big and small. We have liked all of them but the ones on this list are ones we have either been to more than once or would like to go back to someday. I am going to list them, not in the order of how much we like the city but in distance from home which means we start with…

Seattle SkylineSeattle, Washington

Yes, I know we live here but it is a city we love. A little less than I did a few years back but I still love the place. We live about 15 miles east and before Kathleen retired she worked right downtown (for most of her career) about two blocks from the Space Needle. At that time, one of us was in the city almost daily. We did theater, concerts, spent the night at hotels after those concerts and above all went in for some amazing food. Seattle has so many incredible restaurants and we love trying them. I should point out (as I have posted here not long ago) the city is no longer as safe as it once was and we think twice about when and where we go in the city. That’s sad, but I still love Seattle. I even have a completely separate website (My Seattle) that I created for friends coming here.

Downtown VancouverVancouver, British Columbia

After Seattle, the city we have spent the most time in since we started traveling together is Vancouver, BC. We made our first trip back in 1998 when Kathleen took me there for a wonderful birthday weekend. Since that time we have been back more than 50 times. We have gone less since 2005 when we met our best friends Bob and Judy who live in Chilliwack, BC, about 120 km east of the city. Before we met them, we probably went to Vancouver three or four times a year, but since then, maybe only once a year. But every time we go, we love it. I LOVE taking photos there. Many of my favorite photos in the last few years were taken in YVR (the airport designation for Vancouver and a common nickname). We will go back many times in the future and I encourage you—if you have never been there—go! Stanley Park, Vancouver Theater Sports, Granville Island, Gastown, Robson Street are all things we love and that you should not miss. Oops! I almost missed our favorite Italian restaurant—CinCin. We went there for our 20th anniversary last August and have eaten there at least 10 times. A great restaurant.

Panoramic view of the downtown San Diego skyline, CaliforniaSan Diego, California

Growing up in Southern California I spent a lot of time in the LA area (heck, I was born there—in Lynwood–near Compton) and Kathleen is from the Bay Area, right across from San Francisco but for some reason it turned out that our favorite California city is San Diego. I think the first time we went there together was for a business meeting I had to attend. We loved it. It’s a big city that’s really a bunch of small towns. From the Gaslamp District to Old Town, from Coronado Island to downtown, we love the whole place. Even losing our friends who live there…we still love it and look forward to going back. Great restaurants, nice hotels (even though we got kicked out of our room the last time because the Secretary of Homeland Security wanted three whole floors) and we have had pretty good luck with AirBnBs as well. Of course there is the world famous zoo and wonderful Balboa Park that surrounds it. One of my favorite things about San Diego is its waterfront. We have sailed into and out of San Diego harbor a number of times and it’s a great place to start or end a cruise. Besides as everyone knows, the weather is always perfect.

Sunset in Santa FeSanta Fe (and Albuquerque), New Mexico

Once we leave the west coast, our next stop is New Mexico. Yes, we know we skipped Phoenix, Tucson and Las Vegas but even though we seem to visit them regularly, if you told me I could never go back, I would neither cry or die. If you ask me where I want to go between coasts in the USA, the first place that comes to mind is Santa Fe. We have only been to New Mexico twice but both trips were favorites. The last trip was the best! Besides Santa Fe, we also got to see the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta (worth the entire trip) with good friends and then spend four days in Santa Fe. If you have followed my posts for awhile you know we love food and we have done food tours and cooking classes with the Santa Fe School of Cooking while there and loved them. Lastly, if you visit, DO NOT MISS Meow Wolf. It is a one-of-a-kind experience that’s beyond crazy and a lot of fun.

Toronto city skyline at night, Ontario, TorontoToronto, Ontario

One thing I pondered when I added Toronto to this list was this—do we really love the city or am I just listing it because we get to see our friends Tim & Perry when we are there? No, we love the city and Tim and Perry are just a big bonus. We have visited three times and loved all of them. I love walking in the Beaches area where Tim and Perry live (on the shores of Lake Ontario), they have amazing food all over the city (especially when you have two foodies to take you to find that food), a super art festival called Nuit Blanche that we got to attend and some beautiful places to see within a short distance (Niagara Falls, Port Hope, the Thousand Islands). We have even flown out of the coolest airport in the world (Billy Bishop International Airport) on the coolest airline in the world (Porter Airlines). You should try both. Billy Bishop is on an island right in downtown Toronto and Porter Air is a HUGE throwback to the 1960s and gold age of air travel. The flight attendants still wear pillbox hats and they serve you actual food.

Aerial panoramic sunset view of Charleston, South CarolinaCharleston, South Carolina (and Savannah, Georgia)

Even though these two cities are in different states, they is only about a two hour drive between them through some really cool country. And both of these cities exude Southern Charm. Why we even saw a performance by “the Southern Charmer” in Charleston. The entire area is known as the “Low Country” and when we visited we found that their reputation as amazing food towns was well deserved. There are also lots of things to see (old plantations, giant oak trees, Fort Sumter, Hilton Head beaches) and do besides eating…but I liked the eating best. That and the awesome photos I got on my early morning photowalks. I would go back to both cities in a minute but if I had to pick one thing to go back for, it would be the chicken and waffles at The Early Bird Diner just outside Charleston on the road to Savannah. They were absolutely amazing. I can still taste them in my mind. You can read about our trip to the Low Country on our website.

New York City skyline from roof top with urban skyscrapers before sunset.New York, New York

I debated about adding NYC but we have so many memories there and I would go back at the drop of a hat that I just couldn’t leave it out. We have been three times and I may be getting too old for the craziness but when last we were there in the fall of 2018 I did have some great experiences. New York is not a place I need to tell people about. Either you already know or you don’t care. I will mention some of my favorite spots and memories which include walking The Highline at dawn, taking an old yacht on an architectural tour around the island of Manhattan, doing a tour of the area around Ground Zero, taking a food tour of Greenwich Village and of course theater. We have seen so many great plays on Broadway that it is hard to remember them all. And the food…don’t get me started. Too much variety, if that’s possible. New York is not a city I can’t wait to go back to but I would be really sad if you told me I couldn’t go back there.

That concludes my list of North American cities I love…and would go back to. I would LOVE to hear from you about the cities you love in the comments below. Make your own list. Pass mine around. See what people think and where they would go if they could go to any city on the continent. In the next post (or the one after that) I will list my favorites from around the rest of the world. Watch for it.

When you tour as much as I do, you’re always on the road, and you tend to gravitate toward cities where you’re like, ‘Every time I’m in that city, the shows are fun.—Tom Segura