After a 90 minute drive in a bouncy, smelly, and rickety bus, through cane fields and jungle and over wooden bridges, after we paused to let an eight foot long Western Brown Snake pass, we arrived at the raft entrance. The Tenorio River in Guanacaste, Costa Rica was flowing with strong and intense rapids. Although I had only met the 3 Americans a day earlier, I was trusting them with my life. Our guide was called Terminator. It was the third time in 3 consecutive days I thought I was going to die. This is Costa Rica, where it is best to just laugh and hold on. Pura Vida!
If you have ever been surfing on a longboard, you will know they are not particularly light. I had just spent hours riding waves with Pilot Don, while Mrs. SirOzzy and Flight Attendant Louise, the Pilot’s wife, soaked up rays. We were in Tamarindo, Costa Rica, and ready for lunch.
We carried our boards back to the rental shop, down a ways from where we set up for the morning, and across the street, trying not to breathe too heavy from the weight of the boards and sand under our feet. It was our first day in Tamarindo, we didn’t have much of a plan.
“Oye, chou people need some help?”
“No. We’re good.” It’s the universal saying for get the %&$# away from us. It’s most commonly used when some street urchin is trying to hawk his stolen wares or the ex-pat at the hotel invites you to a timeshare presentation. This time it was a tall and skinny local surfer. He was dark skinned and his hair reminded me of seaweed. His English was good.
“Yeah man, I’m good too. I Just wanna know if you need some help. You look like you’re visiting, and my friends have a restaurant down the street. It’s a real nice place right on the beach. I’m not looking for anything from you. I just want to hook my friends up. And if I bring them guests maybe they will give me a drink. My name is Chavo, I’m going that way. Let me show you around.”
Our new friend Chavo walked us through the streets of Tamarindo, waving and saying hola to nearly every person we saw. He told us the story of Costa Rica, with it’s revolution and new constitution. He told us Costa Ricans are educated and have dental insurance, that is why they have such great smiles. And he brought us to his friend’s restaurant, right on the beach, just like he said he would. We offered him some cash. He said, “I don’t take money from mi amigos, get the fish.”
The four of us sat at a round table outside, the shade and cold drinks were refreshing. Not far from where we sat was an enormous tree which hosted a family of Howler Monkees. Someone played guitar.
“Mi amigos from Chavo, welcome to Panga’s. What can I get for you?” The waitress was middle aged, barefoot, shorts and a tanktop, weathered from the salt and sun and years of waiting on tables. But she had a million dollar smile.
“I hear the fish is good. What’s the catch of the day.”
“Senor, you see that man? Down there, on the beach. Walking this way. He has the catch of the day. I will not know what it is until he arrives.”
An hour later, a grilled, whole, Red Snapper, was presented to me. Pilot Don had one too. Garnished with fresh vegetables and lime, it was, quite simply, heaven on a plate. We spent the better part of the afternoon at Panga’s, eating and drinking and laughing the time away. It was a good day.
It is not just the food that makes a great meal, it is the company which you keep. I’ve not spoken much to Pilot Don and Flight Attendant Louise since then. And I’ve never seen Chavo again. But when you share a good meal with good people, you have friends for life.
Teach a man to fish…
Notice the drinks match my boardshorts?
A good day.
While his guitar gently weeped
This post was created as part of WordPress’ Daily Prompt. Seconds!
Too often we take what we have for granted. I came across an interesting blog post by a young traveler recently. She said her goal is to take a 7 day cruise. I felt a twinge of guilt as I read this because I cruise more frequently than I get dental cleanings. Here are 5 great tips to make your dream cruise possible.
Always use a travel agent when making a reservation. Most cruise lines have a fair market booking system. This means a travel agent pays exactly the same amount you pay. Then what is the advantage? Perks. When booking through an agent you can receive prepaid gratuities, additional shipboard credit, specialty restaurant comps, and maybe even a bottle of champagne in your stateroom. Additionally, you will receive more personalized service from a single point of sale.
Book early. The cruise industry is booming and savvy cruisers know what they want and don’t wait for it. (Don’t believe me? Check out the buffet line.) It’s frustrating when you find the exact right itinerary on the exact ship you want, only to learn the accommodations are sold out.
Prices will often come down from the time of your original booking. Check the policy with your agent in advance. If the price lowers, you can usually re-book at no charge prior to final payment. And check the higher level accommodations as well, it could be a no-cost upgrade.
Know your accommodation. This is another great place to utilize your travel agent. Some cruisers are perfectly okay with an interior stateroom, they feel they won’t be in their room very much and it is the single largest price saver. Others want to open doors to a seaside balcony. We prefer a Grand Suite or above. Each level of accommodation comes with specific amenities.
Book your excursions early. The catamaran with drinks and snorkeling at the turtle sanctuary? It’s sold out. Especially when you’re on a bigger ship, the excursions sell out well in advance of your sailing. If there is something specific you want to do, book early. However, you do not have to book an excursion with the ship. Research the area, find out what you want to do, and book or plan it on your own, you’ll save a ton. You do not need your agent for this. But be forewarned, if you choose to go on your own, research the area and culture. There are places that simply aren’t safe to go on your own.
Avoid the buffet. Okay, let’s be frank here, everybody and Uncle Charlie will begin their power eating competition the moment they board the ship. Avoid the buffet for the first few hours. Find a quiet place to sit and start soaking it all in.
For other information, like how to save more on bookings, avoiding ATM and international credit card fees, and the best itineraries, please send us a message. We have tons of valuable information, and even more great tips, and will soon be putting them into book form… Enjoy The Journey!
The illustrious New York Times Travel Show was held at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City this past rainy weekend. Vendors representing every region of the world lined row after row of the enormous convention space. I attacked the floor much the same way I go after food in a Chinese Buffet, hungry for more. I always go for the ribs first, yesterday it was the Caribbean.
As much as I enjoy tasting new things, I go to the familiar first. We visited and chatted with people from places we’ve been like they were old friends. I heard interesting first hand news on happenings in Jamaica, Mexico, Costa Rica, St. Thomas, and even Canada. We’ve been there, done that, and can’t wait to go again.
For the second course, I needed information on places we are visiting in the near future. Jackie, from St. Croix Department of Tourism, loved my question. “I am going to St. Croix for one day next month. I do not want to spend it with 1,000 other cruise passengers, and I also want to keep my money local. What can I do?” It was a $64,000 question, and I got a million dollar answer from Jackie. We’ll have a private island tour ready for us.
We had the familiar and tasted some new offerings, but what is life without trying something new? Meetings with representatives of Africa and Asia got our adventurous juices flowing. In the not so distant future you may be reading a post about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
For dessert we went to the seminars. A presentation on how to easily score first class airfare was held by Nomadic Matt. (Thank you Matt for the secret code to score free tickets to the show.) Mrs. SirOzzy sat in on a lecture regarding family travel locations and secrets. I went to the writing seminar. Mr. Max Hartshorne, editor of GoNomad.com, and Mr. Paul Shoul, staff photographer, were speaking.
The two gentlemen presented an introduction to travel writing and photography. Prior to Mr. Hartshorne taking the podium, my balls grew to the size of grapefruits and I presented him my business card. I explained I was the pest who had been hounding him with emails and I would like to join his writing staff. He looked at me like I had 4 heads and abruptly cast my card aside.
Shockingly, I heard from GoNomad this morning. They are looking forward to my upcoming travels to Key West and Puerto Rico. They like my stuff. Stay tuned folks, good things are happening…..
The period of time leading to a trip excites me as much as the travel itself. All the anticipation and planning is a better feeling than looking forward to Christmas Day when I was a kid. This is my Super Bowl. I love to travel, I love to write, and you get stuck with my blog.
I get lost in the planning. What airline will we be taking? What seats? Should we upgrade? Should we use miles? How do we get to the hotel? Taxi? Bus? Shuttle? Train? Private transfer? For any one trip I have a thousand questions that need to be asked. There was a time when I could just throw a clean pair of underwear in a backpack and go, without a care in the world. Now that I’ve reached middle age, I need to know EVERYTHING. I hate surprises.
And guess what? You get to know everything too. I’ve begun an online blogging course thru WordPress called Blogging 101. My aim has multiple fronts. First, I welcome critique in my writing, my ability to get my voice across. Secondly, I want to improve the blog site itself so I can gain more readers and followers. Maybe someday I will have enough followers that a great hotel wouldn’t mind having SirOzzy.com along to write a review.
SirOzzy will be traveling again next month. We’ll be flying from Long Island to Fort Lauderdale, where we will pick up a car for our drive to Key West. From there, we head to San Juan for a Caribbean cruise. For the next month I will publish posts detailing what it takes to plan and organize such an undertaking.
In the meantime, I’m open to all critique and hate-mail. I’ve always been a tad envious of people that have stalkers. Enjoy The Journey.
I have a tendency to go to bed early. Sometimes very early. If I had it my way, I’d have dinner in bed. Often I find myself laying on top of the bed sheets by 7:00. The lights are just bright enough to read by, the cell phone is within arms reach, and the television is on, with the volume low. But because I’m in bed doesn’t necessarily mean I’m sleeping. I just find the bed to be one of the most comfortable places in the house, kind of like a bear in his cave. Besides, what the hell else am I going to do during a winter on Long Island? After reading, I’ll most likely be asleep by 9.
But it’s not always that way. There are those major annual events that may keep me up late. New Year’s Eve last year actually had me awake until nearly 10pm. I know, I could hardly believe it myself. I’ve become such a party animal in my old age. For a couple of years Mrs. SirOzzy and I went to our (my) favorite local restaurant. But even there we found ourselves crapping out by 10 and struggling to keep our eyes open and head above the table by 11. The problem with New Year’s is that it just comes too damn late.
Ahhhh, but all this old man-pooped out nonsense is for when I’m home. When I’m out traveling everything is different. I sleep just late enough to enjoy the comforts of the strange bed, then I’m up and out. I try to explore every nook and cranny of wherever it is I am. I’ll find the local breakfast joint, a tour, museums, hiking paths, people watching, adventure, shows, bars. And I’ll stay up so late it’s early tomorrow.
My first resolution for 2016 is TRAVEL MORE and stay up later.
After virtually hibernating for the entire month of January, our first trip of the year was to The Baker House 1650. We celebrated our first wedding anniversary at this fantastic Bed and Breakfast in East Hampton. It’s very pricey during the season, but equally reasonable during the off season. For a little bit extra we had the spa closed off and reserved just for ourselves.
What a difference a month makes. We went from the brutal cold and snowy environs of the Northeast to the tropics of Jamaica. Yeah Mon! There are not many things in this world more satisfying than catching a big fish, and I caught one. Since we were staying at a fantastic place that fed us all the freshest seafood we wanted, I had no need to keep my catch. Not thinking it was too big a deal, I gave the fish to one of the mates on the boat. He hugged me and told me it would feed his family for weeks. Giving the fish away was even more satisfying than catching it.
We decided to switch things up a little and drive to Quebec City. And man, did we drive hard. 10 hours, only breaking for gas and restrooms. The drive was worth it however, as we stayed at the Fairmont Chateau Le Frontenac, the most photographed hotel in the world. A grandiose building that is visible from nearly everywhere in the city. We drove hard the way home too, staying for a night in Freeport, Maine . But as beautiful as Quebec was and the memorable drive, the thing I came away with most was the nightmare that followed. Our Jeep spent the next 3 months in and out of the mechanic’s shop recovering. More shit in that engine had to be repaired than you could shake a stick at.
A midsummer day-trip brought the SirOzzy family to Montauk for a day. After a long scenic drive through portions of the Hamptons in our rental car (the Jeep was still in the shop), we found ourselves at an ocean beach. Teaching an inexperienced 10 year old how to body surf in 4 foot waves has to be one of those things only slightly more satisfying than catching a big fish. We could have been out there for eternity. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a single picture.
Which brings me to my second resolution. This year I’m going to take more photos and become a better photographer. I recently received as a gift a sparkly new Nikon D5500 DSLR camera, which I’m learning more about everyday. I can’t wait to share my new masterpieces in 2016.
Shortly after acquiring the new hardware we made our way to one of the more scenic regions of our country. Lake Tahoe and the surrounding Sierra Nevada Mountains is as beautiful and grand as anywhere else I’ve been. One of my favorite things was driving around the lake, occasionally pulling off to the side to capture images. Mrs. SirOzzy hated it. She was near paralyzed with fear that we would fall off a cliff or a boulder would come crashing down on us. One month after we left, thishappened.
We wrapped up the year with a family trip to Hershey, Pennsylvania. This was our Christmas/Chanukah gift to the kids. I suppose with all the wonderful trips we take, it’s only right to include them once in a while!
My third and final resolution for 2016 is to write more. My goal is to post one blog per week for the year. So please help inspire me by following this site (there’s a link at the bottom of the page), “Like” SirOzzy on Facebook, and follow _sirozzy_ on instagram. I’m hoping for a ton of new followers by 2017, but in the meantime, lets Enjoy The Journey.
With suitcases packed and pillows strewn across the back seat of the family wagon, the SirOzzy family left at 5 am for a weekend of adventure at Hershey. Mrs. SirOzzy was co-pilot while the three boys were our backseat drivers. The four and a half hour drive was hardly reminiscent of the 27 hour drive my family took to Disney World when I was a child. During that trip there were six of us, four children, packed into a station wagon. My mother was a chain smoker and the car was always filled with what could only be described as something similar to mustard gas. Of course she wouldn’t roll the window down, that would mess up her beehive. I’m also certain, without hardened evidence, my father was imbibing while driving to calm his nerves. It was a different age. Long gone are the days when parents brought home their newborns resting on their lap in the front seat of a car. Seat-belts were always lost, tucked in between the seats, when they weren’t being used to tie each other up. To pass the time we played license plate games and had word finds. I noticed every cow, horse, and farm along the way, my eyes were always glued to whatever was outside the window. Maybe I was dreaming of, and planning, my future travels. The SirOzzy kids hardly took their eyes off their personal handheld video game apparatus. The four hours passed quickly.
A bit about the boys. The oldest is the Quiet Guy. He’s so quiet, in fact, he didn’t speak until he was nearly four years old. Not a word, or a cry, or barely a sound came out of that child. Most parents could only dream of such a quiet child, but after a while it became concerning. By the time he was three years old my concern turned to worry that he was autistic, or had some other ailment which rendered him silent. Consultations with specialists produced results from a slew of tests and procedures. At the conclusion, Dr. So and So announced, “He’s perfectly fine. He just has nothing to say.” To this day, when Quiet Guy does have something to say, people listen.
The middle child is the Talker. Words come flying out of his lispy mouth like wildfire. More often than not, these words are spoken in a completely random, nonsensical manner, with neither rhyme nor reason. He just talks and talks and talks. The key to his puzzle is always pay attention, you just never know when something might make sense.
And then there is the Noisemaker. For all the words that comes from the mouth of the Talker, sounds emit from the Noisemaker. Beep, bloop, burp, whip, whop, slursh, scream, sceech, screwl, clang, clap, clop, click, fart, burp, belch, shart, deedle-deedle-deedle. He produces a never ending array of noises that come from his mouth, his, hands, his feet, and everywhere in between. I would take him to a doctor, but certainly the doctor would simply say, “he likes to make noises.” Mrs. SirOzzy says, “Jim Carrey, eat your heart out.”
We checked in early to the Hershey Lodge and the boys were ecstatic over their first piece of chocolate for the trip. Reception handed out a full Hershey Bar to all, and rest assured, it was ripped open and devoured before we reached the elevator. There would be much more chocolate to enjoy and in due time we would learn proper tasting technique from the professionals.
The Hershey Lodge is a family friendly 665 room hotel located just a few minutes away from Hershey Park. Strangely enough, we learned there is no actual town of Hershey, Pennsylvania. Hershey is an unrecognized community named, obviously, after the innovative and iconic Milton S. Hershey. So while some businesses, like the Hershey Lodge, are directly affiliated with Hershey Company, other entities, such as the Hershey Pantry, are associated with the community and thus have no relation with the chocolate company. It’s worth knowing what’s what around town.
Because we departed so early in the morning there was time to fill up on lunch sandwiches and chips prior to departing for Hershey Park. The park opens at noon on weekends this time of year, but Chocolate World opens at 11… YAY!
In 1973, the Hershey Factory stopped giving tours. It wasn’t under a veil of secrecy, ala the Wonka Factory, it was simply because they couldn’t accommodate all the demand. In came Chocolate World. Located right next to the park, Chocolate World is a sort of super mall of all things Hershey. A 4D movie theater, a ride simulating the factory works, chocolate tasting, chocolate bar making, and as much chocolate as you could possibly imagine buying adorn the 100,000 square foot building. We would do and see it all in the next two days.
After watching the short Hershey themed 4D movie (admittedly, I previously had no idea what a 4D movie was), we jumped onto the Hershey’s Chocolate Tour Ride. Of course there was “free” chocolate at the conclusion of both these attractions. The Tour Ride features three singing cows that are only slightly less annoying than the It’s A Small World ride in Disney World. Between the perturbing ringing of the cow’s song and the pestering of the kids hyped up on cocoa, we were ready to beat feet for the park.
Arriving finally at the park, I was reminded many times of Disney World. Mostly, I was reminded this is NOT Disney. Though it is a theme park for a major US corporation, Hershey is much smaller in every sense of the word. Even with the park generally inferior, with lesser crowds (hence shorter lines), and fewer attractions, we were nonetheless occupied and enjoyed a solid 8 hours in the park. It would have been nice to split up the time a little bit and do two days in the park, but we only had passes for one.
While sitting on one particular park bench, Mrs. SirOzzy and I had quite a sobering moment… We realized that we were indeed sitting on a park bench… We were sitting on said park bench while our children were on rides, without us. We have reached that age when our children are capable of running off on their own, and we only have enough stamina to sit on a bench and watch. It was just one more sign of middle age and things to come.
Dinner was at The Bear’s Den, a restaurant in the hotel named after the local minor league hockey club. Following burgers and fries we tiredly retreated to our rooms. God only knows what happened in the boys room, as it was the first time the three boys had a hotel room to themselves without direct parental supervision. One can only imagine what kind of mischievousness and horseplay went on in that room over night.
So we woke the next morning rested and ready to tackle another full day of Hershey adventures. We started with a buffet breakfast at the Hershey Hotel. A 4 star luxurious hotel, I’m glad we didn’t stay there with the kids, but I would look forward to staying there with Mrs. SirOzzy. The Circular is the signature restaurant designed specifically by Mr. Hershey himself. Large, open, and round, with not a pillar or obstruction in sight, there are magnificent views of the grounds from every table. The food was delicious and the service exceptional, we really enjoyed our breakfast. We told the kids to load up, because lunch was not likely in the cards.
Following breakfast we had the opportunity to go on a free guided tour of the hotel. The tourguide, Albert, had his retirement party that same week and this would be his swansong, so-to-speak. Interestingly enough, there were quite a few Hershey executives present as well. The Hershey archivist was in attendance, as well as the museum curator, chief of reservations, head of spa, and a few others that seemed equally important. This was a great learning tour, evidenced by the fact that during the 2 hours Albert managed to keep the attention of all 3 boys. Little did anyone know, I read the boys the Riot Act before the tour.
We rewarded the boys for their good behavior with another trip back to Chocolate World. This time they would partake in a Chocolate Tasting Seminar, followed by designing their own Hershey Bar. This is another wonderful thing to do, as you can watch the bar be made from concept, to production, to packaging, and it’s all custom.
I’ve often said that kids can learn more in one or two days with their parents than they will in one month of school. This was true when we brought them onto the Hershey Works Historical Trolley Ride. For nearly two hours we were treated to a history lesson given by a bright and funny young man named Tim. The kids and myself learned the fascinating story of Milton Hershey and how he was a part of the Industrial Revolution. We also learned about the Milton S. Hershey School, a great contribution to society and education.
The school was founded in 1910 for orphaned boys. While requirements for admission to the school has changed over the years, it is still a philanthropic institution for disadvantaged children. Mr. Hershey always gave full credit to his wife, “It was Kitty’s idea,” he often said. Mr. and Mrs. Hershey never had any children and thus set up a trust fund for the school. Today, it’s valued at over $9 billion. You will never hear me complain about the cost of a Hershey Bar. Look under the flap of any Hershey Bar to learn more.
The tour continued with visits to all things Hershey, with plenty of chocolates and jokes along the way. While passing the Penn State Hershey Medical Center, Tim told us the hospital even has a Chocolate Eaters Rehab. He once spent two days recovering from the Hokey-Pokey, but he “turned himself around. And that’s what it’s all about.”
We all slept good that night and woke to a local breakfast. We were on the road soon after and home in plenty of time for a light, chocolate-free, dinner. All in all, it was a very good trip filled with fun and learning. We sure did a lot of activities in two days, and it certainly wasn’t cheap, but it didn’t break the bank either. And finally, don’t smoke with a beehive or children in the car.
As a kid no dare was too great. Riding a skateboard down the biggest hill and fighting the toughest kid on the block were just two of many notches on my belt. I was King of the Ring and Run. I could swim the furthest distances and jump from the highest peaks. As a young man the feats became greater and more death defying. Fast cars and hair raising adventures were my thing. Fear was an excuse for others, not me, I’ve always had a never ending quench to conquer the greatest challenges.
Now I find myself in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, speeding along the ridge of another majestic ascent. Switchbacks and hairpin turns race past me in a blur. Just off the shoulder-less road is a 3,000 foot vertical drop along a sheer faced granite slab. The cliff ends where the crystal blue water of Lake Tahoe crashes into sixty five million year old boulders. The drive is exhilarating and sublimely mesmerizing.
“Would you please slow down?!” Mrs. SirOzzy shrieks from the passenger seat.
“Jesus Christ, Babe, I’m already doing ten miles an hour under the speed limit, and there are fifteen cars behind me!” My knuckles are white on the steering wheel of the Ford Focus. I’ve entered middle age.Our one week stay in Lake Tahoe was supposed to be for relaxation. It’s been a year of hard work and routine day to day stresses. A mellow resort during the off season seemed like an ideal place to unwind and rejuvenate before the grind of yet another Northeast Winter.
A casual hike is always a great way to jump start a lazy day. Granted, I’m not in the condition I used to be, but I believe I’m still better off than my counterparts. Although I’ve gained a bit over the years in my midsection, my hairline has receded and thinned, and my beard has some aging colors in it, I swear I’m not old, fat, or bald – yet. I only wear glasses for reading. I also can’t jog or run like I used to, but I can still walk a few miles at a good clip. So when we asked the concierge about a moderate hike and were told about a place called Tunnel Creek, we figured we were in for an easy morning.The trail head starts just behind a coffee stop called the Tunnel Creek Cafe. A genuine establishment reminiscent of the mining period. This is the kind of place Mad Jack would buy his supplies from on his Ol’ Number Seven Mule on the TV series Grizzly Adams (Did I just date myself?). We were assured that the trail would be easy walking, despite the significant snowfall a few days earlier. Of course we were looking forward to stepping into the cafe prior to our departure, not so much to load up on provisions, but rather to get a cup of coffee and maybe chat with some locals. Ominously, the cafe was closed; good thing we weren’t climbing Denali. Oh well, we’ll make do with out.Onward and upwards we went. Mrs. SirOzzy will readily admit she is not an outdoors-woman, or really much of the adventurous type. A hike to the indoor pool at a Ritz Carlton is excursion enough. But she is a trooper and an accommodating partner. Steadily climbing uphill, the scenic lake and mountain vistas opened itself wide to us. The views of this region are really magnificent, they can’t be understated. We continued plodding uphill. The snow was thick and icy under our feet and elevation was gained with every step. Living our entire lives at sea level, we’ve become accustomed to full breathes of air, here the cold air is refreshing, but thinner with every step. Holy crap, this isn’t as easy as I thought it would be. My steps slowed and became increasingly labored. My less than eager hiking parnter was falling back quickly. If we could just make it to the top of the next ridge.There was a “Bear in Area” sign. Are you kidding me? Of course the thoughts of being mauled by a giant Grizzly Bear were already on my mind. The Sierra Nevada Mountains was the home of Grizzly Adams and his Bear Ben. But who the hell puts a sign in the middle of the woods? Ok, we’ll go back now.After trail blazing a few exhausting miles, and what seemed like 7,000 feet of elevation gain, we were cozily back in the car. The drive down the scenic highway brought us to Zephyr Cove, one of the countless beaches pockmarking the perimeter of the lake. Though we’ve made this drive a number of times already, Mrs. SirOzzy never quite got used to it. She’d slump down in her seat, tuck most of her face into the neck opening of her coat, cross her arms in front of her body, hands in her armpits, and stare straight out ahead, never looking out the window, as that may cause us to crash into the cold blue water hundreds of feet below to our ultimate peril.
At the dock we boarded the MS Dixie for a narrated afternoon tour of Lake Tahoe. This was more her cup of tea. An old, but comfortably apportioned, paddle-wheel ship loaded with tourists, our cruise would bring us to Emerald Bay and back. Lake Tahoe is 22 miles long and 12 miles wide filled with the clearest water this side of the Caribbean. Surrounded by the towering pines of the Sierra Nevada, the million dollar views never get old.Arriving into Emerald Bay we learned the fate of Captain Dick Barter. After a day of drinking, his ship sank off the shore of Rubicon Point in 1,400 feet of water. His body was never found. Some claim on a foggy morning you can see his ghost rise from the water and make it’s way back up the hill.We finished our boat tour and decided to drive the perimeter of the entire lake. That’s when we had our aforementioned cliff driving event in the Ford Focus. For our day of relaxation we nearly suffered altitude sickness, were warned about presumably hungry bears, heard about ghosts, and had a near death experience cliff driving. But man, was it ever scenic. It was time for a glass of wine by the fireside.Our adventures didn’t stop there though. A day in South Lake Tahoe is somewhat enjoyable, but one day in a lifetime proved to be enough. Another day trip brought us to Virginia City, an old mining town that I would recommend to anyone, also just for one day in a lifetime. The residing attitude here was, “When everything else fails, invite the tourists, but don’t make them too comfortable.” After a couple haunted hotel visits, beers in the Bucket-O-Blood and Red Dog Saloons, and crappy hamburgers in some run down lunch joint, we were ready to get back to the familiar environs of our noisy and smoky casino. Another day brought us hiking along the Western States Trail near Squaw Valley California, home of the 1960 Winter Olympics. Sand Harbour is Tripadvisor’s number 1 thing to do in the region. A remarkably beautiful and serene state park, if I lived in the area I’d be there everyday. But unless I get cast in the remake of Grizzly Adams, I don’t think I’ll ever live there.Our final day brought us back to Reno. Homeless people, drug addicts, and derelicts littered every corner of this shit-hole excuse for an American city. If you paid me a gazillion dollars, I might consider driving through, otherwise you’ll never catch me in that dump again. But as for Lake Tahoe… We met some wonderful people, ate A LOT better than we expected, and had lots of fun. We came home far more tired from this relaxing vacation than we expected to. Next stop….Margaritas in Key West!
If I was a geologist, this post would start 85 million years ago. I would describe, in all it’s scientific glory and details, how a large landmass, now Australia, split off Antarctica and drifted north, into the Pacific Ocean. Over the next 20 million years there were smaller splits which created New Zealand and Tasmania. New Caledonia, the Vanuatu Archipelago, and the Solomon Islands were also created by these seismic events. But I am not a geologist, so you won’t be bored with what happened between then and 4,000 years ago.
I am also not an Anthropologist. If I were, I would be able to tell a tale of the first inhabitants of these untouched and dormant tropical islands. Four thousand years ago a small group of Melanesian fishermen set off in their outrigger canoes in search of God-knows-what. We can safely assume they got lost in a storm, or stuck to a whale they were chasing. Whatever the cause, 1,000 miles west of Australia, they came across these volcanic islands and made them home. But I am not an anthropologist, so I won’t bore you with what happened for the next 4,000 years.
If I was a Historian, I would tell the story of Frank McLoughlin, a young man from Hell’s Kitchen who joined the Army Air Corps in 1941. Taken from a life on the tough streets of New York he was trained to be a turret gunner on the B-24 bomber, also known as a flying coffin. He flew 50 missions, fighting Japanese Imperialism, during World War II in the South Pacific campaign. On one particular mission, while being swarmed by enemy firepower like a nasty hive of bees, he shot down 2 Japanese Zeroes and returned safely to the Solomon Islands from the Philippines. Seventy years later he was recognized for his acts of bravery and heroism, and received the Distinguished Flying Cross Medal. But I am not a historian, and will save that story for the future.
If I was a Sociologist, I would tell the story of Staff Sergeant McLoughlin’s Grandson. Fifty years after Frank’s heroics, a young man was taken off the streets and found himself in a cold and dimly lit prison cell in Elmira, New York. The first 2 books he read since childhood were by James Michener: Hawaii and Tales From The South Pacific. Each book he read 3 or 4 or 5 times, not because he loved them so much, but because that’s all he had. Reading was his only chance of escape and there was no better place than The Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, and The Vanuatu Archipelago. Deep in his soul, he knew he would never get to those places. But I’m not a Sociologist, and won’t bore you with what happened to him for the next 25 years.
What I have become, however, is a traveler. So, in February, 2014, just a few weeks after the wedding of the century, my new wife and I set off on a dream cruise. The itinerary would have us depart from Sydney, Australia and take us to various islands in the South Pacific, belonging to both New Caledonia and the Vanuatu Archipelago.
Our exploration was on Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas. Staying in an Owner’s Suite entitled us to the best amenities and services offered, and man, did we take advantage of that. As a suite guest, there are no lines anywhere and our personal concierge is at our beck and call. We spent most evenings on this 12 night cruise in the Concierge lounge, with a top-shelf open bar from 4 to 9 every night, complete with private bartender.
Although we had spent the last 2 weeks exploring Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef, it wasn’t until we were on the ship with 2,500 people that we really learned what the Aussies are like. Generally speaking, they weren’t the most inviting, at first. It seemed like most needed to say hello (G’day) and see us a few times before opening up. But once they warmed up to us, they became friends for life.
And then there was John and Rose, from Tasmania. We met this interesting couple at dinner on our first night. John was a character, zingy one-liners flew faster than nautical miles. He quickly let us know he was from Tasmania, not New Zealand. He didn’t like Kiwis, his sheep were much healthier and handsome than any from that untamed nation below his. Not to mention the horrid things those New Zealand Neanderthals do to their sheep. Yes, the men are men, but the sheep are afraid.
He was fascinated when he discovered we were from the States. “I once went to Los Angeles. Is it very far from New York?” Not particularly, John. ” Well, I tell ya, I was there. Couldn’t believe how many coloreds there was. Bunch a big niggers everywhere. Got on an elevator with one. Bigger than a milk cow. So I says to this colored man, you just the biggest nigger I ever seen. Didn’t mean nothing by it, we don’t see too many coloreds down under, but damn he had a temper, thought he was gonna kill me, don’t know why. But the funny part, he was a queer to boot!” John let out a boisterous roar, and Rose, nodding and parroting, laughed too.
The next 11 nights we spent avoiding Tasmanian John and Rose, not always with great success.
By the second day sailing most men, and quite a few women, were thoroughly wrecked and that’s when the chants started. Aussie!, Aussie!, Aussie!, Oi!, Oi!, Oi!!!! “What the hell is that?” Gail says to me. I explained, that’s their national chant. We heard it often, typically at the conclusion of an AC/DC song played poolside, or Olivia Newton-John in the Karaoke Bar. “That’s stupid,” says Gail. And off we sailed to New Caledonia.
Noumea is the capitol and largest city of New Caledonia. A welcome sight after days at sea, it rose in the morning thru an eerie fog. I thought of Skull Island, that dark and foreboding home to King Kong. I expected to see natives shaking torches at me and banging drums. But it wasn’t like that at all, mostly.
As is typical with Gail and I, we didn’t follow the cruise crowd after tendering to the mainland. Instead, we ventured off to the tiny island of Amadee. By my estimation, this remote little island in the middle of the South Pacific couldn’t have been more than 8 acres in total. The only semi-permanent construction on the island is a decades old lighthouse, which was offered up for climbing and viewing. The inhabitants of Amadee consists of the lighthouse keeper and his seemingly understandable and equally anti-social wife.
The greatest feature of the island, though, was the beach. While larger than most Caribbean beaches, it was just as magnificent. Within minutes I was snorkeling with giant sea turtles and the infamous, and highly venomous, striped sea snakes. Though their poison apparently packs quite a wallop, I understand these snakes are virtually harmless. Their fangs are set deep in the back of their narrow mouths. In order to be struck by one, you would have to literally stick your finger down it’s throat. But I wasn’t going to take that chance and opted for a BBQ luau lunch with the local grass skirt girls.
Dinner that night introduced us to the only other Americans on the ship. With this retired Los Angeles detective and his Cuban born wife, we laughed thru several nights and plenty of wine. They were a pleasant respite from the locals, especially Tasmanian John.
After a day in Lifou, of the Loyalty Islands, we discovered Vila, Vanuatu. We hired a local taxi driver, Alberic, to be our personal tour guide for the day. A native to this region, Alberic happily obliged us for the day. After seeing our general disinterest at the tourist friendly Turtle Sanctuary, Alberic realized we wanted something a little more off the beaten path.
Off the ocean, past the farms and small villages, we entered a jungle. Through the dark woods we drove to where, Alberic told us, only the locals go. Alongside a stream we began to see an occasional wooden kayak and locals milling around. The stream was so clear, at first I thought it was empty. Before we knew it, we were in a dirt parking lot with the smells of BBQ and locals running around. “We’re here,” said Alberic.
By “here”, he meant the most amazing blue water hole I could have ever imagined. The water was so clear and clean it was like swimming in cool air. I spent hours swimming. This was the South Pacific of my dreams.
We finished our day drinking cocktails at The Warwick Hotel at La Lagon, a beautiful resort just down the road from the cruise port in Vila. While there were no passengers from the ship, it seemed like half the crew was playing in the pool. We laughed at our fortune and thanked Alberic for a wonderful day.
The next day brought us to Champagne Bay, on the largest of the Vanuatu islands, Espiritu Santo. Following that we arrived at Luganville, located on the backside of Espiritu Santo. Here we met Linesse, another local taxi driver willing to be our tour guide for the day.
As friendly as Alberic was, Linesse knew her history. We spent hours at another local water hole, known locally as “blu ho”. Linesse was a walking encyclopedia of World War II knowledge. When I mentioned my Grandfather was a veteran she really opened up. She showed us the roads that the Americans built 70 years earlier. To this day, not a pothole anywhere. She pointed out an area where American troops hid tanks and other heavy artillery. It was a heap of thick brush. “We call that American Vine.” In addition to weapons, apparently we brought over the vine to hide them.
Something that did not come as a surprise was that every island had absolutely amazing beaches. Mystery Island, on day number 9 was no exception. A completely uninhabited island in the Archipelago, we had another day of snorkeling with sea turtles and reef sharks. Our tans were perfected. But truth be told, at this point in the trip, we were ready for some city life.
Evenings on the ship continued to consist of drinks at the concierge lounge and your traditional corny cruise entertainment. We walked out on a number of comedians, as they were recycling old Henny Youngman style slapstick comedy. We could hear Tasmanian John and Rose cackling from across the theatre. But we also met some great people along the way. Michael and Vicky were one such couple. Michael is an executive chef at a 4 star retaurant and restored our faith in Tasmanians.
We met these two in the lounge and shared plenty of drinks together. Back at Champagne Bay we sat beachside and smoked cigars. I could talk to a chef about his craft for days.
Twenty five hundred passengers on a ship sure seems like a lot, but somehow, we manage to continually bump into the same people over and over. So it was disconcerting when we hadn’t seen Michael and Vicky in a number of days. And there we were, on the Isle of Pines, appropriately named by Captain Cook, when we saw Vicky. Practically crawling behind her came Michael, with his face bandaged from side to side. “What in the name of New Caledonia happened to you?” As it turned out, after we shared a few drinks and a smoke at Champagne Bay he decided it would be good idea to go for a swim. Diving headfirst into the water he face-planted smack into an old coral bed, breaking his nose and ripping off half the skin on his face. He vouched for the Medical Staff on Royal Caribbean, and we had another drink and laughed our asses off.
We spent the next two days sailing back to Sydney. We laughed as we heard the old Men At Work tune, I come from a land down under. When that song played poolside, it was as if the ship stopped, everybody, and I mean everybody, sang along. And then the chants of Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!
James Michener, my favorite author, once said about the people of Vanuatu, “…the friendliness of the peoples, their infectious smiles and their open heartedness will remain forever one of life’s treasures.”
We spent nearly a month traveling various parts of the South Pacific, but to say we even saw any of it, is like asking if you know the big guy in an elevator in Los Angeles.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A magnificent refuge, we spent all day with the wildlife.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.