Monday, December 30, 2013

Happy New Year From Park Sierra

Usually this letter is sent before Christmas, but because we have been traveling, it is now a New Year's letter. The important thing is that we have heard from many of you, and enjoyed every word. We greatly appreciate the communications from family and friends. And we want to let you know what has been happening with us. As is the usual case, we have been enjoying a combination of RV travel, cruising, and some land trips in foreign places this past year. We started the year in the RV in Arizona, staying with friends in Yuma and then joining the Boomer group in Quartzsite the last few weeks of January. Mid-Feb. we flew to Bangkok for a few days on our own and then a 15 day tour of Myanmar (formerly Burma). This country has just recently been opened up for tourism, so it was extremely interesting because it is not very Westernized yet. Upon our return to Bangkok, we joined another tour group which visited southern Thailand, Malaysia, and ended in Singapore. It had been 10 years since we were in Thailand, and we found this area so heavily touristed that we did not enjoy it nearly as much as before. Malaysia and Singapore were both new to us and quite enjoyable and interesting. In early April, we flew to New Orleans and boarded the Navigator of the Seas for a transatlantic cruise to Italy. And we stayed on board for the following cruise to some Med ports and Greece. When the cruise was over towards the end of April, we took the train up to the Cinque Terre towns in northern Italy. These are 5 small picturesque towns perched on cliffs overlooking the sea, connected by hiking trails as well as trains and boats. We stayed in Levanto, the small village north of the 5 towns, because we wanted to have a more authentic experience than staying in the towns where there were so many tourists. It was a good choice, we had a great B&B, and we had 4 days to explore everything. Couldn't do much hiking because lots of the trails were closed due to landslides, but we explored a lot by train and walking through all the towns. In late May, we packed up the RV and started north. It was great to visit friends in Oregon on the way up to WA. Had to have some major work done on our brakes in Centralia. Then we had a great family gathering at the college graduation of my oldest granddaughter, Paige, in Seattle on June 9. We left our RV at the SKP park in Chimicum, and drove our car to Vancouver to catch the Radiance of the Seas for two back to back cruises up and back to Alaska. Had some sunny weather and also several friends living up there showed us great hospitality. Back in Washington, we did a few things with the RoVing Rods and then relocated to Gig Harbor where we spent several weeks staying with Chris Christensen on her new lot. It was great to explore that area and also get a few things fixed on our satellite TV system. August found us heading for Winchester Bay, Oregon where we usually had fantastic crabbing experiences. This year there were very few crabs, probably due to water that was warmer than usual, but the salmon fishing was awesome. There was lots of tuna available when we first arrived as well. So we canned tuna and salmon whenever we could get some. Early September we started heading south in order to attend the wedding of my daughter, Laura, to Dennis Calvin. It was held at South Lake Tahoe and we rented a big house for all the family to stay in for the weekend. It was a fun weekend and a beautiful event. We returned to Park Sierra with our RV and set it up for a long stay. October 9 we flew to Boston and spent 4 days exploring that interesting place, before boarding the Brilliance of the Seas for 2 cruises up to maritime Canada and back. Both cruises were great, with good weather and great friends aboard. We even got upgraded to an owner's suite when we were top cruisers on the 1st one. The first part of November we were at Park Sierra. Nov. 11 we drove to San Diego to stay with Darran and Marielle, and then leave our car with them while we flew to Europe. Nov. 14 we boarded the Serenade of the Seas and did a 12 day Med cruise, a 15 day transatlantic cruise back to New Orleans, and a 9 day Caribbean cruise, ending in New Orleans on Dec. 21. After flying back to San Diego and retrieving our car, we drove to Fremont to have Christmas with Tarra and family. Thomas came over from San Francisco, and Laura and Dennis drove down from Reno. Darran and Marielle were with her family in New York.
New Year's finds us here at Park Sierra, catching up after our recent trips, and getting ready to fly to Ecuador on January 14. We will be there for 5 weeks. The first 8 days is a whirlwind tour, and the last 8 days we will be on a small yacht in the Galápagos Islands. In between, we will be poking around the country on our own. Other plans for 2014 include a Panama Canal cruise, a transatlantic cruise to Copenhagen in the Spring, and a Fall cruise to Barcelona with a month of land travel before returning on the same ship in late October. Sometime in the summer, we will be traveling in our RV to Florida in order to be there next Fall and Winter. We have been healthy and happy this year, and blessed that the same has been true for all our family. As always, we are sending our very best wishes to all of you and hoping that your year has been satisfying, and that 2014 treats you very well. We thank all of you who have sent us your good wishes and news of your lives this past year, and we hope you continue to update us in the future. Sending big hugs, Mary and Elaine

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Med Cruise On Serenade

We hope everyone had a Happy Thanksgiving. We enjoyed that occasion on the Serenade of the Seas, somewhere in the Mediterranean between Barcelona and Cadiz, Spain, the first port of our second consecutive cruise. This cruise will end Dec. 12 in New Orleans. Barcelona is where we started (Nov. 15) and ended our first cruise which was 12 days visiting many ports in the Mediterranean. It is quite late in the season to be doing these ports because of cold weather, but we lucked out and only had a few days of rain. First we visited Cannes, France, where we explored the old city and the very enjoyable waterfront promenade area with David & Diane Wilson. Here is a building painted with scenes from the film festival:
Cannes also has some delicious looking seafood being sold all over:
The next day we docked in La Spezia, Italy. The Cinque Terre towns are not very far away, so it was easy to take the train to revisit a few of them. We were there in April for 4 days after a transatlantic crossing, and we explored all 5 of these villages then. This time we went with David & Diane, and also Clare and Charles Austin, first to Monterosso, and then to Vernazza. Here is a picture of the happy group of explorers:
On the walk through La Spezia, we passed many beautiful and historic buildings with sculptures such as this on the facades and around the doorways:
Monterosso was right on the coast, and here was the view near the train station:
We had a sunny day and the trail was open, so Charlie did the hike along the coastal bluffs between Monterosso and Vernazza, while the rest of us took the train. In Vernazza we had lunch at a little pizza restaurant cut into the seaside cliffs, while waiting for Charlie to arrive:
Some other cruise friends, Mark & Peggy Steeves, joined us for the lunch:
Then we took pictures on the seaside cliffs:
This is the view of Vernazza from the hiking trail:
The subsequent port was Salerno, which was the gateway to the Amalfi Coast. Here is the city from the ship:
The Amalfi Coast is a very steep and dramatic peninsula with picturesque villages and palatial homes built all along a very narrow and twisty road. David and Diane joined us for a quick exploration of Salerno enroute to the train and bus station. The park was loaded with whimsical sculptures of animals all in paper mache and lights,
and the very nice walkway along the waterfront was enhanced with plastic penguins situated on a rock breakwater, giving us all a big laugh.
The bus ride from Salerno to Amalfi took about an hour but was very exciting because of all the steep drops down the cliffs alongside the road, and the close calls the bus had with oncoming traffic and rock outcrops on the inland side of the bus. Whenever we encountered another big vehicle such as a truck or bus, the vehicles had to slow down and inch by each other, sometimes with one or the other backing up - passing each other with very little space between. Here is just one view from the bus:
Amalfi was a delightful village with the usual assortment of craft sellers and shops selling tourist goods, restaurants, bars, art galleries, etc. The cathedral was large and beautifully decorated outside, with an interesting fountain in the square.
There were also lots of great ceramics available for purchase in town:
Of course, we had another delightful lunch with David & Diane:
There were more dramatic views on the bus ride back to Salerno:
Back on the ship, we had a delightful happy hour with lots of the cruise friends:
The highlight of the cruise was sailing into Venice and spending 1 1/2 days there. Our ship went right along the large ship passage skirting the city, passing right by St. Mark's Square and the Doge's palace. The ship is so big that it towers over the buildings and we had fantastic overhead views of the Lido, the canals, the outlying islands in the lagoon, and the entire Venice area.
Once we docked, David & Diane went off the ship with us and we learned how to take the People Mover to the Piazzale Roma, where we could catch any of the transportation options. After buying a 24 hour vaporetto pass (these are like buses but they are boats), we walked the narrow, convoluted streets along the Grand Canal, soaking up the ambiance, looking at the goods in the shop windows and stalls, taking pictures, and hoping that the rain which was threatening would hold off. Of course, we saw some gondolas waiting to be hired out:
And there were lots of masks for sale:
It was very different to be in this city as night fell and the lights came on in the streets. Because Nov. isn't a heavy tourist time, most of the people in the streets were locals hurrying home or shopping after work. It was very cold, even though we were all bundled up, so we made it to the Rialto Bridge and then caught a vaporetto back to the ship. The next day the 4 of us headed out early because we wanted to make the best use of our vaporetto pass by going to the outlying islands in the lagoon. All of us have been to Venice several times before, so we didn't feel the need to visit the tourist sites in the main part of the city. Taking the vaporetto to Murano enabled us to see a lot of the canals with the various different areas. Murano is the island where the art of glass blowing has always been the main occupation. Right near the vaporetto stop there was a furnace and showroom trying to charge 3 Euro, but we knew there was a free one further on.
After an interesting demonstration, and a perusal of the showroom which displayed beautiful glassware of many different types, we walked to the center of the village.
There were quiet canals lacing this town:
And even a boat selling produce:
The shops and houses and monuments on this island are very different than being in Venice, with a very relaxed ambiance and of course, lots of glassware shops. There were 2 interesting churches, one with many huge paintings by famous artists such as Tintoretto. But the best one was Santa Maria del Donato, which had Byzantine mosaic floors from the 1100's. In the 1970's, that floor was cut into 4 parts and lifted off so they could shore up the subfloor. Then they replaced the mosaic pieces and cleaned them up. The result was incredible.
Seeing this church caused us to eagerly look forward to our upcoming port call in Ravenna, where there are at least 5 churches with Byzantine mosaics given UNESCO world heritage status. We also saw the ambulance going by:
Next we took the vaporetto to Burano, a smaller island much further out, famous for lace making,
and also the fact that the majority of the houses are painted in a myriad of very vibrant colors.
It brightened up the somewhat overcast day just looking at the red, blue, green, yellow, purple houses! Another phenomenon occurred here as well: the Acqua Alta. This means "high water". At this time of year, they get higher tidal surges and because the canal banks aren't very high above water level, the water floods the streets, squares and walkways along the canals. The locals wear boots and wade through. The stalls sell a foldable type of boot to tourists.
In places like St. Mark's Square, they put out elevated wooden walkways. So in Burano, when we encountered this, we had to walk to the back streets and go around the lower areas in order not to have soaked shoes. It was delightful just to walk around in the streets and look at the buildings. Eventually we ended up in the center, where most of the restaurants and shops were. After appreciating the local lace products and table linens, we had a delicious tuna pizza and beer lunch in one of the few places which offered free internet. Because we had messed up a couple of times and ended up on the wrong varporetto, we were not going to have enough time to visit the 3rd recommended island, Torcello. Now we have a reason to go back! Getting back to the ship just as darkness fell, we appreciated the free drinks and great views up in the Diamond+ lounge as our ship glided out of this picturesque city. Ravenna is only about 70 miles south of Venice, and it was supposed to be our next stop. But the weather was bad and the wind was blowing about 75 km/h early in the morning so the port of Ravenna was closed and we had to spend the day at sea. We were so disappointed to be missing the UNESCO sites with the mosaics, and also seeing this city where we have never been before. The following day we docked near Dubrovnik, Croatia. Happily, the weather was much better. Elaine and I first explored Croatia in a campervan in 1989 so we got to see this walled city on a prominent peninsula jutting into the Adriatic during the time it was part of Yugoslavia.
In 1991 the war started and much of the city was blown up. The war only lasted a few years and when it was over, they quickly rebuilt. The next time we saw it was in 2005 when we were in Europe on a land tour of 7 central European countries, and the city appeared much the same as it had in 1989. In 2008 we visited it on a cruise, so we had been in the port area before. Because of these previous visits, we weren't hurrying, and had lunch on the ship, then took the local bus the approximately 3 km to the old city. Croatia is part of the European Union but they don't use the Euro, so we had to exchange for kuna before we could buy bus tickets. David & Diane were with us and we had a leisurely stroll all over the city.
We also went outside the walls near the waterfront so we could get some pictures of the nearby rocky cliffs, and the walls with the marina and outdoor restaurants near the water.
It was Sunday, so some of the shops and restaurants were closed. One of the most interesting places was a corner where an artist had posted pictures of his home and studio before the war, and then after it was bombed. He had a very good summary of the events which devasted this city in the early 1990's because he doesn't want anyone to forget the turmoil and all that was lost. That was the last port, so we had 2 sea days to get back to Barcelona and the end of the first cruise. On the ship, we enjoyed the company of many friends from other cruises, and we knew that many more would be joining us on the second cruise. Because it is a transatlantic, lots of cruisers like the extended time (15 days) and the many sea days, as well as the fact that it ends in New Orleans.