The South Pacific. Part II

The South Pacific. Part II

A country built on the backs of convicts.  The most poisonous snakes and spiders on Earth.  World class surf.  Great White sharks.  The Outback.  A reputation for heavy drinkers.  They say watch your step, you never know when something around the corner will kill you.  It sounds like my kind of place, Australia.

We made our way back to Sydney after spending some time in Queensland.  As much as we had a great time up north, it was nice to be back in the city.  The Four Seasons, as expected, welcomed us in.  Owning perhaps the most prized piece of real estate in Sydney, if not all of Australia, this magnificent 5 star hotel sits on the steps of the world renowned harbor.

After checking in, we were escorted to our room.  The amenities were presented by the bellhop, and we freshened up after the 3 hour flight.  Then we dined in the restaurant downstairs.

A young and expertly trained hostess happily led us to our table.  Greeting us by name, she offered their finest champagne to celebrate our marriage.  And then it got better.  I ordered the dry-aged wagyu ribeye steak with black mushroom truffle sauce.  I lack the vocabulary to describe the pure deliciousness.  I can only say it was the best steak I’ve ever had, and I can’t imagine ever tasting anything more enjoyable.

Later in the evening, while digesting our feast, there was a rustle in the lobby.  I have a keen eye for these things, I can always tell when a prison riot is about to break out, and told Gail something was about to happen.  Then it seemed like all hell broke loose.  The doors flew open and a swarm of loud and over-hyper photographers came flying in.   Right through their flashing cameras, like a golden tornado, Sophia Vergara swooped in and hurriedly made her way to the elevators.  Holy shit!

Modern Family was filming their Australian vacation shows here, at this hotel, this week.  We made a joking reference about our brush with celebrity to our hostess.  She told us she was not allowed to say anything, but implied the entire cast was staying at the hotel.  Rico Rodriguez, who plays Manny on the show, was eating dinner next to us.  We would have never noticed.  And she also did not tell us, wink-wink, that Eminem and Bruce Springsteen were on the upper floors.  This place didn’t suck at all.

We rose early the next day to get a jump start on our itinerary.  One floor below us, Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Mitchell from Modern Family) got on the elevator.  We knew well enough not to bother him, but probably stared the whole time anyway.  He exited on the third floor, and as we were walking out through the lobby we noticed he was now walking down the stairs from the second floor.  From the confused look on his face, we could tell he obviously got off on the wrong floor.  It was the same look I had right before nearly getting wiped out by a cab a week earlier.

While having a good laugh over this, Eric Stonestreet (Cam from the show) was in front of the hotel barking orders and directing the valets and bellhops.  Are we actually in an episode?  It was just too funny.

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Across the street from the hotel, and just a few steps past the Aboriginal street vendors selling boomerangs and didgeridoos, we jumped a ferry to Manly Beach.  Sydney is a city built on and around water and Circular Quay is the main hub of it’s waterway.  Loaded with taxis, ferries, and tourists, it’s a scenic 30 minute ride to one of the best large beaches in the world.

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Manly Beach is where old school surf meets cosmopolitan beach community.  The same people that will strike up a cool, casual conversation with you on the pedestrian plaza will rip your head off if you tread on their wave.  With an equal mix of stand up paddle-boarders and world class short board surfers in the water, I was the old dude on the classic, rented, long board.  I lasted a solid hour or two in the strong currents and caught some rad 6 foot rollers, along with a nice sunburn.

After taking in the sights of Manly, and a few drinks, we eventually made our way back to the hotel, for yet another run-in with Modern Family.  While talking with the concierge about Aussies lack of a sense of a direction, Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen approached.  Phil and Claire Dunphy apologized for interrupting, but they were in need of directions to their dinner location.   As they walked out the door we all cracked up laughing.

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A zoo is typically not one of my favorite places to go.  With all it’s rude and basically ignorant people crowding around to see incarcerated animals, I feel confined and sad for it’s inhabitants.  With it’s overflowing garbage cans, ungodly smells, and overpriced food and beverages, I avoid most of these places at all costs.  A million times out of a million I’d rather see wildlife in it’s natural habitat.  But the Taranga Zoo is not a typical zoo.

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The Kookaburra Bird

Sitting hillside across from Sydney Harbor, this wonderful piece of property watches over the city.   This zoo is perfectly laid out.  From the ferry, you take a gondola ride to the top of the hill and the main entrance.  Stroll down the trails and eventually you wind up back at the ferry, right where you started.  Around every turn is one wonderful view after the next of Sydney.

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The grounds are pristine and the Aussies were are all polite and friendly, this was not like any other zoo experience I’ve had.  And the best part?  I’ve never seen such happy and healthy animals.  We sat and watched the chimpanzees play for hours.

Australia is a place where men are men, and the cows better run scared, because steak is what’s for dinner again.  We don’t often like to visit the same place twice, there are just way too many places to see.  But that night, while having another great dinner, we decided Sydney is a city which we have to visit again.

While wishing we had more time to spend here, we needed to prepare for the next part of our adventure.  Tomorrow we set sail on a 12 night cruise into the South Pacific.

Goodnight and farewell Sydney.
Goodnight Sydney.

 

 

 

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The List

Class 5 Whitewater Rafting in Costa Rica.
Class 5 Whitewater Rafting in Costa Rica.

We all have lists.  Shopping lists, to do lists, playlists, best of this, best of that, there are all kinds of lists. When I was a kid, I would come home after school to a list.  Sometimes that list would be 4,5,6 pages long.  Sometimes the list would reference other lists. Whatever it was, I never wanted to do anything on that list, so I started making my own.  Here’s what is on my list:

  • Catch a big fish.  And I mean a REALLY big fish.  I’ve caught beautiful Mahi-Mahi, doormat Fluke, and monster Striped Bass. But I’m talking Old Man And The Sea stuff.  A 1,000 pound Marlin or 500 pound Tuna.  Maybe when I catch the big one, I’ll want to go bigger, or maybe not.  I’ll know when I get there.
  • Climb a mountain.  Why?  Because it’s there.  Kilimanjaro and Denali both come to mind as feats that are clearly in the realm of possibility.  Maybe after one or both of those, Everest could be put on the list.
  • Run with the Bulls.  I’ve been fascinated by this since I first saw a painting of a Matador.  I was probably 5 years old.  And then I heard about this event in Pamplona, Spain.  It’s just something I have to do.
  • Write a book.  Still working on it.
  • Go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.  Will probably never do this, but it sounds like fun to me.  I’ve always joked that my last words on earth will be “Hey, watch this.”
  • Swim with Great Whites.  Jaws is my favorite movie of all time, it scared the shit out of me.  Great Whites are the fiercest, most powerful creatures on earth.  Of course my preference is to be in a steel cage.
  • Surf all 7 continents.  So far I have surfed North America, South America, and Australia.  Asia, Europe, and Africa are all achievable given my rate of travels.  But there is only one person that’s ever done all 7.  I want to be in that group.
  • Take an African Safari.  Camping in the Catskills, watching squirrels run up and down trees, that’s alright.  Watching a black bear catch a fish in a mountain stream in the Adirondacks, yeah, that was cool.  But now I want to go big.  Bring on the lions
  • Eat sushi in Japan.  I like Sushi.  I want to go to Japan.  Simple.
  • Run a marathon.  I’ve done the Big Sur Marathon in California, and the NYC Road Runner’s Marathon.  My desire to run another one is about 2%.
  • Get the lead role in a play.  As a returning adult student, I performed in the Southampton Players performance of The Lion In Winter.  I had the role of Henry II.  Good times.
  • Escape From Alcatraz.  I’ve always had a fascination with escaping from a prison, I have no idea where that came from.  On Father’s Day, 2002, I swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco as part of the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon.
  • Take a great photo.  I’ll know it when I get it.
  • Explore the Galapagos Islands.  Darwin seemed to enjoy it.
  • Learn another language.  Why can’t we just all get along?
  • Learn to play an instrument.  I’ve always wanted to be a Rockstar.
  • Smoke a fine Cuban cigar.  In Havana.
  • Hike the Appalachian Trail.  All of it.
  • Get high in Amsterdam.  All you goody-two-shoes can just glance past this last one.

Over time, things have been added to and taken away from my list, things change.  Life happens.  Motorcycle across South America, train ride across Europe, and swim across the Long Island Sound are all things that I’d love to do, but at this point make the B list.   A fine French meal in view of the Eiffel Tower, a good glass of wine in Tuscany, and paint a masterpiece also come to mind.  The real beauty of my list is that it is my list.  I get to approach it and check things off as I see fit, in my way.

So what’s on your list?

Nice fish, but not the big one!
Nice fish, but not the big one!

Honeymoon in The South Pacific, Part I

Honeymoon in The South Pacific, Part I

If there was a bad decision to make, I made it.  One monumental mistake followed the next.  I fucked everything up.  It was a continuous attempt to be someone I was not.  I was not happy with the person I was becoming.  So, at the age of forty-something, I made a conscious decision to spend the second half of my life enjoying the person I became, whatever that may be.

The first, and most important, decision I made was marrying the person I would spend the second half of my life with.  I didn’t think it possible, but she liked to travel even more than me, and she actually liked me too.  No one has ever made me happier.  The wedding was February 8, 2014.

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Jammin’ with the 747 Orchestra.

With yet another blizzard barreling towards the east coast, we opted to get out of town early.  A couple of phone calls, and a few hundred dollars later, we were on our way.

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Will it ever stop?!

An odd thing about traveling to Australia is crossing the International Dateline.  Valentine’s Day, 2014, came and went in the air, without actually existing for us at all.  We landed on the 15th, in Sydney.

It’s a long flight from Los Angeles;  15 hours in the air.  Imagine watching three full movies, and then looking at the time only to realize you have ten more hours to go.  It’s no wonder you hear the occasional story of a traveler going bonkers.  And all the sleeping pills in the world couldn’t knock me out, believe me, I tried.

I had done tons of research on Australia, and countless hours of planning for this trip, and one of the most rudimentary facts I learned is Aussies drive on the other side of the road Down-Under.  “Watch out for cars”,  I read and was told over and over again.  Despite all that knowledge, my first act coming out of the airport was nearly getting wiped out by a cab because I was looking the wrong way.  My second act was getting into the driver’s seat of the cab that was to take  us to our hotel.   The driver’s seat is on the other side too. Man, I was shot.

Arriving in the southern hemisphere in February, the middle of summer, was an exhilarating breathe of fresh air.  Off we went to the Shangri-La hotel, with 2 full suitcases in tow, along with 2 overstuffed carry-ons, Gail’s pocket book, my backpack, and a bag full of leftover snacks from the plane.  There was a lesson to be learned about packing for a long trip.

The Shangri-La is a Chinese-owned luxury hotel located half a block from the Sydney Harbor.  It’s a beautiful hotel with amazing city views all around.  The beds are wonderful, I slept 8 straight hours for the first time in months.  Then we went exploring.

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We had one full day to take in as much of Sydney as we could.  We were coming back soon to spend a few more days, so this was like a reconnaissance mission.  We strolled all of Darling Harbor, stopping to window shop, look at menus, people watch, and take in the sights.  Then over to the Botanical Gardens, which led us to the famed Sydney Opera House.

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For the last three years, every place we went, and every opportunity I had, I asked Gail for her hand in marriage.  I asked her long after she said yes, I just wanted to make sure.  We made our way up the steps of the Opera House.  I thought it was a bit smaller and greyer than I saw in photos.  With countless, mostly Asian, tourists, on the steps, I asked Gail once again for her hand.  But this time was different.  This was for a dance.

On the steps of the Sydney Opera House, with only the music in our hearts, we performed our wedding dance.  We received a round of applause and off we went.

The next day we were at the airport on our way up to Far North Queensland.  As we were checking in our trailer load of luggage, the girl at the check-in counter told us our suitcases were too heavy.  How could that be?  They weren’t too heavy at JFK or LAX, and we hadn’t even opened them yet.  So here we are, experienced travelers, loudmouthed New Yorkers, throwing items from our suitcases to our already overstuffed carry ons. Yes, we were those people.  Ugh.

Thala Beach Nature Reserve is located in Port Douglas, about an hour drive north of Cairns.  After driving along the scenic Captain Cook Highway, you go to where the Daintree Rainforest meets the Coral Sea.  This was the part of the trip I was looking forward to the most.  The reviews were outstanding and the photos even better.  Billed as a 5 Star eco-resort in a tropical setting, we were booked in a private Eucalypt Bungalow.

Bungalow in the Jungle
Bungalow in the Jungle

Shortly after arriving, sitting in the open air lobby, enjoying my welcome drink, something in the corner caught my eye.  The most perfectly formed, yellow hued, spider web in an open wall.  It was so perfect I thought it was fake at first.  And there in the center was the largest spider I’ve ever seen.  Not just any spider, a Golden Orb Spider.  This bad boy was humongous, it’s legs stretched out nearly as wide as a Frisbee.  It is also referred to as the Bird Killer.  Now I really felt like I was in Australia.  Get me another drink!

The rest of the day we strolled the property, taking in the sights of the beach, the Coral Sea, and the Rainforest.  While there were so many good and beautiful points to this resort, there were, unfortunately, quite a few negatives.  My Tripadvisor review can be found here: Thala.  It’s the old classic, If I only knew then what I know now.

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Swimming was off limits due to the deadly jellyfish.
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Where the Daintree Rainforest meets the Coral Sea.
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The view from Osprey’s Landing Restaurant at Thala.

Port Douglas is an easy twenty minute drive from Thala, and where we would go for the better part of the next three days.  Our first day in town we visited the Artists and Farmer’s Market.  Made up mostly of ad-hoc canvas tents, the vendors were friendly and seemed to be excited to meet some Americans.

We made our way into the town center where we did some more window shopping.  There was some bar hopping mixed in too.  The local beers were great and I tried one at more than a couple different places.  We found ourselves at Salsa Restaurant, allegedly a favorite stopping point for Bill Clinton.

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Jammin’ at a bar in Port Douglas.

A bucket list item was checked off the next day.  In the Port Douglas harbor, we boarded the Synergy II.  This small, well equipped, catamaran was our personal transportation out to The Great Barrier Reef.  Manned by 3 Aussies and a pretty American backpacker, only ourselves and a young couple from Spain were on board.

Off we went to see the largest and greatest coral reef in the world.  Breathtakingly beautiful, I snorkeled for hours over and within the most amazing coral.  Amongst the countless and indescribable shapes and colors under the sea, were creatures of all variety.  I can only describe it as swimming in a giant fish tank. I saw everything from giant, and I mean GIANT, clams, electric blue starfish, lazy sea turtles, and the elusive and popular Nemo fish.

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Off in the distance, Batt Reef. Steve Irwin’s last dive.
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Studying up on the species.

The sight of a few black tipped reef sharks coincided with a barbecue lunch on board.  We moved further up, towards Batt Reef.  This is where the late, great Steve Irwin had his infamous encounter with the stingray.  There were none to be seen that day, though we did look, as it was the last excursion into the water.   Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, an adventure I’ll remember forever.

Just as memorable, was the trip back to shore.  As luck would have it, one of the two engines seized out along the way.  After an extra, unanticipated, but enjoyable, 2 hours of sailing it was time to get onto the dock.  But without the motor we couldn’t get into the slip.  It was time for Plan B.  Seeing Gail, who doesn’t swim in open water (she stayed topside while I snorkeled), balanced on the edge of a pontoon on a little rubber raft was hysterical and priceless.

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Our rescue boat.

The following morning was Breakfast with the Birds and a day at The Port Douglas Wildlife Refuge.  In a huge enclosure we shared our bacon, eggs, and fruit with nearly as many birds as we saw fish the day before.

My breakfast date
My breakfast date

A magnificent refuge, we spent all day with the wildlife.

Who doesn't like to be scratched on the back of the neck?
Who doesn’t like to be scratched on the back of the neck?
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A highlight!

We did so much over the last few days.  From sleeping in a bungalow in the rainforest, to swimming with sharks in the Great Barrier Reef, to hopping around with wallabies, to cuddling Koalas,  we were ready for our next great adventure.  Tomorrow we go back to Sydney to check a few more things off the bucket list. The first stop will be the Four Seasons, not bad for a fuck up.

Stay tuned for The Honeymoon, Part II.

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Newlyweds!

 

A Week In Riviera Maya, Mexico

A Week In Riviera Maya, Mexico

Mexico.  Is it the image of a barren wasteland of adobe huts and sombrero wearing banditos on permanent siesta, only waking occasionally for a slug of dirty tequila?  Or is it Mexico City, that smog infested, over-populated urban center, littered with stolen cars and orphans playing on landfills?  Is it the Drug Cartel controlled border towns, teeming with illegals jumping the fence?  Is it Tijuana, with it’s sidewalk pharmacies and bestiality shows?  What is it that makes you so God-Damned scared of Mexico?

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Is it because they’re below us and it’s super hot?  Does it actually remind people of Hell?   America as the promised land and Mexico as purgatory for the damned.   I mean, shit, I know tons of bad-ass, tough New Yorkers that crap themselves when they hear “Mexico”.   Oh, the murder rates?  You’re five times more likely to get whacked virtually anywhere in the States than you are in a Mexican resort area.  Check the numbers yourself.

So here’s the deal, don’t go looking for trouble, and trouble won’t find you.  Sure, there are troubles, big troubles, along the border towns and Central Mexico.  But it’s nearly 100% drug related.  Eliminate the drug cartel issues and you have one cool country rich in history and culture.

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The Yucatan Peninsula is the south-eastern region of Mexico that runs along the western portion of the Caribbean Sea.  Cancun, Riviera Maya, and Tulum belong to this region.  This has got to be one of the most magnificent coastlines in the world.  I visited Playa Del Carmen, in the heart of Riviera Maya, in September, 2012.   I wanted to know what everyone is so afraid of.

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The drive from Cancun is just over an hour.  In this time we saw 3 stop points along the highway manned by Mexican Federales.   Military men, dressed completely in black, with flak jackets, riot helmets, machine guns and all sorts of other heavy artillery man the check points.  They let us proceed in our van, barely slowing down.  The second stop point was less intimidating,  more interesting.  By the third sighting I realized these guys are actually just here to protect me.  Any other time I saw them during our trip there was a general feeling of security.  Never once during my time in Mexico did I feel anything less than perfectly safe.

Our drive brought us to the Occidental Grand Xcaret Royal Club.  The hotel has an open air lobby with a truly grand thatched roof.   The only thing warmer than the welcome was the temperature.  Quite frankly, it was hotter than hell.

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At 3:00 in the afternoon, midway through our vacation, we were sitting in a pool.  No matter how many frozen margaritas I tried to wash down, nothing beat the heat.  It was so hot, it felt like the pool water was about to boil over.  Feeling drained and nauseous, we looked at each other, and decided it was time to go inside somewhere and find air conditioning.  It was just too hot in the pool.  Of course, it didn’t help that I outdrank a Scotsman at the swim-up bar the night before.  Tequila, ugh, it’ll be the death of me someday.

Quinta Avenida is 5th Avenue, Playa Del Carmen, and only a short taxi from our hotel.  Lined with hundreds of shops, bars, and restaurants, it’s the main tourist hub in the region.  If you look hard enough, and the locals trust you, anything you think of can be found here.  I was offered prescriptions, weed, heroin, tattoos, and women.  One guy even tried to pawn his sister off on me.  I couldn’t help but wonder how many American fugitives are holed up here.  But again, I never felt in danger.

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Except for the few trips into Playa, most of our dining was at the resort.   Every meal had leftover rice and beans and some sort of mystery meat.  Over-cooked and over-seasoned, we laughed as we tried to figure out what kind of animal our dinner came from.  Much of the food was mostly inedible, but we found enough that was palatable to keep us largely satisfied.

On our last full day we needed to arrange transportation back to the airport.  After asking our concierge to please make arrangements, she got back to us and said, “I’m sorry, JetBlue is no longer in business.”

“Really, is that so?”

“Yes, their phone number is no longer operating.  I’m afraid you will have to make arrangements through our own transportation company.”  I nearly fell over laughing.  This was one of the more creative, yet so simple, scams, that has ever been tried on me.  Miraculously, our transfer to the airport was arranged through JetBlue about 2 minutes later, but not without a few more laughs.

So in the end, I was not sucked into the bowels of Hell or kidnapped by a gang of banditos.  I met some great people, ate some terrible food, drank good tequila, saw some cool stuff, brushed up on my Spanish, and walked away a better person for it.  Mexico, you don’t scare me.  See you again, someday.

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Ces Petites Choses, These Little Things

Ces Petites Choses, These Little Things

I decided long ago, any day that starts at an airport, a bridge, or a ferry is going to be a good day.  This trip had us starting at the Cross Sound Ferry in Port Jefferson.   If you had asked me on the ferry what I thought about Quebec City before this trip, I would have not been able to tell you much.  There is a vague recollection of doing a report on Quebec around fifth grade.  The men were fur trappers, maybe religious, and the winters are brutal.  If you ask most Americans to be honest, I think they would say everybody from “up there” speaks French, are rude, arrogant, and probably hate everybody.  The town is probably dark and cold, and I think there’s a river near by, I guess that’s where they caught beaver and otter.   As with all travel, this stereotype would be blasted right out of the St. Lawrence River in no time at all.

We drove through Connecticut, then Massachusetts, and into Vermont.  Nothing quite like a long drive to open lines of communication and just talk and laugh for hours.  A brief stop in Brattleboro, Vermont found us noshing on sandwiches and fresh juice at a groovy little café on Main Street.  Back on the road, it’s going to be long day.  I love how outside New York, drivers actually use the right lane for cruising, the left for passing.  I’m sure someday I’ll write a long rant on that alone.

The border crossing was a welcome sight, and an opportunity for a new learning lesson.  We had the youngest member of our tribe along with us for this trip.  Of course his Passport has more entries than most adults acquire in a lifetime, and we are always fully prepared to provide proper documentation.  However, this time, the Border Agent, who was otherwise very friendly, asked us for a notarized letter from his birth father, granting permission to leave the country.  We’ve never needed one before, we explained, why now?  Well, apparently there is a rash of international custody battles.  We  spoke it over with her, and after some slight persuading, she obliged and let us pass.  Phew, that was close.  And the kid in the backseat was perfect, never said a word, as we direct him to behave with all Customs and TSA agents.

We stopped in a little town called Magog, not too far from the border.  A tremendous amount of restaurants located along Main St., considering we hadn’t seen any population for the last 100 miles.   With some reluctance to eat unfamiliar food, and all signs and menus in French, it took a little while to decide where we’d eat.  An outdoor seating hamburger joint caught our eye, so we settled on that.  Over an hour later, and after more than a few language related misinterpretations, we left praying that the food and service would be better in the city.

Restaurant. Magog, Canada.
Restaurant. Magog, Canada.

Our final destination brought us to The Fairmont Chateau Le Frontenac, known as the most photographed hotel in the world.   A magnificent 622 room castle, it was built, accordingly, on the highest ground in the city.  The brick façade and mansard copper roof are visible from nearly anywhere in the city, but looks most splendid from the banks of the St. Lawrence River.  We had a suite on the 14th floor, and enjoyed the benefits of the Gold Level Service.  A private breakfast and evening cocktails were just some of the included amenities.

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While the weather was gorgeous in the morning of our first full day, we learned the climate changes faster than anything here.  The cloud cover was a welcome respite from this very hot summer and added ambience to the old European-style city.  From the cobblestone streets, to gas lamps, to the corner butcher, not much has changed through the centuries.

We jumped into the hop-on, hop-off, double decker red bus.  It really is the best way to get your initial bearings in any unfamiliar city.  The 90 minute tour started outside our hotel entrance, in Terrasse Dufferin.  This area has a beautiful boardwalk that overlooks lower city and the river.  The funiculair is located here and it is a popular spot for street performers.  These are not the current type of annoying Times Square, SpongeBob Squarepants, or Minny Mouse characters that look for a picture with you and then aggressively hound you for money.  These are people that play the Harp, or sing beautiful operatic melodies, or they perform magical card tricks. These are trained acrobats, jugglers, and comedians.  They don’t harass and they don’t accost.  In classical French Vaudevillian style, their culture and history come through in all their acts and personalities.  Never a disappointing performance, always worthy of our pocketchange.  The entire time we were in the city, we saw one policeman.  Just one.  And he was just hanging out minding his own business.  No heavy artillery, no attitude.  So in this happy place, we started our tour.

Our guide, with full French-Canadian accent, requested we stay on the bus for the full 90 minute tour.  Afterward we could decide where to get dropped off.  He was an excellent tour guide, very knowledgeable with a sense of humor.  Much focus was pointed toward the roof tops and architecture of the buildings.  Discover the roofs, and you will find the history, was much of the refrain.  Mansard roofs, tincan roofs, the flat roofs of the 1960s.

We saw the famed Musee de Civilization, a marketplace, Break Neck Steps Street, government buildings, and the historical Plains of Abraham.   A beautiful, clean city,  I couldn’t help but fall in love during that 90 minute tour.  But we decided the best place to be was right where we were, at Le Chateau.

The next few days were spent sightseeing mostly on foot.  We enjoyed a guided river cruise to Montmorency Falls, a waterfall taller than Niagara.   We spent a lot of time window shopping in Lower Quebec, and people watching on Terrasse Dufferin.  The Changing of the Guard at the Citadel is a drawn out, but interesting, event to see.  But mostly, we ate.  The food is where the French culture is still at it’s strongest.  Sounds of café music and Madeleine Peyroux reverberated around the city.  The constant clanging of wine glasses and the aromas of fresh food were everywhere.  Service was generally impeccable and exceptionally friendly.  This charming old European city gradually came alive to reveal it’s more cosmopolitan side.

Ahh…. which brings me to the Poutines.  How this ridiculous mishmash of cultural cuisine has not taken off in the States amazes me.  French Fries drenched in brown gravy with white cheese curd, I enjoyed mine with pulled pork and bacon.  Washed down with a Moosehead Lager, I could feel my blood thickening as I took it all in.

Our last night brought us to the circus.  Quebec is the home of the original Cirque De Soleil, and to pay homage to it, the city funds a free, outdoor, performance every night.  The 45 minute wait on line for this 2,000 seat amphitheater is well worth it to see these amazing young performers practice their craft.

A rich history.  Fine culture.  Magnificent cuisine and wonderful music.  An extraordinarily low unemployment rate.  Virtually zero crime.  The government is the largest employer, followed by tourism.  I do believe this area of the world has got it figured out.  We left all the wiser for our experiences, and I’ve been listening to French Café music ever since.

Restaurant. Lower Quebec
Restaurant. Lower Quebec
Mesmerized by the songs of Evita.
Mesmerized by the songs of Evita.
Street Performers
Street Performers.

The drive home had us stopover for lobster in Freeport, Maine.  That was followed the next day with lunch at Mystic Pizza and another ferry ride.  SirOzzy was happy to have us home, but as always, we look forward to our next adventure.

“Ces petites choses” translates to “these little things.”  We should all strive to learn a new phrase in our host country’s language.

The First Cruise

The First Cruise

The Love Boat.  Old people.  Over-crowding.  Spring breakers.  Elvis impersonators.  The flu bug.  The Titanic.  These are just some of the things that came to mind when first thinking about cruise ships.  I’ve even thought of a cruise as the cheap give away on Wheel of Fortune.  And let’s not even talk about inside cabins.

Prior to my first cruise, I never gave much thought, if any, to luxury travel.  My prior vacations had consisted of such trips as waking up under Redwood trees in a tent in Big Sur, California.  I crashed in a hostel in San Francisco and took an Amtrak from New York to Newport News, Virginia.  I’ve done some nice rafting on The Delaware Water Gap, winter surfing in Montauk, and triathlons in the Chesapeake region and the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  While these trips provided much enjoyment, there was never much thought or planning to them.  It was a period of adventure, rebellion, and border line poverty.

My idea of travel was spontaneity and adventure.  My accommodation was typically a tent, an upgrade meant I had a cot.  An amenity was an ashtray.   I wasn’t equipped with a Sandra Brown leather suitcase with 360* wheels.  I lived out of duffel bags and backpacks.   I had never even seen a cruise ship, let alone thought of going on one.   Was it as big as the Staten Island Ferry, I wondered.

SirOzzy’s first great adventure began on March 18, 2011.  We took an early morning flight from NY to Fort Lauderdale, and then, much to my surprise, hopped into a limousine for the drive over to the cruise terminal.   Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas was the largest and most beautiful ship I’d ever seen.  Never could I have imagined such majesty and grandeur.   I was blown away.

   My first awestruck impression quickly changed as I saw the sheer number of passengers boarding.  Sure, this ship is big, but how can it possibly fit 3,000 passengers and crew on board?  Well, not to worry, as soon as we walked through the terminal doors, a little old Floridian introduced himself.  We showed him our reservation paperwork, and he rushed us over to a spot with no line.  He said, “Folks, you’re in the Grand Suite, you won’t be waiting on any lines this week.”  And boy, was he right.  That was our first experience using the benefit of our upgrade.  While all passengers received a white Seapass card, ours was gold.

     I’ve heard many cabins on these megaships are tiny.  So tiny you can reach out and touch both sidewalls at the same time.  They have stand up showers and most do not have windows, let alone a balcony.  After a brief exploration around the ship, we found the cabin we would spend the next 10 nights in, and this is what we discovered:

   

   

 His and her closets are located behind the bar.  The bathroom is magnificent, larger than most staterooms, complete with a marble bathtub.  Behind the curtains is a double length balcony.  A fresh fruit platter, caviar, and cheese and crackers, greeted us in the room.  Isn’t this how everybody travels?

Our first full day on the ship was spent cruising the open water of the Caribbean Sea.  More fears were put to rest that day.  I thought I’d get claustrophobic.  I thought the ship would be filled with leftovers from the golden age of the Catskills.  I was wrong on both accounts.  I spent the day poolside, playing mini golf, basketball, at 7 different bars, in an art gallery, a theatre, restaurants, a library, and the Casino Royale.  This ship has more to do than the entire county I live in.

Despite the great discovery of the Casino on the first night, my favorite discovery came on the second night.  The Concierge Lounge.  This room is reserved for passengers staying in Grand Suites and above, which means it’s limited to about 25-30 people.  This is where I learned for the first time what service really is.  My two favorite crew members operated from this room.  Mario would be my personal bartender in the evening hours for the next 10 days.  And Nedere was our personal go-to Concierge .   A tough, Jamaican rock-star, whatever we needed, we went to Nedere.

On this first night in the Concierge lounge, Nedere asked what our plans were for our first stop in Labadee, Haiti.  We explained an excursion was booked involving a short boat ride, some beach time, and a BBQ lunch.   “No, no, no, my Dears.  Listen to me.  We are going to cancel that reservation.  You will spend the day in a private over-water cabana with your own butler service.  We have a private lunch with lobster, steaks, and anything else you want.  This will be in an area reserved only for those passengers with a Gold Seapass.”  Well, ok then.

I arose early on the third day of this sailing.  I peaked through a crack in the curtains to see if the sun had even come up yet.  What I found was so much greater.  Through the mist and early morning haze, the low mountains of Haiti were nearby and getting closer.  I wanted to shout “Land ‘Ho!”  How must the Columbus crew have felt after 2 months on the ocean?  I fell in love with the Caribbean on first sight.  This is what we discovered:

My first glimpse of a Caribbean beach.

I had never  seen trees on a beach before.

While everyone went to the public beach, we turned right…

  

And this is where we would spend our day.  We used most of our time snorkeling, bathing in the sun, eating, drinking, and just enjoying spending time with each other.  We did, however, also see the darker side of Caribbean life.  Out on one of our explorations we discovered an artist’s village.  Magnificent oil paintings hung crowded and hodgepodge on makeshift walls of wooden pallets.  The level of poverty is so severe on this island nation, we witnessed to 2 locals preparing to kill each other with machetes over 1 dollar.  That’s when we went back to our sanctuary for more fresh pineapple.

       

Day number four was spent nursing a sunburn and eating more food than I previously thought humanly possible.  Isn’t that what cruise ships are for?  It was a full day of sailing, we cruised the entire length of the sea to reach Cartagena, Columbia.  It was also the day I first asked Gail to marry me.  Of course she told me no.  She said I was just drunk.  So I asked her again the next day.  And every day again after that for two years, until she would finally say yes.  I was falling in love in and with The Caribbean.

Cartagena is a walled Spanish city on the northern coast of Columbia.  Prior to this cruise I knew very little, if anything at all,  about the area.   We’ve all heard stories of the drug cartel and Columbian coffee, that day I learned so much more.  We booked a bus tour that would take us all through the city.  We had the most amazing man guide us and bring this old city to life for us.  I never thought I’d enjoy a city tour,  I’m the guy that’s always made fun of those people.  Since that day, I try to take a bus tour of every new city I visit.  It’s really the best way to get your initial bearings.

My absolute favorite part of cruising is that every morning you wake up in a new place, and you’ve done nothing to get there.  The next morning found us in Colon, Panama.  After yet another huge breakfast we left the ship early and boarded a small van headed to Gatun Lake.  Colon is the port city closest to the Panama Canal and Gatun Lake borders the locks.  An hour and a half drive through lush jungle brought us to a small river boat.  Myself, Gail, 2 Midwesterners, and 2 Panamanian men spent half a day fishing.  The lake was teeming with Peacock Bass and Oscar Fish.  While I had the time of my life, I’m pretty sure it was the last time I’ll ever see Gail fish.  She’d much rather rest poolside or in a spa.

 

We even had a little visitor join us for a snack.   There was no shortage of wildlife, we saw crocodiles, sloths, monkeys, turtles, red iguanas, and countless tropical birds.  And our guides were kind enough to bring plenty of local beer on board.

Another great aspect of cruising is that you can add places to visit to your list, or eliminate them.  I’ve only heard wonderful things about Costa Rica and greatly anticipated our visit to Puerto Limon.  This was another day of adventure.  The Pacuare River has some of the most intense whitewater rafting in the entire world.  We opted for the lower portion which consists mostly of flat water up to Class-2 rapids.  It was another long drive through a jungle to reach the river opening in Tortuguero National Park.  Although it was mostly lazy water, I know Gail was terrified the whole time.  I wasn’t much of a help paddling, or retrieving swimmers, as I was still only six weeks removed from complete shoulder surgery.

The people of Costa Rica are fantastic.  The country has no military, it was abolished during the re-writing of their constitution in 1949.  Their reasoning was with their proximity to the Panama Canal, they knew if anything happened to them, the Americans would quickly come to the rescue.  In exchange for the military, each Costa Rican citizen receives free education, medical, and dental benefits.  Their greatest source of revenue comes from tourism, specifically American tourism.  Therefore, for the most part, Costa Ricans are happy, healthy, educated, have GREAT smiles, and love Americans.  They are an amazing group of people.

We decided at the end of the day we would most certainly return in the future to Costa Rica.  In fact, we did.  Two years later we returned to a resort on the Pacific Coast.  I rafted the upper portion of the Pacuare River, which consisted unclassified and Class-5 whitewater rapids.  Though I thought I was going to die during a 14 foot vertical drop, I had a blast.  Stay tuned for that post.

After 3 days of adventure in South and Central America, a day of rest was in order.  This was the day of belly flop contests in the pool, karaoke in the lounge, a cooking demonstration, and trivia in a bar.  As part of our Grand Suite package, we also received a private tour of the Bridge, hosted by the Captain himself, just another perk.  I also won a slot tournament in the Casino, so we ate, yet again, in a specialty restaurant.  Dinner was accompanied by a $200 bottle of wine.  This trip got better every day, and it created a monster traveler.

Grand Cayman was the next stop on our itinerary.  The day started with an early morning Catamaran sailing to Stingray City.  We sailed on the crystal clear turquoise blue water of the Caribbean until land was no longer in sight.  Bob Marley tunes were played and local beers flowed.  We set anchor on a sandbar and jumped into 4 feet deep water.   From all angles slow dark clouds in the water emerged.  For the next few hours I played in the water with the most amazing stingrays.  It was heaven.

With a late departure, there was still time left for further exploration.  From the dock we decided to taxi over to a populated spot on 7 Mile Beach.  Midway through the trip, our driver, with a heavy Caribbean accent, turned around and asked us to pray with him while he drives.  Voodoo.  I said, “Thanks, we’re good, you can drop us off here.”  So we spent the remainder of the afternoon at a quiet, unpopulated beach.  I asked Gail to marry me again, and you know how that story goes.

Day 10 had us sailing for another full day as our journey would soon come to a conclusion in Fort Lauderdale.  An odyssey that transformed me from a backpacker to a luxury traveler,  I made great new friends, learned about different cultures, ingrained wonderful memories, and came away a better person for it.  Sure, these are the same things you can do on the cheap backpacking or what ever other means of travel you choose, but I did it in style.  I hope you enjoyed my journey with me.  If you have any questions about this cruise, other cruises, or travel in general, please leave a comment.

 

About Me

About Me

I’d be a stand-up comedian, but I’m not very funny.  I’m an author that’s never written a book.  A chef with no kitchen.  An artist without a brush.  An athlete without a sport.  I’m in a mid-life crisis, but can’t afford a Corvette.  I’ve taken classes in four different colleges, and have no degree hanging on a wall.  What I do have though, is a story to tell.

Most of my bucket list involves travel and danger.  Run with the bulls in Pamplona.  Climb a Mountain.  Surf six continents.  Write a book.  I’ve been fortunate enough the last few years to cross a few things off the list.  I’ve explored the Great Barrier Reef, ran a marathon, and surfed on 3 continents.

The list, as with everything else, has evolved over time.  I no longer desire to bicycle a stage of the Tour De France.  Wrestling a crocodile is also no longer very high on the list.  These things have been replaced with dinner in view of the Eiffel Tower, and a guided Four Seasons Safari in Africa.

The internet is filled with travel blogs from Girls Flying Solo to Dudes With Backpacks.  I’m not either of those.  I’m just a regular guy with a lifetime of bad decisions.  I spent my first 40 years trying to become somebody, and mostly screwed it up.  I plan to spend the next 40 years making good decisions and enjoying the person I’ve become.   I’ve settled down.  I’d rather have a Martini than an Irish Car Bomb.  Though at the end of the day, if my last words are “Hey, watch this!”, I won’t be disappointed.

I love to travel and I love to write.  Before now I’ve not had the discipline, means, nor occasion to write a book.  But, with the advent of the internet, I can now tell about my travels one page at a time.   Occasionally, I’ll go back and relive some stuff from earlier times.  Currently, I travel around 4, 5, or maybe 6 times a year, and it’s those adventures that I’ll publish first.

About SirOzzy:  Sir Ozzy Schnitzel is Bernese Mountain Dog bred in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  He currently resides on Long Island, New York.  He’s a homebody.

Royal Caribean 3_11 217

Set the day right, Mon.

Set the day right, Mon.

I always thought if I got to Jamaica it would be to live in a tree-house in the hills.  I would smoke ganja all day, study the flowers, and listen to nothing but Bob Marley.  I would grow dreadlocks and live on a fish diet.  But, oh, how different this trip would be.

The winter was brutal.  While every winter is harder on my aging body, this one was particularly bad.  I needed a vacation.

King Of The Mountain!

My winter blues dissipated as the dark North Atlantic water turned to Caribbean Blue.

We reached the Sandals Arrival Lounge at the airport.  We changed into shorts, had a quick washroom visit, got wi-fi passwords, and had my first 3 Red Stripes (in clear plastic cups), then escorted to our ride.  The driver and I tried to decipher each other’s accents; he reassured me Jamaicans have the greatest accent in the world.

On the two lane highway cars work together, pulling to one side or another as they pass haphazardly.  Jamaicans use car horns to say hello.  We heard dozens of horns, not one in anger.  No worries, Mon.

Sandals Royal Plantation.

Through the open air lobby blue Caribbean water was immediately visible.  We left winter behind and the warm breeze could not have been more welcoming.  I took a deep breathe and realized everything will be okay.  “Don’t worry ’bout a thing, Mon.  Welcome home.”

Sandals Royal Plantation is the smallest of their resorts.  The property is made up of 74 suites, each with personal butlers.  Our butler for the week, Ashford, escorted us to our digs, handed me an I-pod, and said “check yourself in, Mon.”  I got confused and promptly erased our entire reservation.  I needed another Red Stripe.  “No worries Mon”, he fixed it for us later.

The beach view from our balcony.

The warm, salty, humid air of the Caribbean is medicinal.  Bones and joints become flexible, aches and pains go away.  I rose early every morning and treked to a gazebo for a personal yoga and meditation session.  “Set the day right, Mon,” my new Rasta friend Maji said to me.  I did.

Maji in the morning.
My new friend Maji.
Acoustic reggae tunes filled the air.

The main entertainment was an ostentation of peacocks (yes, that is the right word) that strut around the property.   At last count there were 19, only two of which are adult males, and both are named George.

This is a small resort, with not many dining choices.  Ashford took it upon himself to reserve dinner for us at the specialty restaurant.   The food here is better than any other all-inclusive.

When not eating, we lounged on the beach, enjoying the blue sky and clear water.  And watching the sand crabs.  They blend perfectly with the white sand, noticed only when scurrying along the beach.   The days were lazy, with no shortage of beverages, and the occasional aroma of weed.  Like all resorts in Jamaica, for safety concerns we were told not to leave without a plan.

I went fishing.  After trolling for hours without a bite, I had the chair when the big one hit.  The big Mahi-Mahi was one of the coolest fish I ever caught!

Mahi-mahi Mon!

During dinner on our last evening, I had the pleasure of speaking with the Executive Chef.  A laid back European, he wanted to know what we thought of his restaurants.  I raved about the great time I had, and how good the food was, but explained we rarely, if ever, return to the same place twice.  There are just too many wonderful places in the world.  Chef looked us straight in the eyes, and said with all sincerity, “What specifically is it that we have to do to ensure your return?”

Sandals Royal Plantation, we’ll be back again someday, but we have other places to visit first.

Set the day right Mon.

 

Enjoy The Journey

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At one time or another we have all said, “I want to travel the world.”  Maybe we were talking about retirement, or that year before we go to college, or just a childhood dream.  Or maybe we just want to run away.  Whatever it is, so few of us are ever so fortunate to actually “travel the world.”

What does it really mean, to “travel the world”?  I suppose it means something different to us all.  When I first began to think of it, I thought of a backpack trip across Ireland and running with the bulls in Pamplona.  “Travel the world” was something to be crossed off my bucket list, like climb a mountain, catch a really big fish, and write a book.

With every trip I take, the world gets bigger, not smaller.  Travel leads to new discoveries, new places, new people.  You are more likely these days to find me sipping drinks in the concierge lounge of a five star city hotel than backpacking across Europe.  It’s taken a tremendous amount of mistakes and bad decisions to accomplish what I have.  I have no regrets, but many lessons learned.

Traveling is not easy.  That’s the first lesson to learn.  There was a time when I could throw a toothbrush, extra t-shirt, and a pack of smokes into a satchel, walk out the front door, and go on my way without a care in the world.  That no longer works for this adult.  What’s the best bag to bring? What goes in the bag? Airlines? Resort fees? Passports? Visas?  Who’s going to watch Sir Ozzy?

This site will be a place to write about my vacations, journeys, excursions, adventures, daytrips, and some funny stories.  I’ll review hotels, cruises, and restaurants.    Tips, tricks, advice, suggestions, hopefully over time you’ll be able to find it all here.

Enjoy the journey…